The Misadventures of John Nicholson, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter IX

In which Mr. Nicholson Accepts the Principle of an Allowance

IN spite of the horrors of the day and the tea-drinking of the night, John slept the sleep of infancy. He was awakened by the maid, as it might have been ten years ago, tapping at the door. The winter sunrise was painting the east; and as the window was to the back of the house, it shone into the room with many strange colours of refracted light. Without, the houses were all cleanly roofed with snow; the garden walls were coped with it a foot in height; the greens lay glittering. Yet strange as snow had grown to John during his years upon the Bay of San Francisco, it was what he saw within that most affected him. For it was to his own room that Alexander had been promoted; there was the old paper with the device of flowers, in which a cunning fancy might yet detect the face of Skinny Jim, of the Academy, John’s former dominie; there was the old chest of drawers; there were the chairs — one, two, three — three as before. Only the carpet was new, and the litter of Alexander’s clothes and books and drawing materials, and a pencil-drawing on the wall, which (in John’s eyes) appeared a marvel of proficiency.

He was thus lying, and looking, and dreaming, hanging, as it were, between two epochs of his life, when Alexander came to the door, and made his presence known in a loud whisper. John let him in, and jumped back into the warm bed.

‘Well, John,’ said Alexander, ‘the cablegram is sent in your name, and twenty words of answer paid. I have been to the cab office and paid your cab, even saw the old gentleman himself, and properly apologised. He was mighty placable, and indicated his belief you had been drinking. Then I knocked up old Macewen out of bed, and explained affairs to him as he sat and shivered in a dressing-gown. And before that I had been to the High Street, where they have heard nothing of your dead body, so that I incline to the idea that you dreamed it.’

‘Catch me!’ said John.

‘Well, the police never do know anything,’ assented Alexander; ‘and at any rate, they have despatched a man to inquire and to recover your trousers and your money, so that really your bill is now fairly clean; and I see but one lion in your path — the governor.’

‘I’ll be turned out again, you’ll see,’ said John, dismally.

‘I don’t imagine so,’ returned the other; ‘not if you do what Flora and I have arranged; and your business now is to dress, and lose no time about it. Is your watch right? Well, you have a quarter of an hour. By five minutes before the half — hour you must be at table, in your old seat, under Uncle Duthie’s picture. Flora will be there to keep you countenance; and we shall see what we shall see.’

‘Wouldn’t it be wiser for me to stay in bed?’ said John.

‘If you mean to manage your own concerns, you can do precisely what you like,’ replied Alexander; ‘but if you are not in your place five minutes before the half-hour I wash my hands of you, for one.’

And thereupon he departed. He had spoken warmly, but the truth is, his heart was somewhat troubled. And as he hung over the balusters, watching for his father to appear, he had hard ado to keep himself braced for the encounter that must follow.

‘If he takes it well, I shall be lucky,’ he reflected.

‘If he takes it ill, why it’ll be a herring across John’s tracks, and perhaps all for the best. He’s a confounded muff, this brother of mine, but he seems a decent soul.’

At that stage a door opened below with a certain emphasis, and Mr. Nicholson was seen solemnly to descend the stairs, and pass into his own apartment. Alexander followed, quaking inwardly, but with a steady face. He knocked, was bidden to enter, and found his father standing in front of the forced drawer, to which he pointed as he spoke.

‘This is a most extraordinary thing,’ said he; ‘I have been robbed!’

‘I was afraid you would notice it,’ observed his son; ‘it made such a beastly hash of the table.’

‘You were afraid I would notice it?’ repeated Mr. Nicholson. ‘And, pray, what may that mean?’

‘That I was a thief, sir,’ returned Alexander. ‘I took all the money in case the servants should get hold of it; and here is the change, and a note of my expenditure. You were gone to bed, you see, and I did not feel at liberty to knock you up; but I think when you have heard the circumstances, you will do me justice. The fact is, I have reason to believe there has been some dreadful error about my brother John; the sooner it can be cleared up the better for all parties; it was a piece of business, sir — and so I took it, and decided, on my own responsibility, to send a telegram to San Francisco. Thanks to my quickness we may hear to-night. There appears to be no doubt, sir, that John has been abominably used.’

