Benjamin Farjeon.

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



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"Better soon than late: that's the proper way of it. But go on, can't you? He got back to his room, and there was you outside the door, peeping through the key-hole?"

"Yes, Jeremiah, and Miser Farebrother none the wiser. He wiped the mud off the cash-box and opened it. Jeremiah, it was stuffed full of gold and bank-notes. He counted it and counted it over and over again, and he wrote down some figures on a piece of paper. Then he put the money back and locked the box, and hid it under his mattress. After that he tore up the paper he'd been writing on, and blew out the candle, and went to bed. I heard him groaning there for an hour afterward."

"Is that the end of it?" asked Jeremiah, in a wrathful voice and with wrathful looks. "Do you mean to tell me that is the end of it?"

"No, it isn't; there's something more. Never you call me a fool again. I went into his room as usual this morning, and you may depend I looked about for the box; but I couldn't catch sight of it. Oh, he's a cunning one, he is! But I did catch sight of something. I had my hand-broom and shovel, and I swept up the floor and the fireplace, and brought away the pieces of paper he had torn up. I asked him if he'd had a good night, and he said he fell asleep the moment he put his head on the pillow, and that he must have slept seven or eight hours right off. I told him he looked as if he'd had a splendid rest – which he didn't, Jeremiah. He was the picture of misery. When I got away from him I sorted out the pieces of paper and stuck them together. Here it is. He must be richer than we think, Jeremiah. Look! Ten one hundred pounds – bank-notes, Jeremiah! I saw him count 'em – that's a thousand. Twenty fifties – that's another thousand. Fifty twenties – that's another thousand. And another thousand in sovereigns. He laid 'em in piles upon the table. They did look grand! Piles of gold. Jeremiah! Four thousand pounds altogether. You didn't know anything about it, did you?"

"No, I didn't," replied Jeremiah, his eyes glittering greedily. "He must have had the money by him a long time, I expect. Did you look about the grounds for his hiding-place?"

"Yes; but I didn't find it. I couldn't see the slightest signs of one."

"I'll find it, mother."

"You mustn't do anything rash, Jeremiah; you mustn't get yourself into trouble."

"Not likely, mother. Trust me for looking after myself. All his money is mine, and I mean to have it! By fair means, mother – by fair means; and he sha'n't cheat me out of a penny. Once I get hold of Ph?be – . Well, all right! I shall know how to work it. I'll go now and have a talk with him."

CHAPTER XI
MISER FAREBROTHER GIVES JEREMIAH A WARNING

Jeremiah's "talk" with Miser Farebrother proved to be not entirely to the satisfaction of the younger juggler, and the few days of happiness which yet remained to Ph?be were not disturbed by any intimation of the conspiracy into which the two men had entered, the successful issue of which would result in the destruction of the fondest hopes of her life.

Jeremiah was impatient, and eager that Ph?be should be recalled home immediately; but Miser Farebrother would not have it so. Of the two he was infinitely the more wily and astute, and he dropped pearls of wisdom for the benefit of his crafty managing clerk. It told rather against Jeremiah that in the account he gave of his interviews with the Lethbridge party on the previous night he should accentuate every unpleasant and disagreeable word to which he had given utterance; he had an idea that by so doing he was impressing the miser with a deep sense of his wit and cleverness, the fact being that he produced quite an opposite effect.

"Never startle your game, Jeremiah," said Miser Farebrother. "A skilful sportsman goes quietly and patiently to work. I have not been in the habit of suddenly summoning my daughter from London, after having given her permission to remain there for a stated time. To do so now would only excite suspicion, and strengthen, perhaps, any opposition we have to meet with. Last night's proceedings are not in your favour. You spoke sarcastically, and made yourself generally objectionable. The tongue of that clever young person, Miss Fanny Lethbridge, must have wagged rarely against you after you took your departure. You rubbed them the wrong way, Jeremiah – a mistake, a great mistake! Instead of oil, you used vinegar. 'Tis a million to one that the lawyer scoundrel saw through you; you made an enemy of him when you might have thrown dust into his eyes."

"What does it matter?" said Jeremiah, rather sulkily. "I'm not afraid of him."

"It matters everything," retorted Miser Farebrother. "It matters that you exposed your hand, and gave your rival the advantage over you."

"My rival!" cried Jeremiah, with a dark frown.

