Benjamin Farjeon.

Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 2 of 3)



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CHAPTER I
JEREMIAH PAMFLETT ASSERTS HIMSELF

The innocent fun and gaiety at the tea-table were long afterward remembered. There was an animated discussion as to who should take the head of the table. Ph?be wanted Aunt Leth to do so, but Fanny interfered, and said no one should sit there but Ph?be.

"It is Ph?be's day," persisted the light-hearted girl, "and something unlucky will happen if she doesn't pour out the tea. Mr. Cornwall, come and court me at the bottom of the table."

"Didn't you say it was Miss Farebrother's day?" said Fred, as he took his seat next to the young hostess. He was not wanting in resource, and rather enjoyed Fanny's badinage.

The table was much more plentifully supplied than Ph?be expected, and she cast many grateful glances at Mrs. Pamflett, who had certainly taken pains to do honour to the occasion. Mrs. Pamflett received these tokens of gratitude gravely and quietly; no one would have supposed that her mind was occupied by any other consideration than the comfort of her young mistress's guests. But nothing escaped her secretly watchful eyes; every word, every look, every little attention from Fred Cornwall to Ph?be was carefully noted and treasured up.

A merrier meal was never enjoyed; the buzz of conversation was delightful to hear. Ph?be was the quietest, Fanny the noisiest. Suddenly she became quite still, and gazed pensively at Fred Cornwall.

"A penny for your thoughts," said he.

"They are yours at the price," she replied, holding out her hand for the penny. "I am feeling very sorry for you."

"Why?"

"Because I am convinced you would be much happier if you were at this moment shelling peas with a certain young lady in Switzerland."

This caused a general laugh, and Fred enlarged upon the delights of his trip, Fanny interrupting him a dozen times with some quizzical remark.

"You certainly want some one to keep you in order, Fanny," laughingly observed her mother.

"I do," replied Fanny, dolefully. "Where is that some one? Why does he not appear?"

Toward the end of the meal Mrs. Pamflett swiftly left the room. Looking out of the window she saw her son Jeremiah, and she hastened down to him.

"Well, mother?" said he.

"What has made you so late?" she asked, anxiously.

"Now, don't nag!" he exclaimed. "I couldn't get here before; had a hundred things to look after. The new clothes I ordered never came home, and I had to go and bullyrag the tailor. How do I look, mother?"

"Beautiful, Jeremiah, beautiful!" she said, enthusiastically.

On his feet were patent-leather shoes; on his head the shiniest of belltoppers; on his hands lavender-coloured kid gloves; round his neck a light blue scarf, with a great carbuncle pin stuck in it; and he wore a tourist's suit of russet-brown of a very large check pattern.

"Rather licks 'em, doesn't it?" he asked, in a tone of self-admiration and approval, turning slowly round to exhibit his points.

"That it does, Jeremiah."

"Look at this," he said, taking off his hat.

"Why, you've had your hair curled, Jeremiah!"

"Slightly! Nobby, ain't it?"

"Beautiful! My own dear boy!"

"Keep your fingers to yourself, can't you? There, you've gone and put it all out!" He drew from his pocket a small mirror, and anxiously readjusted the curls his mother had touched.

"Now just you be careful. Eyes on, hands off!"

"They must have cost a lot of money, Jeremiah."

"They did; a heap; but in for a penny, in for a pound. There's one comfort; it's all spent on myself. Catch me spending it on anybody else. They cost, altogether – Well, never mind; we're going in for a big thing, ain't we? I ain't particular to a pound or two when the stake's worth it."

"You have the heart of a lion!" said Mrs. Pamflett.

"What will she think of me, mother? Look at me well; reckon me up."

"She can't help thinking as I do, Jeremiah."

"She's a ninny if she don't. She won't get another chance like it, I'll bet."

"What is that you're carrying, my boy?"

"A bouquet. Here, I'll just lift the paper, so that you can see it. Roses, stephanotis, and maidenhair. Now, who'll say I ain't a plucky one? Just wipe this dust off my boots."

