Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLVII

Cadmeian Victory

Before two o’clock of the following day Major Hockin and myself were in London, and ready to stay there for two or three days, if it should prove needful. Before leaving Bruntsea I had written briefly to Lord Castlewood, telling him that important matters had taken me away from Shoxford, and as soon as I could explain them, I would come and tell him all about it. This was done only through fear of his being annoyed at my independence.

From London Bridge the Major took a cab direct to Clerkenwell; and again I observed that of all his joys one of the keenest was to match his wits against a cabman’s. “A regular muff, this time,” he said, as he jerked up and down with his usual delight in displaying great knowledge of London; “no sport to be had out of him. Why, he stared at me when I said ‘Rosamond Street,’ and made me stick on ‘Clerkenwell.’ Now here he is taking us down Snow Hill, when he should have been crossing Smithfield. Smithfield, cabby, Smithfield!”

“Certain, Sir, Smiffle, if you gives the order;” and he turned the poor horse again, and took us up the hill, and among a great number of barriers. “No thoroughfare,” “No thoroughfare,” on all hands stretched across us; but the cabman threaded his way between, till he came to the brink of a precipice. The horse seemed quite ready, like a Roman, to leap down it, seeing nothing less desirable than his present mode of life, till a man with a pickaxe stopped him.

“What are you at?” cried the Major, with fury equalled by nothing except his fright. “Erema, untie my big rattan. Quick — quick —”

“Captain,” said the cabman, coolly, “I must have another shilling for this job. A hextra mile and a quarter, to your orders. You knows Lunnon so much better. Smiffle stopped — new railway — new meat market — never heered of that now, did you?”

“You scoundrel, drive straight to the nearest police office.”

“Must jump this little ditch, then, Captain. Five pun’ fine for you, when we gets there. Hold on inside, old gentleman. Kuck, kuck, Bob, you was a hunter once. It ain’t more than fifty feet deep, my boy.”

“Turn round! turn round, I tell you! turn round! If your neck is forfeit, you rogue, mine is not. I never was so taken in in my life!” Major Hockin continued to rave, and amid many jeers we retreated humbly, and the driver looked in at us with a gentle grin. “And I thought he was so soft, you know! Erema, may I swear at him?”

“On no account,” I said. “Why, after all, it is only a shilling, and the loss of time. And then, you can always reflect that you have discharged, as you say, a public duty, by protesting against a vile system.”

“Protesting is very well, when it pays,” the Major answered, gloomily; “but to pay for protesting is another pair of shoes.”

This made him cross, and he grew quite fierce when the cabman smote him for eight-pence more. “Four parcels on the roof, Captain,” he said, looking as only a cabman can look at his money, and spinning his extra shilling. “Twopence each under new hact, you know. Scarcely thought a hofficer would ‘a tried evasion.”

“You consummate scoundrel — and you dress yourself like a countryman! I’ll have your badge indorsed — I’ll have your license marked. Erema, pay the thief; it is more than I can do.”

“Captain, your address, if you please; I shall summon you for scurrilous language, as the hact directs. Ah, you do right to be driven to a pawn shop.”

Triumphantly he drove off, while the Major cried, “Never tie up my rattan again. Oh, it was Mrs. Hockin, was it? What a fool I was not to stop on my own manor!”

“I pray you to disdain such low impudence,” I said, for I could not bear to see him shake like that, and grieved to have brought him into it. “You have beaten fifty of them — a hundred of them — I have heard you say.”

“Certainly I have, my dear; but I had no Bruntsea then, and could not afford to pay the rogues. That makes me feel it so bitterly, so loftily, and so righteously. To be treated like this, when I think of all my labors for the benefit of the rascally human race! my Institute, my Lyceum, my Mutual Improvement Association, and Christian Young Men’s something. There is no institution, after all, to be compared to the tread-mill.”

Recovering himself with this fine conclusion, he led me down a little sloping alley, scarcely wide enough for a wheelbarrow, to an old black door, where we set down our parcels; for he had taken his, while I carried mine, and not knowing what might happen yet, like a true peace-maker I stuck to the sheaf of umbrellas and the rattan cane. And thankful I was, and so might be the cabman, to have that weapon nicely sheathed with silk.

Major Hockin’s breath was short, through too much talking without action, and he waited for a minute at this door, to come back to his equanimity. And I thought that our female breath falls short for the very opposite reason — when we do too much and talk too little; which happily seldom happens.

He was not long in coming back to his usual sprightliness and decision. And it was no small relief to me, who was looking at him miserably, and longing that his wife was there, through that very sad one-and-eightpence, when he pulled out a key, which he always carried as signer and lord of Bruntsea, the key of the town-hall, which had survived lock, door, and walls by centuries, and therewith struck a door which must have reminded that key of its fine old youth.