‘When did this take place?’ asked the father.

‘Last night, sir, after you were asleep,’ was the reply.

‘It’s most extraordinary,’ said Mr. Nicholson. ‘Do you mean to say you have been out all night?’

‘All night, as you say, sir. I have been to the telegraph and the police office, and Mr. Macewen’s. Oh, I had my hands full,’ said Alexander.

‘Very irregular,’ said the father. ‘You think of no one but yourself.’

‘I do not see that I have much to gain in bringing back my elder brother,’ returned Alexander, shrewdly.

The answer pleased the old man; he smiled. ‘Well, well, I will go into this after breakfast,’ said he.

‘I’m sorry about the table,’ said the son.

‘The table is a small matter; I think nothing of that,’ said the father.

‘It’s another example,’ continued the son, ‘of the awkwardness of a man having no money of his own. If I had a proper allowance, like other fellows of my age, this would have been quite unnecessary.’

‘A proper allowance!’ repeated his father, in tones of blighting sarcasm, for the expression was not new to him. ‘I have never grudged you money for any proper purpose.’

‘No doubt, no doubt,’ said Alexander, ‘but then you see you aren’t always on the spot to have the thing explained to you. Last night, for instance — ’

‘You could have wakened me last night,’ interrupted his father.

‘Was it not some similar affair that first got John into a mess?’ asked the son, skilfully evading the point.

But the father was not less adroit. ‘And pray, sir, how did you come and go out of the house?’ he asked.

‘I forgot to lock the door, it seems,’ replied Alexander.

‘I have had cause to complain of that too often,’ said Mr. Nicholson. ‘But still I do not understand. Did you keep the servants up?’

‘I propose to go into all that at length after breakfast,’ returned Alexander. ‘There is the half-hour going; we must not keep Miss Mackenzie waiting.’

And greatly daring, he opened the door.

Even Alexander, who, it must have been perceived was on terms of comparative freedom with his parent — even Alexander had never before dared to cut short an interview in this high — handed fashion. But the truth is, the very mass of his son’s delinquencies daunted the old gentleman. He was like the man with the cart of apples — this was beyond him! That Alexander should have spoiled his table, taken his money, stayed out all night, and then coolly acknowledged all, was something undreamed of in the Nicholsonian philosophy, and transcended comment. The return of the change, which the old gentleman still carried in his hand, had been a feature of imposing impudence; it had dealt him a staggering blow. Then there was the reference to John’s original flight — a subject which he always kept resolutely curtained in his own mind; for he was a man who loved to have made no mistakes, and when he feared he might have made one kept the papers sealed. In view of all these surprises and reminders, and of his son’s composed and masterful demeanour, there began to creep on Mr. Nicholson a sickly misgiving. He seemed beyond his depth; if he did or said anything, he might come to regret it. The young man, besides, as he had pointed out himself, was playing a generous part. And if wrong had been done — and done to one who was, after, and in spite of, all, a Nicholson — it should certainly be righted.

All things considered, monstrous as it was to be cut short in his inquiries, the old gentleman submitted, pocketed the change, and followed his son into the dining-room. During these few steps he once more mentally revolted, and once more, and this time finally, laid down his arms: a still, small voice in his bosom having informed him authentically of a piece of news; that he was afraid of Alexander. The strange thing was that he was pleased to be afraid of him. He was proud of his son; he might be proud of him; the boy had character and grit, and knew what he was doing.

These were his reflections as he turned the corner of the dining-room door. Miss Mackenzie was in the place of honour, conjuring with a tea-pot and a cosy; and, behold! there was another person present, a large, portly, whiskered man of a very comfortable and respectable air, who now rose from his seat and came forward, holding out his hand.

‘Good-morning, father,’ said he.

