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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
JOHN VAREY NICHOLSON was stupid; yet, stupider men than he are now sprawling in Parliament, and lauding themselves as the authors of their own distinction. He was of a fat habit, even from boyhood, and inclined to a cheerful and cursory reading of the face of life; and possibly this attitude of mind was the original cause of his misfortunes. Beyond this hint philosophy is silent on his career, and superstition steps in with the more ready explanation that he was detested of the gods.
His father — that iron gentleman — had long ago enthroned himself on the heights of the Disruption Principles. What these are (and in spite of their grim name they are quite innocent) no array of terms would render thinkable to the merely English intelligence; but to the Scot they often prove unctuously nourishing, and Mr. Nicholson found in them the milk of lions. About the period when the churches convene at Edinburgh in their annual assemblies, he was to be seen descending the Mound in the company of divers red-headed clergymen: these voluble, he only contributing oracular nods, brief negatives, and the austere spectacle of his stretched upper lip. The names of Candlish and Begg were frequent in these interviews, and occasionally the talk ran on the Residuary Establishment and the doings of one Lee. A stranger to the tight little theological kingdom of Scotland might have listened and gathered literally nothing. And Mr. Nicholson (who was not a dull man) knew this, and raged at it. He knew there was a vast world outside, to whom Disruption Principles were as the chatter of tree-top apes; the paper brought him chill whiffs from it; he had met Englishmen who had asked lightly if he did not belong to the Church of Scotland, and then had failed to be much interested by his elucidation of that nice point; it was an evil, wild, rebellious world, lying sunk in DOZENEDNESS, for nothing short of a Scots word will paint this Scotsman’s feelings. And when he entered into his own house in Randolph Crescent (south side), and shut the door behind him, his heart swelled with security. Here, at least, was a citadel impregnable by right-hand defections or left-hand extremes. Here was a family where prayers came at the same hour, where the Sabbath literature was unimpeachably selected, where the guest who should have leaned to any false opinion was instantly set down, and over which there reigned all week, and grew denser on Sundays, a silence that was agreeable to his ear, and a gloom that he found comfortable.
Mrs. Nicholson had died about thirty, and left him with three children: a daughter two years, and a son about eight years younger than John; and John himself, the unlucky bearer of a name infamous in English history. The daughter, Maria, was a good girl — dutiful, pious, dull, but so easily startled that to speak to her was quite a perilous enterprise. ‘I don’t think I care to talk about that, if you please,’ she would say, and strike the boldest speechless by her unmistakable pain; this upon all topics — dress, pleasure, morality, politics, in which the formula was changed to ‘my papa thinks otherwise,’ and even religion, unless it was approached with a particular whining tone of voice. Alexander, the younger brother, was sickly, clever, fond of books and drawing, and full of satirical remarks. In the midst of these, imagine that natural, clumsy, unintelligent, and mirthful animal, John; mighty well-behaved in comparison with other lads, although not up to the mark of the house in Randolph Crescent; full of a sort of blundering affection, full of caresses, which were never very warmly received; full of sudden and loud laughter which rang out in that still house like curses. Mr. Nicholson himself had a great fund of humour, of the Scots order — intellectual, turning on the observation of men; his own character, for instance — if he could have seen it in another — would have been a rare feast to him; but his son’s empty guffaws over a broken plate, and empty, almost light-hearted remarks, struck him with pain as the indices of a weak mind.
Outside the family John had early attached himself (much as a dog may follow a marquis) to the steps of Alan Houston, a lad about a year older than himself, idle, a trifle wild, the heir to a good estate which was still in the hands of a rigorous trustee, and so royally content with himself that he took John’s devotion as a thing of course. The intimacy was gall to Mr. Nicholson; it took his son from the house, and he was a jealous parent; it kept him from the office, and he was a martinet; lastly, Mr. Nicholson was ambitious for his family (in which, and the Disruption Principles, he entirely lived), and he hated to see a son of his play second fiddle to an idler. After some hesitation, he ordered that the friendship should cease — an unfair command, though seemingly inspired by the spirit of prophecy; and John, saying nothing, continued to disobey the order under the rose.
John was nearly nineteen when he was one day dismissed rather earlier than usual from his father’s office, where he was studying the practice of the law. It was Saturday; and except that he had a matter of four hundred pounds in his pocket which it was his duty to hand over to the British Linen Company’s Bank, he had the whole afternoon at his disposal. He went by Princes Street enjoying the mild sunshine, and the little thrill of easterly wind that tossed the flags along that terrace of palaces, and tumbled the green trees in the garden. The band was playing down in the valley under the castle; and when it came to the turn of the pipers, he heard their wild sounds with a stirring of the blood. Something distantly martial woke in him; and he thought of Miss Mackenzie, whom he was to meet that day at dinner.
Now, it is undeniable that he should have gone directly to the bank, but right in the way stood the billiard-room of the hotel where Alan was almost certain to be found; and the temptation proved too strong. He entered the billiard-room, and was instantly greeted by his friend, cue in hand.
‘Nicholson,’ said he, ‘I want you to lend me a pound or two till Monday.’
‘You’ve come to the right shop, haven’t you?’ returned John. ‘I have twopence.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Alan. ‘You can get some. Go and borrow at your tailor’s; they all do it. Or I’ll tell you what: pop your watch.’
‘Oh, yes, I dare say,’ said John. ‘And how about my father?’
‘How is he to know? He doesn’t wind it up for you at night, does he?’ inquired Alan, at which John guffawed. ‘No, seriously; I am in a fix,’ continued the tempter. ‘I have lost some money to a man here. I’ll give it you to-night, and you can get the heir-loom out again on Monday. Come; it’s a small service, after all. I would do a good deal more for you.’
Whereupon John went forth, and pawned his gold watch under the assumed name of John Froggs, 85 Pleasance. But the nervousness that assailed him at the door of that inglorious haunt — a pawnshop — and the effort necessary to invent the pseudonym (which, somehow, seemed to him a necessary part of the procedure), had taken more time than he imagined: and when he returned to the billiard-room with the spoils, the bank had already closed its doors.
This was a shrewd knock. ‘A piece of business had been neglected.’ He heard these words in his father’s trenchant voice, and trembled, and then dodged the thought. After all, who was to know? He must carry four hundred pounds about with him till Monday, when the neglect could be surreptitiously repaired; and meanwhile, he was free to pass the afternoon on the encircling divan of the billiard-room, smoking his pipe, sipping a pint of ale, and enjoying to the masthead the modest pleasures of admiration.
None can admire like a young man. Of all youth’s passions and pleasures, this is the most common and least alloyed; and every flash of Alan’s black eyes; every aspect of his curly head; every graceful reach, every easy, stand-off attitude of waiting; ay, and down to his shirt-sleeves and wrist-links, were seen by John through a luxurious glory. He valued himself by the possession of that royal friend, hugged himself upon the thought, and swam in warm azure; his own defects, like vanquished difficulties, becoming things on which to plume himself. Only when he thought of Miss Mackenzie there fell upon his mind a shadow of regret; that young lady was worthy of better things than plain John Nicholson, still known among schoolmates by the derisive name of ‘Fatty’; and he felt, if he could chalk a cue, or stand at ease, with such a careless grace as Alan, he could approach the object of his sentiments with a less crushing sense of inferiority.
Before they parted, Alan made a proposal that was startling in the extreme. He would be at Colette’s that night about twelve, he said. Why should not John come there and get the money? To go to Colette’s was to see life, indeed; it was wrong; it was against the laws; it partook, in a very dingy manner, of adventure. Were it known, it was the sort of exploit that disconsidered a young man for good with the more serious classes, but gave him a standing with the riotous. And yet Colette’s was not a hell; it could not come, without vaulting hyperbole, under the rubric of a gilded saloon; and, if it was a sin to go there, the sin was merely local and municipal. Colette (whose name I do not know how to spell, for I was never in epistolary communication with that hospitable outlaw) was simply an unlicensed publican, who gave suppers after eleven at night, the Edinburgh hour of closing. If you belonged to a club, you could get a much better supper at the same hour, and lose not a jot in public esteem. But if you lacked that qualification, and were an hungered, or inclined toward conviviality at unlawful hours, Colette’s was your only port. You were very ill-supplied. The company was not recruited from the Senate or the Church, though the Bar was very well represented on the only occasion on which I flew in the face of my country’s laws, and, taking my reputation in my hand, penetrated into that grim supper — house. And Colette’s frequenters, thrillingly conscious of wrong-doing and ‘that two-handed engine (the policeman) at the door,’ were perhaps inclined to somewhat feverish excess. But the place was in no sense a very bad one; and it is somewhat strange to me, at this distance of time, how it had acquired its dangerous repute.
In precisely the same spirit as a man may debate a project to ascend the Matterhorn or to cross Africa, John considered Alan’s proposal, and, greatly daring, accepted it. As he walked home, the thoughts of this excursion out of the safe places of life into the wild and arduous, stirred and struggled in his imagination with the image of Miss Mackenzie — incongruous and yet kindred thoughts, for did not each imply unusual tightening of the pegs of resolution? did not each woo him forth and warn him back again into himself?
Between these two considerations, at least, he was more than usually moved; and when he got to Randolph Crescent, he quite forgot the four hundred pounds in the inner pocket of his greatcoat, hung up the coat, with its rich freight, upon his particular pin of the hatstand; and in the very action sealed his doom.
