Benjamin Farjeon.

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



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"Here I am again," said Jeremiah vivaciously; his remarks to Mr. and Mrs. Lethbridge had almost put him in good humour, "like a bad penny. You look as if you'd just taken one, Mr. Cornwall; and you too, Miss Lethbridge. How do you do, Miss Ph?be?" He thrust his hand into the cab, and Ph?be was compelled to give him hers, which he pressed and retained, in huge enjoyment of Fred's wrathful glances. "How blooming you look! I saw your father to-day at Parksides; he told me you were on a visit to Camden Town. I have some business with him to-morrow. Shall I give him your love? But I dare say you will be at Parksides before I am. You've no idea how I miss you when you're not there! A jolly night, hasn't it been? You seem rather fidgety, Miss Lethbridge."

"We want to get home," said Fanny. "It costs money to keep the cab waiting."

"And I'm not worth it. What a pity you think so! But soon you'll think differently, perhaps – soon we'll surprise you, Miss Ph?be and I. Some people would say 'Miss Ph?be and me;' but I've been educated, and know how to speak properly, and how to behave properly. There isn't a lawyer in London can get ahead of me, and that we'll prove before long; won't we, Miss Ph?be? I must be going now. Thank you so much for your kind reception. It is more than kind: it is gracious and condescending. Who pays for the cab? But what a question to ask! Of course the swell of the party. I'm glad I've cost him nothing. Let a lawyer alone for knowing what's what. The cab regulations say, 'For the first fifteen minutes completed, 6d.' And I've detained you" – he consulted his watch here – "just thirteen minutes and three-quarters, so the driver can't demand anything. Good-night all; happy dreams."

He went off chuckling, eminently satisfied with himself for the part he had played. He knew that he had left a sting behind.

Out of consideration for Ph?be, bearing in mind that her father and Jeremiah Pamflett were hand and glove, Fred Cornwall said nothing of that worthy young man to Ph?be. Fanny, however, was boiling over, and she was not the kind of person to keep her opinions to herself.

"Oh!" she said, "I wish I was a man!"

"What for, Fan?" asked Bob.

"Just for one little half-hour a man," said Fanny; "to go after that reptile, and give him what he deserves! He has got one black eye already; he should have two. I'd beat him to a jelly; I'd pull every hair out of his head; I'd – I'd – " She grew so indignant that she could not proceed.

"Shall I go and give him a thrashing?" asked Bob. He was not of a truculent nature, but his blood was roused.

"Stop where you are, Bob," said Fred Cornwall quietly. "It is best to keep out of difficulties with such as he. I beg your pardon, Miss Farebrother; I did not mean to say it."

"You have said what is right," said Ph?be, in a low tone. "It is I who should ask pardon of you for subjecting you to insults."

She burst into tears, and Fanny instantly took her in her arms.

The men were silent and grave, and not another word was spoken till they arrived at Camden Town. Fred paid the cabman liberally, and the party entered the house, Ph?be and Fanny going up to their bedroom, and Fred and Bob finding refuge in the dining-room, where supper was laid out for them. As they went upstairs Fanny called out to the young men, "We shall not be long. Don't go away, Fred." He had no intention of doing so; he paced the room in deep thought, while Bob, who, in the absence of his father, took upon himself the duties of host, ran down to the larder for beer. Returning with it, he poured out two foaming glasses, and handed one to Fred.

"Here's luck," said Bob.

"Here's luck," said Fred.

Fred emptied his glass in one pull, and when he put it on the table there was a flush on his face and a soft light in his eyes. He had formed a most important resolution. Presently he heard Fanny's voice calling to him, and he went out to her in the passage. That diplomatic young lady received him with her finger on her lips, and she closed the dining-room door before she spoke.

"She is in there," she whispered, pointing to the drawing-room. "I lit the gas."

"Does she wish to see me?" asked Fred, with an exact following of her cautious movements.

"She didn't say so," replied Fanny, "but I thought you would like to go to her."

"Yes," said Fred, "I will go. You are my best friend, Fanny."

"I am a true one, at all events. Oh, Fred!" There was nothing teasing or wilful or capricious in the tone in which these two simple words were uttered. It was fraught with wistful, tremulous feeling, and her eyes were humid with tears.

"God bless you, Fanny!"

"And you, Fred. No one shall come in."

Ph?be looked up as he entered, expecting to see Fanny. He sat down by her side, and said:

"I have been anxious about you. Fanny told me you were here. You are better?"

"Yes." She would have risen and made an attempt to leave him, not out of coquetry, but maiden modesty, but she had not the strength.

