Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXVII

Cousin Montague

Mr. Shovelin went to a corner of the room, which might be called his signal-box, having a little row of port-holes like a toy frigate or accordion, and there he made sounds which brought steps very promptly, one clerk carrying a mighty ledger, and the other a small strong-box.

“No plate,” Major Hockin whispered to me, shaking his gray crest with sorrow; “but there may be diamonds, you know, Erema. One ounce of diamonds is worth a ton of plate.”

“No,” said Mr. Shovelin, whose ears were very keen, “I fear that you will find nothing of mercantile value. Thank you, Mr. Robinson; by-and-by perhaps we shall trouble you. Strictly speaking, perhaps I should require the presence of your father’s lawyer, or of some one producing probate, ere I open this box, Miss Castlewood. But having you here, and Major Hockin, and knowing what I do about the matter (which is one of personal confidence), I will dispense with formalities. We have given your father’s solicitor notice of this deposit, and requested his attention, but he never has deigned to attend to it; so now we will dispense with him. You see that the seal is unbroken; you know your father’s favorite seal, no doubt. The key is nothing; it was left to my charge. You wish that I should open this?”

Certainly I did, and the banker split the seal with an ebony-handled paper-knife, and very soon unlocked the steel-ribbed box, whose weight was chiefly of itself. Some cotton-wool lay on the top to keep the all-penetrative dust away, and then a sheet of blue foolscap paper, partly covered with clear but crooked writing, and under that some little twists of silver paper, screwed as if there had been no time to tie them, and a packet of letters held together by a glittering bracelet.

“Poor fellow!” Mr. Shovelin said, softly, while I held my breath, and the Major had the courtesy to be silent. “This is his will; of no value, I fear, in a pecuniary point of view, but of interest to you his daughter. Shall I open it, Miss Castlewood, or send it to his lawyers?”

“Open it, and never think of them,” said I. “Like the rest, they have forsaken him. Please to read it to yourself, and then tell us.”

“Oh, I wish I had known this before!” cried the banker, after a rapid glance or two. “Very kind, very flattering, I am sure! Yes, I will do my duty by him; I wish there was more to be done in the case. He has left me sole executor, and trustee of all his property, for the benefit of his surviving child. Yet he never gave me the smallest idea of expecting me to do this for him. Otherwise, of course, I should have had this old box opened years ago.”

“We must look at things as they are,” said Major Hockin, for I could say nothing. “The question is, what do you mean to do now?”

“Nothing whatever,” said the banker, crisply, being displeased at the other’s tone; and then, seeing my surprise, he addressed himself to me: “Nothing at present, but congratulate myself upon my old friend’s confidence, and, as Abernethy said, ‘take advice.’ A banker must never encroach upon the province of the lawyer. But so far as a layman may judge, Major Hockin, I think you will have to transfer to me the care of this young lady.”

“I shall be only too happy, I assure you,” the Major answered, truthfully. “My wife has a great regard for her, and so have I— the very greatest, the strongest regard, and warm parental feelings; as you know, Erema. But — but, I am not so young as I was; and I have to develop my property.”

“Of which she no longer forms a part,” Mr. Shovelin answered, with a smile at me, which turned into pleasure my momentary pain at the other’s calm abandonment. “You will find me prompt and proud to claim her, as soon as I am advised that this will is valid; and that I shall learn tomorrow.”

In spite of pride, or by its aid, my foolish eyes were full of tears, and I gave him a look of gratitude which reminded him of my father, as he said in so many words.

“Oh, I hope it is valid! How I hope it is!” I exclaimed, turning round to the Major, who smiled rather grimly, and said he hoped so too.

“But surely,” he continued, “as we are all here, we should not neglect the opportunity of inspecting the other contents of this box. To me it appears that we are bound to do so; that it is our plain duty to ascertain — Why, there might even be a later will. Erema, my dear, you must be most anxious to get to the bottom of it.”

So I was, but desired even more that his curiosity should be foiled. “We must leave that to Mr. Shovelin,” I said.

“Then for the present we will seal it down again,” the banker answered, quietly; “we can see that there is no other will, and a later one would scarcely be put under this. The other little packets, whatever they may be, are objects of curiosity, perhaps, rather than of importance. They will keep till we have more leisure.”

“We have taken up a great deal of your time, Sir, I am sure,” said the Major, finding that he could take no more. “We ought to be, and we are, most grateful.”

“Well,” the banker answered, as we began to move, “such things do not happen every day. But there is no friend like an old friend, Erema, as I mean to call you now. I was to have been your godfather; but I fear that you never have been baptized.”

“What!” cried the Major, staring at us both. “Is such a thing possible in a Christian land? Oh, how I have neglected my duty to the Church! Come back with me to Bruntsea, and my son shall do it. The church there is under my orders, I should hope; and we will have a dinner party afterward. What a horrible neglect of duty!”