ABOUT half-past ten it was John’s brave good fortune to offer his arm to Miss Mackenzie, and escort her home. The night was chill and starry; all the way eastward the trees of the different gardens rustled and looked black. Up the stone gully of Leith Walk, when they came to cross it, the breeze made a rush and set the flames of the street-lamps quavering; and when at last they had mounted to the Royal Terrace, where Captain Mackenzie lived, a great salt freshness came in their faces from the sea. These phases of the walk remained written on John’s memory, each emphasised by the touch of that light hand on his arm; and behind all these aspects of the nocturnal city he saw, in his mind’s-eye, a picture of the lighted drawing-room at home where he had sat talking with Flora; and his father, from the other end, had looked on with a kind and ironical smile. John had read the significance of that smile, which might have escaped a stranger. Mr. Nicholson had remarked his son’s entanglement with satisfaction, tinged by humour; and his smile, if it still was a thought contemptuous, had implied consent.
At the captain’s door the girl held out her hand, with a certain emphasis; and John took it and kept it a little longer, and said, ‘Good-night, Flora, dear,’ and was instantly thrown into much fear by his presumption. But she only laughed, ran up the steps, and rang the bell; and while she was waiting for the door to open, kept close in the porch, and talked to him from that point as out of a fortification. She had a knitted shawl over her head; her blue Highland eyes took the light from the neighbouring street-lamp and sparkled; and when the door opened and closed upon her, John felt cruelly alone.
He proceeded slowly back along the terrace in a tender glow; and when he came to Greenside Church, he halted in a doubtful mind. Over the crown of the Calton Hill, to his left, lay the way to Colette’s, where Alan would soon be looking for his arrival, and where he would now have no more consented to go than he would have wilfully wallowed in a bog; the touch of the girl’s hand on his sleeve, and the kindly light in his father’s eyes, both loudly forbidding. But right before him was the way home, which pointed only to bed, a place of little ease for one whose fancy was strung to the lyrical pitch, and whose not very ardent heart was just then tumultuously moved. The hilltop, the cool air of the night, the company of the great monuments, the sight of the city under his feet, with its hills and valleys and crossing files of lamps, drew him by all he had of the poetic, and he turned that way; and by that quite innocent deflection, ripened the crop of his venial errors for the sickle of destiny.
On a seat on the hill above Greenside he sat for perhaps half an hour, looking down upon the lamps of Edinburgh, and up at the lamps of heaven. Wonderful were the resolves he formed; beautiful and kindly were the vistas of future life that sped before him. He uttered to himself the name of Flora in so many touching and dramatic keys, that he became at length fairly melted with tenderness, and could have sung aloud. At that juncture a certain creasing in his greatcoat caught his ear. He put his hand into his pocket, pulled forth the envelope that held the money, and sat stupefied. The Calton Hill, about this period, had an ill name of nights; and to be sitting there with four hundred pounds that did not belong to him was hardly wise. He looked up. There was a man in a very bad hat a little on one side of him, apparently looking at the scenery; from a little on the other a second night — walker was drawing very quietly near. Up jumped John. The envelope fell from his hands; he stooped to get it, and at the same moment both men ran in and closed with him.
A little after, he got to his feet very sore and shaken, the poorer by a purse which contained exactly one penny postage — stamp, by a cambric handkerchief, and by the all-important envelope.
Here was a young man on whom, at the highest point of lovely exaltation, there had fallen a blow too sharp to be supported alone; and not many hundred yards away his greatest friend was sitting at supper — ay, and even expecting him. Was it not in the nature of man that he should run there? He went in quest of sympathy — in quest of that droll article that we all suppose ourselves to want when in a strait, and have agreed to call advice; and he went, besides, with vague but rather splendid expectations of relief. Alan was rich, or would be so when he came of age. By a stroke of the pen he might remedy this misfortune, and avert that dreaded interview with Mr. Nicholson, from which John now shrunk in imagination as the hand draws back from fire.
Close under the Calton Hill there runs a certain narrow avenue, part street, part by-road. The head of it faces the doors of the prison; its tail descends into the sunless slums of the Low Calton. On one hand it is overhung by the crags of the hill, on the other by an old graveyard. Between these two the roadway runs in a trench, sparsely lighted at night, sparsely frequented by day, and bordered, when it was cleared the place of tombs, by dingy and ambiguous houses. One of these was the house of Colette; and at his door our ill — starred John was presently beating for admittance. In an evil hour he satisfied the jealous inquiries of the contraband hotel-keeper; in an evil hour he penetrated into the somewhat unsavoury interior. Alan, to be sure, was there, seated in a room lighted by noisy gas-jets, beside a dirty table-cloth, engaged on a coarse meal, and in the company of several tipsy members of the junior bar. But Alan was not sober; he had lost a thousand pounds upon a horse — race, had received the news at dinner-time, and was now, in default of any possible means of extrication, drowning the memory of his predicament. He to help John! The thing was impossible; he couldn’t help himself.
‘If you have a beast of a father,’ said he, ‘I can tell you I have a brute of a trustee.’
‘I’m not going to hear my father called a beast,’ said John with a beating heart, feeling that he risked the last sound rivet of the chain that bound him to life.
But Alan was quite good-natured.
‘All right, old fellow,’ said he. ‘Mos’ respec’able man your father.’ And he introduced his friend to his companions as ‘old Nicholson the what-d’ye-call-um’s son.’
John sat in dumb agony. Colette’s foul walls and maculate table-linen, and even down to Colette’s villainous casters, seemed like objects in a nightmare. And just then there came a knock and a scurrying; the police, so lamentably absent from the Calton Hill, appeared upon the scene; and the party, taken FLAGRANTE DELICTO, with their glasses at their elbow, were seized, marched up to the police office, and all duly summoned to appear as witnesses in the consequent case against that arch-shebeener, Colette.
It was a sorrowful and a mightily sobered company that came forth again. The vague terror of public opinion weighed generally on them all; but there were private and particular horrors on the minds of individuals. Alan stood in dread of his trustee, already sorely tried. One of the group was the son of a country minister, another of a judge; John, the unhappiest of all, had David Nicholson to father, the idea of facing whom on such a scandalous subject was physically sickening. They stood awhile consulting under the buttresses of Saint Giles; thence they adjourned to the lodgings of one of the number in North Castle Street, where (for that matter) they might have had quite as good a supper, and far better drink, than in the dangerous paradise from which they had been routed. There, over an almost tearful glass, they debated their position. Each explained he had the world to lose if the affair went on, and he appeared as a witness. It was remarkable what bright prospects were just then in the very act of opening before each of that little company of youths, and what pious consideration for the feelings of their families began now to well from them. Each, moreover, was in an odd state of destitution. Not one could bear his share of the fine; not one but evinced a wonderful twinkle of hope that each of the others (in succession) was the very man who could step in to make good the deficit. One took a high hand; he could not pay his share; if it went to a trial, he should bolt; he had always felt the English Bar to be his true sphere. Another branched out into touching details about his family, and was not listened to. John, in the midst of this disorderly competition of poverty and meanness, sat stunned, contemplating the mountain bulk of his misfortunes.
At last, upon a pledge that each should apply to his family with a common frankness, this convention of unhappy young asses broke up, went down the common stair, and in the grey of the spring morning, with the streets lying dead empty all about them, the lamps burning on into the daylight in diminished lustre, and the birds beginning to sound premonitory notes from the groves of the town gardens, went each his own way with bowed head and echoing footfall.
The rooks were awake in Randolph Crescent; but the windows looked down, discreetly blinded, on the return of the prodigal. John’s pass-key was a recent privilege; this was the first time it had been used; and, oh! with what a sickening sense of his unworthiness he now inserted it into the well-oiled lock and entered that citadel of the proprieties! All slept; the gas in the hall had been left faintly burning to light his return; a dreadful stillness reigned, broken by the deep ticking of the eight-day clock. He put the gas out, and sat on a chair in the hall, waiting and counting the minutes, longing for any human countenance. But when at last he heard the alarm spring its rattle in the lower story, and the servants begin to be about, he instantly lost heart, and fled to his own room, where he threw himself upon the bed.
SHORTLY after breakfast, at which he assisted with a highly tragical countenance, John sought his father where he sat, presumably in religious meditation, on the Sabbath mornings. The old gentleman looked up with that sour, inquisitive expression that came so near to smiling and was so different in effect.
‘This is a time when I do not like to be disturbed,’ he said.
‘I know that,’ returned John; ‘but I have — I want — I’ve made a dreadful mess of it,’ he broke out, and turned to the window.
Mr. Nicholson sat silent for an appreciable time, while his unhappy son surveyed the poles in the back green, and a certain yellow cat that was perched upon the wall. Despair sat upon John as he gazed; and he raged to think of the dreadful series of his misdeeds, and the essential innocence that lay behind them.
‘Well,’ said the father, with an obvious effort, but in very quiet tones, ‘what is it?’
‘Maclean gave me four hundred pounds to put in the bank, sir,’ began John; ‘and I’m sorry to say that I’ve been robbed of it!’
‘Robbed of it?’ cried Mr. Nicholson, with a strong rising inflection. ‘Robbed? Be careful what you say, John!’
