F. Anstey.

Tourmalin's Time Cheques



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"I repeat, Mr. Tourmalin," said the matron, "you are doubtless not unprepared for the fact that I have requested a few minutes' private conversation with you?"

"Pardon me," said Peter, quaking already at this alarming opening, "but I am – very much unprepared." "Surely," he thought, "this could not be another dear friend? No, that was too absurd – he must have drawn the line somewhere!"

"Then permit me to enlighten you," she said raspingly. "I sent for you, at a time when we are least likely to be interrupted, to demand an explanation from you upon a very delicate and painful matter which has recently come to my knowledge."

"Oh!" said Peter – and nothing more. He guessed her purpose at once: she was going to ask him his intentions with regard to her daughter! He could have wished for some indication as to whether she was Lady Tyrrell or Mrs. Davenport; but, as he had none at present, "Oh" seemed the safest remark to make.

"Life on board a large passenger-ship, Mr. Tourmalin," she went on to observe, "though relaxed in some respects, is still not without decencies which a gentleman is bound to respect."

"Quite so," said Peter, unable to discover the bearings which lay in the application of this particular observation.

"You say 'Quite so'; but what has your behaviour been, sir?"

"That," said Peter, "is exactly what I should like to know myself!"

"A true gentleman would have considered the responsibility he incurred by giving currency to idle and malicious gossip!"

His apprehensions were correct then: it was one of the young ladies' mothers – but which?

"I can only assure you, madam," he began, "that if unhappily I have – er – been the means of furnishing gossip, it has been entirely unintentional."

She seemed so much mollified by this, that he proceeded with more confidence:

"As to anything I may have said to your daughter – " when she almost bounded from her seat with fury.

"My daughter, sir! Do you mean to sit there and tell me that you had the audacity to so much as hint of such a thing to my daughter, of all people?"

"So – so much depends on who your daughter is!" said Peter, completely losing his head.

"You dared to strike this cruel and unmanly blow at the self-respect of a sensitive girl – to poison her defenceless ears with your false, dastardly insinuations – and you can actually admit it?"

"I don't know whether I can admit it or not yet," he replied. "And – and you do put things so very strongly! It is like this: if you are referring to any conversation I may have had with Miss Tyrrell – "

"Miss Tyrrell? You have told her too!" exclaimed this terrible old matron, thereby demonstrating that, at least, she was not Lady Tyrrell.

"I – I should have said Miss Davenport," said Peter, correcting himself precipitately.

"Miss Davenport as well? Upon my word! And pray, sir, may I ask how many other ladies on board this ship are in possession of your amiable confidences?"

He raised his hands in utter despair.

"I can't say," he groaned.

"I don't really know what I may have said, or whom I may have said it to! I – I seem to have done so much in my spare time, but I never meant anything!"

"It may be so," she said; "indeed, you hardly seem to me accountable for your actions or you would not appear in such a ridiculous costume as that, with a sprig of orange-blossom in your button-hole and a high hat, too!"

"I quite feel," said Peter, blushing, "that such a costume must strike you as inappropriate; but – but I happened to be trying them on, and – rather than keep you waiting – "

"Well, well, sir, never mind your costume – the question is, if you are genuinely anxious to repair the wrong you have done, what course do you propose to take?"

"I will be perfectly frank with you, madam," said Peter: "I am not in a position to repair any wrong I have done – if I have done any wrong (which I don't admit) – by taking any course whatever!"

"You are not!" she cried. "And you tell me so to my face?"

After all, reflected Peter, why should he be afraid of this old lady? In a few more minutes he would be many hundreds of miles away, and he would take very good care not to come back again. He felt master of the situation, and determined to brazen it out.

"I do, madam!" he said, crossing his legs in an easy fashion, "Look at it from a reasonable point of view. There is safety in numbers; and if I have been so unfortunate as to give several young ladies here an entirely erroneous impression, I must leave it to you to undeceive them as considerately but distinctly as you can. For me to make any selection would only create ill-feeling among the rest; and their own good sense will show them that I am forbidden by the laws of my country, which I am the last person to set at defiance, – that I am forbidden (even if I were free in other respects, which I am not) to marry them all!"

"The only possible explanation of your conduct is, that you are not in your right mind!" she said. "Who in the world spoke or dreamed of your marrying any one of them? Certainly not I!"

