F. Anstey.

Tourmalin's Time Cheques



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Peter said he would have fifty "bearer" cheques, and was accordingly given an oblong grey-green book, which, except that it was a trifle smaller, was in nowise different, outwardly, from an ordinary cheque-book. Still, his curiosity was not completely satisfied.

"There is just one question more," he said. "When I draw this time, where will it be spent?"

"Why, naturally, on board this ship," explained the Manager. "You see that the time you will get must necessarily be the extra time to which you are entitled by virtue of your passage, and which you would have spent as it accrued if you had not chosen to deposit it with us. By the way, when you are filling up cheques, we much prefer not to be called upon to honour drafts for less than fifteen minutes; as much more as you like, but not less. Well, then, we may consider that settled. I am extremely glad to have had the opportunity of obliging you; and I think I can promise that you will have no reason to repent of having made such a use of your time. I'll wish you good-bye for the present, sir!"

The Manager resumed his hygienic tramp round the deck, leaving Peter with the cheque-book in his hand. He was no longer surprised: now that he was more familiar with the idea, it seemed a perfectly natural and matter-of-fact arrangement; he only wondered that he had never thought of so obvious a plan before. And it was an immense relief to know that he had got rid of his extra hours for the present, at all events, and that he could now postpone them to a period at which they would be a boon rather than a burden.

And very soon he put the cheque-book away, and forgot all about it.

CHAPTER I.
Tourmalin's First Cheque, and How he Took It

Fidelity Rewarded. —Love's Catechism. —Brain-fag. —A Timely Recollection. —The Experiment, and some Startling Results. —Question Time. – "Dear Friends." —A Compromise.

Peter Tourmalin's probation was at an end, and, what was more, he had come through the ordeal triumphantly. How he managed this, he scarcely knew; no doubt he was aided by the consciousness that the extra hours which he felt himself most liable to mis-spend had been placed beyond his disposal. At all events, when he met Sophia again, he had been able to convince her that her doubts of his constancy, even under the most trying conditions, were entirely undeserved. Now he was receiving his recompense: his engagement to Sophia was no longer conditional, but a recognised and irrevocable fact. It is superfluous to say that he was happy. Sophia had set herself to repair the deficiencies in his education and culture; she took him to scientific lectures and classical concerts, and made him read standard authors without skipping. He felt himself daily acquiring balance and seriousness, and an accurate habit of thought, and all the other qualities which Sophia wished him to cultivate.

Still, there were moments when he felt the need of halting and recovering his wind, so to speak, in the steep and toilsome climb to her superior mental level – times when he felt that his overtaxed brain absolutely required relaxation of some sort.

He felt this particularly one dreary morning, late in November, as he sat in his London chambers, staring with lack-lustre eyes at the letter he had that day received from his betrothed.

For although they met nearly every day, she never allowed one to pass without a letter – no fond and foolish effusion, be it understood, but a kind of epistolary examination-paper, to test the progress he was making. This one contained some searching questions on Buckle's History of Civilisation, which he was expected to answer by return of post. He was not supposed to look at the book, though he had; and even then he felt himself scarcely better fitted to floor the tremendous posers devised by Sophia's unwearying care.

The day before, he had had "search-questions" in English poetry from Chaucer to Mr. Lewis Morris, which had thinned and whitened his hair; but this was, if possible, even worse.

He wished now that he had got up his Buckle more thoroughly during his voyage on the Boomerang– and, with the name, his arrangement with the Manager suddenly rose to his recollection. What had he done with that book of Time Cheques? If he could only get away, if but for a quarter of a hour – away from those sombre rooms, with their outlook on dingy housetops and a murky rhubarb-coloured sky, – if he could really exchange all that for the sunniness and warmth and delicious idleness which had once seemed so tedious, what a rest it would be! And would he not return after such an interlude with all his faculties invigorated, and better able to cope with the task he now found almost insuperable?

The first thing was to find the cheque-book, which did not take him long; though when he had found it, something made him pause before filling up a cheque. What if he had been made a fool of – if the Anglo-Australian Joint Stock Time Bank Limited never existed, or had suspended payment? But that was easily settled by presenting a cheque. Why should he not, just by way of experiment? His balance was intact as yet; he was never likely to need a little ready time more than he did just then. He would draw the minimum amount, fifteen minutes, and see how the system worked.