"This has been a sad night," said Fred, "but it may prove to be the happiest one in my life, if my heart has not deceived me. May I say to you what my heart dictates?" He construed her silence into assent, and proceeded: "I did not intend to speak yet awhile; I thought I would first make my position – my worldly position – firmer than it is; but I can no longer be silent. Since that happy evening at Parksides I have not been idle, and though my position is not yet quite assured, I am very hopeful; I have really made progress, and I think I can see my way. I have gained some good friends who will help me along, and once the ball is set fairly rolling, it only depends upon a man's ability and industry to keep it rolling till it reaches a home which he can call his own, and where it may be his bright fortune to enjoy the sweetest blessings of life. Industry I have, and I mean to work harder than ever; and I am told I have ability. Whatever be the measure of it, I am sure it will help me to some kind of success; and if the home of which I speak be not at first a very grand one, it will be grand enough for happiness. I ask you to have faith in my earnestness and truth. I love you with my whole heart and soul; I will work for you with my whole heart and soul; I will shield and protect you; I will be true and faithful to you. Will you not answer me? Will you not speak to me?"

She raised her eyes timidly to his, and in the tender light that shone therein he saw his answer. He clasped her in his arms; her pulses thrilled with ineffable rapture.

"Ph?be!"

"Fred!" Her voice was like the whisper of a rose, filling space with sweet music.

"You will be my wife, Ph?be?"

"Yes."

"Say you love me!"

"I love you!"

Thereafter there was silence awhile, and as Ph?be lay enfolded in her lover's arms, a high resolve entered his soul to be worthy of the priceless blessing of her love. And she? Her soul was also stirred by a prayer that she might be able to make herself worthy of him – her hero, her life!

"We must go in now, Fred. They will think it so strange!"

"I am not so sure," he said, and kept her still in his embrace.

"Why are you not so sure, Fred? Indeed, indeed they will!"

"Do you know, my darling" – he paused, and repeated softly, "my darling! – my very, very own!" And then he lost himself, and forgot for a moment what he had intended to say.

"Well, Fred?"

"Well what, Ph?be?"

"You were saying, 'Do you know – '"

"Oh, yes. I said, 'Do you know.' What came afterward?"

"My darling!" she said, in a delicious whisper.

It was enough to make him forget himself again; and he did; but he presently took up the thread.

"Do you know, my darling, I have an idea that Fanny sent me here for a purpose – bless her kind heart!"

"For what purpose?"

"For this." He pressed her closer to him.

"Oh, Fred, she never could!"

"Couldn't she? What! Our Fanny, our dear cousin, not be equal to such a scheme! Upon my word, she deserves – what she shall get when we go to her. Thinking seriously over the matter, Ph?be – and I never was more serious in my life than I am now, my own! – I have no doubt that she had everything already planned out in her pretty little head."

"Fred, we really must go."

"Not till – "

"Till what, Fred?"

He held her face between his hands, and put his lips to hers. Thus they pledged love and faith to each other, for weal or woe.

"Well, you people!" cried Fanny, as they entered. "We are not half ready for you; and here you come breaking in upon us so suddenly and quickly – just as Bob and I were talking secrets – weren't we, Bob? Well, I wonder at your impudence, Fred! Oh, my dear, my dear!"

The affectionate girl's arms were round Ph?be's neck, hugging her close, and her gay voice had drifted into tears. For Fred had kissed her, and Ph?be too; and somehow or other, in these kissings the news of Ph?be's and Fred's engagement was conveyed without ever a word being spoken about it. How Fanny danced round Ph?be, and how she commanded Fred to kiss her again, and how she kissed him unblushingly more than once, and how she hugged Ph?be again and again, and how her face flushed and her eyes sparkled, and how she got her hair rumpled in the most unaccountable manner, and how she seized Bob and waltzed round the room with him, dodging the chairs and tables in the most marvellous way, and how, finally, she fell upon the sofa, out of breath, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, and therefore doing a little of both! – all this must be imagined, for it is impossible to describe.

"And oh, my dears, my dears!" she cried, "I hope you'll be happy for ever and ever!"

For brilliant impulsiveness there never was such a girl.

But what had come over Bob? Had he been so schooled and lectured by Fanny that, metaphorically speaking, he had not a leg to stand upon, or had he already transferred his affections from Ph?be to some fair nymph at the Star Theatre, that he submitted himself to Ph?be's kiss – knowing the meaning of it – with a fairly good grace, with only just a shade of sulkiness in recognition of her perfidy, and that he shook hands with Fred with no expressed intention of having his life's blood? However it was, these things happened; and if a happier or more agreeable quartette ever sat down to a supper table, the present chronicler would like to be present on the occasion.

