Benjamin Farjeon.

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



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In this way Captain Ablewhite talked, and Jeremiah listened and took it all in. A golden field lay before him, a veritable Tom Tiddler's ground. What a fool he would be to turn his back upon it! Such a chance would never present itself again.

Behold him, then, a few weeks after this conversation, secretly hand and glove with Captain Ablewhite, going occasionally to the Captain's rooms and picking up a few sovereigns; going occasionally to a race-course and coming home a pound or two the richer, and night after night covering pages upon pages with figures and calculations from racing-books. He was very cautious in these gambling transactions, and he suffered tortures upon nearly every occasion when he sat down in Miser Farebrother's office, which he regarded as his own, and reckoned up what he might have won had he been able to screw his courage to the sticking-point. "Had I done this or that," he thought, "had I had pluck, I should have been so much in pocket. The Captain told me I should require pluck now and then, and that the result would be a certainty – and it would have been." At the end of some three months, during which he was feeling his way, he calculated that a little courage would have made him the richer at least by a couple of thousand pounds – for, as is the case with every person who calculates after the event – he had no doubt that he would have backed such or such a horse or such and such a jockey, or have adopted such or such a combination, the issue of which would have been to put him on the straight, or the crooked, road to fortune. At length he was convinced that he had discovered a certain system of winning. What that system was it would be imprudent to explain here, for the reason that it might lead misguided persons to ruin. Sufficient that Jeremiah was convinced that it was impossible of failure, and that he had very nearly nerved himself to plunge boldly into it.

Meanwhile the fever and the infatuation of betting and gambling had taken such complete possession of him that he thought of little else, except the safety which lay in his marriage with Ph?be. "For," as he argued with himself, "supposing that by some extraordinary combination of circumstances luck should go against me, I should still be all right if I were the master of Miser Farebrother's business, and if his money were mine." As for anything in shape of sentiment, that was entirely outside his domain; his nature was not capable of it. He thought only of himself, and worked and schemed only for himself.

Meanwhile, also, the course of events was – so far as Jeremiah Pamflett was mixed up in his affairs – fairly satisfactory to Captain Ablewhite. Instead of being dunned for the money he owed Jeremiah – which by Jeremiah's cunning methods of compound interest, was beginning to swell into an important amount – he borrowed more of him; small sums at a time, certainly, but, as Captain Ablewhite said to himself, "Little fish are sweet." As Jeremiah had him in his power, so also the smiling Captain had managed to obtain a hold upon the man from whom, in ordinary circumstances, he knew he would get no mercy.

Of a different quality of cunning from Jeremiah's was the standard of Captain Ablewhite's intellect, but, properly handled, it was scarcely less powerful. All his life had Captain Ablewhite lived upon his wits, eating and drinking of the best, a member of good clubs, living in fashionable quarters, owing money right and left, and yet managing somehow to keep out of water too hot for him. He entertained a very thorough and sincere contempt for Jeremiah, laughed in his sleeve at his meanness, fooled him on and on, allowed him to win a little at his card-parties, introduced him to men as impecunious and unscrupulous as himself, who borrowed money of Jeremiah, and would have pulled his nose upon the smallest provocation. But Jeremiah was always humble, cringing, and subservient, biding his time for the grand coup which would make him as good as the best among them. And so the game went on, its minutest detail assisting to bring to a terrible climax the tragedy in which Ph?be's life was presently to be engulfed. This brings us to the day upon which our heroine, accompanied by Fred Cornwall and dear Aunt Leth, journeyed to Parksides to ask her father's consent to her engagement with the young lawyer.

CHAPTER XIV
A DAUGHTER'S DUTIES

Upon that day Jeremiah Pamflett, arrayed in a brand-new suit of clothes, with a flower in his button-hole (copying Captain Ablewhite as the pink of fashion), and carrying a bouquet of flowers for the girl whom he was now to commence wooing openly, had the satisfaction, while sitting in the railway carriage which was to convey him to Parksides, of seeing her and her friends hurry on to the platform just as the signal was given for the departure of the train. They had had the misfortune to get into a growler, the driver of which, in addition to crawling to the railway station at the rate of three miles an hour, stopped on the road to exchange the reverse of urbanities with a rival cabby who had excited his ire. Fred's urgent requests to the driver to get along quickly, so that they might catch the train, were received with supreme indifference; he was an old hand, and insisted upon having his little joke, the consequence of which was that they arrived too late, and had to wait three-quarters of an hour for the next train. It was no serious trouble to Fred. A house, a railway station, a barn, England, Timbuctoo – they were all the same to him so long as Ph?be was with him.

Jeremiah rushed to his mother with the news.

"What does it mean?" he asked.

