Benjamin Farjeon.

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



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"Nothing is arranged. Thank you, father."

"They will come after tea, I suppose?"

"No," said Ph?be, blushing for shame; "they will come before tea."

"Will they bring it with them?"

"Oh, father!"

"What do you mean by 'Oh, father!'? I can't afford to give parties. I can't afford to go to the theatres. If people have orders given to them, they have to pay for them somehow."

"I can give them a cup of tea, surely, father?"

"I suppose you must," he grumbled. "We shall have to make up for it afterward. What are you looking at me so strangely for?"

"I should like to buy a cake for tea," said Ph?be, piteously; she was almost ready to cry, but she tried to force a smile as she added, "and I have just twopence for my fortune. Look, father: here is my purse. That won't pay for a cake, will it? Give me something for a birthday present."

"To waste in cakes," he said, with a wry face. "Where should I have been if I had been so reckless? But you'll worry me to death, I suppose, if I refuse." He unlocked a drawer, and took out a little packet, which he untied. There were ten two-shilling pieces in it, and he gave Ph?be one of them, weighing them first in his hand, and selecting the lightest and oldest. "There. Never tell anybody that I am not generous to you."

Ph?be turned the florin over in the palm of her hand, and eyed it dubiously; but she brightened up presently, and kissing her father, left the room with a cheerful face.

CHAPTER VIII
A DAY-DREAMER IN LONDON STREETS

Now as to the Lethbridges, concerning whose characters and peculiarities it is necessary to say something more.

There was Mrs. Lethbridge, whom we already know, affectionately called Aunt Leth, not only by Ph?be, but by a great many young people who were on terms of friendship with her. And to be on such terms with such a woman was worth while, for she was not only a magnet that attracted love, she was a sun that bestowed it. There was Mr. Lethbridge, for the same reason called Uncle Leth by his young friends, and delighted in being so called. There was Fanny Lethbridge, their only daughter, between whom and Ph?be passed, under the seal of sacred secrecy, the most delicious confidences. Lastly, there was Robert Lethbridge, their only son, a young gentleman of vague and unlimited views, just entering into the serious business of life, and who, when things were perfectly smooth between him and his cousin Ph?be, was addressed as Bob, and at other times, according to the measure of dignity deemed necessary, as Robert or Cousin Robert. But it was generally Bob.

Mrs. Lethbridge, on her last birthday, forty-four; Mr. Lethbridge, on his last birthday, forty-eight; Fanny on her last birthday, nineteen (with many a sigh at being compelled to bid farewell to teens); Robert, on his last birthday, twenty-two. These comprised the family.

To hark back for a moment. It was an undoubted love match with Aunt and Uncle Leth.

He a bank clerk, with limited income; she a young lady, with no income at all. That was of small account, however. Cupid – the real one, not the counterfeit – does not pause to consider. They had a boundless income in their love, and they drew large checks upon it. Expectations they had none, except that of being happy. Unlike the majority of expectations, theirs was fulfilled.

Outwardly and inwardly happy. For instance: their honey-moon. Was there ever a honey-moon like it, though it was not spent on the Continent? Never. It was their opinion, and if you dispute it you do so upon insufficient evidence. Then, their children. Parents never drew sweeter delight from their offspring than they from theirs. It is a species of delight which cannot be bought, being far more precious than silver and gold, and in the hourly and daily return for love invested it proclaims itself an incomparable speculation. Robert came first, Fanny next. This was as it should be. The boy to protect the girl, who of the two was infinitely the wiser. This is often the case with boys and girls.

The loving couple had a hard fight of it, and much to learn. They buckled to with willingness and cheerfulness, took their rubs lightly, and spread their pleasures so that they lasted a long time – not making light of them, as some do, and thus depriving themselves of the greater part of the enjoyment to be derived from them. As an example: a visit to the theatre, for which they were now able to obtain "orders." But it was not so during the first years of their married life. The contemplated visit used to be planned weeks beforehand – discussed, laughed over, enjoyed in the anticipation, but not half so much as in the realization. As to which theatre, now, and which play? The grave conversations they had on the point! It was really worth while listening to them. Those nights were gala-nights. After the theatre, a bit of supper, perhaps – occasionally, but rarely – in a restaurant. The careful study of the bill of fare; the selection of the modest dishes; the merry words with which they banished the expensive ones and chose the cheapest – nothing could be more delightful, nothing more truly enjoyable. They went out to meet the sun, and revelled in its beams. Worth laying to heart, this!

Their income of a hundred and eighty sufficed. They could not save money – but what a mine was the future!

