Tourmalin's Time Chequesскачать книгу бесплатно
"Would you like to have my field-glass for a moment?" said Sir William, considerately.
Peter took it, and the next moment the binocular fell from his nerveless hands. He had seen only too clearly the familiar form of Sophia seated in the peaked stern of a small craft, which a Spanish boatman was "scissoring" through the waves towards the Boomerang.
"Come, courage!" said the Judge kindly, as he picked up his glass and wiped the lenses. "Don't be nervous, my boy. You don't know what she may have to say to you yet, you know!"
"No, I don't!" he groaned. "I – I think I ought to go down to the gangway and meet her," he added, tremulously, – not that he had any intention of doing so, but he wanted to be alone.
Before the Judge could even express his approbation of Peter's course, Tourmalin was down on the saloon-deck seeking a quiet spot wherein to collect his thoughts.
Before he could find the quiet spot, however, he almost ran into the arms of the matron from Melbourne, whom he had not seen since the episode of the music-room.
"A word with you, Mr. Tourmalin!" she said.
"I – I really can't stop now," stammered Peter. "I – I'm expecting friends!"
"I, too," she said, "am expecting a relation, and it is for that reason that I wish to speak to you now. My brother, who has been staying at Gibraltar on account of his health, will be as determined as I am to trace and punish the infamous calumny upon the name and career of our honoured parent."
"I daresay, madam," said Peter, – "I daresay. Very creditable to you both – but I really can't stop just now!"
"You appear to forget, sir, that, unless you can satisfactorily establish your innocence, my brother will certainly treat you as the person primarily responsible for an atrocious slander!"
"A slander – upon your father!.. Me?" said the indignant Peter. "Why, I never heard of the gentleman!"
"Denial will not serve you now," she said. "I have not only your own admissions in the music-room, but the evidence of more than one trustworthy witness, to prove that you circulated a report that my dear father – one of the most honoured and respected citizens of Melbourne – began his Colonial career as – as a transported convict!"
After all, as the hapless Peter instantly saw, he might have said so, for anything he knew, in one of those still unexhausted extra quarters of an hour!
"If I said so, I was misinformed," he said.
"Just so; and in our conversation on the subject, you mentioned the name of the person who used you as his mouthpiece to disseminate his malicious venom. What I wish to know now is, whether you are prepared or not to repeat that statement?"
Peter recollected now that he had used expressions implicating Mr. Perkins, although merely as the origin of totally different complications.
"I can't positively go so far as that," he said. "I – I made the statement generally."
"As you please," she said.
"I can merely say that my brother, whom I expect momentarily, is, although an invalid in some respects, a powerful and determined man; and unless you repeat in his presence the sole excuse you have to offer, he will certainly horsewhip you in the presence of the other passengers. That is all, sir!"
"Thank you – it's quite enough!" murmured Peter, thinking that Alfred himself could hardly be much more formidable; and he slipped down the companion to the cabin-saloon, where he found Miss Davenport anxiously expecting him.
"He is here," she whispered. "I have just seen him through the port-hole."
"What – the old lady's brother!" he replied.
"He has no sister who is an old lady. I mean Alfred."
"Alfred?" he almost yelped. "Alfred here!"
"Of course he is here. Is not his battalion quartered at Gibraltar? You knew it; we were to meet him here!"
"I didn't, indeed – or I should never have come!" he protested.
"Don't let us waste words now. He is here; he will demand an explanation from you. He has his pistol with him – I could tell by the bulge under his coat. We must both face him; and the question is, What are you going to say?"
Peter thrust his hands through his carefully-parted hair:
"Say?" he repeated. "I shall tell him the simple, straightforward truth. I shall frankly admit that we have walked, and sat, and talked together; but I shall assure him, as I can honestly, that during the whole course of our acquaintance I have never once regarded you in any other light but that of a friend."
"And you suppose that, knowing how I have changed, he will believe that!" she cried. "He will fire long before you can finish one of those fine sentences!"
"In that case," suggested Peter, "why tell him anything at all? Why not spare him, poor fellow, at all events for the time? It will only upset him just now. Let him suppose that we are strangers to one another; and you can break the truth to him gently when you reach England, you know. I 'm sure that's much the more sensible plan!"
She broke into strange mirthless laughter.
"Your prudence comes too late," she said. "You forget that the truth was broken to him some days ago, in the letter I wrote from Brindisi."
"You wrote and broke it to him at Brindisi!" cried Peter. "What induced you to do that?"