"It looks like it, doesn't it?" said Miser Farebrother, with a certain sly satisfaction at Jeremiah's discomposure. For himself, he was easy in his mind with respect to Ph?be. He had her oath, sworn upon her dead mother's prayer-book, that she would not marry without his consent, and he knew that she would rather die than break it. Jeremiah was not cognizant of this sacred promise, so cunningly wrung by Miser Farebrother from his daughter, and the miser, secure in the knowledge, could afford to laugh at his intriguing clerk, who thought himself his master's equal in duplicity. In Miser Farebrother's feelings there was something of the delight and the triumph which one rogue experiences when he overreaches another. "It looks like it, doesn't it? And we mustn't lose sight of the uncomfortable fact that Mr. Cornwall looks like a gentleman, while you, Jeremiah, you – not to mince the matter – look quite the other thing." He rubbed his hands with a sense of great enjoyment, and proceeded: "There you were, Jeremiah, sitting in the pit all the time this fine lawyer-gentleman was paying court to your sweetheart in a private box. And she blushing and hanging her head the while; and our dear friends the Lethbridges – "

"Damn them!" interposed Jeremiah, the blurting out of the expletive being some slight relief to his feelings.

"With all my heart! Damn them behind their backs, but bless them to their faces. That is the true and wise policy of life. Never take off your mask unless you are alone, or with me, Jeremiah. And there, as I was saying, while my daughter was blushing and hanging her head at the honeyed nonsense the gentleman-lawyer was pouring into her ears, were our dear friends the Lethbridges holding back, and doing all they could to break your tender heart. You owe them a good turn, Jeremiah."

"I will pay what I owe," said Jeremiah, fiercely. "They are working against me, and they shall live to rue it. When they play with men like me they play with edged tools. But doesn't all this go to prove that you should summon Miss Ph?be home at once – this very day?"

"No; it only goes to prove that I know how to conduct this matter better than you do. My daughter will return home on Tuesday or Wednesday; and then, Jeremiah, then you can commence your wooing in real earnest."

"You mean it?"

"I mean it. I can't afford to trick and deceive you."

"No," said Jeremiah, unaccountably – for one so shrewd – losing his guard; "I don't think you can." But he was ready the next moment to bite his tongue off for the indiscretion.

"That is right," said Miser Farebrother, with outward composure, "always be frank with me, Jeremiah – with me above all others. When you are conversing with me, drop the mask, as I advised you. It makes me understand the kind of metal I am dealing with, and how I must act to shape it to my will. And it is as well that you should understand, my lad" – and now there was in Miser Farebrother's voice a note of stern determination which caused Jeremiah to wince and to shift uneasily on his chair – "exactly how far it is safe to go with me. My will is law, and shall be while I live. We have made a bargain, you and I, and I shall abide by it as long as it suits me – no longer. You are not yet my son-in-law; you are my servant, and your future welfare depends upon me. Remember it, Jeremiah."

"Why do you speak to me like that?" whined Jeremiah. "If I happened to say something foolish, it was because my feelings were worked up. You helped to work them up, speaking in the way you did about your daughter and that – that beast! What I meant was that I am sure you wouldn't deceive me. I know that I am dependent upon you, and I beg your pardon a thousand times!" He so cringed and fawned that he seemed to become limp, and to grovel in the dust before the miser.

"You see, Jeremiah," said Miser Farebrother, slowly and deliberately, "though I am weak, I am not entirely powerless. My brain was never clearer, my will never stronger, than they are this day. At any moment, my servant as you are, my son-in-law as you hope to be, I could manage to pounce upon you in London, and clear you out of my office. Money will buy service, and I can buy it. Money will buy spies, and I can buy them. Let me have reason to suppose that you are playing me false, and this piece of paper is not more easily torn than you should be ruined! I hold out no threat; I simply warn you. We are not men of sentiment, you and I, Jeremiah, because we know that sentiment doesn't pay; it always ends in a loss. We are practical, hard-headed men, with a shrewd eye to our own interests. I don't blame you for that; I like you for it. We are associated with each other, you for your interests, I for mine; and that you have, and will have, the best of the bargain is a slice of luck for which you may thank this cursed rheumatism which racks my bones and makes my life a torture. But what I would drive into you is the conviction that I am more necessary to you than you are to me; and that I could more easily do without you than you could do without me. Supposing you were dead" – Jeremiah started – "supposing you were dead," the miser repeated, complacently, "I should still have my business, which I could intrust to other hands, or wind up, as I pleased; my money would still be my own, and I could leave it to my daughter, or, if she offended and thwarted me, to some good charitable institution where my name would be revered, or to some church – I am not particular as to creeds, Jeremiah – where prayers would be offered up for my soul. Rheumatism doesn't necessarily kill a man; it makes his life a hell, but it seldom shortens it. Now I think of it, I can even see advantages in it. It keeps a man in-doors; he can't be run over; he can't slip down on a piece of orange peel; he can't sit in a 'bus next to a person who has a fever or the small-pox. Why, it lengthens life instead of shortens it; the statistics are worth looking up. I am not what you call a reading man – I never was – but I can remember what I have heard, and when I was a young man I heard somebody say, 'Those whom the gods love die young.' Now you are young, Jeremiah, and the gods may love you. So, taking it altogether, the chances of my life against yours are rather in my favour. With respect to our particular business relations, I warn you to be careful; I may not be in such complete ignorance of your doings as you suppose me to be. That is all I have to say."