"Don't trouble yourself," said Mrs. Pamflett. "Perhaps it is all for the best."

"You talk like a fool," snarled Jeremiah, who was never happier than when he had some one to bully. "How can it be all for the best?"

"It will bring matters to a head, Jeremiah. It is much better for our enemies to work in the light than in the dark. You have nothing to fear. Miser Farebrother and I had a conversation to-day about you. He told me that everything was settled, and that you and Ph?be were to be married. He is very ill and frightened. The doctor told him if he wasn't very careful he would die. He has been moaning and groaning ever since. 'You mustn't think,' the doctor said to him, 'of stirring out of the house.'"

"Ah!" said Jeremiah, with a sigh of relief, "that is good. Anything more? And was there any special reason for the doctor giving him that caution?"

"It came," said Mrs. Pamflett, "through his expressing a wish to go to London."

"What for?" said Jeremiah, his face growing very white.

"I can't tell you," replied Mrs. Pamflett; "except it was to look after the business."

"To pry into what I am doing! Let him be careful, or it will be the worse for him!"

"Jeremiah!"

"Don't 'Jeremiah' me! I won't stand it! What do I care for that – that image? Do you think I will have him come spying into my affairs? Let him look to himself – that's all I've got to say."

"At any rate," said Mrs. Pamflett, whose face had grown as white as her son's, "he can't leave Parksides."

"You take care that he doesn't – that's what you've got to see to. If he gets any better, make it impossible for him to leave."

"Jere – !" But a warning look from her son prevented her from getting farther with his name. Then she wrung her hands, and cried, "Oh! what are you doing – what are you doing?"

From fever-heat he went down to zero. "What do you think I am doing?"

"I don't know what to think, Jeremiah. You frighten me!"

He did not speak for a moment or two, and in her agony of impatience she cried, "Why don't you answer me?"

"I am puzzling my head to find out," he said, frigidly, "why I have frightened you." He suddenly changed his tone, and spoke with warmth. "Just you mind what I say, mother. What I choose to tell you, I'll tell you; what I choose to keep to myself, I'll keep to myself. I'm on the road to a great fortune – a glorious fortune; and I'm not going to miss it. I've made a discovery, and if I'm idiot enough to blurt it out, everything will be spoiled. Besides, you wouldn't understand it. Can't you be satisfied? I'm working for you as well as for myself. Do you want to go on slaving here all your life, instead of being mistress of a fine house of your own, with servants and horses and carriages, and the best people in the country bowing down to you? Take your choice. But mind, if anything's got to be done to bring this all about – I don't care whether it is you or I who's got to do it – done it must be. If I'm lucky, you shall share my luck. If I'm unlucky – Well, now, what have you got to say to that?"

"Jeremiah," she answered, and he did not reprove her, because he was too intent upon her response, "there's nothing in the world I wouldn't do for you."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing. What should I be but for you? What would the world be to me but for you? If you were in danger, and I could save you by – "

He put his fingers upon her lips, and looked fearsomely around.

"That will do," he said.

Then he kissed her, and she threw her arms passionately around his neck, and pressed him close to her breast.

Half an hour afterward she went up to Miser Farebrother's room.

"Are you any better? Do you feel any stronger?"

"No. Why do you ask? Why do you intrude when you're not wanted?"

"Your daughter has come home."

"What of that?"

"Her aunt is with her."

"Send her away. I will not see her. Tell her I am too ill to see anybody."

"Mr. Cornwall is with her."

His fretfulness vanished; he became calm and cool and collected.

"Mr. Cornwall the lawyer?"

"Yes."

"Has he asked to see me?"

"He has come for that purpose."

"And Ph?be's aunt too?"

"Yes."

"Did you tell them I am ill?"

"Yes."

"And they insist upon seeing me?"

"Yes." It was not the truth, but she did not hesitate. She had said nothing to Mrs. Lethbridge and Fred Cornwall about Miser Farebrother's illness.

He considered awhile before he spoke again.

"Your son knew that my daughter was coming home to-day?"

"Yes, he did; and he is here to see her, as you wished. He obeys your lightest word."

"Send him to me; and five minutes afterward show my daughter and her fine friends into the room."

Jeremiah entered with his usual obsequiousness and deference. It afforded him inward satisfaction to note how ill the miser looked, but he did not allow the expression of this feeling to appear on his face. On the contrary, he said, "I am glad to see you looking so much better, sir."

"Am I really looking better, Jeremiah?" asked Miser Farebrother, eager to seize the slenderest hope. "Really better?"

"Indeed you are, sir. Be careful, and in a short time you'll be quite your old self again."