So, although he had little real confidence that anything would happen at all, he drew a cheque, and slipped it behind the frivolous and rather incorrect little ormolu clock upon his chimneypiece.

The result was instantaneous, and altogether beyond his expectations! The four walls of his room assumed the transparency of gauze for a second, before fading entirely away; the olive fog changed to translucent blue; there was a briny breath in the air, and he himself was leaning upon the rail at the forward end of the hurricane-deck of the Boomerang, which was riding with a slow and stately rise and fall over the heaving swell.

That was surprising enough; but more surprising still was the discovery that he was apparently engaged in close and confidential conversation with a lovely person in whom he distinctly recognised Miss Tyrrell.

"Yes, I forgive you, Mr. Tourmalin," she was saying, with an evident effort to suppress a certain agitation; "but indeed, indeed, you must never speak to me like that again!"

Now, as Peter was certainly not conscious of ever having spoken to her at all in his life, this was naturally a startling and even embarrassing beginning.

But he had presence of mind enough to take in the position of affairs, and adapt himself to them. This was one of the quarters of an hour he would have had, and it was clear that in some portion or other of his spare time he would have made Miss Tyrrell's acquaintance in some way. Of course, he ought to have been paid that particular time first; but he could easily see from her manner, and the almost tender friendliness which shone in her moistened eyes, that at this period they had advanced considerably beyond mere acquaintanceship. There had been some little mistake probably; the cheques had been wrongly numbered perhaps, or else they were honoured without regard to chronological sequence, which was most confusing.

Still, he had nothing to do but conceal his ignorance as well as he could, and pick up the loose threads as he went along. He was able, at all events, to assure her that he would not, if he could help it, incur her displeasure by speaking to her "like that" in future.

"Thanks," she said. "I know it was only a temporary forgetfulness; and – and if what you suspect should prove to be really true – why, then, Mr. Tourmalin, then, of course, you may come and tell me so."

"I will," he said; "I shall make a point of it. Only," he thought to himself, "she will have to tell me first what I'm to tell her."

"And in the meantime," she said, "let us go on as before, as if you had never brought yourself to confide your sad story to me."

So he had told a sad story, had he? he thought, much bewildered; for, as he had no story belonging to him of that character, he was afraid he must have invented one, while, of course, he could not ask for information.

"Yes," he said, with great presence of mind, "forget my unhappy story – let it never be mentioned between us again. We will go on as before —exactly as before."

"It is our only course," she agreed. "And now," she added, with a cheerfulness that struck him as a little forced, "suppose we talk of something else."

Peter considered this a good suggestion, provided it was a subject he knew a little more about; which, unhappily, it was not.

"You never answered my question," she reminded him.

He would have liked, as Ministers say in the House, "previous notice of that question;" but he could hardly say so in so many words.

"No," he said. "Forgive me if I say that it is a – a painful subject to me."

"I understand that," she said, gently (it was more than he did); "but tell me only this: was it that that made you behave as you did? You are sure you had no other reason?"

["If I say I had," thought Peter, "she will ask me what it was."] "I will be as frank as possible, Miss Tyrrell," he replied. "I had no other reason. What other reason could I have had?"

"I half fancied – but I ought to have seen from the first that, whatever it was, it was not that. And now you have made everything quite clear."

"I am glad you find it so," said Peter, with a touch of envy.

"But I might have gone on misunderstanding and misjudging, putting you down as proud and cold and unsociable, or prejudiced, but for the accident which brought us together, in spite of your determination that we should remain total strangers!"

It was an accident which had made them acquainted, then? He would draw the cheque which contained that episode of his extra time sooner or later; but it was distinctly inconvenient not to have at least some idea of what had happened.

"A fortunate accident for me, at all events!" he said, with a judicious recourse to compliment.

"It might have been a very unfortunate one for poor papa," she said, "but for you. I do believe he would have been quite inconsolable."

Peter felt an agreeable shock. Had he really been fortunate enough to distinguish himself by rescuing the Judge's fair daughter from some deadly peril? It looked very like it. He had often suspected himself of a latent heroism which had never had an opportunity of being displayed. This opportunity must have occurred, and he have proved equal to the occasion, in one of those extra hours!