Before he had knocked so very many times, the door was opened by a young man wearing an apron and a brown paper cap, who knew Major Hockin at once, and showed us up stairs to a long low workshop. Here were many wheels and plates and cylinders revolving by energy of a strap which came through the floor and went through the ceiling. And the young man told us to be careful how we walked, for fear of getting entangled. Several men, wearing paper caps and aprons of leather or baize, were sitting doing dextrous work, no doubt, and doing it very easily, and the master of them all was hissing over some fine touch of jewel as a groom does at a horse. Then seeing us, he dropped his holders, and threw a leather upon his large lens, and came and took us to a little side room.

“Are you not afraid to leave them?” asked the Major. “They may secrete some gems, Mr. Handkin.”

“Never,” said the lapidary, with some pride. “I could trust these men with the Koh-i-noor; which we could have done better, I believe, than it was done by the Hollanders. But we don’t get the chance to do much in diamonds, through the old superstition about Amsterdam, and so on. No, no; the only thing I can’t trust my men about is to work as hard when I am away as when I am there. And now, Sir, what can I do for you? Any more Bruntsea pebbles? The last were not worth the cutting.”

“So you said; but I did not think so. We have some agates as good as any from Aberystwith or Perthshire. But what I want now is to open this case. It must be done quite privately, for a most particular reason. It does open, doesn’t it? I am sure it does.”

“Certainly it opens,” Mr. Handkin answered, while I trembled with anxiety as he lightly felt it round the edges with fingers engrained with corundum. “I could open it in one instant, but the enamel might fly. Will you risk it?”

The Major looked at me, and I said, “Oh no; please not to risk any thing, if any slower process will do it without risk. We want it done without injury.”

“Then it will cost a good bit,” he replied. “I can open it for five shillings, if you run the risk; if that rests with me, I must charge five pounds.”

“Say three,” cried the Major. “Well, then, say four guineas: I have a lot of work in store for you.”

“I never overcharge, and I never depart from my figures,” the lapidary answered. “There is only one other man in London who knows the secret of this enamel, and he is my brother. They never make such enamel now. The art is lost, like that of the French paste of a hundred years ago, which almost puzzles even me until I go behind it. I will give you my brother’s address if you like; but instead of five pounds, he will charge you ten guineas — if it must be done in private. Without that condition, I can do it for two pounds. You wish to know why that should make such a difference. Well, for this simple reason: to make sure of the job, it must be done by daylight; it can be done only in my chief work-room; if no one is to see what I am about (and my men have sharp eyes, I can tell you), all my hands must be sacked for the afternoon, but not without their wages. That alone would go far toward the difference, and then there is the dropping of the jobs in hand, and waste of power, and so on. I have asked you too little, Major Hockin, I assure you; but having said, I will stick to it, although I would much rather you would let me off.”

“I have known you for many years,” the Major answered —“ever since you were a boy, with a flat box, working at our Cornish opals. You would have done a lot of work for five pounds then. But I never knew you overcharge for any thing. We agree to your terms, and are obliged to you. But you guarantee no damage?”

“I will open this locket, take out its contents, whatever they may be, and reclose it so that the maker, if still alive — which is not very probable — should not know that it had been meddled with.”

“Very well; that is exactly what we want; for I have an idea about it which I may try to go on with afterward. And for that it is essential to have no symptom that it ever has been opened. What are these brilliants worth, Mr. Handkin?”

“Well, Sir, in the trade, about a hundred and fifty, though I dare say they cost three hundred. And the portrait is worth another hundred, if I find on the back the marks I expect.”

“You do not mean to say that you know the artist?” I could not help exclaiming, though determined not to speak. “Oh, then, we shall find out every thing!”

“Erema, you are a — well, you are a silly!” Major Hockin exclaimed, and then colored with remembering that rather he should have let my lapse pass. But the lapidary seemed to pay no attention, only to be calling down to some one far below. “Now mind what you say,” the Major whispered to me, just as if he were the essence of discretion.

“The work-room is clear now,” Mr. Handkin said; “the fellows were delighted to get their afternoon. Now you see that I have to take off this hoop, and there lies the difficulty. I could have taken out the gold back, as I said, with very little trouble, by simply cutting it. But the locket would never have been quite the same, though we put a new back; and, more than that, the pressure of the tool might flaw the enamel, or even crack the portrait, for the make of this thing is peculiar. Now first I submit the rim or verge, without touching the brilliants, mind you, to the action of a little preparation of my own — a gentle but penetrative solvent. You are welcome to watch me; you will be none the wiser; you are not in the trade, though the young lady looks as if she would make a good polisher. Very well: if this were an ordinary closure, with two flat surfaces meeting, the solvent would be absorbed into the adhesion, expansion would take place, and there we have it. But this is what we call a cyme-joint, a cohesion of two curved surfaces, formed in a reflex curve which admits the solvent most reluctantly, or, indeed, not at all, without too long application. For that, then, another kind of process is needful, and we find it in frictional heat applied most gradually and judiciously. For that I must have a buff-leather wheel, whose revolutions are timed to a nicety, and that wheel I only have in this room. Now you see why I sent the men away.”