‘I can’t say anything else, sir; I was just robbed of it,’ said John, in desperation, sullenly.
‘And where and when did this extraordinary event take place?’ inquired the father.
‘On the Calton Hill about twelve last night.’
‘The Calton Hill?’ repeated Mr. Nicholson. ‘And what were you doing there at such a time of the night?’
‘Nothing, sir,’ says John.
Mr. Nicholson drew in his breath.
‘And how came the money in your hands at twelve last night?’ he asked, sharply.
‘I neglected that piece of business,’ said John, anticipating comment; and then in his own dialect: ‘I clean forgot all about it.’
‘Well,’ said his father, ‘it’s a most extraordinary story. Have you communicated with the police?’
‘I have,’ answered poor John, the blood leaping to his face. ‘They think they know the men that did it. I dare say the money will be recovered, if that was all,’ said he, with a desperate indifference, which his father set down to levity; but which sprung from the consciousness of worse behind.
‘Your mother’s watch, too?’ asked Mr. Nicholson.
‘Oh, the watch is all right!’ cried John. ‘At least, I mean I was coming to the watch — the fact is, I am ashamed to say, I— I had pawned the watch before. Here is the ticket; they didn’t find that; the watch can be redeemed; they don’t sell pledges.’ The lad panted out these phrases, one after another, like minute guns; but at the last word, which rang in that stately chamber like an oath, his heart failed him utterly; and the dreaded silence settled on father and son.
It was broken by Mr. Nicholson picking up the pawn-ticket: ‘John Froggs, 85 Pleasance,’ he read; and then turning upon John, with a brief flash of passion and disgust, ‘Who is John Froggs?’ he cried.
‘Nobody,’ said John. ‘It was just a name.’
‘An ALIAS,’ his father commented.
‘Oh! I think scarcely quite that,’ said the culprit; ‘it’s a form, they all do it, the man seemed to understand, we had a great deal of fun over the name — ’
He paused at that, for he saw his father wince at the picture like a man physically struck; and again there was silence.
‘I do not think,’ said Mr. Nicholson, at last, ‘that I am an ungenerous father. I have never grudged you money within reason, for any avowable purpose; you had just to come to me and speak. And now I find that you have forgotten all decency and all natural feeling, and actually pawned — pawned — your mother’s watch. You must have had some temptation; I will do you the justice to suppose it was a strong one. What did you want with this money?’
‘I would rather not tell you, sir,’ said John. ‘It will only make you angry.’
‘I will not be fenced with,’ cried his father. ‘There must be an end of disingenuous answers. What did you want with this money?’
‘To lend it to Houston, sir,’ says John.
‘I thought I had forbidden you to speak to that young man?’ asked the father.
‘Yes, sir,’ said John; ‘but I only met him.’
‘Where?’ came the deadly question.
And ‘In a billiard-room’ was the damning answer. Thus, had John’s single departure from the truth brought instant punishment. For no other purpose but to see Alan would he have entered a billiard-room; but he had desired to palliate the fact of his disobedience, and now it appeared that he frequented these disreputable haunts upon his own account.
Once more Mr. Nicholson digested the vile tidings in silence, and when John stole a glance at his father’s countenance, he was abashed to see the marks of suffering.
‘Well,’ said the old gentleman, at last, ‘I cannot pretend not to be simply bowed down. I rose this morning what the world calls a happy man — happy, at least, in a son of whom I thought I could be reasonably proud — ’
But it was beyond human nature to endure this longer, and John interrupted almost with a scream. ‘Oh, wheest!’ he cried, ‘that’s not all, that’s not the worst of it — it’s nothing! How could I tell you were proud of me? Oh! I wish, I wish that I had known; but you always said I was such a disgrace! And the dreadful thing is this: we were all taken up last night, and we have to pay Colette’s fine among the six, or we’ll be had up for evidence — shebeening it is. They made me swear to tell you; but for my part,’ he cried, bursting into tears, ‘I just wish that I was dead!’ And he fell on his knees before a chair and hid his face.
Whether his father spoke, or whether he remained long in the room or at once departed, are points lost to history. A horrid turmoil of mind and body; bursting sobs; broken, vanishing thoughts, now of indignation, now of remorse; broken elementary whiffs of consciousness, of the smell of the horse-hair on the chair bottom, of the jangling of church bells that now began to make day horrible throughout the confines of the city, of the hard floor that bruised his knees, of the taste of tears that found their way into his mouth: for a period of time, the duration of which I cannot guess, while I refuse to dwell longer on its agony, these were the whole of God’s world for John Nicholson.
When at last, as by the touching of a spring, he returned again to clearness of consciousness and even a measure of composure, the bells had but just done ringing, and the Sabbath silence was still marred by the patter of belated feet. By the clock above the fire, as well as by these more speaking signs, the service had not long begun; and the unhappy sinner, if his father had really gone to church, might count on near two hours of only comparative unhappiness. With his father, the superlative degree returned infallibly. He knew it by every shrinking fibre in his body, he knew it by the sudden dizzy whirling of his brain, at the mere thought of that calamity. An hour and a half, perhaps an hour and three-quarters, if the doctor was long-winded, and then would begin again that active agony from which, even in the dull ache of the present, he shrunk as from the bite of fire. He saw, in a vision, the family pew, the somnolent cushions, the Bibles, the psalm-books, Maria with her smelling-salts, his father sitting spectacled and critical; and at once he was struck with indignation, not unjustly. It was inhuman to go off to church, and leave a sinner in suspense, unpunished, unforgiven. And at the very touch of criticism, the paternal sanctity was lessened; yet the paternal terror only grew; and the two strands of feeling pushed him in the same direction.
And suddenly there came upon him a mad fear lest his father should have locked him in. The notion had no ground in sense; it was probably no more than a reminiscence of similar calamities in childhood, for his father’s room had always been the chamber of inquisition and the scene of punishment; but it stuck so rigorously in his mind that he must instantly approach the door and prove its untruth. As he went, he struck upon a drawer left open in the business table. It was the money-drawer, a measure of his father’s disarray: the money-drawer — perhaps a pointing providence! Who is to decide, when even divines differ between a providence and a temptation? or who, sitting calmly under his own vine, is to pass a judgment on the doings of a poor, hunted dog, slavishly afraid, slavishly rebellious, like John Nicholson on that particular Sunday? His hand was in the drawer, almost before his mind had conceived the hope; and rising to his new situation, he wrote, sitting in his father’s chair and using his father’s blotting-pad, his pitiful apology and farewell:—
‘MY DEAR FATHER, — I have taken the money, but I will pay it back as soon as I am able. You will never hear of me again. I did not mean any harm by anything, so I hope you will try and forgive me. I wish you would say good-bye to Alexander and Maria, but not if you don’t want to. I could not wait to see you, really. Please try to forgive me. Your affectionate son,
The coins abstracted and the missive written, he could not be gone too soon from the scene of these transgressions; and remembering how his father had once returned from church, on some slight illness, in the middle of the second psalm, he durst not even make a packet of a change of clothes. Attired as he was, he slipped from the paternal doors, and found himself in the cool spring air, the thin spring sunshine, and the great Sabbath quiet of the city, which was now only pointed by the cawing of the rooks. There was not a soul in Randolph Crescent, nor a soul in Queensferry Street; in this outdoor privacy and the sense of escape, John took heart again; and with a pathetic sense of leave-taking, he even ventured up the lane and stood awhile, a strange peri at the gates of a quaint paradise, by the west end of St. George’s Church. They were singing within; and by a strange chance, the tune was ‘St. George’s, Edinburgh,’ which bears the name, and was first sung in the choir of that church. ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ went the voices from within; and, to John, this was like the end of all Christian observances, for he was now to be a wild man like Ishmael, and his life was to be cast in homeless places and with godless people.
It was thus, with no rising sense of the adventurous, but in mere desolation and despair, that he turned his back on his native city, and set out on foot for California, with a more immediate eye to Glasgow.
IT is no part of mine to narrate the adventures of John Nicholson, which were many, but simply his more momentous misadventures, which were more than he desired, and, by human standards, more than he deserved; how he reached California, how he was rooked, and robbed, and beaten, and starved; how he was at last taken up by charitable folk, restored to some degree of self-complacency, and installed as a clerk in a bank in San Francisco, it would take too long to tell; nor in these episodes were there any marks of the peculiar Nicholsonic destiny, for they were just such matters as befell some thousands of other young adventurers in the same days and places. But once posted in the bank, he fell for a time into a high degree of good fortune, which, as it was only a longer way about to fresh disaster, it behooves me to explain.
It was his luck to meet a young man in what is technically called a ‘dive,’ and thanks to his monthly wages, to extricate this new acquaintance from a position of present disgrace and possible danger in the future. This young man was the nephew of one of the Nob Hill magnates, who run the San Francisco Stock Exchange, much as more humble adventurers, in the corner of some public park at home, may be seen to perform the simple artifice of pea and thimble: for their own profit, that is to say, and the discouragement of public gambling. It was thus in his power — and, as he was of grateful temper, it was among the things that he desired — to put John in the way of growing rich; and thus, without thought or industry, or so much as even understanding the game at which he played, but by simply buying and selling what he was told to buy and sell, that plaything of fortune was presently at the head of between eleven and twelve thousand pounds, or, as he reckoned it, of upward of sixty thousand dollars.