"I can quite imagine that he would be inconsolable indeed!" he said gallantly. "Fortunately, I was privileged to prevent such a calamity."

"Tell me again exactly how you did it," she said. "I never quite understood."

Peter again took refuge in a discreet vagueness.

"Oh," he replied, modestly, "there's not much to tell. I saw the – er – danger, and knew there wasn't a moment to lose; and then I sprang forward, and – well, you know the rest as well as I do!"

"You only just caught him as he was going up the rigging, didn't you?" she asked.

So it was the Judge he had saved – not his daughter! Peter felt a natural disappointment. But he saw the state of the case now: a powerful judicial intellect overstrained, melancholia, suicidal impulses – it was all very sad; but, happily, he had succeeded in saving this man to his country.

"I – ventured to detain him," he said, considerately, "seeing that he was – er – rather excited."

"But weren't you afraid he would bite you?"

"No," said Peter, pained at this revelation of the Judge's condition, "that possibility did not occur to me. In fact, I am sure that – er – though the strongest intellects are occasionally subject to attacks of this sort, he would never so far forget himself as to – er – bite a complete stranger."

"Ah!" she said, "you don't know what a savage old creature he can be sometimes. He never ought to be let loose; I'm sure he's dangerous!"

"Oh! but think, Miss Tyrrell," remonstrated Peter, unmistakably shocked at this unfilial attitude towards a distinguished parent; "if he was – er – dangerous, he would not be upon the Bench now, surely!"

She glanced over her shoulder, with evident apprehension.

"How you frightened me!" she said. "I thought he was really there! But I hope they'll shut him up in future, so that he won't be able to do any more mischief. You didn't tell me how you got hold of him. Was it by his chain, or his tail?"

Peter did not know; and, besides, it was as difficult for him to picture himself in the act of seizing a hypochondriacal judge by his watch-chain or coat-tail, as it was for him to comprehend the utter want of feeling that could prompt such a question from the sufferer's own daughter.

"I hope," he said, with a gravity which he intended as a rebuke – "I hope I treated him with all the respect and consideration possible under the – er – circumstances… I am sorry that that remark appears to amuse you!"

For Miss Tyrrell was actually laughing, with a merriment in which there was nothing forced.

"How can I help it?" she said, as soon as she could speak. "It is too funny to hear you talking of being regretful and considerate to a horrid monkey!"

"A monkey!" he repeated involuntarily.

So it was a monkey that was under restraint, and not a Judge of Her Majesty's Supreme Court of Judicature: a discovery which left him as much in the dark as to what particular service he had rendered as ever, and made him tremble to think what he might have said. But apparently, by singular good fortune, he had not committed himself beyond recovery; for Miss Tyrrell only said:

"I thought you were speaking of the monkey, the little wretch that came up behind papa and snatched away all his notes – the notes he had made for the great case he tried last term, and has to deliver judgment upon when the Courts sit again. Surely he told you how important they were, and how awkward it would have been if the monkey had escaped with them, and torn them into pieces or dropped them into the sea? – as he probably would have done, but for you!"

"Oh, ah, yes!" said Peter, feeling slightly crestfallen, for he had hoped he had performed a more dashing deed than catching a loose monkey. "I believe your father – Sir John?" he hazarded … "Sir William, of course, thank you … did mention the fact. But it really was such a trifling thing to do."

"Papa didn't think so," she said. "He declares he can never be grateful enough to you. And, whatever it was," she added softly, and even shyly, "I, at least, can never think lightly of a service which has – has made us what we are to one another."

What they were to one another! And what was that? A dreadful uncertainty seized upon Peter. Was it possible that, in some way he did not understand, he was engaged to this very charming girl, who was almost a stranger to him? The mere idea froze his blood; for if that was so, how did it affect his position towards Sophia? At all hazards, he must know the worst at once!

"Tell me," he said, with trembling accents, – "I know you have told me already, but tell me once more – precisely what we are to one another at present. It would be so much more satisfactory to my mind," he added, in a deprecatory tone, "to have that clearly understood."

"I thought I had made it quite clear already," she said, with the least suspicion of coldness, "that we can be nothing more to one another than friends."

