F. Anstey.

Tourmalin's Time Cheques



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Fortunately for him, she put her question in a form which made it easy to give a satisfactory and a truthful answer.

"When I was returning home on board the Boomerang," he said, "I did not, to the best of my recollection and belief, exchange two words with any female whatever, attractive or otherwise Ц until," he added, with a timely recollection that she had come on board at Gibraltar,†Ц "until I met you. You pain me with these suspicions, Sophia Ц you do, indeed!"

"I believe you, Peter," she said, moved by his sincerity, which, paradoxical as it may sound, was quite real; for his intentions had been so excellent throughout, that he felt injured by her doubts. "You have never told me a falsehood yet; but for some time I have been tormented by a fancy that you were concealing something from me. I can hardly say what gave me such an impression,†Ц a glance, a tone, trifles which, I am glad to think now, had not the importance I invested them with. Ah, Peter, never treat me as Helmer did Nora! Never shut me out from the serious side of your life, and think to make amends by calling me your 'little lark,' or your 'squirrel;' you must not look upon me as a mere doll!"

"My dear Sophia!" he exclaimed, "I should never think of addressing you as either a squirrel or a lark; and anyone less like a doll in every respect, I never met!"

"I hope you will always think so, Peter," she said; "for I tell you frankly, that if I once discovered that you had ceased to trust me, that you lived in a world apart into which I was not admitted, that very moment, Peter, I should act just as Nora did Ц I should leave you; for our marriage would have ceased to be one in any true sense of the word!"

The mere idea of being abandoned by Sophia made him shiver. What a risk he had been running, after all! Was it worth while to peril his domestic happiness for the sake of a few more conversations with two young ladies, whose remarks were mostly enigmatic, and for whom he was conscious in his heart of hearts of not caring two straws?

"Sophia," he said plaintively, "don't talk of leaving me! What should I do without you? Who would teach me Astronomy and things? You know I don't care for anybody but you! Why will you dwell on such unpleasant subjects?"

"I was wrong, Peter," she confessed,†Ц "indeed, I doubt you no longer. It was all my morbid imagination that led me to do you such injustice. Forgive me, and let us say no more about it!"

"I do forgive you," was his generous reply to this appeal, which, coming from Sophia, was a very handsome apology, "and we will say no more about it."

And, upon the whole, Peter thought he had got out of a particularly tight place with more credit than he had any reason to expect Ц a conclusion in which the reader, however much he or she may disapprove of his conduct on moral grounds, will probably be inclined to agree with him.

CHAPTER VI.
Foil and Counterfoil

The Duties of Authorship.†Ц Peter's Continued Perversity and its Unforeseen Results.†Ц "Alfred." Ц The Tragic Note.†Ц An Interrupted Crisis.†Ц A Domestic Surprise.

It would be more satisfactory to an author's feelings, especially when he is aware that he will be held accountable by an indignant public for the slightest deviation on his hero's part from the narrow path of ideal rectitude Ц it would be more satisfactory to be able to record that this latest warning had a permanent effect upon Peter Tourmalin's rather shifty disposition.

But an author, even of a modest performance such as this, cannot but feel himself in a position of grave responsibility.

He must relate such facts as he has been able to collect, without suppression on the one side, or distortion on the other. It is a duty he cannot and dare not evade, under penalty of forfeiting the confidence of his readers.

Peter Tourmalin did draw more Time Cheques, he did go back to the Boomerang, and it would be useless to assert the contrary. We may be able to rehabilitate him to some extent before this story concludes: at present, we can only follow his career with pain and disapproval.

Some allowances must be made for the peculiar nature of the case. To a person of Peter's natural inclination to the study of psychology, there was a strong fascination in watching the gradual unfolding and revelation of two characters so opposite and so interesting as those of Miss Tyrrell and Miss Davenport. That was the point of view he took himself, and it is difficult to say that such a plea is wholly without plausibility.

Then, too, he was intensely curious to know how it would all end, and he might ascertain that in the very next quarter of an hour he drew; there was absolutely no telling.