Of the two, the one who drew most largely upon it was Mr. Lethbridge. The extraordinary demands he made upon it, and the extraordinary readiness with which his demands were met! It will be not unpleasant to linger a little over this phase of his character, premising, for lucidity, that in all London could not be found a brighter, more agreeable day-dreamer.

Thus: Walking to the bank to save the 'bus fare, Mr. Lethbridge beguiled the way. He had kissed his wife and Fanny, and saw them smiling at the window, and waving their hands to him as he passed the house. He went on his way rejoicing, and straightway began to dream.

What is this he hears? A meeting of the bank directors is being held. A messenger appears before Mr. Lethbridge's desk.

"The directors wish to see you, sir."

He prepares to obey the call, leaves his papers and books in order, pulls up his shirt collar, pulls down his cuffs, straightens himself generally, and presents himself in the board-room. There they are, the great magnates, all before him. The chairman, white-haired, gold-spectacled, and pleasant-voiced. Others of the directors also white-haired, gold-spectacled, and pleasant-voiced. Comfortable-looking gentlemen of the highest respectability, with country houses, carriages and horses, first-class railway tickets, and famous cellars of wine – all plainly visible in their shirt fronts and gold watch chains. They gaze at him in approval. He bows to them. The chairman bends his head slightly, and smiles a welcome. The other directors follow suit. They bend their heads slightly, and smile a welcome. It is really very pleasant.

"Take a seat, Mr. Lethbridge. We wish to say a few words to you."

He sinks into a chair, and waits for the chairman to unfold himself. The chairman coughs to clear his voice.

"You have served the bank, Mr. Lethbridge, man and boy, for twenty-eight years. We have observed you for many years, and are happy to express our approval of the manner in which you have performed your duties."

What could be better than that? How delighted they will be at home when he tells them!

"Always punctual at your post, Mr. Lethbridge. Never an error in your accounts. We have had no occasion to complain of the slightest irregularity."

Positive facts, and, although not mentioned till now, carefully noted by those in authority over him. Of that there could be no doubt; and how pleasant and agreeable it was to hear it! He had always been confident that his time would come.

"As a substantial mark of our approval, Mr. Lethbridge, we offer you the desk of our second chief cashier, who is about to retire on a pension. You will take his place at the end of the present month, and your salary will be six hundred pounds per annum."

The chairman rises and shakes hands with him; the other directors rise and shake hands with him. He retires from the board-room, filled with joy. Everybody in the bank congratulates him; he has not an enemy in the establishment.

Being now in the enjoyment of a salary more than three times as large as that upon which he and his wife have had to manage since their marriage, he proceeds to the disposal of it. A little extravagance is allowable; he must work down his feelings somehow. A new dress suit for himself, a new black silk for his wife. His dress suit had lasted him for Heaven knows how long, and his wife's black silk has been made over and turned till it really could not be made over and turned again. Bob shall have the gold watch he has been promised since childhood, and which father's ship – which certainly has made one of the longest passages on record – has been bringing home for the last dozen years. Fanny shall be suitably provided for. For wife and daughter, each one dozen pairs of kid gloves, four button, eight button, a hundred button if they like; new bonnets, mantles, and boots; and also for each a ten-pound note, in a new purse, to do just as they please with. Ph?be, also, must not be forgotten. She shall have new gloves, and bonnet, and mantle, and boots, and money in a new purse. He goes out with them to make the purchases, and they have the most delightfully grave consultations and discussions. And just as the shopkeeper in Regent street is pressing upon him a most extraordinary bargain in the shape of a new silk —

Yes, just at that moment Mr. Lethbridge arrives at the bank, punctual, as usual, to the minute. He is in the best of spirits. His walk from Camden Town has been as good as a play. Better; for he is convinced that his dreams will come true one of these fine days. What does it matter, a week or two sooner or later?