How he had come to deserve this wealth, any more than how he had formerly earned disgrace at home, was a problem beyond the reach of his philosophy. It was true that he had been industrious at the bank, but no more so than the cashier, who had seven small children and was visibly sinking in decline. Nor was the step which had determined his advance — a visit to a dive with a month’s wages in his pocket — an act of such transcendent virtue, or even wisdom, as to seem to merit the favour of the gods. From some sense of this, and of the dizzy see-saw — heaven-high, hell-deep — on which men sit clutching; or perhaps fearing that the sources of his fortune might be insidiously traced to some root in the field of petty cash; he stuck to his work, said not a word of his new circumstances, and kept his account with a bank in a different quarter of the town. The concealment, innocent as it seems, was the first step in the second tragicomedy of John’s existence.
Meanwhile, he had never written home. Whether from diffidence or shame, or a touch of anger, or mere procrastination, or because (as we have seen) he had no skill in literary arts, or because (as I am sometimes tempted to suppose) there is a law in human nature that prevents young men — not otherwise beasts — from the performance of this simple act of piety — months and years had gone by, and John had never written. The habit of not writing, indeed, was already fixed before he had begun to come into his fortune; and it was only the difficulty of breaking this long silence that withheld him from an instant restitution of the money he had stolen or (as he preferred to call it) borrowed. In vain he sat before paper, attending on inspiration; that heavenly nymph, beyond suggesting the words ‘my dear father,’ remained obstinately silent; and presently John would crumple up the sheet and decide, as soon as he had ‘a good chance,’ to carry the money home in person. And this delay, which is indefensible, was his second step into the snares of fortune.
Ten years had passed, and John was drawing near to thirty. He had kept the promise of his boyhood, and was now of a lusty frame, verging toward corpulence; good features, good eyes, a genial manner, a ready laugh, a long pair of sandy whiskers, a dash of an American accent, a close familiarity with the great American joke, and a certain likeness to a R— y-l P-rs-n-ge, who shall remain nameless for me, made up the man’s externals as he could be viewed in society. Inwardly, in spite of his gross body and highly masculine whiskers, he was more like a maiden lady than a man of twenty-nine.
It chanced one day, as he was strolling down Market Street on the eve of his fortnight’s holiday, that his eye was caught by certain railway bills, and in very idleness of mind he calculated that he might be home for Christmas if he started on the morrow. The fancy thrilled him with desire, and in one moment he decided he would go.
There was much to be done: his portmanteau to be packed, a credit to be got from the bank where he was a wealthy customer, and certain offices to be transacted for that other bank in which he was an humble clerk; and it chanced, in conformity with human nature, that out of all this business it was the last that came to be neglected. Night found him, not only equipped with money of his own, but once more (as on that former occasion) saddled with a considerable sum of other people’s.
Now it chanced there lived in the same boarding-house a fellow-clerk of his, an honest fellow, with what is called a weakness for drink — though it might, in this case, have been called a strength, for the victim had been drunk for weeks together without the briefest intermission. To this unfortunate John intrusted a letter with an inclosure of bonds, addressed to the bank manager. Even as he did so he thought he perceived a certain haziness of eye and speech in his trustee; but he was too hopeful to be stayed, silenced the voice of warning in his bosom, and with one and the same gesture committed the money to the clerk, and himself into the hands of destiny.
I dwell, even at the risk of tedium, on John’s minutest errors, his case being so perplexing to the moralist; but we have done with them now, the roll is closed, the reader has the worst of our poor hero, and I leave him to judge for himself whether he or John has been the less deserving. Henceforth we have to follow the spectacle of a man who was a mere whip-top for calamity; on whose unmerited misadventures not even the humourist can look without pity, and not even the philosopher without alarm.
That same night the clerk entered upon a bout of drunkenness so consistent as to surprise even his intimate acquaintance. He was speedily ejected from the boarding-house; deposited his portmanteau with a perfect stranger, who did not even catch his name; wandered he knew not where, and was at last hove-to, all standing, in a hospital at Sacramento. There, under the impenetrable ALIAS of the number of his bed, the crapulous being lay for some more days unconscious of all things, and of one thing in particular: that the police were after him. Two months had come and gone before the convalescent in the Sacramento hospital was identified with Kirkman, the absconding San Francisco clerk; even then, there must elapse nearly a fortnight more till the perfect stranger could be hunted up, the portmanteau recovered, and John’s letter carried at length to its destination, the seal still unbroken, the inclosure still intact.
Meanwhile, John had gone upon his holidays without a word, which was irregular; and there had disappeared with him a certain sum of money, which was out of all bounds of palliation. But he was known to be careless, and believed to be honest; the manager besides had a regard for him; and little was said, although something was no doubt thought, until the fortnight was finally at an end, and the time had come for John to reappear. Then, indeed, the affair began to look black; and when inquiries were made, and the penniless clerk was found to have amassed thousands of dollars, and kept them secretly in a rival establishment, the stoutest of his friends abandoned him, the books were overhauled for traces of ancient and artful fraud, and though none were found, there still prevailed a general impression of loss. The telegraph was set in motion; and the correspondent of the bank in Edinburgh, for which place it was understood that John had armed himself with extensive credits, was warned to communicate with the police.
Now this correspondent was a friend of Mr. Nicholson’s; he was well acquainted with the tale of John’s calamitous disappearance from Edinburgh; and putting one thing with another, hasted with the first word of this scandal, not to the police, but to his friend. The old gentleman had long regarded his son as one dead; John’s place had been taken, the memory of his faults had already fallen to be one of those old aches, which awaken again indeed upon occasion, but which we can always vanquish by an effort of the will; and to have the long lost resuscitated in a fresh disgrace was doubly bitter.
‘Macewen,’ said the old man, ‘this must be hushed up, if possible. If I give you a cheek for this sum, about which they are certain, could you take it on yourself to let the matter rest?’
‘I will,’ said Macewen. ‘I will take the risk of it.’
‘You understand,’ resumed Mr. Nicholson, speaking precisely, but with ashen lips, ‘I do this for my family, not for that unhappy young man. If it should turn out that these suspicions are correct, and he has embezzled large sums, he must lie on his bed as he has made it.’ And then looking up at Macewen with a nod, and one of his strange smiles: ‘Good — bye,’ said he, and Macewen, perceiving the case to be too grave for consolation, took himself off, and blessed God on his way home that he was childless.
BY a little after noon on the eve of Christmas, John had left his portmanteau in the cloak-room, and stepped forth into Princes Street with a wonderful expansion of the soul, such as men enjoy on the completion of long-nourished schemes. He was at home again, incognito and rich; presently he could enter his father’s house by means of the pass-key, which he had piously preserved through all his wanderings; he would throw down the borrowed money; there would be a reconciliation, the details of which he frequently arranged; and he saw himself, during the next month, made welcome in many stately houses at many frigid dinner-parties, taking his share in the conversation with the freedom of the man and the traveller, and laying down the law upon finance with the authority of the successful investor. But this programme was not to be begun before evening — not till just before dinner, indeed, at which meal the reassembled family were to sit roseate, and the best wine, the modern fatted calf, should flow for the prodigal’s return.
Meanwhile he walked familiar streets, merry reminiscences crowding round him, sad ones also, both with the same surprising pathos. The keen frosty air; the low, rosy, wintry sun; the castle, hailing him like an old acquaintance; the names of friends on door-plates; the sight of friends whom he seemed to recognise, and whom he eagerly avoided, in the streets; the pleasant chant of the north-country accent; the dome of St. George’s reminding him of his last penitential moments in the lane, and of that King of Glory whose name had echoed ever since in the saddest corner of his memory; and the gutters where he had learned to slide, and the shop where he had bought his skates, and the stones on which he had trod, and the railings in which he had rattled his clachan as he went to school; and all those thousand and one nameless particulars, which the eye sees without noting, which the memory keeps indeed yet without knowing, and which, taken one with another, build up for us the aspect of the place that we call home: all these besieged him, as he went, with both delight and sadness.
His first visit was for Houston, who had a house on Regent Terrace, kept for him in old days by an aunt. The door was opened (to his surprise) upon the chain, and a voice asked him from within what he wanted.
‘I want Mr. Houston — Mr. Alan Houston,’ said he.
‘And who are ye?’ said the voice.
‘This is most extraordinary,’ thought John; and then aloud he told his name.
‘No’ young Mr. John?’ cried the voice, with a sudden increase of Scotch accent, testifying to a friendlier feeling.
‘The very same,’ said John.
And the old butler removed his defences, remarking only ‘I thocht ye were that man.’ But his master was not there; he was staying, it appeared, at the house in Murrayfield; and though the butler would have been glad enough to have taken his place and given all the news of the family, John, struck with a little chill, was eager to be gone. Only, the door was scarce closed again, before he regretted that he had not asked about ‘that man.’
He was to pay no more visits till he had seen his father and made all well at home; Alan had been the only possible exception, and John had not time to go as far as Murrayfield. But here he was on Regent Terrace; there was nothing to prevent him going round the end of the hill, and looking from without on the Mackenzies’ house. As he went, he reflected that Flora must now be a woman of near his own age, and it was within the bounds of possibility that she was married; but this dishonourable doubt he dammed down.