"Never that; never that, I'm afraid," groaned Miser Farebrother. "It has gone too far – too far!"

"Not at all, sir," said Jeremiah, with lugubrious cheerfulness. "You are frightening yourself unnecessarily. We all do when the least thing ails us. If my little finger aches, I think I am going to die."

"It is hard, it is wicked, that a man should have to die. I have read of an elixir a few drops of which would make an old man young. If I only knew where it was to be obtained – where it was to be bought!"

"I wish I knew where, sir," said Jeremiah. "I would get you a bottle."

"And one for yourself, eh, Jeremiah?"

"Yes, sir! I shouldn't object. The idea of death isn't pleasant."

"Then don't let us think of it," said the miser, with a doleful shake of his head; and then, more briskly, "at all events, while I live I will do what I have set my mind to. I may live fifty years yet. There's old Parr: why shouldn't I be such another? Those people down-stairs, who are waiting and longing for me to go – it would drive them to frenzy if they thought there was any chance of my out-living them."

"Miss Ph?be's friends, sir?"

"Yes, my daughter's friends. I have sent for them here. Did you bring those flowers for her?"

"Yes, sir."

"Put them on the table. Take your seat there. Open the books, and seem as if you are doing the accounts. And speak no word till I give you the cue."

Mrs. Pamflett, delaying longer than she was instructed to do, had allowed ample time for this conversation to take place. Ten or twelve minutes elapsed before she conducted Ph?be and her friends to Miser Farebrother's room. They were somewhat discomposed to discover Jeremiah Pamflett at the table; he took no notice of them, however, but with his head bent down, pretended to be very busy with his accounts.

Undoubtedly there was a great change in Miser Farebrother's appearance. Traces of sickness and suffering were plainly visible in his cadaverous face; and Ph?be, whose heart was beating with love and hope and fear, glided to his side and put her lips to his.

"Good child, good child!" he said, passing his arm round her, and holding her tight to him. "My only child, the only tie that binds me to life!"

"Dear father!" exclaimed Ph?be, softly, embracing him again. His voice was so kind and so charged with pain that the fear which had troubled her that he might not approve of Fred vanished, and loving sympathy took its place.

"You will not leave me, Ph?be?"

"No, father."

"I have missed you sadly, my child! You see how ill I am. I need your care and help – you can do so much for me. My own child! All others are strangers."

"I will do what lies in my power, father."

"You put new life into me. Don't stir from my side. Your arm round my neck like this; it strengthens me, gives me courage, infuses vigour into my weak frame." Had she wished to move away from him she could not have done so, he held her so tight. All this time he had taken no notice of Aunt Leth or Fred Cornwall; he had purposely prolonged the little scene out of pure maliciousness toward them. But now he looked up and fixed his eye upon them.

"Sister-in-law, it is kind and unselfish of you to bring my daughter back to me. Had you known I was ill you would have brought her home earlier."

"Certainly I should," said Aunt Leth, gently.

"Suffering as I am, sister-in-law, this is my daughter's proper place."

"Yes."

But her heart sank as she spoke the word.

"You are the happy mother of children," continued Miser Farebrother, "and should be able to set me right – if by chance I should happen to be wrong – in the views I have formed of certain matters. I rely upon your judgment. What is a daughter's first duty to her parents?"

"Love."

"Good! Thus love becomes a duty – a duty to be performed even though it clash with other feelings. You hear, Ph?be. You are ready to perform a daughter's duty?"

"I love you, father," said Ph?be; but her voice was troubled; a vague fear oppressed her once more – a fear she could not define or explain.

"Dear child! I have no doubt of that. Your sainted mother lives again in you. Sister-in-law, there is another duty which a daughter owes to her parents."

"There are many others," responded Aunt Leth.

"But one especially, which I will name, in case it may not occur to you. Obedience."

"Yes," said Aunt Leth, faintly; "obedience."

"These duties, which are your due from your children, are not neglected by them?"

"No, they are not."

"What a happy home must yours be!" exclaimed Miser Farebrother, with enthusiasm. "And how glad I am to think that my child has learned from you the lessons which you have taught your own bright children. You hear what your aunt says, Ph?be? Love and obedience are a child's first duties to her parents. Your sainted mother, from celestial spheres" – there was a subtle mockery in his voice and eyes as he raised the latter to the ceiling – "looks down and approves. And now, sir," he said, turning to Fred Cornwall, "to what am I indebted for the favour of a visit from you? It is the second time you have paid me the unsolicited honour."

"I wish to have a few minutes' private conversation with you, sir," said Fred. Hope was slipping from him, but he was prepared to play a manly part.

"I cannot give you a private interview," said Miser Farebrother. "If you have anything to say to me, you can say it now and here. I'll wager you will not be in want of words."

