The Misadventures of John Nicholson, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter VIII

Singular Instance of the Utility of Pass-Keys

WHERE he ran at first, John never very clearly knew; nor yet how long a time elapsed ere he found himself in the by-road near the lodge of Ravelston, propped against the wall, his lungs heaving like bellows, his legs leaden-heavy, his mind possessed by one sole desire — to lie down and be unseen. He remembered the thick coverts round the quarry-hole pond, an untrodden corner of the world where he might surely find concealment till the night should fall. Thither he passed down the lane; and when he came there, behold! he had forgotten the frost, and the pond was alive with young people skating, and the pond-side coverts were thick with lookers — on. He looked on a while himself. There was one tall, graceful maiden, skating hand in hand with a youth, on whom she bestowed her bright eyes perhaps too patently; and it was strange with what anger John beheld her. He could have broken forth in curses; he could have stood there, like a mortified tramp, and shaken his fist and vented his gall upon her by the hour — or so he thought; and the next moment his heart bled for the girl. ‘Poor creature, it’s little she knows!’ he sighed. ‘Let her enjoy herself while she can!’ But was it possible, when Flora used to smile at him on the Braid ponds, she could have looked so fulsome to a sick — hearted bystander?

The thought of one quarry, in his frozen wits, suggested another; and he plodded off toward Craigleith. A wind had sprung up out of the north-west; it was cruel keen, it dried him like a fire, and racked his finger-joints. It brought clouds, too; pale, swift, hurrying clouds, that blotted heaven and shed gloom upon the earth. He scrambled up among the hazelled rubbish heaps that surround the caldron of the quarry, and lay flat upon the stones. The wind searched close along the earth, the stones were cutting and icy, the bare hazels wailed about him; and soon the air of the afternoon began to be vocal with those strange and dismal harpings that herald snow. Pain and misery turned in John’s limbs to a harrowing impatience and blind desire of change; now he would roll in his harsh lair, and when the flints abraded him, was almost pleased; now he would crawl to the edge of the huge pit and look dizzily down. He saw the spiral of the descending roadway, the steep crags, the clinging bushes, the peppering of snow-wreaths, and far down in the bottom, the diminished crane. Here, no doubt, was a way to end it. But it somehow did not take his fancy.

And suddenly he was aware that he was hungry; ay, even through the tortures of the cold, even through the frosts of despair, a gross, desperate longing after food, no matter what, no matter how, began to wake and spur him. Suppose he pawned his watch? But no, on Christmas-day — this was Christmas-day! — the pawnshop would be closed. Suppose he went to the public-house close by at Blackhall, and offered the watch, which was worth ten pounds, in payment for a meal of bread and cheese? The incongruity was too remarkable; the good folks would either put him to the door, or only let him in to send for the police. He turned his pockets out one after another; some San Francisco tram-car checks, one cigar, no lights, the pass-key to his father’s house, a pocket — handkerchief, with just a touch of scent: no, money could be raised on none of these. There was nothing for it but to starve; and after all, what mattered it? That also was a door of exit.

He crept close among the bushes, the wind playing round him like a lash; his clothes seemed thin as paper, his joints burned, his skin curdled on his bones. He had a vision of a high-lying cattle-drive in California, and the bed of a dried stream with one muddy pool, by which the vaqueros had encamped: splendid sun over all, the big bonfire blazing, the strips of cow browning and smoking on a skewer of wood; how warm it was, how savoury the steam of scorching meat! And then again he remembered his manifold calamities, and burrowed and wallowed in the sense of his disgrace and shame. And next he was entering Frank’s restaurant in Montgomery Street, San Francisco; he had ordered a pan-stew and venison chops, of which he was immoderately fond, and as he sat waiting, Munroe, the good attendant, brought him a whisky punch; he saw the strawberries float on the delectable cup, he heard the ice chink about the straws. And then he woke again to his detested fate, and found himself sitting, humped together, in a windy combe of quarry refuse — darkness thick about him, thin flakes of snow flying here and there like rags of paper, and the strong shuddering of his body clashing his teeth like a hiccough.

We have seen John in nothing but the stormiest condition; we have seen him reckless, desperate, tried beyond his moderate powers; of his daily self, cheerful, regular, not unthrifty, we have seen nothing; and it may thus be a surprise to the reader to learn that he was studiously careful of his health. This favourite preoccupation now awoke. If he were to sit there and die of cold, there would be mighty little gained; better the police cell and the chances of a jury trial, than the miserable certainty of death at a dyke-side before the next winter’s dawn, or death a little later in the gas — lighted wards of an infirmary.