There was the house, sure enough; but the door was of another colour, and what was this — two door-plates? He drew nearer; the top one bore, with dignified simplicity, the words, ‘Mr. Proudfoot’; the lower one was more explicit, and informed the passer-by that here was likewise the abode of ‘Mr. J. A. Dunlop Proudfoot, Advocate.’ The Proudfoots must be rich, for no advocate could look to have much business in so remote a quarter; and John hated them for their wealth and for their name, and for the sake of the house they desecrated with their presence. He remembered a Proudfoot he had seen at school, not known: a little, whey-faced urchin, the despicable member of some lower class. Could it be this abortion that had climbed to be an advocate, and now lived in the birthplace of Flora and the home of John’s tenderest memories? The chill that had first seized upon him when he heard of Houston’s absence deepened and struck inward. For a moment, as he stood under the doors of that estranged house, and looked east and west along the solitary pavement of the Royal Terrace, where not a cat was stirring, the sense of solitude and desolation took him by the throat, and he wished himself in San Francisco.
And then the figure he made, with his decent portliness, his whiskers, the money in his purse, the excellent cigar that he now lighted, recurred to his mind in consolatory comparison with that of a certain maddened lad who, on a certain spring Sunday ten years before, and in the hour of church-time silence, had stolen from that city by the Glasgow road. In the face of these changes, it were impious to doubt fortune’s kindness. All would be well yet; the Mackenzies would be found, Flora, younger and lovelier and kinder than before; Alan would be found, and would have so nicely discriminated his behaviour as to have grown, on the one hand, into a valued friend of Mr. Nicholson’s, and to have remained, upon the other, of that exact shade of joviality which John desired in his companions. And so, once more, John fell to work discounting the delightful future: his first appearance in the family pew; his first visit to his uncle Greig, who thought himself so great a financier, and on whose purblind Edinburgh eyes John was to let in the dazzling daylight of the West; and the details in general of that unrivalled transformation scene, in which he was to display to all Edinburgh a portly and successful gentleman in the shoes of the derided fugitive.
The time began to draw near when his father would have returned from the office, and it would be the prodigal’s cue to enter. He strolled westward by Albany Street, facing the sunset embers, pleased, he knew not why, to move in that cold air and indigo twilight, starred with street-lamps. But there was one more disenchantment waiting him by the way.
At the corner of Pitt Street he paused to light a fresh cigar; the vesta threw, as he did so, a strong light upon his features, and a man of about his own age stopped at sight of it.
‘I think your name must be Nicholson,’ said the stranger.
It was too late to avoid recognition; and besides, as John was now actually on the way home, it hardly mattered, and he gave way to the impulse of his nature.
‘Great Scott!’ he cried, ‘Beatson!’ and shook hands with warmth. It scarce seemed he was repaid in kind.
‘So you’re home again?’ said Beatson. ‘Where have you been all this long time?’
‘In the States,’ said John — ‘California. I’ve made my pile though; and it suddenly struck me it would be a noble scheme to come home for Christmas.’
‘I see,’ said Beatson. ‘Well, I hope we’ll see something of you now you’re here.’
‘Oh, I guess so,’ said John, a little frozen.
‘Well, ta-ta,’ concluded Beatson, and he shook hands again and went.
This was a cruel first experience. It was idle to blink facts: here was John home again, and Beatson — Old Beatson — did not care a rush. He recalled Old Beatson in the past — that merry and affectionate lad — and their joint adventures and mishaps, the window they had broken with a catapult in India Place, the escalade of the castle rock, and many another inestimable bond of friendship; and his hurt surprise grew deeper. Well, after all, it was only on a man’s own family that he could count; blood was thicker than water, he remembered; and the net result of this encounter was to bring him to the doorstep of his father’s house, with tenderer and softer feelings.
The night had come; the fanlight over the door shone bright; the two windows of the dining-room where the cloth was being laid, and the three windows of the drawing-room where Maria would be waiting dinner, glowed softlier through yellow blinds. It was like a vision of the past. All this time of his absence life had gone forward with an equal foot, and the fires and the gas had been lighted, and the meals spread, at the accustomed hours. At the accustomed hour, too, the bell had sounded thrice to call the family to worship. And at the thought, a pang of regret for his demerit seized him; he remembered the things that were good and that he had neglected, and the things that were evil and that he had loved; and it was with a prayer upon his lips that he mounted the steps and thrust the key into the key-hole.
He stepped into the lighted hall, shut the door softly behind him, and stood there fixed in wonder. No surprise of strangeness could equal the surprise of that complete familiarity. There was the bust of Chalmers near the stair — railings, there was the clothes-brush in the accustomed place; and there, on the hat-stand, hung hats and coats that must surely be the same as he remembered. Ten years dropped from his life, as a pin may slip between the fingers; and the ocean and the mountains, and the mines, and crowded marts and mingled races of San Francisco, and his own fortune and his own disgrace, became, for that one moment, the figures of a dream that was over.
He took off his hat, and moved mechanically toward the stand; and there he found a small change that was a great one to him. The pin that had been his from boyhood, where he had flung his balmoral when he loitered home from the Academy, and his first hat when he came briskly back from college or the office — his pin was occupied. ‘They might have at least respected my pin!’ he thought, and he was moved as by a slight, and began at once to recollect that he was here an interloper, in a strange house, which he had entered almost by a burglary, and where at any moment he might be scandalously challenged.
He moved at once, his hat still in his hand, to the door of his father’s room, opened it, and entered. Mr. Nicholson sat in the same place and posture as on that last Sunday morning; only he was older, and greyer, and sterner; and as he now glanced up and caught the eye of his son, a strange commotion and a dark flush sprung into his face.
‘Father,’ said John, steadily, and even cheerfully, for this was a moment against which he was long ago prepared, ‘father, here I am, and here is the money that I took from you. I have come back to ask your forgiveness, and to stay Christmas with you and the children.’
‘Keep your money,’ said the father, ‘and go!’
‘Father!’ cried John; ‘for God’s sake don’t receive me this way. I’ve come for — ’
‘Understand me,’ interrupted Mr. Nicholson; ‘you are no son of mine; and in the sight of God, I wash my hands of you. One last thing I will tell you; one warning I will give you; all is discovered, and you are being hunted for your crimes; if you are still at large it is thanks to me; but I have done all that I mean to do; and from this time forth I would not raise one finger — not one finger — to save you from the gallows! And now,’ with a low voice of absolute authority, and a single weighty gesture of the finger, ‘and now — go!’
How John passed the evening, in what windy confusion of mind, in what squalls of anger and lulls of sick collapse, in what pacing of streets and plunging into public-houses, it would profit little to relate. His misery, if it were not progressive, yet tended in no way to diminish; for in proportion as grief and indignation abated, fear began to take their place. At first, his father’s menacing words lay by in some safe drawer of memory, biding their hour. At first, John was all thwarted affection and blighted hope; next bludgeoned vanity raised its head again, with twenty mortal gashes: and the father was disowned even as he had disowned the son. What was this regular course of life, that John should have admired it? what were these clock-work virtues, from which love was absent? Kindness was the test, kindness the aim and soul; and judged by such a standard, the discarded prodigal — now rapidly drowning his sorrows and his reason in successive drams — was a creature of a lovelier morality than his self-righteous father. Yes, he was the better man; he felt it, glowed with the consciousness, and entering a public-house at the corner of Howard Place (whither he had somehow wandered) he pledged his own virtues in a glass — perhaps the fourth since his dismissal. Of that he knew nothing, keeping no account of what he did or where he went; and in the general crashing hurry of his nerves, unconscious of the approach of intoxication. Indeed, it is a question whether he were really growing intoxicated, or whether at first the spirits did not even sober him. For it was even as he drained this last glass that his father’s ambiguous and menacing words — popping from their hiding — place in memory — startled him like a hand laid upon his shoulder. ‘Crimes, hunted, the gallows.’ They were ugly words; in the ears of an innocent man, perhaps all the uglier; for if some judicial error were in act against him, who should set a limit to its grossness or to how far it might be pushed? Not John, indeed; he was no believer in the powers of innocence, his cursed experience pointing in quite other ways; and his fears, once wakened, grew with every hour and hunted him about the city streets.
It was, perhaps, nearly nine at night; he had eaten nothing since lunch, he had drunk a good deal, and he was exhausted by emotion, when the thought of Houston came into his head. He turned, not merely to the man as a friend, but to his house as a place of refuge. The danger that threatened him was still so vague that he knew neither what to fear nor where he might expect it; but this much at least seemed undeniable, that a private house was safer than a public inn. Moved by these counsels, he turned at once to the Caledonian Station, passed (not without alarm) into the bright lights of the approach, redeemed his portmanteau from the cloak-room, and was soon whirling in a cab along the Glasgow Road. The change of movement and position, the sight of the lamps twinkling to the rear, and the smell of damp and mould and rotten straw which clung about the vehicle, wrought in him strange alternations of lucidity and mortal giddiness.
‘I have been drinking,’ he discovered; ‘I must go straight to bed, and sleep.’ And he thanked Heaven for the drowsiness that came upon his mind in waves.