"Father!" whispered Ph?be, entreatingly, but he purposely ignored her.

Fred Cornwall pointed to Jeremiah Pamflett. "As it is your wish, sir, I will say what I have to say before your daughter and her aunt. Perhaps you will ask this gentleman to retire."

"Perhaps I will do nothing of the kind. This young gentleman, Mr. Jeremiah Pamflett, is an old and trusted friend; you are neither one nor the other. Proceed to your business at once, or leave me."

"Let me beg of you – " said Aunt Leth.

He interrupted her with a touch of his caustic humour. "Do not beg of me, sister-in-law; it will be useless; I have nothing to give. Do you intend to speak, sir? You perceive I am not in a fit state to be harassed."

"You leave me no choice, sir. I love your daughter, and she – "

"Stop!" cried Miser Farebrother. "My daughter will speak for herself when she and I are alone. I will not allow you to refer to her."

"But it is necessary, sir," said Fred, respectfully and firmly, "because I am here with her permission."

"Necessary or not, according to your thinking – which is not mine – I will not allow you to refer to her. My house is my own, and I am master in it; let me remind you of that."

"I will do as you wish, sir," said Fred, not daring to look at Ph?be, whose head, bowed upon her breast, was an indication of the agony she was suffering. "I love your daughter, and I come to ask you for her hand. I will do all that a man – "

"Yes, yes," interrupted the miser, testily, "we know all that: the old formula. Is that all you have come here for?"

"Is not that enough, sir?"

"Too much. My daughter has other views – I also. I forbid you to speak, Ph?be. Remember the oath you swore upon your dead mother's Bible! Mr. Cornwall, I refuse what you ask. With my permission you will never marry my daughter. Without it, she well knows such an event is impossible, unless she commits perjury. You have not a deep acquaintance with me, sir; but the knowledge of human nature you must have gained as a lawyer will convince you that nothing can turn me from a resolution I have formed, more especially from a resolution in which vital interests are involved —my vital interests! My daughter's hand is promised to my manager, Mr. Jeremiah Pamflett."

"Oh, Ph?be!" cried Aunt Leth, with quivering lips and overbrimming eyes. "My poor, poor Ph?be!"

"Spare your heroics," said Miser Farebrother; "we know the value of them. My daughter will give me what she owes me – love and obedience." He rang the bell, and Mrs. Pamflett instantly appeared. "Show these people the door," he said to her; "and if they venture to present themselves here again, send for a policeman and have them locked up. Jeremiah, give my daughter your love-offering."

With a face of triumph Jeremiah started from his chair, and advanced toward Ph?be, holding the flowers for her acceptance.

"Look up, Ph?be," said Miser Farebrother, sternly.

She raised her head, and with a blind look of anguish at her aunt and Fred, stretched forth her trembling arms, as though imploring them to save her. Then her strength gave way, and she fell senseless to the ground.

CHAPTER XV
PH?BE IS STILL FURTHER ENTRAPPED

When Ph?be recovered her senses she found herself in her bedroom, with Mrs. Pamflett in attendance upon her. She was so dazed and confused that for a few minutes she could not recall what had transpired, but presently she remembered, and she burst into tears.

"There! there!" said Mrs. Pamflett, smoothing the young girl's hair with her hand. "Don't take on so! Everything will come right, and you will soon be as happy as a bird."

Surprised at Mrs. Pamflett's tender tone and gentle manner, Ph?be dried her eyes and gazed upon her father's house-keeper.

"Then they are still here?" said Ph?be.

"Who, my pet?" asked Mrs. Pamflett.

"My aunt and – and Mr. Cornwall."

"No," replied Mrs. Pamflett, still speaking with tenderness: "they have gone; and it is to be hoped that they will never come back."

"'Gone'!" exclaimed Ph?be. "'They will never come back'!"

"If they do," said Mrs. Pamflett, hovering officiously about Ph?be, "it will be worse for them. They have been found out at last. You have had a narrow escape. While you were lying in a fainting condition on the ground your father unmasked them, and compelled them to confess that all their pretended kindness to you was done to wring money out of him, only because they thought he was rich. He is rich, my pet, and can make a lady of you; and so can Jeremiah, who is dying of love for you, and who is the cleverest man and the finest gentleman in England. We shall all be as happy as the day is long, and you will bring comfort to your father, who is suffering a martyrdom, and who has the first claim on your heart. Yes, my pet, you have had a narrow escape – a narrow escape! I shall give thanks for it before I go to bed to-night."

Ph?be fixed her clear, honest eyes upon the white face of Mrs. Pamflett, who made an impotent attempt to return the gaze with equal frankness.



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