In her full-hearted admiration Mrs. Pamflett had lost sight of her conversation with Miser Farebrother, and of the presence of Fred Cornwall in the room above; but now, as she carefully wiped Jeremiah's boots, it all came back to her. Bidding him to give her his best attention, she told him everything; he listened to her attentively, and put a good many questions to her when she had done, the most important of which related to his master.

"He didn't shy at it, then?" he asked.

"No," she replied; "he seemed to take to it kindly."

"You're sure he understood you?"

"He couldn't be off understanding me; I put it to him pretty plain. All you've got to do is to play your cards well."

"I'll do that. When I've got a winning hand I know what to do with it."

"Are you pleased with me, Jeremiah?"

"Yes; it was a bold stroke; only don't do it again. Let me play my own game. I don't mind telling you something if you'll keep it dark." He paused a moment before continuing. "Do you see my thumb?" He held out his right hand, palm upward, with the thumb arched over it. "I've got the London business like this; I've got Miser Farebrother like this. He's under my thumb, mother, and he doesn't know it. If I left him he'd lose thousands, and if the worst comes to the worst I can put it to him like that in a way he can't mistake."

"Don't be rash, Jeremiah," implored Mrs. Pamflett; "be humble with him."

"Oh, yes; I'll be humble with him as long as it suits me. Do you think I've been working all these years for nothing? Do you think I've had the office all to myself for nothing? Does he think I didn't take his measure years and years ago, and that I didn't make up my mind what to do?"

"Jeremiah! Jeremiah!" cried Mrs. Pamflett, "be careful. He's cunning, he's clever; he can see with his eyes shut."

"I can beat him at his own game. Cunning as he is, I'm cunninger; clever as he is, I'm cleverer; I could see without any eyes at all. Wasn't it as clear to me as daylight, if I'd been content to be his slave, taking his miserable few shillings a week, and trying to live on it, that I should be no better off at seventy years than I was at seventeen? Oh, no; not at all! I was a fool, I was, and didn't know how many beans made five! I was born yesterday, I was! There now; I've said enough. You'll live to see something that'll make you open your eyes. Oh! hanged if I wasn't forgetting. What did the governor do with that beggar, Tom Barley?"

"Discharged him. He's gone for good."

"He's gone for bad, you mean. He'll come to a nice end, and I'll help him to it if I can. So the old hunks discharged Tom Barley, did he? Well, I settled his hash for him, at all events."

"It shows what influence you have over the master," observed Mrs. Pamflett.

"I'll have more before I've done with him. Hallo! Just hear how they're laughing upstairs. I say, mother, couldn't you call Ph?be down here? I don't care about giving her the flowers with all that lot looking on and sniggering. Just you go and whisper to her that a gentleman wants very particularly to see her. Wait a minute; is my scarf right?"

"Yes, Jeremiah," said Mrs. Pamflett, and was about to leave him, when he cried again, nervously:

"Wait a minute, can't you? What a hurry you're in. What would you say to her, mother, when you give 'em to her?"

"Wish her many happy returns of the day, Jeremiah; and you might ask if she will give you a cup of tea. That will give you an excuse for following her; she can't very well leave the people upstairs long to themselves."

"All right; I'll do it." And Jeremiah struck an attitude, and waited for Ph?be, who had received a message, not that "a gentleman" wanted particularly to see her, but that a friend was below who was anxious to wish her many happy returns. When Ph?be heard this, she thought for a moment that it might be faithful Tom Barley, whom Mrs. Pamflett, in her good-nature, had allowed to enter, and she was startled when she saw Jeremiah Pamflett.

"It's me, miss," said that worthy. "You're not sorry, I hope?"

"No," she said, awkwardly; "not at all."

"Seeing it was your birthday," said Jeremiah, "I thought I'd give you an agreeable surprise. Just look at this." He took the blue paper off the bouquet, and held it up for her admiration.