He rose on aching legs, and stumbled here and there among the rubbish heaps, still circumvented by the yawning crater of the quarry; or perhaps he only thought so, for the darkness was already dense, the snow was growing thicker, and he moved like a blind man, and with a blind man’s terrors. At last he climbed a fence, thinking to drop into the road, and found himself staggering, instead, among the iron furrows of a ploughland, endless, it seemed, as a whole county. And next he was in a wood, beating among young trees; and then he was aware of a house with many lighted windows, Christmas carriages waiting at the doors, and Christmas drivers (for Christmas has a double edge) becoming swiftly hooded with snow. From this glimpse of human cheerfulness, he fled like Cain; wandered in the night, unpiloted, careless of whither he went; fell, and lay, and then rose again and wandered further; and at last, like a transformation scene, behold him in the lighted jaws of the city, staring at a lamp which had already donned the tilted night-cap of the snow. It came thickly now, a ‘Feeding Storm’; and while he yet stood blinking at the lamp, his feet were buried. He remembered something like it in the past, a street-lamp crowned and caked upon the windward side with snow, the wind uttering its mournful hoot, himself looking on, even as now; but the cold had struck too sharply on his wits, and memory failed him as to the date and sequel of the reminiscence.

His next conscious moment was on the Dean Bridge; but whether he was John Nicholson of a bank in a California street, or some former John, a clerk in his father’s office, he had now clean forgotten. Another blank, and he was thrusting his pass-key into the door-lock of his father’s house.

Hours must have passed. Whether crouched on the cold stones or wandering in the fields among the snow, was more than he could tell; but hours had passed. The finger of the hall clock was close on twelve; a narrow peep of gas in the hall — lamp shed shadows; and the door of the back room — his father’s room — was open and emitted a warm light. At so late an hour, all this was strange; the lights should have been out, the doors locked, the good folk safe in bed. He marvelled at the irregularity, leaning on the hall-table; and marvelled to himself there; and thawed and grew once more hungry, in the warmer air of the house.

The clock uttered its premonitory catch; in five minutes Christmas-day would be among the days of the past — Christmas! — what a Christmas! Well, there was no use waiting; he had come into that house, he scarce knew how; if they were to thrust him forth again, it had best be done at once; and he moved to the door of the back room and entered.

Oh, well, then he was insane, as he had long believed.

There, in his father’s room, at midnight, the fire was roaring and the gas blazing; the papers, the sacred papers — to lay a hand on which was criminal — had all been taken off and piled along the floor; a cloth was spread, and a supper laid, upon the business table; and in his father’s chair a woman, habited like a nun, sat eating. As he appeared in the doorway, the nun rose, gave a low cry, and stood staring. She was a large woman, strong, calm, a little masculine, her features marked with courage and good sense; and as John blinked back at her, a faint resemblance dodged about his memory, as when a tune haunts us, and yet will not be recalled.

‘Why, it’s John!’ cried the nun.

‘I dare say I’m mad,’ said John, unconsciously following King Lear; ‘but, upon my word, I do believe you’re Flora.’

‘Of course I am,’ replied she.

And yet it is not Flora at all, thought John; Flora was slender, and timid, and of changing colour, and dewy-eyed; and had Flora such an Edinburgh accent? But he said none of these things, which was perhaps as well. What he said was, ‘Then why are you a nun?’

‘Such nonsense!’ said Flora. ‘I’m a sick-nurse; and I am here nursing your sister, with whom, between you and me, there is precious little the matter. But that is not the question. The point is: How do you come here? and are you not ashamed to show yourself?’

‘Flora,’ said John, sepulchrally, ‘I haven’t eaten anything for three days. Or, at least, I don’t know what day it is; but I guess I’m starving.’

‘You unhappy man!’ she cried. ‘Here, sit down and eat my supper; and I’ll just run upstairs and see my patient; not but what I doubt she’s fast asleep, for Maria is a MALADE IMAGINAIRE.’