From one of these spells he was wakened by the stoppage of the cab; and, getting down, found himself in quite a country road, the last lamp of the suburb shining some way below, and the high walls of a garden rising before him in the dark. The Lodge (as the place was named), stood, indeed, very solitary. To the south it adjoined another house, but standing in so large a garden as to be well out of cry; on all other sides, open fields stretched upward to the woods of Corstorphine Hill, or backward to the dells of Ravelston, or downward toward the valley of the Leith. The effect of seclusion was aided by the great height of the garden walls, which were, indeed, conventual, and, as John had tested in former days, defied the climbing schoolboy. The lamp of the cab threw a gleam upon the door and the not brilliant handle of the bell.
‘Shall I ring for ye?’ said the cabman, who had descended from his perch, and was slapping his chest, for the night was bitter.
‘I wish you would,’ said John, putting his hand to his brow in one of his accesses of giddiness.
The man pulled at the handle, and the clanking of the bell replied from further in the garden; twice and thrice he did it, with sufficient intervals; in the great frosty silence of the night the sounds fell sharp and small.
‘Does he expect ye?’ asked the driver, with that manner of familiar interest that well became his port-wine face; and when John had told him no, ‘Well, then,’ said the cabman, ‘if ye’ll tak’ my advice of it, we’ll just gang back. And that’s disinterested, mind ye, for my stables are in the Glesgie Road.’
‘The servants must hear,’ said John.
‘Hout!’ said the driver. ‘He keeps no servants here, man. They’re a’ in the town house; I drive him often; it’s just a kind of a hermitage, this.’
‘Give me the bell,’ said John; and he plucked at it like a man desperate.
The clamour had not yet subsided before they heard steps upon the gravel, and a voice of singular nervous irritability cried to them through the door, ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’
‘Alan,’ said John, ‘it’s me — it’s Fatty — John, you know. I’m just come home, and I’ve come to stay with you.’
There was no reply for a moment, and then the door was opened.
‘Get the portmanteau down,’ said John to the driver.
‘Do nothing of the kind,’ said Alan; and then to John, ‘Come in here a moment. I want to speak to you.’
John entered the garden, and the door was closed behind him. A candle stood on the gravel walk, winking a little in the draughts; it threw inconstant sparkles on the clumped holly, struck the light and darkness to and fro like a veil on Alan’s features, and sent his shadow hovering behind him. All beyond was inscrutable; and John’s dizzy brain rocked with the shadow. Yet even so, it struck him that Alan was pale, and his voice, when he spoke, unnatural.
‘What brings you here to-night?’ he began. ‘I don’t want, God knows, to seem unfriendly; but I cannot take you in, Nicholson; I cannot do it.’
‘Alan,’ said John, ‘you’ve just got to! You don’t know the mess I’m in; the governor’s turned me out, and I daren’t show my face in an inn, because they’re down on me for murder or something!’
‘For what?’ cried Alan, starting.
‘Murder, I believe,’ says John.
‘Murder!’ repeated Alan, and passed his hand over his eyes. ‘What was that you were saying?’ he asked again.
‘That they were down on me,’ said John. ‘I’m accused of murder, by what I can make out; and I’ve really had a dreadful day of it, Alan, and I can’t sleep on the roadside on a night like this — at least, not with a portmanteau,’ he pleaded.
‘Hush!’ said Alan, with his head on one side; and then, ‘Did you hear nothing?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said John, thrilling, he knew not why, with communicated terror. ‘No, I heard nothing; why?’ And then, as there was no answer, he reverted to his pleading: ‘But I say, Alan, you’ve just got to take me in. I’ll go right away to bed if you have anything to do. I seem to have been drinking; I was that knocked over. I wouldn’t turn you away, Alan, if you were down on your luck.’
‘No?’ returned Alan. ‘Neither will you, then. Come and let’s get your portmanteau.’
The cabman was paid, and drove off down the long, lamp — lighted hill, and the two friends stood on the side-walk beside the portmanteau till the last rumble of the wheels had died in silence. It seemed to John as though Alan attached importance to this departure of the cab; and John, who was in no state to criticise, shared profoundly in the feeling.
When the stillness was once more perfect, Alan shouldered the portmanteau, carried it in, and shut and locked the garden door; and then, once more, abstraction seemed to fall upon him, and he stood with his hand on the key, until the cold began to nibble at John’s fingers.
‘Why are we standing here?’ asked John.
‘Eh?’ said Alan, blankly.
‘Why, man, you don’t seem yourself,’ said the other.
‘No, I’m not myself,’ said Alan; and he sat down on the portmanteau and put his face in his hands.
John stood beside him swaying a little, and looking about him at the swaying shadows, the flitting sparkles, and the steady stars overhead, until the windless cold began to touch him through his clothes on the bare skin. Even in his bemused intelligence, wonder began to awake.
‘I say, let’s come on to the house,’ he said at last.
‘Yes, let’s come on to the house,’ repeated Alan.
And he rose at once, reshouldered the portmanteau, and taking the candle in his other hand, moved forward to the Lodge. This was a long, low building, smothered in creepers; and now, except for some chinks of light between the dining-room shutters, it was plunged in darkness and silence.
In the hall Alan lighted another candle, gave it to John, and opened the door of a bedroom.
‘Here,’ said he; ‘go to bed. Don’t mind me, John. You’ll be sorry for me when you know.’
‘Wait a bit,’ returned John; ‘I’ve got so cold with all that standing about. Let’s go into the dining-room a minute. Just one glass to warm me, Alan.’
On the table in the hall stood a glass, and a bottle with a whisky label on a tray. It was plain the bottle had been just opened, for the cork and corkscrew lay beside it.
‘Take that,’ said Alan, passing John the whisky, and then with a certain roughness pushed his friend into the bedroom, and closed the door behind him.
John stood amazed; then he shook the bottle, and, to his further wonder, found it partly empty. Three or four glasses were gone. Alan must have uncorked a bottle of whisky and drank three or four glasses one after the other, without sitting down, for there was no chair, and that in his own cold lobby on this freezing night! It fully explained his eccentricities, John reflected sagely, as he mixed himself a grog. Poor Alan! He was drunk; and what a dreadful thing was drink, and what a slave to it poor Alan was, to drink in this unsociable, uncomfortable fashion! The man who would drink alone, except for health’s sake — as John was now doing — was a man utterly lost. He took the grog out, and felt hazier, but warmer. It was hard work opening the portmanteau and finding his night things; and before he was undressed, the cold had struck home to him once more. ‘Well,’ said he; ‘just a drop more. There’s no sense in getting ill with all this other trouble.’ And presently dreamless slumber buried him.
When John awoke it was day. The low winter sun was already in the heavens, but his watch had stopped, and it was impossible to tell the hour exactly. Ten, he guessed it, and made haste to dress, dismal reflections crowding on his mind. But it was less from terror than from regret that he now suffered; and with his regret there were mingled cutting pangs of penitence. There had fallen upon him a blow, cruel, indeed, but yet only the punishment of old misdoing; and he had rebelled and plunged into fresh sin. The rod had been used to chasten, and he had bit the chastening fingers. His father was right; John had justified him; John was no guest for decent people’s houses, and no fit associate for decent people’s children. And had a broader hint been needed, there was the case of his old friend. John was no drunkard, though he could at times exceed; and the picture of Houston drinking neat spirits at his hall-table struck him with something like disgust. He hung back from meeting his old friend. He could have wished he had not come to him; and yet, even now, where else was he to turn?
These musings occupied him while he dressed, and accompanied him into the lobby of the house. The door stood open on the garden; doubtless, Alan had stepped forth; and John did as he supposed his friend had done. The ground was hard as iron, the frost still rigorous; as he brushed among the hollies, icicles jingled and glittered in their fall; and wherever he went, a volley of eager sparrows followed him. Here were Christmas weather and Christmas morning duly met, to the delight of children. This was the day of reunited families, the day to which he had so long looked forward, thinking to awake in his own bed in Randolph Crescent, reconciled with all men and repeating the footprints of his youth; and here he was alone, pacing the alleys of a wintry garden and filled with penitential thoughts.
And that reminded him: why was he alone? and where was Alan? The thought of the festal morning and the due salutations reawakened his desire for his friend, and he began to call for him by name. As the sound of his voice died away, he was aware of the greatness of the silence that environed him. But for the twittering of the sparrows and the crunching of his own feet upon the frozen snow, the whole windless world of air hung over him entranced, and the stillness weighed upon his mind with a horror of solitude.
Still calling at intervals, but now with a moderated voice, he made the hasty circuit of the garden, and finding neither man nor trace of man in all its evergreen coverts, turned at last to the house. About the house the silence seemed to deepen strangely. The door, indeed, stood open as before; but the windows were still shuttered, the chimneys breathed no stain into the bright air, there sounded abroad none of that low stir (perhaps audible rather to the ear of the spirit than to the ear of the flesh) by which a house announces and betrays its human lodgers. And yet Alan must be there — Alan locked in drunken slumbers, forgetful of the return of day, of the holy season, and of the friend whom he had so coldly received and was now so churlishly neglecting. John’s disgust redoubled at the thought, but hunger was beginning to grow stronger than repulsion, and as a step to breakfast, if nothing else, he must find and arouse this sleeper.
He made the circuit of the bedroom quarters. All, until he came to Alan’s chamber, were locked from without, and bore the marks of a prolonged disuse. But Alan’s was a room in commission, filled with clothes, knickknacks, letters, books, and the conveniences of a solitary man. The fire had been lighted; but it had long ago burned out, and the ashes were stone cold. The bed had been made, but it had not been slept in.