"It isn't very pleasant," said Jeremiah, thoroughly cowed, "after the years I've worked for you, to have to listen to all this, and just because I happened to let a word slip. What more can I do, except to beg your pardon again?"

"Let it pass, Jeremiah; I forgive you. All I require is obedience."

"I will give it to you, sir, as I have always done."

"And faithfulness. No tampering with me or what belongs to me." He looked up with a sour smile. "This little storm has cleared the air, Jeremiah."

"I hope so, sir. Everything stands as it did?"

"Everything stands, son-in-law that is to be. Be gentle in your wooing."

"I will, sir; I can never be grateful enough to you."

"Never mind gratitude. Be honest, obedient, and faithful. That is all I require of you."

In Jeremiah's heart, as he left Parksides that day, reigned a very cordial hatred toward Miser Farebrother. This feeling was intensified by genuine fear, for the miser's random shot, "I am not in such complete ignorance of your doings as you suppose me to be," had struck home. That he was guilty of acts in the conduct of the business intrusted to him, the discovery of which would place him in the criminal dock, no person, he believed, was aware but himself. But if the miser were to recover his health and strength so completely as to enable him to come to London and undertake the management of his own affairs for a few weeks, there would be scarcely any escape for the dishonest clerk. Account-books had been tampered with, money misappropriated, borrowed for a time, and never replaced; forgery even could be traced to his hand. "What does he know?" thought Jeremiah. "What does he really know – and how much? Or is it mere guess-work, suspecting me and everybody, as I dare say I should do in his place? Yes, it must be that, or he would not have waited so long before he had his fling at me." He began to feel more composed. His mother had informed him before he bade her good-by that it was absolutely impossible for Miser Farebrother to come to London unless he was carried there, and that but for her constant care and attention he could hardly be expected to live. It was a marvel to her, she said, how he had contrived to leave the house on the previous night to fetch his treasure, and to return unassisted. As it was, he had been compelled, much against his will, to call in a doctor, who had said that it required but slight exertion on the miser's part to bring on inflammation of the stomach, in which case, the doctor added, he would be very likely to die.

"He is too fond of his precious life," said Mrs. Pamflett to her son, "and too frightened of death, to run a risk. The doctor has ordered him to keep his room, and not to attempt to stir out of it for a fortnight at least. There is no fear of his pouncing upon you, as he threatened; but, oh, Jeremiah, what makes you in such a pucker at the thought of it?"

To which Jeremiah had replied that he did not care a brass farthing whether the miser came or kept away, but that he did not intend to be taken unawares, and to be interfered with without proper notice. He instructed his mother to write to him twice a day, morning and evening, informing him how the miser was. "And look here, mother," said Jeremiah; "it won't do you or me any harm if you are not quite so careful of him. Keep him prisoner till I am married to Ph?be, and everything will be right. After that he may go to the devil as soon as he likes!"

By the time he reached London, Jeremiah had recovered his composure, and had flattered himself into the belief that there was nothing to fear from the miser's threats. At all events, he would take care of himself. "He warned me to be careful," thought Jeremiah. "Let him be careful, or it will be the worse for him!"

Meanwhile Ph?be was enjoying a very heaven upon earth. There comes such a time to many, when life is sweet and beautiful, and all things are fair. Was there ever such a lover as Fred – so manly, so thoughtful, so devoted? Her heart throbbed with profound gratitude to the Giver of all good for the great happiness which had fallen to her lot.

"And, oh, dear aunt!" she said to Aunt Leth, "I have you to thank for it all."

"You have only yourself to thank," said Aunt Leth; "and Fred is the luckiest man in the world."

But with affectionate persistence Ph?be adhered to her belief that Aunt Leth was the ministering angel who had brought such light into her life.

"If you had not been so good to me, I should never have seen him. To be able to prove my gratitude to you, that is my most earnest wish – and Fred's. He never tires of speaking of you, aunt. I think he loves you almost as much as Bob does."