With this specimen of the French, not of Stratford-atte-Bowe, but of a finishing establishment in Moray Place, she left John alone in his father’s sanctum. He fell at once upon the food; and it is to be supposed that Flora had found her patient wakeful, and been detained with some details of nursing, for he had time to make a full end of all there was to eat, and not only to empty the teapot, but to fill it again from a kettle that was fitfully singing on his father’s fire. Then he sat torpid, and pleased, and bewildered; his misfortunes were then half forgotten; his mind considering, not without regret, this unsentimental return to his old love.

He was thus engaged, when that bustling woman noiselessly re — entered.

‘Have you eaten?’ said she. ‘Then tell me all about it.’

It was a long and (as the reader knows) a pitiful story; but Flora heard it with compressed lips. She was lost in none of those questionings of human destiny that have, from time to time, arrested the flight of my own pen; for women, such as she, are no philosophers, and behold the concrete only. And women, such as she, are very hard on the imperfect man.

‘Very well,’ said she, when he had done; ‘then down upon your knees at once, and beg God’s forgiveness.’

And the great baby plumped upon his knees, and did as he was bid; and none the worse for that! But while he was heartily enough requesting forgiveness on general principles, the rational side of him distinguished, and wondered if, perhaps, the apology were not due upon the other part. And when he rose again from that becoming exercise, he first eyed the face of his old love doubtfully, and then, taking heart, uttered his protest.

‘I must say, Flora,’ said he, ‘in all this business, I can see very little fault of mine.’

‘If you had written home,’ replied the lady, ‘there would have been none of it. If you had even gone to Murrayfield reasonably sober, you would never have slept there, and the worst would not have happened. Besides, the whole thing began years ago. You got into trouble, and when your father, honest man, was disappointed, you took the pet, or got afraid, and ran away from punishment. Well, you’ve had your own way of it, John, and I don’t suppose you like it.’

‘I sometimes fancy I’m not much better than a fool,’ sighed John.

‘My dear John,’ said she, ‘not much!’

He looked at her, and his eye fell. A certain anger rose within him; here was a Flora he disowned; she was hard; she was of a set colour; a settled, mature, undecorative manner; plain of speech, plain of habit — he had come near saying, plain of face. And this changeling called herself by the same name as the many-coloured, clinging maid of yore; she of the frequent laughter, and the many sighs, and the kind, stolen glances. And to make all worse, she took the upper hand with him, which (as John well knew) was not the true relation of the sexes. He steeled his heart against this sick-nurse.

‘And how do you come to be here?’ he asked.

She told him how she had nursed her father in his long illness, and when he died, and she was left alone, had taken to nurse others, partly from habit, partly to be of some service in the world; partly, it might be, for amusement. ‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ said she. And she told him how she went largely to the houses of old friends, as the need arose; and how she was thus doubly welcome as an old friend first, and then as an experienced nurse, to whom doctors would confide the gravest cases.

‘And, indeed, it’s a mere farce my being here for poor Maria,’ she continued; ‘but your father takes her ailments to heart, and I cannot always be refusing him. We are great friends, your father and I; he was very kind to me long ago — ten years ago.

A strange stir came in John’s heart. All this while had he been thinking only of himself? All this while, why had he not written to Flora? In penitential tenderness, he took her hand, and, to his awe and trouble, it remained in his, compliant. A voice told him this was Flora, after all — told him so quietly, yet with a thrill of singing.

‘And you never married?’ said he.

‘No, John; I never married,’ she replied.

The hall clock striking two recalled them to the sense of time.

‘And now,’ said she, ‘you have been fed and warmed, and I have heard your story, and now it’s high time to call your brother.’

‘Oh!’ cried John, chap-fallen; ‘do you think that absolutely necessary?’

‘I can’t keep you here; I am a stranger,’ said she. ‘Do you want to run away again? I thought you had enough of that.’

He bowed his head under the reproof. She despised him, he reflected, as he sat once more alone; a monstrous thing for a woman to despise a man; and strangest of all, she seemed to like him. Would his brother despise him, too? And would his brother like him?

And presently the brother appeared, under Flora’s escort; and, standing afar off beside the doorway, eyed the hero of this tale.

‘So this is you?’ he said, at length.

‘Yes, Alick, it’s me — it’s John,’ replied the elder brother, feebly.

‘And how did you get in here?’ inquired the younger.

‘Oh, I had my pass-key,’ says John.

‘The deuce you had!’ said Alexander. ‘Ah, you lived in a better world! There are no pass-keys going now.’

‘Well, father was always averse to them,’ sighed John. And the conversation then broke down, and the brothers looked askance at one another in silence.

