F. Anstey.

Tourmalin's Time Cheques



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"Sophia?" he cried hoarsely, "why keep this up any longer? Surely it is gone far enough – you can't pretend you don't know!"

But while he spoke the words, he saw suddenly that his attempt to force her hand was hopeless: she was quite sincere in her surprise; she was the Sophia of six months ago, and no amount of explanation could ever make her comprehend what had happened since that time!

And here Alfred broke his silence.

"What you have just confessed," he said, "removes my last scruple. I might, for all I can tell, have stayed my hand and spared your life upon your promise to make Maud happy; for, in spite of her treatment of me, her happiness is still my first consideration. But now you have declared that impossible, – why, as soon as I can get this revolver out of my pocket – for it has stuck in the confounded lining – I will shoot you like a rabbit!"

"Sir William," cried Peter, "I appeal to you! You are the representative of Law and Order here. He is threatening a breach of the Peace – the Queen's Peace! I call upon you to interfere!"

"I am no advocate," said Sir William, with judicial calm, "for taking the law into one's own hands. I even express a hope that this gentleman will not carry out his avowed intention, at least until I have had time to withdraw, and I must not be understood to approve his action in any way. At the same time, I am distinctly of opinion that he has received sufficient provocation to excuse even such extreme measures, and that the fate he threatens will, if summary, at least be richly deserved."

"I think so too," said Sophia, "though it would be painful to be compelled to witness it!"

"Terrible!" agreed Miss Tyrrell. "Let us hide our eyes, dear!"

"Stay, Alfred!" Miss Davenport implored, "have some pity! Think – with all your faults, you are a keen sportsman – you would not shoot even a rabbit sitting! Give Mr. Tourmalin a start of a few seconds – let him have a run before you fire!"

All this time Alfred was still fumbling for and execrating the obstinate weapon.

"I decline to run!" Peter cried from his seat; he knew too well that he could not stir a limb. "Shoot me sitting, or not at all, but don't keep me waiting any longer!"

His prayer seemed likely to be granted, for Alfred had at last succeeded in extricating the revolver; but before he could take aim, the Bank Manager and the Melbourne man ran in and interposed.

"Hold on one minute, sir," they said; "we, too, have business with the gentleman on the seat there, and you will admit that it must be concluded before yours, if it is to be settled at all. We must really ask you to postpone your little affair until we have finished. We will not keep you waiting any longer than we can help."

The Judge, with an ostentatious indifference, had strolled away to the smoking-room, probably to avoid being called upon to decide so nice a point as this disputed precedence; his daughter, Miss Davenport, and Sophia had turned their backs, and, stopping their ears, were begging to be told when all was over.

Alfred was struggling to free his pistol-arm, which was firmly held by the other two men, and all three were talking at once in hot and argumentative support of their claims.

As for Peter, he sat and looked on, glued to his seat by terror: if he had any preference among the disputants, he rather hoped that Alfred would be the person to gain his point.

All at once he saw Sophia turn round and, with her fingers still pressed to her ears, make energetic contortions of her lips, evidently for his benefit. After one or two repetitions, he made out the words she was voicelessly framing.

"Run for it!" he interpreted. "Quick … while you can!"

With his habitual respect for her advice, he rose and, finding that the power of motion had suddenly returned, he did run for it; he slipped quietly round the corner and down the passage to the other side of the ship, where he hoped to reach the saloon-entrance, and eventually regain his cabin.

Unhappily for him, the grim lady from Melbourne had noted his flight and anticipated its object. Long before he got to the open doors, he saw her step out and bar the way; she had an open sunshade in her hand, which she was preparing to use as a butterfly net.

He turned and fled abruptly in the opposite direction, intending to cross the bridge which led aft to the second-class saloon deck, where he might find cover: but as he saw, on turning the corner, the Manager had already occupied the passage, Peter turned again and doubled back across the ship, making for the forecastle; but he was too late, for the Melbourne man was there before him, and cut off all hope of retreat in that quarter.