"It is very pretty," said Ph?be.

"I should rather say it was. It cost enough, anyhow: eight and six I gave for it."

He paused for a reply, and Ph?be said, "Yes?" not knowing what else to say.

"Half a guinea they asked, but I beat 'em down. They do try to take you in, the shopkeepers; but I get up a little too early for them. When they try their games on me, they try 'em on the wrong party. Don't you think so?" He made a motion with his elbow, with the intention of digging it playfully into her side; but she shrank back, and frustrated his amiable design. "I went to Covent Garden myself to pick it out." He paused again, and as she did not speak, he thought, "Hang it! why doesn't she say something?" comforting himself, however, with the reflection that his resplendent appearance had "regularly knocked her over," as he would have openly expressed it in his choice vernacular. Feeling that he was not getting along as well as he wished, he wound up with, "For you, miss; wishing you many happy returns of the day."

"You are very kind," said Ph?be, having no option but to accept the bouquet, "to spend so much money upon me."

"Oh," said Jeremiah, boastfully, "I can do a thing swell when I've a mind to. I never laid out so much on flowers before, but I wouldn't mind doing it again – for you, miss."

"Pray don't think of it," said Ph?be, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.

"Well, I won't say whether I will or not. It all depends." He spread himself out airily in order that she might have a good view of him. He took off his hat, touched his curled hair gingerly, put his left arm akimbo, and stood at ease, with his right leg out-stretched. He was rather proud of his manners, and thought he was making an impression. The question whether Ph?be should laugh or cry was determined by his attitude, and Jeremiah was somewhat confounded as a light hysterical laugh escaped her.

"What at, miss?" he asked, the smirk on his face changing to a frown.

"At that boy," said Ph?be, looking at the back of him; "he is so funny."

Jeremiah, turning, really saw a ragged little boy approaching them. It was a fortunate escape for Ph?be, who went toward the little fellow and asked him what he wanted.

"I wants to see the young lady of the 'ouse," said the boy. "Are you 'er?"

"Yes."

"I'm to give yer this, and run away."

A faithful messenger. He gave a small brown paper parcel to Ph?be, and scuttled away as fast as his little legs would carry him. Ph?be, wondering, opened the parcel, and there lay a few wild daisies, accompanied by a piece of white paper, upon which was written, "With Tom Barley's humble duty. For ever and ever." It was shocking writing, and Ph?be had some difficulty in deciphering it; but it brought the tears to her eyes. She put the paper in her pocket, and pinned the daisies at her bosom.

"I beg your pardon for leaving you," said Ph?be to Jeremiah. "And now I must go to my friends."

"You might offer me a cup of tea, miss," he said.

"Yes, I will, though I am afraid it is almost cold."

"Nothing can be cold where you are, miss," said Jeremiah, gallantly. "I'll come up with you. Why do you wear those rubbishing flowers? You can pick 'em up in the fields."

"They are from an old friend," said Ph?be, loyally. "I value them quite as much as if they had cost – " She stopped, frightened at her rashness; she was about to add, "eight and six." Jeremiah completed the sentence for her, supplying the precise words in her mind.

"As if they cost eight and six, miss," he said, quietly. There was a venom in his voice which made her shudder. "I'll think of that."

She felt it necessary to mollify him, and though she hated herself for her duplicity, she was very gracious to him as they ascended the stairs, so that when they entered the room his equanimity was restored. It may have been the grandeur of his appearance, or perhaps it was something in Ph?be's face, that caused an awkward pause in the merriment upon their entrance. Fortunately for the situation, Mrs. Pamflett was in the room, and as Ph?be made no attempt to introduce Jeremiah to the company, Mrs. Pamflett said, in a distinct, measured voice, "My son, Mr. Pamflett, Mr. Farebrother's manager."

Mr. Lethbridge rose and offered the young man his hand.

"Glad to know you," said Jeremiah. "You're Mr. Lethbridge. How do you do, all of you?"