"Why, you!" she retorted. "You insisted that it was due to him; and though I knew better than you what the effect would be, I dared not tell you the whole truth. I wanted to end the engagement, too; and I scarcely cared then what consequences might follow. Now they are upon us, and it is useless to try to escape them. Since we must die, let us go up on deck and get it over!"
"One moment," he said; "Alfred can wait a little. I – I must go to my cabin first, and put on a clean collar."
And with this rather flimsy pretext, he again made his escape. He made up his mind what to do as he rushed towards his cabin. He could hardly have been anything like an hour on board the Boomerang as yet; he had to get through at least another three before he could hope for deliverance. His only chance was to barricade himself inside his cabin, and steadfastly refuse to come out, upon any consideration whatever, until he was released by the natural expiration of time.
He sped down the passage, and found, to his horror, that he had forgotten the number of his berth. However, he knew where it ought to be, and darted into an open door, which he fastened securely with hook and bolt, and sank breathless on one of the lower berths.
"You seem in a hurry, my friend!" said a voice opposite; and Peter's eyes, unused at first to the comparative dimness, perceived that a big man was sitting on the opposite berth, engaged in putting on a pair of spiked cricket-shoes. He had bolted himself inside the cabin with Mr. Perkins!
Back to the Fire Again. – A Magnanimous Return. – Catching at Straws. – Two Total Strangers. – Purely a Question of Precedence. – "Hemmed in" and "Surrounded." – The Last Chance.
The Bank Manager looked across at Peter with an amused smile; he seemed quite friendly. Whether he was in Peter's cabin, or Peter in his, did not appear; and perhaps it was not of much consequence either way. If the cabin belonged to Mr. Perkins, he did not, at all events, appear to resent the intrusion.
"You seem rather put out about something," he said again, as Peter was still too short of breath for words.
"Oh, no," panted Peter, "it's nothing. There was so much bustle going on above, that I thought I'd come in here for a little quiet; that's all."
"Well," said the Manager, "I'm glad you looked in; for, as it happens, you're the very man I wanted to see. I daresay you're wondering why I'm putting on these things?"
Peter nodded his head, which was all he felt equal to.
"Why, I've just been having a talk with that old she-griffin from Melbourne. Perhaps you don't know that her brother is coming on board directly?"
"Oh yes, I do!" said Peter.
"Well, it seems she means to denounce me to him as the slanderer of her father. She may, if she chooses; my conscience is perfectly clear on that score. No one can bring anything of the sort home to me; and I've no doubt I shall soon satisfy him that I'm as innocent as an unborn babe. Still, I want you, as a respectable man and the only real friend I have on board, to come with me and be my witness that you never heard such a rumour from my lips; and besides, sir, we shall have an opportunity at last of seeing the unutterable scamp who has had the barefaced impudence to say I told him this precious story! She's going to produce him, sir; and if he dares to stand me out to my face – well, he'll know why I've put on these shoes! Come along; I can't let you off."
Peter dared not refuse, for fear of attracting his friend's suspicions. He could only trust to slipping away in the confusion; and so, unfastening the cabin-door, the Manager caught the unresisting Tourmalin tightly by the arm, and hurried him along the central passage and up the companion.
Even Miss Davenport would have been a welcome diversion at that moment; but she was not there to intercept him, and he reached the upper deck more dead than alive.
"Where's that old vixen now?" exclaimed the Manager, dropping Peter's arm. "Here, just stay where you are a minute, till I find her and her confounded brother!"
He bustled off, leaving Tourmalin by the davits, quite incapable of action of any kind in the presence of this new and awful dilemma. He had been spreading a cruel and unjustifiable slander against an irreproachable Colonial magnate, whose son was now at hand to demand reparation with a horsewhip. He could only propitiate him by denouncing Perkins as his informant, and if he did that he would be kicked from one end of the ship to the other with a spiked boot! This was Nemesis indeed, and it was Sophia who had insisted upon his exposing himself to it. What a fool he was not to fly back to that cabin, while he could!
He turned to flee, and as he did so a hand was passed softly through his arm.
"Not that way, Peter!" said Miss Tyrrell's voice.
A wild, faint hope came to him that he might be going to receive one of the back quarters of an hour. The caprices of the Time Cheques were such that it was quite possible he would be thrown back into an earlier interview. Little as he felt inclined for any social intercourse just then, he saw that it would afford him a brief interlude – would at least give him breathing-time before his troubles began again.
"I will go wherever you choose," he said; "I am in your hands."
"I came," she said, "to take you to her. She is asking for you."
"She?" said Peter. "For heaven's sake, who?"