Worse and worse, then; Alan must have fallen where he sat, and now sprawled brutishly, no doubt, upon the dining-room floor.
The dining-room was a very long apartment, and was reached through a passage; so that John, upon his entrance, brought but little light with him, and must move toward the windows with spread arms, groping and knocking on the furniture. Suddenly he tripped and fell his length over a prostrate body. It was what he had looked for, yet it shocked him; and he marvelled that so rough an impact should not have kicked a groan out of the drunkard. Men had killed themselves ere now in such excesses, a dreary and degraded end that made John shudder. What if Alan were dead? There would be a Christmas-day!
By this, John had his hand upon the shutters, and flinging them back, beheld once again the blessed face of the day. Even by that light the room had a discomfortable air. The chairs were scattered, and one had been overthrown; the table-cloth, laid as if for dinner, was twitched upon one side, and some of the dishes had fallen to the floor. Behind the table lay the drunkard, still unaroused, only one foot visible to John.
But now that light was in the room, the worst seemed over; it was a disgusting business, but not more than disgusting; and it was with no great apprehension that John proceeded to make the circuit of the table: his last comparatively tranquil moment for that day. No sooner had he turned the corner, no sooner had his eyes alighted on the body, than he gave a smothered, breathless cry, and fled out of the room and out of the house.
It was not Alan who lay there, but a man well up in years, of stern countenance and iron-grey locks; and it was no drunkard, for the body lay in a black pool of blood, and the open eyes stared upon the ceiling.
To and fro walked John before the door. The extreme sharpness of the air acted on his nerves like an astringent, and braced them swiftly. Presently, he not relaxing in his disordered walk, the images began to come clearer and stay longer in his fancy; and next the power of thought came back to him, and the horror and danger of his situation rooted him to the ground.
He grasped his forehead, and staring on one spot of gravel, pieced together what he knew and what he suspected. Alan had murdered some one: possibly ‘that man’ against whom the butler chained the door in Regent Terrace; possibly another; some one at least: a human soul, whom it was death to slay and whose blood lay spilled upon the floor. This was the reason of the whisky drinking in the passage, of his unwillingness to welcome John, of his strange behaviour and bewildered words; this was why he had started at and harped upon the name of murder; this was why he had stood and hearkened, or sat and covered his eyes, in the black night. And now he was gone, now he had basely fled; and to all his perplexities and dangers John stood heir.
‘Let me think — let me think,’ he said, aloud, impatiently, even pleadingly, as if to some merciless interrupter. In the turmoil of his wits, a thousand hints and hopes and threats and terrors dinning continuously in his ears, he was like one plunged in the hubbub of a crowd. How was he to remember — he, who had not a thought to spare — that he was himself the author, as well as the theatre, of so much confusion? But in hours of trial the junto of man’s nature is dissolved, and anarchy succeeds.
It was plain he must stay no longer where he was, for here was a new Judicial Error in the very making. It was not so plain where he must go, for the old Judicial Error, vague as a cloud, appeared to fill the habitable world; whatever it might be, it watched for him, full-grown, in Edinburgh; it must have had its birth in San Francisco; it stood guard, no doubt, like a dragon, at the bank where he should cash his credit; and though there were doubtless many other places, who should say in which of them it was not ambushed? No, he could not tell where he was to go; he must not lose time on these insolubilities. Let him go back to the beginning. It was plain he must stay no longer where he was. It was plain, too, that he must not flee as he was, for he could not carry his portmanteau, and to flee and leave it was to plunge deeper in the mire. He must go, leave the house unguarded, find a cab, and return — return after an absence? Had he courage for that?
And just then he spied a stain about a hand’s-breadth on his trouser-leg, and reached his finger down to touch it. The finger was stained red: it was blood; he stared upon it with disgust, and awe, and terror, and in the sharpness of the new sensation, fell instantly to act.
He cleansed his finger in the snow, returned into the house, drew near with hushed footsteps to the dining-room door, and shut and locked it. Then he breathed a little freer, for here at least was an oaken barrier between himself and what he feared. Next, he hastened to his room, tore off the spotted trousers which seemed in his eyes a link to bind him to the gallows, flung them in a corner, donned another pair, breathlessly crammed his night things into his portmanteau, locked it, swung it with an effort from the ground, and with a rush of relief, came forth again under the open heavens.
The portmanteau, being of occidental build, was no feather — weight; it had distressed the powerful Alan; and as for John, he was crushed under its bulk, and the sweat broke upon him thickly. Twice he must set it down to rest before he reached the gate; and when he had come so far, he must do as Alan did, and take his seat upon one corner. Here then, he sat a while and panted; but now his thoughts were sensibly lightened; now, with the trunk standing just inside the door, some part of his dissociation from the house of crime had been effected, and the cabman need not pass the garden wall. It was wonderful how that relieved him; for the house, in his eyes, was a place to strike the most cursory beholder with suspicion, as though the very windows had cried murder.
But there was to be no remission of the strokes of fate. As he thus sat, taking breath in the shadow of the wall and hopped about by sparrows, it chanced that his eye roved to the fastening of the door; and what he saw plucked him to his feet. The thing locked with a spring; once the door was closed, the bolt shut of itself; and without a key, there was no means of entering from without.
He saw himself obliged to one of two distasteful and perilous alternatives; either to shut the door altogether and set his portmanteau out upon the wayside, a wonder to all beholders; or to leave the door ajar, so that any thievish tramp or holiday schoolboy might stray in and stumble on the grisly secret. To the last, as the least desperate, his mind inclined; but he must first insure himself that he was unobserved. He peered out, and down the long road; it lay dead empty. He went to the corner of the by-road that comes by way of Dean; there also not a passenger was stirring. Plainly it was, now or never, the high tide of his affairs; and he drew the door as close as he durst, slipped a pebble in the chink, and made off downhill to find a cab.
Half-way down a gate opened, and a troop of Christmas children sallied forth in the most cheerful humour, followed more soberly by a smiling mother.
‘And this is Christmas-day!’ thought John; and could have laughed aloud in tragic bitterness of heart.
In front of Donaldson’s Hospital, John counted it good fortune to perceive a cab a great way of, and by much shouting and waving of his arm, to catch the notice of the driver. He counted it good fortune, for the time was long to him till he should have done for ever with the Lodge; and the further he must go to find a cab, the greater the chance that the inevitable discovery had taken place, and that he should return to find the garden full of angry neighbours. Yet when the vehicle drew up he was sensibly chagrined to recognise the port-wine cabman of the night before. ‘Here,’ he could not but reflect, ‘here is another link in the Judicial Error.’
The driver, on the other hand, was pleased to drop again upon so liberal a fare; and as he was a man — the reader must already have perceived — of easy, not to say familiar, manners, he dropped at once into a vein of friendly talk, commenting on the weather, on the sacred season, which struck him chiefly in the light of a day of liberal gratuities, on the chance which had reunited him to a pleasing customer, and on the fact that John had been (as he was pleased to call it) visibly ‘on the randan’ the night before.
‘And ye look dreidful bad the-day, sir, I must say that,’ he continued. ‘There’s nothing like a dram for ye — if ye’ll take my advice of it; and bein’ as it’s Christmas, I’m no’ saying,’ he added, with a fatherly smile, ‘but what I would join ye mysel’.’
John had listened with a sick heart.
‘I’ll give you a dram when we’ve got through,’ said he, affecting a sprightliness which sat on him most unhandsomely, ‘and not a drop till then. Business first, and pleasure afterward.’
With this promise the jarvey was prevailed upon to clamber to his place and drive, with hideous deliberation, to the door of the Lodge. There were no signs as yet of any public emotion; only, two men stood not far off in talk, and their presence, seen from afar, set John’s pulses buzzing. He might have spared himself his fright, for the pair were lost in some dispute of a theological complexion, and with lengthened upper lip and enumerating fingers, pursued the matter of their difference, and paid no heed to John.
But the cabman proved a thorn in the flesh.
Nothing would keep him on his perch; he must clamber down, comment upon the pebble in the door (which he regarded as an ingenious but unsafe device), help John with the portmanteau, and enliven matters with a flow of speech, and especially of questions, which I thus condense:—
‘He’ll no’ be here himsel’, will he? No? Well, he’s an eccentric man — a fair oddity — if ye ken the expression. Great trouble with his tenants, they tell me. I’ve driven the fam’ly for years. I drove a cab at his father’s waddin’. What’ll your name be? — I should ken your face. Baigrey, ye say? There were Baigreys about Gilmerton; ye’ll be one of that lot? Then this’ll be a friend’s portmantie, like? Why? Because the name upon it’s Nucholson! Oh, if ye’re in a hurry, that’s another job. Waverley Brig? Are ye for away?’
So the friendly toper prated and questioned and kept John’s heart in a flutter. But to this also, as to other evils under the sun, there came a period; and the victim of circumstances began at last to rumble toward the railway terminus at Waverley Bridge. During the transit, he sat with raised glasses in the frosty chill and mouldy fetor of his chariot, and glanced out sidelong on the holiday face of things, the shuttered shops, and the crowds along the pavement, much as the rider in the Tyburn cart may have observed the concourse gathering to his execution.