Mrs. Lethbridge inclined her head, perceiving that something was wrong. Fanny with difficulty repressed a giggle, Bob looked supercilious, while Fred Cornwall scarcely glanced at the new arrival.

"Will you give Mr. Pamflett a cup of tea, aunt?" said Ph?be.

"No," said Jeremiah, "not from your aunt, if you please; from you. Then I sha'n't want any sugar in it. Anything the matter with you, miss?" He addressed this question to Fanny, from whom an uncertain sound of laughter was proceeding.

"Something in my throat," replied Miss Fanny.

"Shall I slap you on the back, miss?"

"No, no!" cried Fanny, suddenly quite sobered.

Jeremiah drank his tea quite slowly, looking alternately from one to the other. There was a dead silence in the room.

"Shall my niece pour you out another cup?" asked Mrs. Lethbridge, politely.

"If it will oblige her," said Jeremiah, with cold malignity, "she may."

Without a word Ph?be poured out the tea and handed it to him. He drank it even more slowly than he had done the first cup. When it was finished, Mrs. Lethbridge said, "There is no more in the pot."

"That is a pity," said Jeremiah, "because we are enjoying ourselves so."

"I propose," said Mrs. Lethbridge, "that we go into the open air. It is a most lovely evening."

They all rose, glad of the escape. Jeremiah pushed himself between Fred Cornwall and Ph?be, and walked by her side down the stairs. When they were in the open he said to her, "You have forgotten your bouquet. I will go and bring it to you. Shall I?"

"If you please," she answered, faintly. She could make no other reply.

His mother met him in the passage. "Miser Farebrother wishes to see you, Jeremiah. You can join Miss Ph?be afterward."

"All right," said Jeremiah; "I will. Look here, mother. Is that Cornwall fellow sticking up to Ph?be?"

"That is for you to find out, Jeremiah. If you are my son you are not to be easily beaten."

"Easily beaten!" he echoed, with malignant emphasis. "When my back's up, I generally let people know it. Did you notice how they behaved to me at the tea-table?"

"You paid them out for it, Jeremiah," said Mrs. Pamflett, exultingly. "I am proud of you."

"You shall have more reason by-and-by. Paid them out for it! Why, they didn't have a word to say for themselves! I just looked at them, and shut them up! As for Ph?be, let her look out; that's all I say – let her look out! Did you ever see a cat play with a mouse?"

"Often, Jeremiah."

"Well, let her look out for herself. That's all I've got to say."

CHAPTER II
ARCADES AMBO

Jeremiah entered Miser Farebrother's room, holding in his hand the bouquet of flowers he had brought for Ph?be. He had debated within himself whether he should allow the miser to see them or no, and he had decided in the affirmative. "Mother commenced it," he thought, "and I'll go on with it. Strike while the iron's hot, Jeremiah."

"You sent for me," said he, laying the bouquet on the table in full view of Miser Farebrother.

"Are those the flowers the gentleman lawyer gave my daughter?" asked Miser Farebrother.

"No," replied Jeremiah; "I didn't know he brought her any. I bought these in Covent Garden to present to Miss Ph?be."

"You are growing extravagant," said the miser; "and you are becoming quite a gay young character: first escorting my daughter home from the village, and now presenting her with expensive flowers. It rains flowers in Parksides to-day. I was never guilty of such extravagance – never."

"This is the first time I have ever done such a thing," said Jeremiah, apologetically; "but seeing it was Miss Ph?be's birthday, I thought the money wouldn't be exactly thrown away. Look here – that lawyer chap; he's up to no good."

"You don't like lawyers?"

"No more than you do; though, mind you, if I was married and had a son, I'd bring him up as one. Then he'd know exactly how far to go, and I should get my legal business done for nothing."

"Oh! oh!" said Miser Farebrother, with a quiet chuckle. "If you were married and had a son! That's looking ahead, Jeremiah."

"It's a good plan; it keeps one prepared. You've no objection to my giving Miss Ph?be these flowers, I suppose?"