“But how could I help it?” I exclaimed, with some terror at Major Hockin’s bristling hair. “I can not remember — I am sure I can not say. It may have been done in France, or somewhere, if there was no time in England. At any rate, my father is not to be blamed.”

“Papistical baptism is worse than none,” the Major said, impressively. “Never mind, my dear, we will make that all right. You shall not be a savage always. We will take the opportunity to change your name. Erema is popish and outlandish; one scarcely knows how to pronounce it. You shall have a good English Christian name — Jemima, Jane, or Sophy. Trust me to know a good name. Trust me.”

“Jemima!” I cried. “Oh, Mr. Shovelin, save me from ever being called Jemima! Rather would I never be baptized at all.”

“I am no judge of names,” he answered, smiling, as he shook hands with us; “but, unless I am a very bad judge of faces, you will be called just what you please.”

“And I please to be called what my father called me. It may be unlucky, as a gentleman told me, who did not know how to pronounce it. However, it will do very well for me. You wish to see me, then, tomorrow, Mr. Shovelin?”

“If you please; but later in the day, when I am more at leisure. I do not run away very early. Come at half past four to this door, and knock. I hear every sound at this door in my room; and the place will be growing quiet then.”

He showed us out into a narrow alley through a heavy door sheathed with iron, and soon we recovered the fair light of day, and the brawl and roar of a London street.

“Now where shall we go?” the Major asked, as soon as he had found a cab again; for he was very polite in that way. “You kept early hours with your ‘uncle Sam,’ as you call Colonel Gundry, a slow-witted man, but most amusing when he likes, as slow-witted men very often are. Now will you come and dine with me? I can generally dine, as you, with virtuous indignation, found out at Southampton. But we are better friends now, Miss Heathen.”

“Yes, I have more than I can ever thank you for,” I answered, very gravely, for I never could become jocose to order, and sadness still was uppermost. “I will go where you like. I am quite at your orders, because Betsy Bowen is busy now. She will not have done her work till six o’clock.”

“Well done!” he cried. “Bravo, Young America! Frankness is the finest of all good manners. And what a lot of clumsy deception it saves! Then let us go and dine. I will imitate your truthfulness. It was two words for myself, and one for you. The air of London always makes me hungry after too much country air. It is wrong altogether, but I can not help it. And going along, I smell hungry smells coming out of deep holes with a plate at the top. Hungry I mean to a man who has known what absolute starvation is — when a man would thank God for a blue-bottle fly who had taken his own nip any where. When I see the young fellows at the clubs pick this, and poke that, and push away the other, may I be d —— d — my dear, I beg your pardon. Cabby, to the ‘Grilled Bone and Scolloped Cockle,’ at the bottom of St. Ventricle Lane, you know.”

This place seemed, from what the Major said, to have earned repute for something special, something esteemed by the very clever people, and only to be found in true virtue here. And he told me that luxury and self-indulgence were the greatest sins of the present age, and how he admired a man who came here to protest against Epicureans, by dining (liquors not included) for the sum of three and sixpence.

All this, no doubt, was wise and right; but I could not attend to it properly now, and he might take me where he would, and have all the talking to himself, according to his practice. And I might not even have been able to say what this temple of bones and cockles was like, except for a little thing which happened there. The room, at the head of a twisting staircase, was low and dark, and furnished almost like a farmhouse kitchen. It had no carpet, nor even a mat, but a floor of black timber, and a ceiling colored blue, with stars and comets, and a full moon near the fire-place. On either side of the room stood narrow tables endwise to the walls, inclosed with high-backed seats like settles, forming thus a double set of little stalls or boxes, with scarcely space enough between for waiters, more urgent than New York firemen, to push their steaming and breathless way.

“Square or round, miss?” said one of them to me as soon as the Major had set me on a bench, and before my mind had time to rally toward criticism of the knives and forks, which deprecated any such ordeal; and he cleverly whipped a stand for something dirty, over something still dirtier, on the cloth.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” I replied to his highly zealous aspect, while the Major sat smiling dryly at my ignorance, which vexed me. “I have never received such a question before. Major Hockin, will you kindly answer him?”

“Square,” said the Major; “square for both.” And the waiter, with a glance of pity at me, hurried off to carry out his order.

“Erema, your mind is all up in the sky,” my companion began to remonstrate. “You ought to know better after all your travels.”

“Then the sky should not fall and confuse me so,” I said, pointing to the Milky Way, not more than a yard above me; “but do tell me what he meant, if you can. Is it about the formation of the soup?”

“Hush, my dear. Soup is high treason here until night, when they make it of the leavings. His honest desire was to know whether you would have a grilled bone of mutton, which is naturally round, you know, or of beef, which, by the same law of nature, seems always to be square, you know.”