"Why, Miss Pinceney, of course. I knew who it was directly I saw her face. Peter, is it true, as papa tells me, that I misunderstood you just now – that she is not engaged to Alfred?"
"Alfred? No!" he replied. "If she is engaged to anyone at all, I have strong grounds for supposing it's to me!"
"Then we must submit, that is all," said Miss Tyrrell. "But we do not know her decision yet; there is still hope!"
"Yes," he said, "there is hope still. Let us go to her; make haste!"
He meant what he said. Sophia could at least extricate him from a portion of his difficulties. Miss Tyrrell – magnanimous and unselfish girl that she was, in spite of her talent for misapprehension – was ready to resign him to a prior claim, if one was made. And Sophia was bound to claim him; for if the engagement between them had been broken off, he could not now be her husband, as he was. Even Time Cheques must recognise accomplished facts.
He followed her across the ship, turning down the very passage in which he had sat through more than one cheque with Miss Davenport; and on the opposite side he found Sophia standing, with her usual composure, waiting for his arrival.
She was so identically the same Sophia that he had left so lately, that he felt reassured. She, at least, could not be the dupe of all this. She had come – how, he did not trouble himself to think, – but she had come with the benevolent intention of saving him!
"How do you do, my love?" he began. "I – I thought I should see you here."
"You only see me here, Peter," she replied, in a voice that trembled slightly, in spite of her efforts to command it, "because I felt very strongly that it was my duty to put an end at the earliest moment to a situation which has become impossible!"
"I'm sure," said Peter, "it is quite time it was put an end to – it couldn't go on like this much longer."
"It shall not, if I can help it," she said. "Miss Tyrrell, pray don't go away; what I have to say concerns you too."
"No; don't go away, Miss Tyrrell," added Peter, who felt the most perfect confidence in Sophia's superior wisdom, and was now persuaded that somehow it was all going to be explained. "Sir William, will you kindly step this way too? Sir William Tyrrell – Miss Pinceney. Miss Pinceney has something to tell you which will make my position thoroughly clear."
"I have only to say," she said, "that your honourable and straightforward conduct, Peter, has touched me to the very heart. I feel that I am the only person to blame, for it was I who insisted upon your subjecting yourself to this test."
"It was," said Peter. "I told you something would happen – and it has!"
"I would never hold you to a union from which all love on your side had fled; do not think so, Peter. And now that I see my – my rival, I confess that I could expect no other result. So, dear Miss Tyrrell, I resign him to you freely – yes, cheerfully – for, by your womanly self-abnegation you have proved yourself the worthier. Take her, Peter; you have my full consent!"
"My dear young lady," said the Judge, deeply affected, "this is most noble of you! Allow me to shake you by the hand."
"I can't thank you, dear, dear Miss Pinceney!" sobbed his daughter. "Peter, tell her for me how we shall both bless and love her all our lives for this!"
Peter's brain reeled. Was this Sophia's notion of getting him out of a difficulty?
As he gazed distractedly around, his eyes became fixed and glazed with a new terror. A stalwart stranger, with a bushy red beard, was coming towards him, with a stout riding-whip in his right hand. By his side walked the Manager, from whose face all vestige of friendliness had vanished.
"As soon as you have quite finished your conversation with these ladies," said the Manager, with iron politeness, "this gentleman would be glad of a few moments with you; after which I shall request your attention to a little personal affair of my own. Don't let us hurry you, you know!"
"I – I won't," returned Peter, flurriedly; "but I'm rather busy just now: a little later, I – I shall be delighted."
As he stood there, he was aware that they had withdrawn to a bench some distance away, where they conferred with the elderly lady from Melbourne. He could feel their angry glare upon him, and it contributed to rob him of the little self-possession he had left.
"Sophia," he faltered piteously, "I say, this is too bad – it is, really! You can't mean to leave me in such a hole as this – do let's get home at once!"
Before she could make any reply to an appeal which seemed to astonish her considerably, a thin, bilious-looking man, with a face twitching with nervous excitement, a heavy black moustache, and haggard eyes, in which a red fire smouldered, appeared at the gangway and joined the group.
"I beg your pardon," he said, lifting his hat; "forgive me if I interrupt you, but my business is urgent – most urgent! Perhaps you could kindly inform me if there is a – a gentleman" (the word cost him a manifest struggle to pronounce) – "a gentleman on board of the name of Tourmalin? I have a little matter of business" (here his right hand stole to his breast-pocket) "to transact with him," he explained, with a sinister smile that caused Peter to give suddenly at the knees.
"It's that infernal Alfred!" he thought. "Now I am done for!"