As for Sophia's threat, that soon lost all terrors for him. She would abandon him, no doubt, if she ever knew; but who was going to tell her, and how could she possibly discover the truth unaided, especially now that her awakening suspicions had been lulled? His secret was perfectly safe, and he could unravel the tangled thread of the history of his remaining extra hours on board the Boomerang without any other hindrance than that of his own scruples Ц which practically amounted to no hindrance at all.

So Peter continued to be the slave of his clock and his cheque-book, from the counterfoils of which he was disagreeably surprised to discover that he had drawn more frequently, and in consequence had an even smaller balance left to his credit, than he had supposed.

However, he consoled himself by concluding that one or two cheques had probably been mislaid, and were still unpresented, while he was entitled to some additional time in respect of compound interest; so that he need not stint himself at present. Fifteen minutes a week was not an extravagant allowance; and sooner or later, even with the utmost economy, a day would come when his balance would be exhausted, and his cheques returned from the clock marked "No effects Ц refer to drawer," or some equivalent intimation.

But that day was still distant, and in the meantime he went on drawing with a light heart.

It was a Saturday evening, the day on which Peter generally presented his weekly cheque; but although it was nearly half-past ten, he had had no opportunity of doing so as yet. He was in the drawing-room, and Sophia was reading aloud to him this time, an article on "Bi-metallism" from one of the reviews; for she had been an ardent Bi-metallist from early girlhood, and she naturally wished to win Peter from his Laodicean apathy on so momentous a subject. He listened with surface resignation, although inwardly he was in a fever of impatience to get back upon the Boomerang, where Miss Davenport had been more interesting than usual on his last visit. But he could hardly rise and slip a cheque under the clock before Sophia's very eyes without inventing some decent pretext for such an action, and Bi-metallism had reduced him to a mental condition which was no longer fertile in expedients.

Suddenly Sophia stopped reading and remarked:

"If I remember right, Professor Dibbs has stated the argument more correctly in his little book on Currency. It would be interesting to compare the two; I'll get it."

As Professor Dibbs's work was apparently on a shelf in the study, Sophia took the lamp into the further room.

"Now's my time!" thought Peter, as he brought out the cheque from his waistcoat-pocket. "I mayn't get such another chance this evening."

Even if Sophia could lay her hand on the volume at once, he would have had his quarter of an hour and be comfortably back long before she could pass the arch which separated the two rooms; for, as we have seen, this instantaneous action was one of the chief recommendations of the Time Cheques.

So he cashed his cheque, and was at once transported to the secluded passage between the deck-cabins, the identical place where he had first conversed with Miss Davenport. He was on the same steamer-chair too, and she was at his side; the wind carried the faint strains of a set of "Lancers" to them; from all of which circumstances he drew the inference that he was going to be favoured with the sequel to the conversation that had been so incongruously broken in upon by Sophia's question respecting the comparative merits of bottle-jacks in the Tottenham Court Road warehouse. This was so far satisfactory, indicating as it did that he was at last, after so much trying back, to make some real progress.

"What I want to know first," Miss Davenport was saying, "is, whether you are capable of facing danger for my sake?"

"I thought," he remonstrated mildly, "that I had already given proof of that!"

"The danger you faced then threatened only me. But, supposing you had to meet a danger to yourself, could you be firm and cool? Much will depend on that."

"I Ц I think," he answered frankly, "that perhaps you had better not count upon me. I have never been a man to court danger: it might find me equal to it if it came,†Ц or it might not."

He did not mean to give it the opportunity.

"Then we are lost, that is all!" she said, with gloomy conviction. "Lost, both of us!"

Peter certainly intended to be lost if the moment of trial ever arrived. Even now he was resolving, for about the twentieth time, that this positively should be his very last cheque; for he by no means liked the manner in which the situation seemed to be developing.