“Oh, I see,” I replied, with some confusion, not at his osteology, but at the gaze of a pair of living and lively eyes fastened upon me. A gentleman, waiting for his bill, had risen in the next low box, and stood calmly (as if he had done all his duty to himself) gazing over the wooden back at me, who thus sat facing him. And Major Hockin, following my glance, stood up and turned round to see to it.

“What! Cousin Montague! Bless my heart, who could have dreamed of lighting on you here? Come in, my dear follow; there is plenty of room. Let me introduce you to my new ward, Miss Erema Castlewood. Miss Castlewood, this is Sir Montague Hockin, the son of my lamented first cousin Sir Rufus, of whom you have heard so much. Well, to be sure! I have not seen you for an age. My dear fellow, now how are you?”

“Miss Castlewood, please not to move; I sit any where. Major, I am most delighted to see you. Over and over again I have been at the point of starting for Bruntsea Island — it is an island now, isn’t it? My father would never believe that it was till I proved it from the number of rabbits that came up. However, not a desolate island now, if it contains you and all your energies, and Miss Castlewood, as well as Mrs. Hockin.”

“It is not an island, and it never shall be,” the Major cried, knocking a blue plate over, and spilling the salt inauspiciously. “It never was an island, and it never shall be. My intention is to reclaim it altogether. Oh, here come the squares. Well done! well done! I quite forget the proper thing to have to drink. Are the cockles in the pan, Mr. Waiter? Quite right, then; ten minutes is the proper time; but they know that better than I do. I am very sorry, Montague, that you have dined.”

“Surely you would not call this a dinner; I take my true luncheon afterward. But lately my appetite has been so bad that it must be fed up at short intervals. You can understand that, perhaps, Miss Castlewood. It makes the confectioners’ fortunes, you know. The ladies once came only twice to feed, but now they come three times, I am assured by a young man who knows all about it. And cherry brandy is the mildest form of tipple.”

“Shocking scandal! abominable talk!” cried the Major, who took every thing at its word. “I have heard all that sort of stuff ever since I was as high as this table. Waiter, show me this gentleman’s bill. Oh well, oh well! you have not done so very badly. Two squares and a round, with a jug of Steinberg, and a pint of British stout with your Stilton. If this is your ante-lunch, what will you do when you come to your real luncheon? But I must not talk now; you may have it as you please.”

“The truth of it is, Miss Castlewood,” said the young man, while I looked with some curiosity at my frizzling bone, with the cover just whisked off, and drops of its juice (like the rays of a lustre) shaking with soft inner wealth —“the truth of it is just this, and no more: we fix our minds and our thoughts, and all the rest of our higher intelligence, a great deal too much upon our mere food.”

“No doubt we do,” I was obliged to answer. “It is very sad to think of, as soon as one has dined. But does that reflection occur, as it should, at the proper time to be useful — I mean when we are hungry?”

“I fear not; I fear that it is rather praeterite than practical.”

“No big words now, my dear fellow,” cried the Major. “You have had your turn; let us have ours. But, Erema, you are eating nothing. Take a knife and fork, Montague, and help her. The beauty of these things consists entirely, absolutely, essentially, I may say, in their having the smoke rushing out of them. A gush of steam like this should follow every turn of the knife. But there! I am spoiling every bit by talking so.”

“Is that any fault of mine?” asked Sir Montague, in a tone which made me look at him. The voice was not harsh, nor rough, nor unpleasant, yet it gave me the idea that it could be all three, and worse than all three, upon occasion. So I looked at him, which I had refrained from doing, to see whether his face confirmed that idea. To the best of my perception, it did not. Sir Montague Hockin was rather good-looking, so far as form and color go, having regular features, and clear blue eyes, very beautiful teeth, and a golden beard. His appearance was grave, but not morose, as if he were always examining things and people without condemning them. It was evident that he expected to take the upper hand in general, to play the first fiddle, to hold the top saw, to “be helped to all the stuffing of the pumpkin,” as dear Uncle Sam was fond of saying. Of moderate stature, almost of middle age, and dressed nicely, without any gewgaws, which look so common upon a gentleman’s front, he was likely to please more people than he displeased at first on-sight.

The Major was now in the flush of goodwill, having found his dinner genial; and being a good man, he yielded to a little sympathetic anger with those who had done less justice to themselves. And in this state of mind he begged us to take note of one thing — that his ward should be christened in Bruntsea Church, as sure as all the bells were his, according to their inscriptions, no later than next Thursday week, that being the day for a good sirloin; and if Sir Montague failed to come to see how they could manage things under proper administration, he might be sure of one thing, if no more — that Major Hockin would never speak to him again.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31