"Oh!" said Peter, hopelessly fogged once more. "I thought I might unintentionally have given them grounds for some such expectation. I'm very glad I was mistaken. You see, you must really make allowances for my utter ignorance – "

"If this idiotic behaviour is not a mere feint, sir, I can make allowances for much; but, surely, you are at least sufficiently in your proper senses to see how abominably you have behaved?"

"Have I?" said Peter, submissively. "I don't wish to contradict you, if you say so, I'm sure. And, as I have some reason to believe that my stay on board this ship will not last very much longer, I should like before I go to express my very sincere regret."

"There is an easy way of proving your sincerity, sir, if you choose to avail yourself of it," she said. "I find it very difficult to believe, from the evident feebleness of your intellect, that you can be the person chiefly responsible for this scandal. Am I correct in my supposition?"

"You are, madam," said Peter. "I should never have got myself into such a tangle as this, if I had not been talked over by Mr. Perkins. I don't know if I can succeed in making myself clear, for the whole business is rather complicated; but I can try to explain it, if you will only have a little patience."

"You have said quite enough," she said. "I know all I wish to know now. So it was Mr. Perkins, who has been using you as his instrument, was it?"

"Certainly," said Peter; "but for him, nothing of this would have happened."

"You will have no objection to repeating that statement, should I call upon you to do so?"

"No," said Peter, who observed with pleasure that her wrath against himself was almost entirely moderated; "but you will have to call soon, or I shall have gone. I – I don't know if I shall have another opportunity of meeting Mr. Perkins; but if I did, I should certainly tell him that I do not consider he has treated me quite fairly. He has put me in what I may call a false position, in several false positions; and if I had had the knowledge I have now, I should have had nothing to do with him from the first. He entirely misled me over this business!"

"Very well, sir," she said; "you have shown a more gentlemanly spirit, on the whole, than I expected. I am glad to find that your evil has been wrought more by want of thought than heart. It will be for you to complete your reparation when the proper time arrives. In the meantime, let this be a warning to you, sir, never to – " …

But here Peter made the sudden discovery that he was no longer in the music-room of the Boomerang, but at home in his old easy-chair by his bachelor fireside.

"Phew!" he muttered to himself, "that was a bad quarter of an hour while it lasted! What an old she-dragon it was! But she's right – it is a warning to me. I mustn't – I really must not draw any more of these confounded time cheques. I've made that ship too hot to hold me already! I'd better remain for ever in contented ignorance of how I spent that extra time, than go on getting into one mess after another like this! It was a wonder I got out of this one as well as I did; but evidently that old woman knew what Perkins is, and saw I wasn't to blame. Now she'll explain the whole affair to all those girls (whoever they may be), and pitch into Perkins – and serve him right! I'm out of it, at any rate; and now, thank goodness, after to-morrow I shall have nothing to do but live contentedly and happily with dearest Sophia! I'd better burn this beastly cheque-book – I shall never want it again!"

It would have been well for Peter if he had burnt that cheque-book; but when it came to the point, he could not bring himself to destroy it. After all, it was an interesting souvenir of some very curious, if not unique, experiences; and, as such, he decided to preserve it.

CHAPTER IV.
The Fourth Cheque

A Blue Moon. – Felicity in a Flat. – Practical Astronomy. – Temptation and a Relapse. – The Difficulties of being Completely Candid. – A Slight Misunderstanding. – The Avenging Orange.

Peter Tourmalin enjoyed his honeymoon extremely, in a calm, sober, and rational manner. Sophia discouraged rapture; but, on the other hand, no one was better fitted to inspire and sustain an intelligent interest in the wonders of Geology; and, catching her scientific enthusiasm, Peter spent many happy hours with her along the cliffs, searching for fossil remains. In fact, the only cloud that threatened to mar their felicity at all was an unfortunate tendency on his part to confuse a trilobite with a graptolite, a blunder for which Sophia had no tolerance. He was hazy about his periods, too, until she sent up to town for Lyell's great work on the subject as a birthday surprise for him, and he read it aloud to her on the sands. Altogether, it was a peaceful, happy time.

And never once in the whole course of his honeymoon did he seriously entertain the possibility of making any further use of his book of blank Time Cheques. If he had contemplated it, no harm would have been done, however, as the book was lying amongst his neglected papers at his former chambers.

He felt no poignant regret when the month came to an end, and they returned to town to take possession of their Marylebone flat: for what was it but shifting the scene of their happiness? And after this had taken place, Peter was still too much occupied to have leisure for idle and mischievous thoughts. Marrying Sophia was, indeed, like loving Sir Richard Steele's fair lady, "a liberal education;" and Peter enjoyed the undivided benefit of her rare talent for instruction.

