F. Anstey.

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 Ц 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 Ц you mustn't think she is always like that," he urged. "It took me quite by surprise Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц it isn't as if it had ever really happened."

"Not really happened? But I was there; I heard, I saw it Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц I don't say through any fault of your own, but still you haveЦ†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 Ц fifteen minutes is not enough, unless you could be sure of getting the successors to the last. But I have an idea, Peter,†Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц 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" Ц (here she took the cheque-book, and made some rapid calculations from the counterfoils) Ц "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 Ц er Ц a woman's tact. Suppose I make the cheque payable to you now Ц 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 Ц "

"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 Ц yes," he said; "oh! I mean to present it Ц presently. I Ц 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 Ц 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 Ц go!"

"I'm going," he said, meekly. "You'll sit up for me, Sophia, if Ц 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 Ц don't you think it may, Sophia?"

"How can I tell? You will only find out by going."

"I'm going, my dear Ц 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,†Ц with consequences that must be reserved for the next chapter.

CHAPTER VIII.
Paid in His Own Coin

In Suspense: a Gleam of Comfort.†Ц Darkness Returns.†Ц The Rock Ahead.†Ц Sir William Lends His Binocular.†Ц Reappearance of an Old Enemy.†Ц A New Danger.†Ц Out of the Frying-pan.

Peter found himself below this time, in the broad passage, furnished with seats and tables for writing, which divided the passengers' cabins. Above, he heard a confused stir and bustle of excitement, the trampling of feet, the creaking and rattle of chains, orders shouted in English and Hindustani. From the absence of all vibration, in the vessel, it was evident that she had been brought to. Why?

Peter guessed the cause only too easily: the unhappy Miss Davenport had indeed succeeded in carrying out her rash design. She had jumped overboard, and the captain had stopped the engines and lowered a boat in the hope of picking her up before she sank! And he himself Ц why was he skulking below like this? He had only too much reason to fear that he must have been a witness of the fatal leap; and, instead of plunging overboard to the rescue as a hero ought, had rushed down here ignominiously.

Had he been observed? Was his connection with the tragedy suspected? Could he venture up on deck and inform himself? He tried, but his nerve failed him, and he sank into one of the chairs in a state of almost unbearable suspense.

Just at this moment, he saw the skirts of a muslin gown appear at the head of the broad companion which led to the dining-saloon. Someone, a girl evidently, was descending. Presently he saw her fully revealed Ц it was Miss Tyrrell.

Perhaps he had never been so glad to see her before. She was a friend, a dear friend. She, at least, would sympathise with him, would understand that it was not his fault if he had been too late to avert a catastrophe. She was coming to him. Her eyes were friendly and pitiful as they sought his. She, at least, did not turn from him!

"How pale, how terribly pale you look!" she said. "You must nerve yourself to see her Ц it cannot be long now!"

"Has she been brought on board yet?" he gasped. "Is Ц is there any hope?"

"We shall know very soon. It is possible you may find that all is at an end."

"Ah! you think so? But Ц but no one will say it was my fault, will they? I Ц I was ready to make any sacrifice Ц only somehow, when the moment comes, I am apt to lose my presence of mind."

"Yes, I know," she said feelingly; "you are not quite yourself yet, but I know you would make the sacrifice if your duty demanded it. But she may have taken advantage of your absence to free herself and you from all obligation, may she not?"

This suggestion comforted Peter.

"She must have done!" he said. "Yes, of course. I could not be expected to prevent it, if I wasn't there; and I wasn't, when it came to the point. But, Miss Tyrrell, do you think that it is really all over? She Ц she may come round after all!"

"She may Ц but of course, if it is true that she is engaged to another, she can have no possible claim on you."

What a sensible right-minded way this girl had of looking at things! thought Peter, not for the first time.

"Why, of course she can't!" he cried. "And it is true. She is engaged Ц to a fellow of the name of Alfred."

"You know that as a fact?" she exclaimed.

"I know it from her own lips, and I need not say that I should be the last person to wish to Ц er Ц upset so desirable an arrangement."

"Why Чwhy didn't you tell me all this before?" she inquired.

"I Ц I didn't think it would interest you," he replied.

Here, to Peter's utter astonishment, she covered her face with her hands.

"Not interest me!" she murmured at last. "Oh, how could you Ц how could you keep this from me? Can't you see Ц can't you guess what a difference it has made in my feelings?"

It might be very dull of him, but he could not perceive why the fact of Miss Davenport's engagement to Alfred should affect Miss Tyrrell so strangely as this!

"I may call you 'Peter' now," she said. "Oh, Peter, how happy you have made me! Why did you keep silence so long? It was too quixotic! Don't you understand even yet?"

"No," said Peter blankly, "I'm afraid I don't."

"Then, if you are really so diffident, I Ц I must tell you that if you were to ask a certain question once more, I might Ц I don't say I should, but I might Ц meet it with a different answer!"

"Good heavens!" he ejaculated, involuntarily.