CHAPTER IX
A NEW DOMESTIC DRAMA, BY UNCLE LETH

On the evening of the day on which Ph?be received from her father the gift of a florin, which munificent sum he deemed to be sufficient to provide for his daughter's birthday treat to her aunt and uncle Leth and her cousins, Mr. Lethbridge wended his way homeward from the bank, indulging, as he walked, in a more than usually glowing day-dream. There exists in a great number of poor and struggling families a common sympathetic legend of a relation who ran away from home when very young, who has made a fabulous fortune in a distant land, and who will one day suddenly present himself to his astonished kinsfolk, and fill their hearts with joy by pouring untold gold into their laps. This good genius is always a gray-headed old man, with bright eyes and a soul of good-nature, and is, of course, invariably a bachelor – a delightful fiction which insures comfortable portions to the marriageable girls. "The Indies" used to be the favourite locality in which the runaway uncle or cousin made and saved his fortune, but of late years Australia and America have been pressed into service. Such a legend had existed in Mr. Lethbridge's family when he was a youngster; and as he now walked toward Camden Town, who should turn up – in his dreams – but a fabulously wealthy old gentleman, who had come home for the express purpose of presenting Mr. Lethbridge with no less a sum than twenty thousand pounds? Here was a foundation for the day-dreamer to work upon! but it was not all. There was a most important connection nearer to his heart, and altogether of a more tangible character. Among the friends of the family was a certain Fred Cornwall, a young barrister waiting for briefs, regarding whom Mrs. Lethbridge had more than once confidentially unbosomed herself to her spouse to the effect that she was certain "he came after Fanny." Up to the present moment, supposing that Fred Cornwall had really any serious intentions, this was as far as he had got; but it was far enough for Mr. Lethbridge. The slenderest foundations were sufficiently strong for his castles. Now, on this evening, Fred Cornwall was abroad on a little summer trip, and before Mr. Lethbridge had started for his bank in the morning his wife had whispered to him that Fanny had received a letter from Fred. What more was wanting for fancy with open eyes in London streets?

He has left the bank. They gave him a dinner and a testimonial on parchment, and another in gold, which is now ticking in the left-hand pocket of his waistcoat. It was the pleasantest affair. Such things were said of him! And the choicest flowers from the banquet table were sent by hand to his wife and daughter. Simply to think of it made the tears come into his eyes.

He has bought the lease of the dear old house in Camden Town. He has no ambition to live in a better, despite the fact that he is master of twenty thousand pounds. Well, not quite so much, perhaps, because there was the lease to pay for, and the smartening up of the house, and some new furniture to buy for the best rooms. But quite enough, quite enough.

There is still something to do before the new arrangements are completed, and for this purpose he and his wife and Fanny are jogging along happily through fashionable thoroughfares, where the tradesmen have provided in their windows a veritable Aladdin's cave for their entertainment, and wherein the ladies of his family, intent upon killing two birds with one stone, have decided to indulge in a "little shopping" – of all female occupations the most attractive and fascinating.

In Regent Street whom should they meet but Fred Cornwall? Here he is, face to face with them. Mr. Lethbridge greets him cordially.

"Hallo, Fred! Who would have thought of seeing you? Why, where have you been these last three weeks? On the Continent? Of course, of course – I remember your telling us you were going. Enjoyed yourself, I hope? Yes! Very glad, very glad. How brown you look! When did you return? A few hours ago only – ah! Come round and see us this evening. You intended to! That's right. You'll see an improvement – we've been buying some new furniture and doing up the house. Do you know anything of roses, Fred? I want to put a few dozen standards in the garden; I've got some apple and pear trees in already. Our own fruit next year, Fred. Fact is, I've had a windfall. Ever heard me tell of a relation of mine who ran away from home when he was a boy, and who made a great fortune abroad? Well, to our astonishment, he turned up a little while ago, and behaved most handsomely to us; so handsomely, indeed, that I've resigned at the bank. No occasion to work any more, my boy; can take it easy. Pleased to hear it? Of course you are. It makes no difference in us, Fred. We're just the same as we always were – just the same – just the same. Now how about the briefs, Fred? Are they rolling in? No! But of course you must wait, as I have waited. Don't be discouraged, my lad! Hope – hope – hope; that's the best tonic for youngsters. Perhaps I may put something in your way. Anything particular to do this morning? We are making a few purchases, and, now I think of it, I have heard Fanny say, repeatedly, that your taste in ladies' dress is perfect. What are you blushing for, Fanny? Give Fred your arm. I have no doubt he will be happy to accompany us."

Mr. Lethbridge's day-dream was here snapped in the middle. He was recalled to earth by a clap on his shoulder and the sound of a mellow voice.

"The very man I was coming to see! How are you, Leth, old man?"

The mellowness of the speaker's voice was matched by the mellowness of his personal appearance. Good spirits and good-nature oozed out of him. His clean-shaven face was round and rubicund; his eyes had a cheery light in them; a jolly smile hovered about his mouth. He was a large man; his hands, his nose, his head, were massive – it is the only word that will describe them. But nothing in him was out of proportion, and the geniality and jollity of the man were in keeping with his physical gifts. As there is no occasion for mystery, he may at once be introduced: "Mr. Kislingbury – the reader."