He had been giving his attention to Astronomy of late, an unguarded remark of his having betrayed to Sophia the extreme crudity of his ideas respecting that science, and she had insisted upon his getting a popular primer, with diagrams, and mastering it as a preliminary to deeper study.

One evening he was in the smaller room of the two that, divided by an arch, served for study and drawing-room combined; and he was busily engaged in working out a simple practical illustration, by the aid of one of the aforesaid diagrams. The experiment required a lamp, a ball of cotton, and an orange transfixed by a knitting-needle, and it had something to do with the succession of the seasons, solar and lunar eclipses, and the varying lengths of day and night on different portions of our globe, though he was not very clear what.

"Don't you find you understand the inclination of the moon's orbit to the plane of the ecliptic better now?" said Sophia, as she came through the arch.

"I think I shall, as soon as I can get the moon to keep steadier," he said, with more hope than he felt; "and it's rather hard to remember whereabouts I am supposed to be on this orange."

"I must get you something to make that clearer," she said; "and you haven't tilted the orange nearly enough. But leave it for a moment; I've brought you in this packet of letters and things the people at your old rooms have just sent down. I wish, while I am away – I shall be back in a minute, – you would just run over them, and tell me if there are any papers you want kept, or if they may all be burnt."

While she was gone, he undid the string which fastened the packet, and found, at the bottom of a mass of bills and documents of no value, the small oblong cheque-book which he had vowed never to see again. Somehow, as his eyes rested on its green cover, the old longing came upon him for a complete change of air and scene. He felt as if he must get away from that orange: there were no lamps but electric lights, and no oranges, on board the Boomerang.

But then, his last visit had not turned out a success: what if he were to find he had drawn another quarter of an hour with that irate matron of the music-room?

However, he had left her, as he remembered, in a comparatively pacific mood. She understood him better now; and besides, thanks to the highly erratic system (if there was any system) on which the payments were made, the chances were immensely against his coming across the same old lady twice running. He thought he would risk that.

It was much more likely that he would meet Miss Tyrrell or Miss Davenport, or it might even be another person to whom he was unconsciously allied by the bond of dear friendship. The only question was, how far he could trust himself in such companionship. But here he felt himself guilty of a self-distrust that was unworthy of him. If, on the two previous occasions, he could not call to mind that he had entertained any deeper sentiment for either young lady than a cordial and sympathetic interest, was it likely that, now he was a married man, he would be more susceptible? He was as devoted to his Sophia as ever, but the wear and tear of several successive evenings spent in elementary Astronomy were telling upon his constitution. Such high thinking did not agree with him: he wanted a plainer mental diet for a change. Fifteen minutes spent in the society of someone with a mind rather less cultivated than his wife's would be very restful. Then, when he came back, he would give his whole mind to the orange again.

In short, all Peter's good resolutions were thrown overboard once more, and he wrote out a cheque for the usual amount in desperate fear lest Sophia might return before he could get it honoured. He felt a certain compunction, even then, in presenting it to the severe and intensely respectable black marble timepiece which recorded the flying hours of his domestic bliss. He almost doubted whether it would countenance so irregular a proceeding; but, although it was on the verge of striking nine, it cashed the cheque without hesitation…

It was mid-day: Peter was sitting on a folding seat, protected from the scorching sun by the awning which was stretched above and along the exposed side of the deck, and, to his great satisfaction, he found Miss Tyrrell reclining in a deck-chair between himself and the railing, and a pleasant picture of fresh and graceful girlhood she presented.

As usual, he was not in time for the beginning of the conversation, for she was evidently commenting upon something he had said.

"How delightful it sounds!" she was saying, "and what a free, unfettered kind of life yours must be, Mr. Tourmalin, from your description!"

Now, this was awkward; because he must have been giving her an airy description of his existence as the bachelor and butterfly he had ceased to be. He answered guardedly, awaiting his opportunity to lead up to a disclosure of the change in his circumstances since they had last met.

"It is pleasant enough," he said. "A little dull at times, perhaps," he added, thinking of the orange.

She laughed.

"Oh, you mustn't expect me to pity you!" she said. "I don't believe you need ever be dull, unless you choose. There must always be friends who are glad to see you."