But, seeing that the danger, whatever it might be, was still far enough off, he thought, very sensibly, that it would be a pity to cloud this last interview by any confession of pusillanimity. Knowing that he would return no more, he could surely afford to treat with contempt any consequences his imprudence might have entailed.

So he laughed, as he said:

"You mustn't conclude that I am a coward because I don't care to boast. On the contrary, I believe I am not exactly deficient in physical courage."

"You are not?" she cried, relieved. "Then Ц then you would not be afraid to face a desperate man?"

"Not a dozen desperate men, if it comes to that!" said Peter, supported by the certainty that it would not come to so much as half a desperate man.

"Then I can tell you now what I have scarcely dared to think of before. Peter, you will have to reckon with Alfred!"

"Well, I'm not much alarmed at anything Alfred may do!" said Peter, wondering who the deuce Alfred was.

"He will come on board; he will demand an explanation; he will insist on seeing you!" she cried.

"Let him!" said Peter.

"You are brave Ц braver even than I thought; but, ah! Peter, you don't know what Alfred is!"

Peter did not even know who Alfred was, but he was unmoved.

"You leave Alfred to me," he said confidently, "I'll settle him!"

"But I must tell you all. I Ц I led you to believe that Alfred would raise no objections; that he would quietly accept facts which it is useless to contend against. He will do nothing of the sort! He is a man of violent passions Ц fierce and relentless when wronged. In the first burst of fury at meeting you, when he comes on board, he is capable of some terrible vengeance, which nothing but perfect coolness on your part Ц perhaps not even that Ц will be able to avert. And I Ц I have brought this upon you!"

"Don't cry," said Peter. "You see, I'm perfectly calm. I don't mind it. If Alfred considers himself wronged by me Ц though, what I have ever done to give him any reason for revenging himself by personal violence, I must say I can't conceive Ц "

She stopped him.

"Ah! you have given him cause enough!" she cried. "What is the use of taking that tone to me?"

"I want to see Alfred's point of view, that's all," said Peter. "What does he complain of?"

"What does he complain of? You ask me that, when Ц Peter," she broke off suddenly, "there is somebody round the corner listening to us Ц a woman, I'm sure of it. I heard the rustle of a dressЕ Go and see if there is not!"

Go and see, and find himself face to face with Miss Tyrrell, who might faint or go into hysterics: Peter knew better than that.

"It's merely your fancy," he said, soothingly, "Who can be there? They are all at the other end of the ship, dancing. Go on telling me about Alfred. I don't yet understand how I have managed to offend him."

"Are you really so dull," she said, with a slight touch of temper, "that you can't see that a man who thought he was going to meet the woman he was engaged to, and finds she has learnt to care for Ц for somebody else, is likely, even if he was the mildest man in the world Ц which Alfred is far from being Ц to betray some annoyance?"

"No, I see that," said Peter; "but Ц but he can't blame me. I couldn't help it!"

He said this, although her last speech had opened his eyes considerably: he knew now who Alfred was, and also that, in some moment of madness which was in one of the quarters of an hour he had not yet drawn, he must have placed himself in the position of Alfred's rival.

What was he to do? He could not, without brutality, tell this poor girl that he had not the smallest intention of depriving Alfred of her affections; it was better, and easier too, to humour her for the short time that remained.

"Alfred will not take that as an excuse," she said. "It is true we could neither of us help what has happened, but that will not alter the fact that he is quite capable of shooting us both the instant he comes on deck. Alfred is like that!"

"Well," said Peter, unable to abstain from a little more of such very cheap heroism, "I do not fear death Ц with you!"

"Say that once more," she said; which Peter very obligingly did. "Oh, Peter, how I admire you now! How little I knew you were capable of going so calmly to your doom! You give me courage. I feel that I, too, can face death; only not that death Ц it is so horrid to be shot!"

"It would be unpleasant," said Peter, placidly, "but soon over."

"No," she said, "I couldn't bear it. I can see him pointing his revolver Ц for he always carries one, even at a picnic Ц first at your head, then mine! No, Peter; since we must die, I prefer at least to do so without bloodshed!"