"But you must not ask me yet Ц not just yet. I must have time to consider. I must tell papa before I decide anything. You will wait a little longer, won't you, Peter?"

"Yes," he said, feeling limp, "I'll wait. I'd rather!"

She smiled radiantly upon him, and then fled lightly up the companion, leaving him with fresh cause for uneasiness. He could no longer doubt that, for some reason, she expected him to propose to her, which it seemed he had already, in one of those confounded extra minutes, been unprincipled enough to do! Now she had gone to inform her father, the Judge, and he would have the disagreeable task of disabusing them before long!

At this point he started, believing that he was visited by an apparition; for a cabin-door opened, and Miss Davenport came out and stood before him.

But she was so obviously flesh and blood Ц and so dry Ц that he soon saw that all his anxiety on her account had been superfluous.

"Then you Ц you didn't jump overboard after all?" he faltered, divided between relief and annoyance at having been made to come back, as it were, on false pretences.

"You know who prevented me, and by what arguments!" she said, in a low strained voice.

"Do I?" he said, helplessly.

"Who should, if you do not? Did not you implore me not to leave you, and declare that, if I would only have courage and wait, we should be happy even yet? And I did wait. For what, I ask you, Peter Tourmalin Ц for what?"

"It's really no use asking me," he said, "for I've no idea!"

"I waited Ц to discover that all this time you have had a secret understanding with another; that you are about to transfer your fickle affections to Ц to that fair girl! Don't deny it, Peter! I was listening. I see it all Ц all!"

"I wish to goodness I did!" he said. "I never was in such a muddle as this in my life. I can only assure you that if that young lady really imagines that I am, or can be, anything more to her than a friend, she is entirely mistaken. I was just about to go up and explain as much to her father!"

"You are not deceiving me?" she asked, earnestly. "You are sure?"

"I will swear it, if you wish!" he replied.

"No," she said, relenting visibly, "your word is enough. I do believe you, and I am almost happy again. So long as you do not desert me, even Alfred loses half his terrors!"

"Exactly," he said; "and now, if you will excuse me, I'll just run up on deck and settle this other business."

He went up to the hurricane-deck, and found the ship had anchored. In front was a huge barren rock, with lines of forts, walls, and telegraph poles; and at its base, a small white town huddled. They had arrived at Gibraltar, which accounted for the absence of motion.

As he stood there, taking this in, he was accosted by Sir William Tyrrell, who thrust his arm through Peter's in a friendly manner.

"My dear boy," said the Judge heartily, "Violet has just told me the good news. I can only say that I am delighted Ц most delighted! I have always felt a warm interest in you, ever since that affair of Ц "

"Of the monkey," said Peter. "I am very glad to hear it, Sir William; but Ц but I ought to tell you that I am afraid Miss Tyrrell was Ц a little premature. She misinterpreted a remark of mine, which, in point of fact, referred to somebody else altogether."

"Then you have no more reason than before for assuming that your fian??e has thrown you over. Am I to understand that?"

"No more reason than before," admitted Peter.

"And your uncertainty still continues? Very unsatisfactory, I must say! I do think, my dear fellow, that, in your position, you should have been more careful to refrain from betraying any interest in Violet until you knew that you were free to speak. As it is, you may have cast a shadow upon her young life that it will take years to dispel!"

Peter's heart sank into his boots for very shame at this gentle and almost paternal reproof.

"Yes," continued the worthy Judge, "Violet is a high-minded girl, scrupulously sensitive on points of honour; and, unless the young lady you are under a semi-engagement to should release you of her own free will, I know my daughter too well to doubt that she will counsel you to fulfil your contract and renounce all hope so far as she is concerned."

Peter felt a little easier.

"I Ц I am prepared to do that," he said.

"Well, I don't say myself that I go quite so far as she does; but strictly, no doubt, a promise is a promise, and should be kept at all hazards. You have done all that a man can honourably do to put himself right. You have written to this young lady, so I understand, informing her of the change in your sentiments, and offering, nevertheless, to redeem your promise if she insisted upon it. I think that was the general purport of your letter?"

Here was one more evil fruit of his extra time! What would Sophia think, or say, or do, if such a letter as that ever came to her knowledge? Fortunately, that at least was impossible!

"You have some grounds," the Judge went on, "for assuming that the lady has already treated the contract as non-existent Ц a person called Alfred, I think my daughter said?"

"No, that was a mistake," explained Peter. "Alfred is engaged to quite a different person."

"Well, in any case, it is quite possible that you may obtain your release when you meet her; and your suspense will soon be over now. Miss Ц er Ц Pincher, is it?†Ц will probably be on board the ship before many minutes. I see the boats are putting out from the harbour already."

"What!" cried Peter, with the terrible conviction darting through his mind that Sir William spoke the bare truth.

Sophia had said something about meeting him at Gibraltar; but if she had done so during the real voyage, how could he have the meeting all over again, with this ghastly variation? If he could only remember whether she had come out, or not! It was singular, incomprehensible! But his memory was a blank on such a vital fact as this!



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