Tourmalin's Time Cheques
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Peter shrank up in his chair, utterly confounded by this last vagary on the part of the Time Cheques. He certainly would not have supposed that the mere presentation even of a "bearer" cheque by Sophia would entitle her to the same fifteen minutes he was receiving himself. He could only account for it by the fact that the two cheques were cashed simultaneously at two separate clocks; but even this explanation was not wholly satisfactory.
He found his voice at last:
"Well," he said, "now that you know all, what are you going to do about it, Sophia? I – I would rather know the worst!"
"I will tell you that in good time," she replied; "but, first of all, I want you to tell me exactly how you came to have these cheques, and what use you made of them on previous occasions?"
So, slightly reassured by her manner, which was composed, Peter gave her a plain unvarnished account of the way in which he had been led to deposit his extra time, and the whole story of his interviews with Miss Davenport. He did not mention any others, because he felt that the affair was quite complicated enough without dragging in extraneous and irrelevant matter.
"I may have been imprudent," he concluded; "but I do assure you, Sophia, that in all the quarters of an hour I have had as yet, I never once behaved to that young lady in any capacity but that of a friend. I only went on drawing the cheques because I wanted a little change of air and scene now and then. You have no idea how it picked me up!"
"I saw in what society it set you down, Peter!" was Sophia's chilling answer.
"You – you mustn't think she is always like that," he urged. "It took me quite by surprise – it was a most painful position for me. I think, Sophia, your own sense of fairness will acknowledge that, considering the awkwardness of my situation, I – I behaved as well as could be expected. You do admit that, don't you?"
Sophia was silent for a minute or so before she spoke again.
"I must have time to think, Peter," she said: "it is all so strange, so contrary to all my experience, that I can hardly see things as yet in their proper light. But I may tell you at once that, from what I was able to observe, and from all you have just told me, I am inclined to think that you are free from actual culpability in the matter. It was quite clear that that very forward girl was the principal throughout, and that you were nothing more than an unwilling and most embarrassed accessory."
This was so much more lenient a view than he had dared to expect that Peter recovered his ordinary equanimity.
"That was all," he said. "I am very glad you saw it, my dear. I was perfectly helpless!"
"And then," said Sophia, "I was more than pleased by your firm refusal to commit suicide. What you said was so very sound and true, Peter."
"I hope so," said Peter, with much complacency. "Yes, I was pretty firm with her! By the way," he added, "you – you didn't happen to see whether she really did jump overboard, I suppose?"
"I came away just at the crisis," she said."I thought you would tell me!"
"I came away too," said Peter. "It doesn't matter, of course; but still I should have rather liked to know whether she meant it or not."
"How can you speak of it so heartlessly, Peter? She may have been trying to frighten you; she is just the kind of girl who would. But she may have been in earnest, after all!"
"You see, Sophia," said Peter, "it doesn't matter whether she was or not – it isn't as if it had ever really happened."
"Not really happened? But I was there; I heard, I saw it – nothing could be more real!"
"At any rate," he said, "it only happens when I use those cheques; and she can't possibly carry out her rash intention until I draw another – which I promise you faithfully I will never do. If you doubt me, I will burn the book now before your eyes!"
With these words he went to the drawer and took out the cheque-book.
"No," said Sophia, "you must not do that, Peter. There is much about this Time Bank that I don't pretend to understand, that I cannot account for by any known natural law; but I may not disbelieve my own eyes and ears! These events that have happened in the extra time you chose to defer till now are just as real as any other events. You have made this girl's acquaintance; you have – I don't say through any fault of your own, but still you have– caused her to transfer her affections from the man she was engaged to, and, being a creature of ill-regulated mind and no strength of character, she has resolved to put an end to her life rather than meet his just indignation. She is now on the very point of accomplishing this folly. Well, badly as she has behaved, you cannot possibly leave the wretched girl there! You must go back at once, restrain her by main force, and not leave her until you have argued her into a rational frame of mind."
Peter was by no means anxious to go back at first.
"It's not at all necessary," he said; "and besides, I don't know if you're aware of it, but with the way these cheques are worked, it's ten chances to one against my hitting off the right fifteen minutes! Still," he added, with an afterthought, "I can try, of course, if you insist upon it. I can take my chance with another fifteen minutes, but that must be the last. I am sick and tired of this Boomerang business, I am indeed!"
Shameful as it is to state, he had altered his mind from a sudden recollection that he would not mind seeing Miss Tyrrell for just once more. He had not drawn her for several weeks.