‘Well, and what the devil are we to do?’ said Alexander. ‘I suppose if the authorities got wind of you, you would be taken up?’

‘It depends on whether they’ve found the body or not,’ returned John. ‘And then there’s that cabman, to be sure!’

‘Oh, bother the body!’ said Alexander. ‘I mean about the other thing. That’s serious.’

‘Is that what my father spoke about?’ asked John. ‘I don’t even know what it is.’

‘About your robbing your bank in California, of course,’ replied Alexander.

It was plain, from Flora’s face, that this was the first she had heard of it; it was plainer still, from John’s, that he was innocent.

‘I!’ he exclaimed. ‘I rob my bank! My God! Flora, this is too much; even you must allow that.’

‘Meaning you didn’t?’ asked Alexander.

‘I never robbed a soul in all my days,’ cried John: ‘except my father, if you call that robbery; and I brought him back the money in this room, and he wouldn’t even take it!’

‘Look here, John,’ said his brother, ‘let us have no misunderstanding upon this. Macewen saw my father; he told him a bank you had worked for in San Francisco was wiring over the habitable globe to have you collared — that it was supposed you had nailed thousands; and it was dead certain you had nailed three hundred. So Macewen said, and I wish you would be careful how you answer. I may tell you also, that your father paid the three hundred on the spot.’

‘Three hundred?’ repeated John. ‘Three hundred pounds, you mean? That’s fifteen hundred dollars. Why, then, it’s Kirkman!’ he broke out. ‘Thank Heaven! I can explain all that. I gave them to Kirkman to pay for me the night before I left — fifteen hundred dollars, and a letter to the manager. What do they suppose I would steal fifteen hundred dollars for? I’m rich; I struck it rich in stocks. It’s the silliest stuff I ever heard of. All that’s needful is to cable to the manager: Kirkman has the fifteen hundred — find Kirkman. He was a fellow-clerk of mine, and a hard case; but to do him justice, I didn’t think he was as hard as this.’

‘And what do you say to that, Alick?’ asked Flora.

‘I say the cablegram shall go to-night!’ cried Alexander, with energy. ‘Answer prepaid, too. If this can be cleared away — and upon my word I do believe it can — we shall all be able to hold up our heads again. Here, you John, you stick down the address of your bank manager. You, Flora, you can pack John into my bed, for which I have no further use to — night. As for me, I am off to the post-office, and thence to the High Street about the dead body. The police ought to know, you see, and they ought to know through John; and I can tell them some rigmarole about my brother being a man of highly nervous organisation, and the rest of it. And then, I’ll tell you what, John — did you notice the name upon the cab?’

John gave the name of the driver, which, as I have not been able to command the vehicle, I here suppress.

‘Well,’ resumed Alexander, ‘I’ll call round at their place before I come back, and pay your shot for you. In that way, before breakfast-time, you’ll be as good as new.’

John murmured inarticulate thanks. To see his brother thus energetic in his service moved him beyond expression; if he could not utter what he felt, he showed it legibly in his face; and Alexander read it there, and liked it the better in that dumb delivery.

‘But there’s one thing,’ said the latter, ‘cablegrams are dear; and I dare say you remember enough of the governor to guess the state of my finances.’

‘The trouble is,’ said John, ‘that all my stamps are in that beastly house.’

‘All your what?’ asked Alexander.

‘Stamps — money,’ explained John. ‘It’s an American expression; I’m afraid I contracted one or two.’

‘I have some,’ said Flora. ‘I have a pound note upstairs.’

‘My dear Flora,’ returned Alexander, ‘a pound note won’t see us very far; and besides, this is my father’s business, and I shall be very much surprised if it isn’t my father who pays for it.’

‘I would not apply to him yet; I do not think that can be wise,’ objected Flora.

‘You have a very imperfect idea of my resources, and not at all of my effrontery,’ replied Alexander. ‘Please observe.’

He put John from his way, chose a stout knife among the supper things, and with surprising quickness broke into his father’s drawer.

‘There’s nothing easier when you come to try,’ he observed, pocketing the money.

‘I wish you had not done that,’ said Flora. ‘You will never hear the last of it.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ returned the young man; ‘the governor is human after all. And now, John, let me see your famous pass — key. Get into bed, and don’t move for any one till I come back. They won’t mind you not answering when they knock; I generally don’t myself.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30