"It delights me to hear it, my dear child. He is a good man, and there is nothing but happiness before you."

At such a joyful spring-time she would not cast a cloud upon the young girl's heart by giving expression to the fear which filled her own, that Ph?be's father might place an obstacle in the way of the fair future which her union with Fred Cornwall would insure for her; but she never gazed upon Ph?be's sunny face without inward agitation and anxiety. At such a joyful spring-time all that is woeful and sordid in surrounding aspect is touched with tender light; charity, that might have slept, dispenses blessings; the sight of suffering suffices for the exercise of practical sympathy. At such a joyful spring-time a pure maiden walks in paths of fairy colour, and her heart is a holy of holies. Into the prayers breathed by the bedside comes the beloved name, comes infinite worship, come sacred visions, comes gratitude for life and life's blessings. When daylight shines, for him this bit of ribbon at her throat, for him this rose at her breast – slight things, made wondrous and strangely beautiful by the ineffable sweetness of love's young dream! Truly, life's spring-time.

"If you had your dearest wish," said Fred, "what would it be?"

"That this day might last for ever," she whispered; "that we might never change."

"Darling!"

Thus passed the happy holiday, all too quickly. Then came a rude awakening.

"Our last night," said Fred, "for a little while. How shall I live when you are not with me?"

"Think of me," Ph?be murmured.

To-morrow was Wednesday, and it had been arranged that Aunt Leth and Fred were to accompany Ph?be to Parksides, and that Fred should ask Ph?be's father for her hand.

"Perhaps he will let you come back to London with us," said Fred.

She said she hoped so; and then, accompanied by her lover and her aunt, she travelled to Parksides to learn her fate.

CHAPTER XII
A LITTLE PARTY IN CAPTAIN ABLEWHITE'S ROOMS

In his vague allusions to a future carriage, and to his becoming, in course of time, as rich as the Rothschilds, Jeremiah Pamflett built, as he supposed, upon a very solid foundation. So have other men – for instance, Mr. Lethbridge; but in the indulgence of his day-dreams Uncle Leth built his castles in the air, and extracted nothing but pure pleasure from them; intangible as they were, they invariably left a sweet taste in the mouth. It is to be doubted whether he really ever seriously inquired into their composition; he simply built them as he walked along, blind and deaf to the sterner realities of life by which he was surrounded, saw them grow under his magic touch, filled them with fair forms, and smiled gratefully and pensively as they faded away. He was, of course, a most unpractical being, otherwise he would occasionally have built a castle of terrors, peopled by unpleasant creatures, upon whose faces reigned frowns instead of smiles. Wise men, becoming acquainted with his imaginings, would have shaken their heads and cast pitying looks upon him; some even would have questioned his sanity; but it is by no means certain whether Uncle Leth was not wiser than they. Life is short, and, granted that a man performs his duties with a fair amount of conscientiousness, the next and altogether the wisest thing is to extract from life as much innocent enjoyment of one's days as opportunity affords. And whether that opportunity be upon the surface, for all men to see and understand, or be delved for in airy depths, or climbed up to in airy heights, is of little matter so that the good end is reached.

From these brief speculations it may be inferred that Jeremiah Pamflett had his day-dreams as well as Uncle Leth, and from our knowledge of their characters it may be judged that between the day-dreams of the one and the other there was a wide gulf. Uncle Leth's day-dreams brought happiness to all, and his best sense of enjoyment was derived from the blessings he shed around him. Jeremiah's day-dreams brought happiness to one – himself; and his best sense of enjoyment was derived from the wretchedness and misery the result he aimed at and the road he was treading could not fail to produce.

That is, supposing him to be successful; but it has happened that in digging pits for others, men have fallen into their own graves. Whether this was to be the case with Jeremiah Pamflett remained to be proved. He was altogether so sharp a fellow, so extraordinarily astute, such a "dab at figures," as he had declared, so completely "up" to every move on the board, so thoroughly conversant with the game of spiders and flies, that men of the world would have backed him to come out triumphant from any scheme upon which, after mature consideration, he had resolved to put a great stake. Consideration the most mature, study the most profound, calculations the most careful and precise, had led Jeremiah to the conclusion that he had discovered a means of making a great and rapid fortune. Those who are about to be let into the secret, and who have not had favourable opportunities of studying human nature from a sufficiently comprehensive panorama, will perhaps be surprised at the vulgarity of Jeremiah's discovery; and more surprised, may be, because it is neither novel nor original.



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