The relief was almost too much for him. What a dear, good, sensible girl she was! How perfectly she appreciated the facts!

"Friends!" he cried. "Is that all? Do you really mean we are nothing more than friends?"

He caught her hand, in the fervour of his gratitude, and she allowed it to remain in his grasp; which, in the altered state of things, he found rather pleasant than otherwise.

"Ah!" she murmured, "don't ask me for more than I have said – more than I can ever say, perhaps! Let us be content with remaining friends – dear friends, if you like – but no more!"

"I will," said Peter promptly, "I will be content. Dear friends, by all means; but no more!"

"No," she assented; "unless a time should come when – "

"Yes," said Peter, encouragingly, as she hesitated. "You were about to say, a time when – ?"

Her lips moved, a faint flush stole into her cheeks; she was about to complete her sentence, when her hand seemed to melt away in his own, and he stood, grasping the empty air, by his own mantelpiece. The upper deck, the heaving bows, the blue seaboard, Miss Tyrrell herself, all had vanished; and in their stead were the familiar surroundings of his chamber, the grimy London house fronts, and Sophia's list of questions lying still unanswered upon his writing-table! His fifteen minutes had come to an end; the cheque was nowhere to be seen. The minute-hand of his clock had not moved since he last saw it; but this last circumstance, as he saw on reflection, was only natural, for otherwise the Time Deposit would have conferred no real advantage, as he would never have regained the hours he had temporarily foregone.

For some time Peter sat perfectly still, with his head between his hands, occupied in a mental review of this his initial experience of the cheque-book system. It was as different as possible from the spell of perfect rest he had anticipated; but had it been unpleasant on that account? In spite of an element of mystification at starting, which was inevitable, he was obliged to admit to himself that he had enjoyed this little adventure more than perhaps he should have done. With all his attachment to Sophia, he could hardly be insensible to the privilege of suddenly finding himself the friend – and more than that, the dear friend – of so delightful a girl as this Miss Tyrrell.

There was a strange charm, a peculiar and quite platonic tenderness about an intimacy of this peculiar and unprecedented nature, which increased at every fresh recollection of it. It increased so rapidly indeed, that almost unconsciously he drew the cheque-book towards him, and began to fill up another cheque with a view to an immediate return to the Boomerang.

But when he had torn the cheque out, he hesitated. It was all quite harmless: the most severe moralist could not convict him of even the most shadowy infidelity towards his fian??e, if he chose to go back and follow up a purely retrospective episode like this – an episode which interested and fascinated him so strongly – only, what would Sophia say to it? Instinctively, he felt that the situation, innocent as it was, would fail to commend itself to her. He had no intention of informing her, it was true; but he knew that he was a poor dissembler – he might easily betray himself in some unguarded moment, and then – No! it was vexing, no doubt; but, upon the whole, it was wiser and better to renounce those additional hours on board the Boomerang altogether – to allow this past, that never had, but only might have been, to remain unsummoned and unknown for ever. Otherwise, who could tell that, by gradual assaults, even such an affection as he had for Sophia might not be eventually undermined?

But this fear, as he saw the next moment, was almost too extravagant to be seriously taken into account. He felt nothing, and never could feel anything, but warm and sincere friendship for Miss Tyrrell; and it was satisfactory to know that she was in no danger of mistaking his sentiments. Still, of course there was always a certain risk, particularly when he was necessarily in ignorance of all that had preceded and followed the only colloquy they had had as yet. At last he decided upon a compromise: he would not cash that second cheque for the present, at all events; he would reserve it for an emergency, and only use it if he was absolutely driven to do so as a mental tonic. Perhaps Sophia would not compel him to such a necessity again; he hoped – at least, he thought she would not.

So he put the unpresented cheque in an inner pocket, and set to work with desperate energy at his examination-paper; although his recent change must have proved less stimulating to his jaded faculties than he had hoped, since Sophia, after reading his answers, made the cutting remark that she scarcely knew which he had more completely failed to apprehend – the purport of his author, or that of the very simple questions she had set him.

Peter could not help thinking, rather ruefully, that Miss Tyrrell would never have been capable of such severity as that; but, then, Miss Tyrrell was not his fian??e, only a very dear friend, whom he would, most probably, never meet again.



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