"So do I," he agreed, "very much."

"You do?" she cried. "Then, oh, Peter! why should we wait any longer for a fate that is inevitable? Let us do it now, together!"

"Do what?" said Peter.

"Slip over the side together; it would be quite easy, no one will see us. Let us plunge arm-in-arm into the merciful sea! A little struggle Ц a moment's battle for breath Ц then all will be over!"

"Yes, I suppose it would be over then;" he said; "but we should have to swallow such a lot of salt water first!"

He reflected that, even if he emerged from the agonies of drowning, to find himself Bi-metallising with Sophia, the experience would be none the less unpleasant while it lasted. There really must be some limit to his complaisance, and he set it at suicide.

"No," he said at last; "I have always held that to escape a difficulty by putting an end to one's own life is a cowardly proceeding."

"I am a coward," she said; "but, oh, Peter, be a coward with me for once!"

"Ask me anything else!" he said, firmly, "but not to stoop to cowardice. There is really no necessity for it, you see," he added, feeling that he had better speak out plainly. "I have no doubt that Alfred will listen to reason; and when he is told that, although, as is excusable enough with two natures that have much in common, we Ц we have found a mutual pleasure in each other's society Ц there has been nothing on either side inconsistent with the Ц the most ordinary friendship; when he hears thatЕ Where are you going?" for she was rising from her chair.

"Where am I going?" she replied, with an unsteady laugh. "Why, overboard, if you care to know!"

"But you mustn't!" he cried, scarcely knowing what he said. "The Ц the captain wouldn't like it. There's a penalty, I'm sure, for leaving the ship while it's in motion Ц I've seen it on a notice!"

"There is a penalty for having believed in you," she replied bitterly, "and I am going to pay it!"

She broke away and rushed out upon the deck into the starlight, with Peter in pursuit. Here was a nice result of his philandering, he thought bitterly. And yet, what had he done? How could he help the consequences of follies committed in time he had not even spent yet? However, what he had to do now was to prevent Miss Davenport from leaping overboard at any cost. He would even promise to jump over with her, if that would soothe her, and of course he could appoint some time next day Ц say, after breakfast,†Ц for the performance.

He ran down the shadowy deck until he overtook a flying female form, whose hand he seized as she crouched against the bulwarks.

"Miss Davenport, if you will only just Е" he began, when, without warning, he found himself back upon his own hearth-rug, holding Sophia firmly by the wrist!

He felt confused, as well he might, but he tried to pass it off.

"Did you find Dibbs On Currency, my dear?" he inquired, with a ghastly smile, as he dropped her hand.

"I did not," said Sophia, gravely; "I was otherwise engaged. Peter, what have you been doing?"

"What have I been doing?" he said. "Why, it's not a minute since you went into the study to get that book; look at the clock and see!"

"Don't appeal to the clock, Peter,†Ц answer my question. How have you been occupied?"

"I've been waiting for you to finish that article on Bi-metallism," he had the hardihood to say. "Deuced well-written article it is, too; so clear!"

"I don't refer to what you were doing here," said Sophia. "What were you doing on board the Boomerang?"

"It Ц it's so long ago that I really forget," he said. "I Ц I read Buckle on deck, and I talked with a man named Perkins Ц nice fellow he was Ц manager of a bank out in Australia."

"It's useless to prevaricate, Peter!" she said. "What I want to know is, who was that girl, and why should she attempt to destroy herself?"

He could hardly believe his ears.

"Girl!" he stammered. "How do you know that any girl attempted anything of that sort?"

"How do I know, Peter?" said Sophia. "I will tell you how I know. I was on board the 'Boomerang,' too!"

At this awful piece of intelligence, Peter dropped into his arm-chair, speechless and quaking. What would come next he could not tell; but anything seemed possible, and even probable, after that!

CHAPTER VII.
The Culminating Cheque

Sophia Gives an Explanation, and Requests One.†Ц Her Verdict.†Ц Peter Overruled.