"Why," said Miss Tyrrell, who was clinging affectionately to Peter's arm, "this is Mr. Tourmalin! You can speak to him now – here, if you choose. We have no secrets from one another – have we, Peter?"
"I have lately learnt," said the gloomy man, "that a certain Mr. Tourmalin has stolen from me the affection of one who was all heaven and earth to me!"
"Then it must be another Mr. Tourmalin," said Miss Tyrrell, "not this one; because – surely you do not need to be told that you have no rivalry to fear from him?" she broke off, with a blush of charming embarrassment.
Alfred's scowl distinctly relaxed, and Peter felt that, after all, this unfortunate misunderstanding on Miss Tyrrell's part might prove serviceable to him. Since Sophia, for reasons of her own, refused to assist him, he must accept any other help that offered itself.
"The best proof I can give you of my innocence," he said, "is to mention that I have the honour to be engaged to this lady."
He heard a stifled shriek from behind him as he made this assertion, and the next moment Miss Davenport, who must have come up in time to catch the last words, had burst into the centre of the group.
"It is not true!" she cried. "Alfred, you must not believe him!"
"Not true?" exclaimed Alfred, Sophia, Miss Tyrrell, and Sir William, in the same breath.
"No!" said Miss Davenport; "at least, if he has really engaged himself, it is within the last few minutes, and with the chivalrous intention of shielding me! Peter, I will not be shielded by such means. Our love is too precious to be publicly denied. I cannot suffer it; I will acknowledge it, though it costs me my life! You," she added, turning to Sophia, – "you can prove that I speak the truth. It was to you that I confided, that day we met on deck, the story of our fatal attachment."
"I really think you must be mistaken," said Sophia, coldly. "If you confided such a story to anybody, it could not have been to me; for, until a few minutes ago, I had never set foot upon this ship."
How Sophia could stand there and, remembering, as she must do, her recent appropriation of the Time Cheque, tell such a downright fib as this, passed Peter's comprehension. But, as her statement was in his favour so far as it went, he knew better than to contradict it.
"Whether it was you or not," insisted Miss Davenport, "it is he and no one else who rendered my engagement to Alfred utterly repugnant to me! Can you look at him now, and doubt me longer?"
"So, Peter," said Sophia severely, "you could not even be faithful to your unfaithfulness!"
Miss Tyrrell made no comment, but she dropped his arm as if it had scorched her fingers, whereupon Miss Davenport clung to it in her stead, to Peter's infinite dismay and confusion.
"He is faithful!" she cried. "It is only a mistaken sense of honour that made him apparently false. Yes, Alfred, what I wrote to you, and the postscript he added, is the simple truth. We cannot command our own hearts. Such love as I once had for you is dead – it died on the fatal day which brought him across my path. We met – we love; deal with us as you will! I would rather, ever so much rather, die with him than lose him now!"
Alfred was already beginning to fumble fiercely in his breast-pocket. Peter felt the time had arrived for plain speaking; he could not submit to be butchered under a ridiculous misapprehension of this kind.
"Listen to me!" he said eagerly, "before you do anything rash, or you may bitterly regret it afterwards. I do assure you that I am the victim – we are all the victims of a series of unfortunate cheques – I should say, mistakes. It's absurd to make me responsible for the irregular proceedings of a nonsensical Bank. If I had spent my time as I ought to have done at the time, instead of putting it out on deposit, I should never have dreamed of employing it in any kind of philandering!"
"That," said Sophia, "is undeniable: but you spent it as you ought not to have done!"
"Such a speech comes ill from you," he said, reproachfully, "after having expressly condoned the past; and, however I may have appeared to philander, I can conscientiously declare that my sentiments towards both of these young ladies —both, you understand – have been restricted to a respectful and – and merely friendly esteem… Don't shoot, Alfred!.. I thought that was quite understood on all sides. Only have a little more patience, Alfred, and I will undertake to convince even you that I could not for a moment have contemplated depriving you of the hand of this extremely charming and attractive lady, who will not let go my arm… I – I am a married man!"
"Married!" shrieked Miss Davenport, cowering back.
"Married!" exclaimed Miss Tyrrell, as she hid her face upon her father's shoulder.
"Married!" shouted the Judge. "By heavens, sir, you shall account to me for this!"
"Married!" cried Sophia. "Oh, Peter, I was not prepared for this! When? Where?"
"When? Where?" he echoed. "You were not prepared for it? Perhaps you will ask me next who my wife is!"
"I shall not indeed," said Sophia, "for I have no longer the slightest curiosity on such a subject!"
Peter collapsed upon the nearest bench.скачать книгу бесплатно
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