CHAPTER VIII
THE POOR AUTHOR'S HOME

Outside the humble house in Lambeth in which Mr. Linton and his family occupied two modest rooms – and those not the best – Uncle Leth paced the lonely street. There was not a soul about, with the exception of the policeman, with whom Uncle Leth exchanged a few words explaining his presence; but although that functionary expressed himself satisfied, he still kept an eye upon the stranger in the neighbourhood. Aunt Leth was upstairs with Mrs. Linton; the unfortunate author had not returned home, as Aunt Leth, running breathlessly down to the street door, had informed her husband; and Uncle Leth was now looking anxiously for his appearance. It was out of a feeling of delicacy that he had not entered the house; he knew that the intrusion of a strange man would have alarmed Mrs. Linton, and have marred the kind errand upon which he and his wife were engaged. So he waited outside, listening for footsteps, and mentally praying that Mr. Linton had done nothing rash.

Aunt Leth and Mrs. Linton were already friends, and it seemed to the poor author's wife as if she had known her kind visitor for years. It was not without trepidation that Aunt Leth had introduced herself to Mrs. Linton, but she allowed no signs of this feeling to appear in her manner: she was cheerful and unobtrusive, and her sweet face and pleasant voice conveyed hope to the heart of the anxious wife.

"I am a friend of your husband," Aunt Leth said, "and I hope you will forgive me for calling upon you at so late an hour. My name is Lethbridge."

"Yes," said Mrs. Linton; "my husband has often spoken of you and your family. He was desirous that we should become personally acquainted some time since; but" – she paused here; the sentence, completed, would have been an avowal of poverty.

"But," said Aunt Leth, taking up the words, with a sweet smile, "you have been so busy, and your husband has been so much engaged, that you could not find time. It is just the way with us at home. The days are really not long enough for one's cares and duties."

"Are you alone?" asked Mrs. Linton.

"No; my husband is below, waiting for me. He would not come up, it is so late. I should not have had the courage to come had I not heard that your little boy was not well. Dear little fellow! You won't mind my kissing you, will you, sweet?"

She was by the bedside, bending over the lad, who was awake, and who, when she lowered her face to his, put his little arms round her neck. In Aunt Leth's beautiful ways there was an affectionate magnetism which won the hearts of old and young. Mrs. Linton burst into tears.

"Don't cry, my dear," said Aunt Leth; "we are going to be very good friends, and everything will be bright and happy. Ah! it is only wives and mothers like ourselves who know what real trouble is; but then we are able to bear it, thank God! It is love's duty. To be strong and reliant and hopeful will help to bring back the roses to your little boy's cheeks."

All the time she was speaking she was either at the bedside or doing unobtrusively something housewifely about the room, which made her presence there like an angel's visit.

"Where did you hear that our little boy was ill?" asked Mrs. Linton.

"At the theatre."

"Ah! you have been there?" Mrs. Linton's agitation was so great that her hand rose instinctively to her heart. It was a thin white hand, eloquent with weakness and suffering. "Tell me, tell me about the piece! I expected my husband home by this time. If it was a success he would have flown here."

"My dear," said Aunt Leth, with a bright look, "I am not an author's wife, and therefore I cannot speak with authority; but I can understand how much there must be to talk about at the theatre after the first representation of a play. Perhaps some trifling alterations to make, or a little dialogue to be strengthened or shortened, and there is nothing like taking these things in hand on the spur of the moment. That is business, and must be attended to, must it not? I hardly know whether I am right or wrong in what I say, but it seems to me so."

"You are right," sighed Mrs. Linton; "there are always a great many alterations to make in my husband's plays. I used to go on the first nights, but the excitement had such an effect upon me that I wait now to know whether they are likely to be a success or not. It is an anxious life, waiting, waiting, waiting for what, perhaps, will never come. It is wearing my poor husband out; and he works so hard, so earnestly – "

"All the more need for courage, my dear," said Aunt Leth, taking Mrs. Linton's hand and patting it hopefully. "Bright fortune, when it comes, will be all the sweeter for a little delay. It will come, my dear, it will!"

"Perhaps too late!" murmured the mother, her apprehensive eyes travelling to the bed upon which her sick child was lying.

"You must not say that; you must not think it. When your husband returns you must be cheerful and strong; he will require such help after his anxious night. And what a beautiful play he has written! How proud you must be of him!"