"Before I say anything else," said Sophia, who was still standing upon the hearth-rug, gazing down upon the wretched Peter as he sat huddled up in his chair, "you would probably like to know how I came to follow you to that steamer. It is a long story, but I will tell you if you wish to hear?"

Peter's lips moved without producing any articulate sounds, and Sophia proceeded:

"Some weeks ago," she said, "one afternoon when you had gone out for a walk, I found what seemed to be a loose cheque on the carpet. I knew how carelessly you leave things about, and I picked it up, and found that, though it was like a cheque in other respects, it was rather curiously worded. I could not understand it at all, but it seemed to have something to do with the steamer you came home from Australia in; so, intending to ask you for an explanation when you came in, I thought in the meantime I would put it in some safe place where I should be sure to see it, and I put it behind the clock; and then Ц oh, Peter!†Ц "

Peter understood. The cheques were all payable to "self or bearer." Sophia had innocently presented one, and it had been paid. If he had only taken "order" cheques, this would not have happened, but it was too late now! He continued to imitate the tactics of that eminent strategist, Brer Rabbit; in other words, he "lay low and said nuffin," while Sophia continued:

"Then, without in the least knowing how I came there, I found I was on a big steamer, and as I walked along, perfectly bewildered, I saw the name Boomerang painted on some fire-buckets, and of course I knew then that that was your steamer. I fancied that perhaps, in some way, you might be on board too, and would explain how this had happened to me. At all events, I decided to find out if you were; and seeing a girl reading on deck, I took a chair near her, and after a few introductory remarks I mentioned your name. The effect upon her was such as to convince me that she felt more than an ordinary interest in you. By degrees I drew from her the whole story of her relations with you: she even asked me ЧmeЦ†for advice!"

So Miss Davenport's confidante had not been Miss Tyrrell after all Ц but Sophia! If he had only known that before!

"I could not speak to her," continued Sophia, "I felt stifled, stupefied by what I had heard! I could bear no more; and so I rose and left her, and walked down some stairs, and somehow found myself back in our own room again! I was more bewildered than ever. I looked for the cheque, but there was nothing, and soon I was forced to believe that the whole thing was imaginary. Still, I was not wholly satisfied. You may remember how I questioned you one evening when you were reading the Doll's House to me; well, your answers quite reassured me for the time. I told myself that my suspicions were too wildly improbable not to have been a delusion. I was even afraid that my brain must be slightly affected, for I had always prided myself upon having my imagination under thorough control. But by degrees, Peter Ц by degrees Ц I began to doubt again whether it was really nothing but fancy on my part. I noticed that your manner was suspiciously odd at times. I discovered that there was one drawer in your secretary that you kept carefully locked. I caught your eye wandering towards the clock from time to time. What I suspected I hardly know; but I felt certain that I should find the explanation of that mystery in the locked drawer. I tried key after key, until I found one that fitted. Oh, I am not at all ashamed of it! Had I not a right to know? There were no letters, nothing but a cheque-book; but that cheque-book proved to me that, after all, I had imagined nothing: all the cheques were the same as the one I found on the carpet! I tore one out and kept it by me, and from that time I watched you closely. I saw how restless and impatient you were this evening, and I was certain that you were intending to use a cheque from that book. You were bent on getting back to the Boomerang, and I was equally determined that, if I could help it, you should not go alone. Only I could not be quite sure how you managed to get there, and at last I hit upon a little device for finding out. There is no such person as Professor Dibbs, Peter; I invented him to put you off your guard. As I passed into the other room with the lamp, I saw you, reflected in the mirror over the study chimneypiece, rise and go to the drawing-room mantelpiece: you had a slip of paper in your hand Ц a cheque, of course. I had the cheque I tore out hidden in the waistband of my dress; and so, as soon as I saw you slip your cheque behind the clock in the drawing-room, I put my cheque behind the one in the study. I was on the deck at once, and it was dark, but I could hear your voice and another's Ц round a corner. I held my breath and listened. What I heard, you know!"



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