Though I watched his work with great interest, it is out of my power to describe it now, and, moreover, it is not needful. Major Hockin, according to his nature, grew quite restless and impatient, and even went out for a walk, with his cane unpacked and unsheathed against cabmen. But I was content to wait and watch, having always heard and thought that good work will not do itself, but must have time and skill to second it. And Mr. Handkin, moving arms, palms, and fingers beautifully, put the same thought into words.

“Good work takes a deal of time to do; but the man that does it all the time knows well that it will take long to undo. Here it comes undone at last!”

As he spoke, the excitable Major returned.

“Done it, eh? Well, you are a clever fellow. Now don’t look inside it; that is no part of your business, nor mine either, unless this young lady desires it. Hand it to her first, my friend.”

“Wait half a minute,” said the lapidary; “it is so far opened that the hoop spins round, but it must not be taken off until it cools. The lady may lift it then with care. I have done this job as a piece of fine art; I have no wish to see any more of it.”

“Handkin, don’t you be so touchy to a brother Cornishman. I thought that I was Cornish enough, but you go cliffs beyond me.”

“Well, Major Hockin,” the lapidary answered, “I beg your pardon, if I said harm. But a man doing careful and skilled work — and skilled work it is, at every turn of the hand, as miss can bear witness, while you walked off — he don’t care who it is, Major Hockin, he would fight his own brother to maintain it.”

“Very well, very well. Let us come away. I always enter into every body’s feelings. I see yours as clearly, Handkin, as if you had laid them open on that blessed wheel. My insight has always been remarkable. Every one, without exception, says that of me. Now come away, come away — will you never see?”

Intent as I was upon what lay in my left palm relaxing itself, I could not help being sorry for the way in which the man of art, after all his care, was ground down by his brother Cornishman. However, he had lived long enough in the world to feel no surprise at ingratitude.

Now I went to one of the windows, as the light (which had been very good) began to pale from its long and labored sufferance of London, and then, with soft and steady touch, I lifted off the loosened hoop. A smell of mustiness — for smells go through what nothing else can — was the first thing to perceive, and then, having moved the disk of gold, I found a piece of vellum. This was doubled, and I opened it, and read, in small clear writing:

“May 7, 1809 A.D., George, Lord Castlewood, married Winifred, only child of Thomas Hoyle, as this his signature witnesseth.

“CASTLEWOOD.

“(Witness) THOMAS HOYLE.”

There was nothing more inside this locket, except two little wisps of hair tied with gold thread, and the miniature upon ivory, bearing on the back some anagram, probably that of the artist.

Already had I passed through a great many troubles, changes, chances, and adventures which always seem strange (when I come to look back), but never surprised me at the moment. Indeed, I might almost make bold to pronounce that not many persons of my age and sex have been visited, wholly against their own will, by such a series of incidents, not to say marvelous, but at any rate fairly to be called unusual. And throughout them perhaps it will be acknowledged by all who have cared to consider them, that up to the present time I did not fail more than themselves might have done in patience. And in no description of what came to pass have I colored things at all in my own favor — at least so far as intention goes — neither laid myself out to get sympathy, though it often would have done me a world of good.

But now I am free to confess that my patience broke down very sadly. Why, if what was written on that vellum was true, and Major Hockin correct as well, it came to no less than this, that my own dear father was a base-born son, and I had no right to the name I was so proud of! If, moreover, as I now began to dream, that terrible and mysterious man did not resemble my father so closely without some good reason, it seemed too likely that he might be his elder brother and the proper heir.

This was bad enough to think of, but an idea a thousandfold worse assailed me in the small hours of the night, as I lay on Mrs. Strouss’s best bed, which she kept for consuls, or foreign barons, or others whom she loved to call “international notorieties.” Having none of these now, she assigned me that bed after hearing all I had to say, and not making all that she might have done of it, because of the praise that would fall to Mrs. Busk.

However, she acknowledged that she knew nothing of the history of “the poor old lord.” He might have carried on, for all she could tell, with many wives before his true one — a thing she heard too much of; but as for the Captain not being his true son and the proper heir to the peerage, let any one see him walk twice, and then have a shadow of a doubt about it! This logic pleased but convinced me not, and I had to go to bed in a very unhappy, restless, and comfortless state of mind.

I hope that, rather than myself, that bed, full of international confusion, is to blame for the wicked ideas which assailed me while I could not even try to sleep. One of them — and a loyal daughter could scarcely have a worse one — was that my own dear father, knowing Lord Castlewood’s bad behavior, and his own sad plight in consequence, and through that knowledge caring little to avenge his death, for wife and children’s sake preferred to foil inquiry rather than confront the truth and challenge it. He might not have meant to go so far, at first beginning with it; but, starting once, might be driven on by grievous loss, and bitter sense of recreant friends, and the bleak despair of a homeless world before him. And serving as the scape-goat thus, he might have received from the real culprit a pledge for concealment of the family disgrace.

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