"Not the slightest, so long as you bought them with your own money. Only don't do too much of that sort of thing. When you spend money, spend it to advantage – in something that will last, or will make more money. Spending money in flowers is folly; in two days flowers and money are gone. You can look at them in gardens and shop windows, then you get all your pleasure for nothing. That's the wise plan. Costs nothing for looking, Jeremiah."

"You are quite right. I'll bear in mind what you say, and profit by it."

"That pleases me. What I like is obedience – blind obedience – and I will have it from those in my control. So – you're thinking of marriage, eh? A wife is an expensive toy."

"Not when you've got the right one! Likely as not it keeps a man out of mischief."

"So long as you've got the right one! Your mother said something to me; has she told you of it?"

Jeremiah considered a moment, and for once in his life was candid.

"Yes," he said, "she told me of it."

"Sit down, Jeremiah."

The astute young man obeyed in silence, and inwardly congratulated himself. "Things are going on swimmingly," he thought; "the fish is as good as in my net already." While Miser Farebrother, gazing on Jeremiah, thought, "I'll bind him tight; I'll bind him tight!" Presently he spoke.

"You have been a long time in my service, and are acquainted with my business."

"I know all the ins and outs of it," said Jeremiah. "I've got it at my fingers' ends."

Miser Farebrother sighed. Humbly as Jeremiah's words were spoken, the miser felt that his managing clerk had him in his power. Well, the best plan was to put chains around him, and what chains so tight and binding as matrimony?

"If I came to grief, Jeremiah, you could set up in business for yourself?"

"Yes," said Jeremiah, boldly; "and make a fortune. But you come to grief! No, sir; not while I am with you."

"It is my misfortune," continued the miser, "and your good luck, that I am ill and weak, and unable to give the proper personal attention to my affairs."

"Why say 'misfortune,' sir? It may be your good luck as well as mine."

"But it is as I say," cried Miser Farebrother, testily.

"Very well, sir. Then what a shrewd man would do is to make the best of it." Jeremiah's cue was not to cross or vex his master; to assert himself up to a certain point, but to lead the miser to believe that in him, Jeremiah, a wily master had a suitable tool, who, for a prospective advantage, would devote himself hand and foot, body and soul, to his employer's interest.

"That is all that is left to me," groaned Miser Farebrother – "to make the best of it. Jeremiah Pamflett," he said, abruptly, "were I in your place and you in mine, how would you act?"

"Under precisely similar circumstances?"

"Yes, under precisely similar circumstances."

"I should seek an interview," said Jeremiah, keeping down his excitement, "with the young man who was managing my business in London for me, in whom I had every confidence, and say to him, 'You seem to have a liking for my daughter.'"

"Ah!" said Miser Farebrother, "Go on."

"'My object is,' I should say to this young man, 'that she shall marry a man who will serve me faithfully, to keep her out of the hands of scheming relatives, and to keep her especially out of the hands of scheming lawyers. You are the man I would select as her husband. Marry her, and continue to serve me faithfully, and then all our interests will be common interests, and I shall be safe from conspiracies, which have but one end in view: to rob me of my hard-earned money.' After that I should wait to hear what he had to say."

"Not yet, Jeremiah, not yet," said Miser Farebrother; "there is still something more to be said on my side. Supposing that the words you have put into my mouth have been spoken by me to you, I should not wind up there. I should continue thus: 'If I give you my consent to pay court to my daughter, who, when I am gone, will, if she behaves herself, inherit what little property I have, you must bind yourself to me for a term of years. No, not for a term of years, but for as long as I am alive. There shall be an agreement drawn up, a binding agreement, which, if you break, will render you liable for a heavy penalty, which I shall exact. Your salary shall be so much a week, and no more; and you are not to ask me for more. You are to be, until my last hour, my servant, amenable to me, acting under my instructions, and you are not to put yourself in opposition to my wishes,' That, as far as I can at present see, is what I should say to you, Jeremiah; and now I await your answer."



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