A famous man, Mr. Kislingbury, as you know. Has he not afforded you opportunities innumerable, of which, as a sensible man, you have taken full advantage – for it is not to be doubted that you are an enthusiastic play-goer – for hearty laughter? Has he not made your sides ache this many a time and oft, and have you not gone home the better for it? Is there not something so contagious in the merry notes of his rich voice that your mouth wreathes with smiles the moment it reaches your ears? Yes, everybody knows Kiss – though his name be Kislingbury, he is never spoken of but as Kiss by his friends and the public – and everybody has a kindly feeling toward him. With reason. His humour is unctuous, but never coarse; he bubbles over with fun, but never descends to buffoonery; great in old comedies, to the manner born, and, perhaps because of that, a little out of date. But Kiss, although fortune has not been over-lavish toward him, is contented with his lot. And he has, perhaps, a rarer virtue than all – he respects his author, and when he plays a new part and makes a hit in it, does not take all the credit to himself. This is the man who clapped Mr. Lethbridge on the shoulder in the midst of that gentleman's glowing day-dream, and cried: "The very man I was coming to see! How are you, Leth, old man?"

"Very well, I thank you," said Mr. Lethbridge, a little slowly, not immediately recognizing his friend; he was not in the habit of taking a harlequin leap out of his musings; it generally occupied him a few moments to get back to earth. "Very well, very well. Why, it's Kiss! Glad to see you, Kiss, glad to see you!"

"Day-dreaming, Leth?" inquired Kiss, merrily and kindly.

Mr. Lethbridge's flights in this direction were well-known to his friends.

"Yes, Kiss, yes. Amusing myself as usual. Upon my word, I hardly know a better way of passing the time. Almost as good as a theatre."

Kiss and Mr. Lethbridge were related – second or third cousins, or something of that sort; one of those genealogical connections with mixed marriages which make the head ache – and it was from Kiss that Mr. Lethbridge obtained orders for the play. Kiss had other and nearer relations, some of whom were in the habit of visiting Mr. Lethbridge's house, where, it need scarcely be said, they were more than welcome, the younger members of Aunt Leth's family, and all her other young friends, looking up to these luminaries with a kind of awe.

"Better than a theatre, I dare say," said Kiss, heartily; "at all events, a great deal cheaper. So easy to get up your pieces, so easy to write 'em, so easy to get them played. No jealousies and heart-burnings; all plain sailing. And no rehearsals, my boy; no rehearsals" – at which contemplation Kiss joyously rubbed his hands. "Everybody pleased and satisfied with his part. Lessee, stage-manager, every soul in the place, down to the check-taker at the gallery – I should rather say up, shouldn't I? – in a state of calm beatitude. Why? Because success is assured beforehand. No expense for dresses, none for scenery. Such a first-night audience! No blackguards paying their shillings in the hope of a chance of hooting and hissing. There are such now-a-days, I regret to say. Then the critics! Not at all a bad lot, Leth, let me tell you, though they have given many a poor devil the heartache. I often pity them for the sorry stuff they have to listen to and write about. Not a bed of roses, theirs! And I'd sooner be Kiss, first low comedy, than dramatic critic of the best paper going. As you play your pieces, Leth, do you ever think of the fine notices written about 'em in the next morning's papers?"

"I seldom get as far as that," replied Mr. Lethbridge, smiling.

"Ah!" said Kiss, "that's because you have no vanity."

"I have a great deal," said Mr. Lethbridge, shaking his head.

"You're no judge of yourself; none of us are of ourselves. But let your mind run on it a bit; it will make your nerves tingle with delight. Not for yourself, perhaps; for others – for Aunt Leth, now; and pretty Fanny; and Bob, the rascal!"

"Yes, for them, for them!" said Mr. Lethbridge, eagerly. "I will, Kiss; I will! – that is, if it comes to me to do it. For, do you know, what you call 'my pieces' are really very curious things, not only in themselves, but in the way they happen. Quite unexpectedly, Kiss – quite unexpectedly. Now what do the critics say about the piece – just by way of example – I've been playing in my walk home from the bank? But it's rather foolish of me to ask you such a question, as you are in complete ignorance of the kind of piece it is."

"Wrong, Leth, wrong. I know a great deal about it; more than you are aware of."

"Really?"

"Really, and in very truth, my liege lord."

"Now this is interesting. It is quite a pleasure, meeting you in this way. Go on about my piece."

"First and foremost," said Kiss, "to settle the style of it. I pronounce that it is not a tragedy."



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