With such like affectionate interchange of confidences did the time pass in Mrs. Linton's room; but Aunt Leth's heart almost fainted within her at the lengthened absence of the author. No less anxious was Uncle Leth in the street below. Two or three times, on some pretence or other, Aunt Leth ran down to him to satisfy herself that he was all right, hoping on each occasion that she would return in the company of Mr. Linton. She and her husband were afraid to give expression to their fast-growing fears. All that Uncle Leth said was: "Don't hurry away. You must not leave till Mr. Linton comes home. He will be here soon."

But more than an hour elapsed before the author appeared, and Uncle Leth breathed a "Thank God!" when he saw him turn the corner of the street, in the company of Kiss. Uncle Leth hastened toward them to explain the meaning of his presence, but Mr. Linton did not give him time to utter a word. His agitation was so great, he had been so wrought up by the incidents of the night, that he saw a tragedy in the surprise.

"My God!" he cried; and but for the support afforded by Kiss's strong arm he would have fallen to the ground. "My wife! my child!"

"Are well," said Uncle Leth, quickly. "My wife is with yours, and they are waiting for you. Don't take it ill of us; we are here in true friendship and sympathy. Keep up your heart; all will turn out right."

"That's what I've been telling him," said Kiss, heartily; "and if ever there was a bright omen, this is one. Now go up to your wife, like a good fellow, and put on a cheerful face. We shall rub through. Never lose sight of the silver lining, my boy; it is shining now in your room on the faces of two good women!"

Mr. Linton, unable to speak, pressed Uncle Leth's hand, and passed into the house, leaving his friends in the street.

"How kind of you!" murmured Kiss. "I intended to go up with Linton, but now your good wife is there my presence is not required. I have had a dreadful time with him. When he rushed out of the theatre I hardly knew what to think, being knocked over, so to speak, by the strange speech he made. I was not the only one; it was so novel, so thoroughly unexpected. There is just the chance it may be the talk of the town, and if that happens it will bring money to the treasury. I ran up to my dressing-room for a quick change, and it suddenly occurred to me that in the state Linton was in it would be as well if he had a friend by his side. Quick as thought I left the theatre, without waiting to wash, and knowing the road Linton always took home, followed it without coming up to him. I didn't trouble myself about the public-houses: Linton is a temperate man, and he was in no mood for company. With a great success it might have been different: he might have taken a glass. You see, Mr. Lethbridge, I know him and his ways. He is wonderfully sensitive and nervous, and he had taken it into his head that upon the success of A Heart of Gold his whole career depended. He had staked all his hopes upon it. Success meant life, fortune, fame, happiness: failure meant death, ruin, despair. It is the misfortune of these highly sensitive natures; they suffer the tortures of the damned! How did you come here?"

"In a cab," said Uncle Leth.

"I followed Linton on foot, and must have been pretty smart, because I got here before you arrived. I ascertained from the landlady of the house that Linton had not come home, and back I started, retracing my steps, first cautioning the landlady not to let Mrs. Linton know that I had been here making inquiries. I'll tell you what was in my mind. Linton's road home led past a bridge, which he had no occasion to cross, and I thought if I didn't meet him before I came to that bridge that I would cross it myself, to see if some impulse of despair had drawn his steps in that direction. Sir, I was right! There, looking down upon the river, stood Linton. I must not do him an injustice: I do not believe he had any idea of suicide; it was simply that he was in a condition of blank despairing bewilderment, and it is my opinion he might have stood there for hours without conscious thought. When I laid my hand upon his shoulder, he looked at me like a man in a dream. It was quite a time before he completely recovered himself; before, it may be said, he was awake. Then we talked. He could not tell me how he had got on the bridge; he had been drawn there, as I supposed, and he stood looking down upon the river in a kind of waking trance. I could dilate on the theme, but the hour is not propitious. Well, Mr. Lethbridge, when we conversed intelligently, I discovered that he was afraid to go home. Hereby hangs a tale. His wife, before he married her, was in a better position in life than he; she had wealthy relatives, who disowned her when she married Linton. Since then it has been one long struggle; nothing but hardships; nothing but privations. She has never reproached him; such a thought I am certain has never entered her mind. But he has taken it into his head that he has done her a great wrong, and the culminating events of this night at the theatre took all the courage out of him; he dared not face her. But for him she might have been prosperous and happy; it was through him that her life had been wrecked. I had to combat this view, and it needed all my powers. Without wearying you I may say that I partly succeeded at length in bringing him to a better state of mind. That is all, and I have ended just in time. Here is your wife. Madam," he said, advancing, and raising her hand to his lips, "in the garden of human nature you are the sweetest flower!"



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