There was only one thing left now: he must take to the rigging, and accordingly the next moment, scarcely knowing how he came there, he was clambering up the shrouds for dear life!

Higher and higher he climbed, slipping and stumbling, and catching his unaccustomed feet in the ratlins at every step; and all the way he had a dismal conviction that as yet he had not nearly exhausted the cheque he had drawn. He must have at least another couple of hours to get through, not to mention the compound interest, which the Bank seemed characteristically enough to be paying first.

Still, if he could only stay quietly up aloft till his time was up, he might escape the worst yet. Surely it was a sufficient penalty for his folly to have embroiled himself with every creature he knew; to have been chivied about the deck of an ocean steamer by three violent men, each thirsting for his blood; and to be reduced to mount the rigging like an escaped monkey!

A few more steps and he was safe at last! Just above was a huge yard, flattened on the upper surface, with a partially furled sail, behind which he could crouch unseen; his hands were almost upon it, when a bronzed and bearded face appeared above the canvas – it was one of the English crew.

"Beg your pardon, sir," said the man, civilly enough, "but I shall 'ave fur to trouble you to go down agin, please. Capt'in's strick orders, sir. Passengers ain't allowed to amuse theirselves climbing the rigging!"

"My good man!" said Peter, between his pants, "do I look as if I was amusing myself? I am pursued, I tell you. As an honest, good-hearted British seaman – which I am sure you are, – I entreat you to give me a hand up, and hide me: it – it may be life or death for me!"

The man wavered; the desperate plight Peter was in seemed to arouse his compassion, as it well might.

"I could 'ide yer, I suppose, come to that," he said slowly; "but it's too late to think o' that now. Look below, sir!"

Peter glanced down between his feet, and saw two swarthy Lascars climbing the rigging like cats. Lower still, he had a bird's-eye view of the deck, about which his enemies were posted in readiness for his arrival: the Manager exhibiting his spiked boots to Sir William, who shook his head in mild deprecation; the old lady brandishing her sunshade in angry denunciation, while her brother flourished his horsewhip; and Alfred stood covering him with his revolver, prepared to pick him off the instant he came within range!

And Peter hung there by his hands – for his feet had slipped out of the ratlins – as helpless a target as any innocent bottle in a shooting-gallery, and the Lascars were getting nearer and nearer!

He could see their bilious eyeballs, and their teeth gleaming in their dusky faces. He felt a bony hand reaching for his ankles, and then a dizziness came over him: his grip upon the coarse, tarry cordage relaxed, and, shutting his eyes, he fell – down – down – down. Would the fall never come to an end? Would he never arrive?..

CHAPTER X.
D?no?ment

At last! The shock was over; and he feebly opened his eyes once more, to find that he was undoubtedly on the deck; and, yes, the Bank Manager was standing over him with a kind of triumphant grin!

"Mercy!" Peter murmured faintly. "You – you surely wouldn't kick a man when he's down!"

"My dear sir!" protested the Manager, "why should I wish to kick you in any position?"

He must be fatally injured, if even the Manager had relented!

"Is – is Alfred there?" asked Tourmalin, anxiously. "Keep him away, if you can!"

"Certainly!" said Mr. Perkins. "Who is Alfred?"

"Why, the – the man with the revolver. I thought you knew!"

"Come, come," said the Manager, "there's no man of that kind here, I assure you. Pull yourself together, sir; you're on board the Boomerang now!"

"I know," said Peter, dolefully, – "I know I am!"

He shut his eyes resignedly. He was about to receive some other portion of his time-balance. If he could only hope that no fresh complications would arise! Would he meet Miss Tyrrell or Miss Davenport next, he wondered, and how would they behave?

"Haven't you had sleep enough yet?" said the Manager. "You're not more than half-awake even now!"

"Sleep?" exclaimed Tourmalin, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Why, you don't mean to tell me I've been dreaming all this time!"