Of the contention of feeling that ran high in Mr. Nicholson’s starched bosom, no outward sign was visible; nor did he delay long to make a choice of conduct. Yet in that interval he had reviewed a great field of possibilities both past and future; whether it was possible he had not been perfectly wise in his treatment of John; whether it was possible that John was innocent; whether, if he turned John out a second time, as his outraged authority suggested, it was possible to avoid a scandal; and whether, if he went to that extremity, it was possible that Alexander might rebel.

‘Hum!’ said Mr. Nicholson, and put his hand, limp and dead, into John’s.

And then, in an embarrassed silence, all took their places; and even the paper — from which it was the old gentleman’s habit to suck mortification daily, as he marked the decline of our institutions — even the paper lay furled by his side.

But presently Flora came to the rescue. She slid into the silence with a technicality, asking if John still took his old inordinate amount of sugar. Thence it was but a step to the burning question of the day; and in tones a little shaken, she commented on the interval since she had last made tea for the prodigal, and congratulated him on his return. And then addressing Mr. Nicholson, she congratulated him also in a manner that defied his ill-humour; and from that launched into the tale of John’s misadventures, not without some suitable suppressions.

Gradually Alexander joined; between them, whether he would or no, they forced a word or two from John; and these fell so tremulously, and spoke so eloquently of a mind oppressed with dread, that Mr. Nicholson relented. At length even he contributed a question: and before the meal was at an end all four were talking even freely.

Prayers followed, with the servants gaping at this new-comer whom no one had admitted; and after prayers there came that moment on the clock which was the signal for Mr. Nicholson’s departure.

‘John,’ said he, ‘of course you will stay here. Be very careful not to excite Maria, if Miss Mackenzie thinks it desirable that you should see her. Alexander, I wish to speak with you alone.’ And then, when they were both in the back room: ‘You need not come to the office to-day,’ said he; ‘you can stay and amuse your brother, and I think it would be respectful to call on Uncle Greig. And by the bye’ (this spoken with a certain — dare we say? — bashfulness), ‘I agree to concede the principle of an allowance; and I will consult with Doctor Durie, who is quite a man of the world and has sons of his own, as to the amount. And, my fine fellow, you may consider yourself in luck!’ he added, with a smile.

‘Thank you,’ said Alexander.

Before noon a detective had restored to John his money, and brought news, sad enough in truth, but perhaps the least sad possible. Alan had been found in his own house in Regent Terrace, under care of the terrified butler. He was quite mad, and instead of going to prison, had gone to Morningside Asylum. The murdered man, it appeared, was an evicted tenant who had for nearly a year pursued his late landlord with threats and insults; and beyond this, the cause and details of the tragedy were lost.

When Mr. Nicholson returned from dinner they were able to put a despatch into his hands: ‘John V. Nicholson, Randolph Crescent, Edinburgh. — Kirkham has disappeared; police looking for him. All understood. Keep mind quite easy. — Austin.’ Having had this explained to him, the old gentleman took down the cellar key and departed for two bottles of the 1820 port. Uncle Greig dined there that day, and Cousin Robina, and, by an odd chance, Mr. Macewen; and the presence of these strangers relieved what might have been otherwise a somewhat strained relation. Ere they departed, the family was welded once more into a fair semblance of unity.

In the end of April John led Flora — or, as more descriptive, Flora led John — to the altar, if altar that may be called which was indeed the drawing-room mantel-piece in Mr. Nicholson’s house, with the Reverend Dr. Durie posted on the hearthrug in the guise of Hymen’s priest.

The last I saw of them, on a recent visit to the north, was at a dinner-party in the house of my old friend Gellatly Macbride; and after we had, in classic phrase, ‘rejoined the ladies,’ I had an opportunity to overhear Flora conversing with another married woman on the much canvassed matter of a husband’s tobacco.

‘Oh yes!’ said she; ‘I only allow Mr. Nicholson four cigars a day. Three he smokes at fixed times — after a meal, you know, my dear; and the fourth he can take when he likes with any friend.’

‘Bravo!’ thought I to myself; ‘this is the wife for my friend John!’

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