"I am glad to think," said Peter, "that, when I do feel dull, I have at least one friend – one dear friend – from whom I may count upon a welcome!"

He accompanied this speech with such a look, that she could not well pretend to mistake his meaning; and the next moment he regretted it, for he saw he had gone too far.

"That is a very pretty speech," she said, with a faint flush; "but isn't it a little premature, Mr. Tourmalin, considering that we have scarcely known one another two days!"

For the moment, Peter had forgotten the want of consecutiveness in these eccentric Time Cheques. This interview should by rights have preceded the first he had had with her. He felt annoyed with himself, and still more with the unbusinesslike behaviour of the Bank.

"I – I was anticipating, perhaps," he said. "But I assure you that we shall certainly be friends – I may even go so far as to say, dear friends – sooner or later. You see if I am not right!"

Miss Tyrrell smiled.

"Are you sure," she said, with her eyes demurely lowered – "are you sure that there is nobody who might object to our being on quite such intimate terms as that?"

Peter started. Could she possibly have guessed, and how much did she know?

"There could be nothing for anybody to object to," he said. "Are you – er – referring to any person in particular?"

She still kept her eyes down, but then she was occupied just at the moment in removing a loose splinter of bamboo from the arm of her chair.

"You mustn't think me curious or – or indiscreet, if I tell you," she said; "but before I knew you to speak to, I – I couldn't help noticing how often, as you sat on deck, you used to pull something out of your pocket and look at it."

"My watch?" suggested Peter, feeling uncomfortable.

"No, not your watch; it looked more like – well, like a photograph."

"It may have been a photograph, now you mention it," he admitted. "Well, Miss Tyrrell?" "Well," she said, "I often amuse myself by making up stories about people I meet – quite strangers, I mean. And, do you know, I made up my mind that that photograph was the portrait of someone – some lady you are engaged to. I should so much like to know if I was right or not?"

Here was Peter's opportunity of revealing his real status, and preventing all chance of future misunderstanding. It was not too late; but still it might be best and kindest to break the news gradually.

"You were partly right and partly wrong," he said: "that was the portrait of a lady I was – er —once engaged to."

Unless Peter was very much mistaken, there was a new light in her face, an added brightness in her soft grey eyes as she raised them for an instant before resuming her labours upon the wicker-chair.

"Then you mean," she said softly, "that the engagement is broken off?"

Peter began to recognise that explanation was a less simple affair than it had seemed. If he said that he was no longer engaged but married to the original of that photograph, she would naturally want to know why he had just led her to believe, as he must have done, that he was still a careless and unattached bachelor: she would ask when and where he was married; and how could he give a straightforward and satisfactory answer to such questions?

And then another side of the case struck him. As a matter of fact he was undeniably married; but would he be strictly correct in describing himself as being so in this particular interview? It belonged properly to the time he had made the voyage home, and he was certainly not married then.

In the difficulty he was in, he thought it best to go on telling the truth until it became absolutely impossible, and then fall back on invention.

"The fact is, Miss Tyrrell," he said, "that I can't be absolutely certain whether the engagement is ended or not at this precise moment."

Her face was alive with the sweetest sympathy.

"Poor Mr. Tourmalin!" she said, "how horribly anxious you must be to get back and know!"

"Ah!" said Peter, "yes, I – I shall know when I get home, I suppose."

And he sighed; for the orange recurred once more to his reluctant memory.

"Don't tell me if it pains you too much," she said gently. "I only ask because I do feel so sorry for you. Do you think that, when you do get home, you will find her married?"

"I have every reason for believing so," he said.

"That will be a terrible blow for you, of course?"

"A blow?" said Peter, forgetting himself. "Good gracious me, no! Why should it be? I – I mean, I shall be prepared for it, don't you know!"

"Then it's not so bad after all?" she said.

"It's not at all bad!" said Peter, with a vague intention of loyalty to Sophia. "I like it!"

"I think I understand," she said slowly: "you will not be sorry to find she has married; but she may tell you that she never had the least intention of letting you go so easily?"

"Yes," said Peter, "she may tell me that, certainly" – ("if she finds out where I've been," he added, mentally).

"And," she continued, "what would you do then?"

"I suppose," he said – "I suppose I should have to do whatever she wished."

"Yes!" she agreed warmly, "you will do that, even if it costs you something, won't you? Because it will be the only right, the only honourable course to take – you will be the happier for it in the end, Mr. Tourmalin, I am sure you will!"



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