"I don't know about dreaming; but I can answer for your snoring. Why, you almost drowned the ship's band! I knew what would happen when you would have two helpings of curry at breakfast. Worst thing to take in the world, especially if you don't walk it off! Why, you've been the joke of the whole ship for the last half-hour. I wish you could have seen yourself, with your head hanging over the arm of your chair and your mouth wide open! I thought at last it was only kind to wake you up. Those two young ladies over there have been in fits of laughter!"

Peter picked up Buckle, which was lying face downwards on the deck. His own face was very red, possibly from stooping, as he inquired:

"Er —which two young ladies?"

"Can't tell you their names; but those two uncommonly nice-looking girls – one in white and navy-blue, and the darker one in pink. Dear me, I thought they would have died!"

Even now they seemed to have the greatest difficulty in controlling their countenances, for happening just then to look round and catch Peter's glance of confused and still somnolent suspicion, they buried their faces in their handkerchiefs once more, in agonies of suppressed mirth.

And these were the two whom his dreaming fancies had pictured as tenderly, desperately, madly devoted to him! The reality was decidedly disenchanting: they were very ordinary girls, he saw, after all.

"Well," said Mr. Perkins, "it's not far off tiffin time now; so, you see, you managed to get through your extra time after all!"

"Yes," said Peter, with a little natural embarrassment; "but I think, do you know, that, on reflection, I – I won't deposit the extra hours after all! If you will kindly take back the – the cheque-book," he added, feeling in his pockets, "and give me the form I signed, we will consider the arrangement cancelled – eh?"

"It's my belief," said the Manager, "that your head isn't quite clear yet; for, hang me if I know what you 're talking about! Deposit? cheque-book? form? What is it all about?"

Peter coloured more furiously than before.

"It was the curry," he said. "I wasn't quite sure whether – but it's really too absurd to explain. I am wide-awake now, at all events!"

He was awake now, and knew that no time-bargain of this monstrous kind had ever been actually effected, and all the wild events which seemed to have taken whole months to accomplish themselves, were the work of a single hour's indigestion! He was still a bachelor; still engaged to Sophia: he had still to make the acquaintance of Miss Tyrrell and Miss Davenport, and endure the ordeal of remaining for some weeks to come – to say nothing of the extra hours – exposed to the peril of their fascinations!

But whatever happened now, it could not be said, at least, that he had not received abundant warning of the consequences which might ensue from any yielding, however blameless or defensible, on his part.

And Peter Tourmalin resolved that henceforth Buckle should monopolise his attention.

THE EPILOGUE

There are always a few inquiring persons who, at the conclusion of any story, insist upon being told "what happened after that." And if such a question is ever justified, it is so in the case of a narrative that, as in the present instance, ends almost at the precise moment at which it began.

So it is not impossible that some readers may be sufficiently interested to wish to know the particular effect produced upon Peter Tourmalin's subsequent conduct by a vision more than usually complicated and connected.

Did he receive it, for example, as a solemnly prophetic warning, and forswear all female society while on board the Boomerang? or was he rather prompted to prove its fallibility by actual experience?

As to the motives which guided him, we are unable to speak with confidence, and they must be left to be accounted for by the reader's knowledge of human nature in general, and Peter's, so far as it has been self-revealed by his unconscious imagination in these pages, in particular.

But the author is in a position to state with certainty that, when Sophia and her mother met the ship, as they duly did at Gibraltar, nothing on Peter's part gave them the slightest ground for suspecting that he was on terms of even the most distant acquaintanceship with either Miss Tyrrell or Miss Davenport, and that the fact of his being far advanced in the third volume of Buckle's History of Civilisation seemed to guarantee that he had employed his spare time on board the vessel both wisely and well.

Nor did he get into any difficulties by circulating gossip concerning any matron from Melbourne, owing to the circumstance that there was no lady passenger who at all answered the description. She, like much else in his experiences, was purely a creation of the curry.

Lastly, it may be added that Peter is now married to his Sophia, and is far happier than even he could have expected. She tempers her intellectuality out of consideration for his mental bareness; and as yet he has never found her society in the least oppressive, nor has his errant fancy wandered back in any perfidious sense to the time he spent, when freed from her supervision, on board the Boomerang.

THE END

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