"No," said Sophia, thoughtfully; "I see your objection – fifteen minutes is not enough, unless you could be sure of getting the successors to the last. But I have an idea, Peter, – if you draw out the whole balance of your time, you can't possibly help getting the right fifteen minutes somewhere or other. I think that's logical?"
"Oh, devilish logical!" muttered Peter to himself, who had reasons, which he could not divulge to her, for strongly disapproving of such a plan.
"The fact is, my dear," he said, "it – it's rather late this evening to go away for any time!"
"You forget," she said, "that, however long you are away, you will come back at exactly the same time you started. But you have some other reason, Peter – you had better tell me!"
"Well," he owned, "I might come across someone I'd rather not meet."
"You are thinking of the man that girl said she had been engaged to – Alfred, wasn't it?"
Peter had forgotten Alfred for the moment; and besides, he was not likely to turn up till the Boomerang got to Plymouth, and he knew his extra hours stopped before that. Still, Alfred did very well as an excuse.
"Ah!" he said, "Alfred. You heard what she said about him? A violent character – with a revolver, Sophia!"
"But you told her you were not afraid of him. I felt so proud of you when you said it. And think, you may be able to bring them together – to heal the breach between them!"
"He's more likely to make a breach in me that won't heal!" said Peter.
"Still, as you said yourself, it isn't as if it was all actually existing. What does it matter, even if he should shoot you?"
"I don't see any advantage in exposing myself to any such unpleasant experiences, even if they are only temporary," he said.
"It is not a question of advantage, Peter," rejoined Sophia; "it is a simple duty, and I'm surprised that you don't see it as such. Whatever the consequences of your conduct may be, you cannot evade them like this; you have chosen to begin, and you must go on! I am quite clear about that. Let me see" – (here she took the cheque-book, and made some rapid calculations from the counterfoils) – "yes, you have two hours and three-quarters at least still standing to your credit; and then there's the compound interest. I will tear out all these small cheques and burn them." Which she did as she spoke. "And now, Peter, sit down and fill up one of the blank ones at the end for the whole amount."
"Do you know, Sophia," said Peter, "it occurs to me that this is just one of those matters which can only be satisfactorily arranged by – er – a woman's tact. Suppose I make the cheque payable to you now – eh?"
"You mean, that you want me to go instead of you?" she asked.
"Well," said Peter, "if it wouldn't be bothering you, my dear, I think perhaps it would be – "
"Don't say another word," she interrupted, "or I shall begin to despise you, Peter! If I thought you meant it seriously, I would go upstairs, put on my bonnet, and go back to mamma for ever. I could not bear to be the wife of a coward!"
"Oh, I'll go!" said Peter, in much alarm. "I said what I did out of consideration, not cowardice. But wouldn't to-morrow do as well, Sophia? It is late to turn out!"
"To-morrow will not do as well," she said: "fill up that cheque to-night, or you will lose me for ever!"
"There!" said Peter, as he scrawled off the cheque. "Are you satisfied now, Sophia?"
"I shall be when I see you present it."
"Er – yes," he said; "oh! I mean to present it – presently. I – I think I'll take a small glass of brandy before I go, my dear, to keep the cold out."
"As you will certainly be in a summer, if not tropical, temperature the next moment," she said, "I should advise you to take nothing of the kind."
"I say," he suggested, "suppose I find she has just jumped overboard – what shall I do then?"
"Do! Can you possibly ask? You will jump after her, of course!"
"It's easy to say 'of course,'" he said; "but I never could swim more than twenty strokes!"
"Swim those twenty then, and let come what will; you will be back all the sooner. But don't stand there talking about it, Peter – go!"
"I'm going," he said, meekly. "You'll sit up for me, Sophia, if – if I'm late, won't you?"
"Don't be absurd!" she said. "You know perfectly well that, as I said before, you won't be away a second."
"It won't be a second for you," he said, "but it will be several hours for me; and goodness only knows what I may have to go through in the time! However," he added, with an attempt to be cheerful, "it may all pass off quite pleasantly – don't you think it may, Sophia?"
"How can I tell? You will only find out by going."
"I'm going, my dear – I'm going at once!.. You'll give me just one kiss before I start, won't you?"
"I will give you no kiss till you come back and I hear what you have done," said Sophia.
"Very well," he retorted; "you may be sorry you refused, when it's too late! I may never come back at all, for anything I can tell!"
And, little as he knew it, he spoke with an almost prophetic anticipation of what was to come. Never again was he destined to stand on that heart-hrug!
But he dared not linger longer, as he could see from her expression that she would suffer no further trifling; and he slipped his last cheque under the clock, – with consequences that must be reserved for the next chapter.