At the station his spirits rose again; another stage of his escape was fortunately ended — he began to spy blue water. He called a railway porter, and bade him carry the portmanteau to the cloak-room: not that he had any notion of delay; flight, instant flight was his design, no matter whither; but he had determined to dismiss the cabman ere he named, or even chose, his destination, thus possibly balking the Judicial Error of another link. This was his cunning aim, and now with one foot on the roadway, and one still on the coach-step, he made haste to put the thing in practice, and plunged his hand into his trousers pocket.
There was nothing there!
Oh yes; this time he was to blame. He should have remembered, and when he deserted his blood-stained pantaloons, he should not have deserted along with them his purse. Make the most of his error, and then compare it with the punishment! Conceive his new position, for I lack words to picture it; conceive him condemned to return to that house, from the very thought of which his soul revolted, and once more to expose himself to capture on the very scene of the misdeed: conceive him linked to the mouldy cab and the familiar cabman. John cursed the cabman silently, and then it occurred to him that he must stop the incarceration of his portmanteau; that, at least, he must keep close at hand, and he turned to recall the porter. But his reflections, brief as they had appeared, must have occupied him longer than he supposed, and there was the man already returning with the receipt.
Well, that was settled; he had lost his portmanteau also; for the sixpence with which he had paid the Murrayfield Toll was one that had strayed alone into his waistcoat pocket, and unless he once more successfully achieved the adventure of the house of crime, his portmanteau lay in the cloakroom in eternal pawn, for lack of a penny fee. And then he remembered the porter, who stood suggestively attentive, words of gratitude hanging on his lips.
John hunted right and left; he found a coin — prayed God that it was a sovereign — drew it out, beheld a halfpenny, and offered it to the porter.
The man’s jaw dropped.
‘It’s only a halfpenny!’ he said, startled out of railway decency.
‘I know that,’ said John, piteously.
And here the porter recovered the dignity of man.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said he, and would have returned the base gratuity. But John, too, would none of it; and as they struggled, who must join in but the cabman?
‘Hoots, Mr. Baigrey,’ said he, ‘you surely forget what day it is!’
‘I tell you I have no change!’ cried John.
‘Well,’ said the driver, ‘and what then? I would rather give a man a shillin’ on a day like this than put him off with a derision like a bawbee. I’m surprised at the like of you, Mr. Baigrey!’
‘My name is not Baigrey!’ broke out John, in mere childish temper and distress.
‘Ye told me it was yoursel’,’ said the cabman.
‘I know I did; and what the devil right had you to ask?’ cried the unhappy one.
‘Oh, very well,’ said the driver. ‘I know my place, if you know yours — if you know yours!’ he repeated, as one who should imply grave doubt; and muttered inarticulate thunders, in which the grand old name of gentleman was taken seemingly in vain.
Oh to have been able to discharge this monster, whom John now perceived, with tardy clear-sightedness, to have begun betimes the festivities of Christmas! But far from any such ray of consolation visiting the lost, he stood bare of help and helpers, his portmanteau sequestered in one place, his money deserted in another and guarded by a corpse; himself, so sedulous of privacy, the cynosure of all men’s eyes about the station; and, as if these were not enough mischances, he was now fallen in ill-blood with the beast to whom his poverty had linked him! In ill-blood, as he reflected dismally, with the witness who perhaps might hang or save him! There was no time to be lost; he durst not linger any longer in that public spot; and whether he had recourse to dignity or conciliation, the remedy must be applied at once. Some happily surviving element of manhood moved him to the former.
‘Let us have no more of this,’ said he, his foot once more upon the step. ‘Go back to where we came from.’
He had avoided the name of any destination, for there was now quite a little band of railway folk about the cab, and he still kept an eye upon the court of justice, and laboured to avoid concentric evidence. But here again the fatal jarvey out-manoeuvred him.
‘Back to the Ludge?’ cried he, in shrill tones of protest.
‘Drive on at once!’ roared John, and slammed the door behind him, so that the crazy chariot rocked and jingled.
Forth trundled the cab into the Christmas streets, the fare within plunged in the blackness of a despair that neighboured on unconsciousness, the driver on the box digesting his rebuke and his customer’s duplicity. I would not be thought to put the pair in competition; John’s case was out of all parallel. But the cabman, too, is worth the sympathy of the judicious; for he was a fellow of genuine kindliness and a high sense of personal dignity incensed by drink; and his advances had been cruelly and publicly rebuffed. As he drove, therefore, he counted his wrongs, and thirsted for sympathy and drink. Now, it chanced he had a friend, a publican in Queensferry Street, from whom, in view of the sacredness of the occasion, he thought he might extract a dram. Queensferry Street lies something off the direct road to Murrayfield. But then there is the hilly cross-road that passes by the valley of the Leith and the Dean Cemetery; and Queensferry Street is on the way to that. What was to hinder the cabman, since his horse was dumb, from choosing the cross-road, and calling on his friend in passing? So it was decided; and the charioteer, already somewhat mollified, turned aside his horse to the right.
John, meanwhile, sat collapsed, his chin sunk upon his chest, his mind in abeyance. The smell of the cab was still faintly present to his senses, and a certain leaden chill about his feet, all else had disappeared in one vast oppression of calamity and physical faintness. It was drawing on to noon — two-and-twenty hours since he had broken bread; in the interval, he had suffered tortures of sorrow and alarm, and been partly tipsy; and though it was impossible to say he slept, yet when the cab stopped and the cabman thrust his head into the window, his attention had to be recalled from depths of vacancy.
‘If you’ll no’ STAND me a dram,’ said the driver, with a well-merited severity of tone and manner, ‘I dare say ye’ll have no objection to my taking one mysel’?’
‘Yes — no — do what you like,’ returned John; and then, as he watched his tormentor mount the stairs and enter the whisky — shop, there floated into his mind a sense as of something long ago familiar. At that he started fully awake, and stared at the shop-fronts. Yes, he knew them; but when? and how? Long since, he thought; and then, casting his eye through the front glass, which had been recently occluded by the figure of the jarvey, he beheld the tree-tops of the rookery in Randolph Crescent. He was close to home — home, where he had thought, at that hour, to be sitting in the well-remembered drawing-room in friendly converse; and, instead —!
It was his first impulse to drop into the bottom of the cab; his next, to cover his face with his hands. So he sat, while the cabman toasted the publican, and the publican toasted the cabman, and both reviewed the affairs of the nation; so he still sat, when his master condescended to return, and drive off at last down-hill, along the curve of Lynedoch Place; but even so sitting, as he passed the end of his father’s street, he took one glance from between shielding fingers, and beheld a doctor’s carriage at the door.
‘Well, just so,’ thought he; ‘I’ll have killed my father! And this is Christmas-day!’
If Mr. Nicholson died, it was down this same road he must journey to the grave; and down this road, on the same errand, his wife had preceded him years before; and many other leading citizens, with the proper trappings and attendance of the end. And now, in that frosty, ill-smelling, straw — carpeted, and ragged-cushioned cab, with his breath congealing on the glasses, where else was John himself advancing to?
The thought stirred his imagination, which began to manufacture many thousand pictures, bright and fleeting, like the shapes in a kaleidoscope; and now he saw himself, ruddy and comfortered, sliding in the gutter; and, again, a little woe-begone, bored urchin tricked forth in crape and weepers, descending this same hill at the foot’s pace of mourning coaches, his mother’s body just preceding him; and yet again, his fancy, running far in front, showed him his destination — now standing solitary in the low sunshine, with the sparrows hopping on the threshold and the dead man within staring at the roof — and now, with a sudden change, thronged about with white-faced, hand-uplifting neighbours, and doctor bursting through their midst and fixing his stethoscope as he went, the policeman shaking a sagacious head beside the body. It was to this he feared that he was driving; in the midst of this he saw himself arrive, heard himself stammer faint explanations, and felt the hand of the constable upon his shoulder. Heavens! how he wished he had played the manlier part; how he despised himself that he had fled that fatal neighbourhood when all was quiet, and should now be tamely travelling back when it was thronging with avengers!
Any strong degree of passion lends, even to the dullest, the forces of the imagination. And so now as he dwelt on what was probably awaiting him at the end of this distressful drive — John, who saw things little, remembered them less, and could not have described them at all, beheld in his mind’s-eye the garden of the Lodge, detailed as in a map; he went to and fro in it, feeding his terrors; he saw the hollies, the snowy borders, the paths where he had sought Alan, the high, conventual walls, the shut door — what! was the door shut? Ay, truly, he had shut it — shut in his money, his escape, his future life — shut it with these hands, and none could now open it! He heard the snap of the spring-lock like something bursting in his brain, and sat astonied.
And then he woke again, terror jarring through his vitals. This was no time to be idle; he must be up and doing, he must think. Once at the end of this ridiculous cruise, once at the Lodge door, there would be nothing for it but to turn the cab and trundle back again. Why, then, go so far? why add another feature of suspicion to a case already so suggestive? why not turn at once? It was easy to say, turn; but whither? He had nowhere now to go to; he could never — he saw it in letters of blood — he could never pay that cab; he was saddled with that cab for ever. Oh that cab! his soul yearned and burned, and his bowels sounded to be rid of it. He forgot all other cares. He must first quit himself of this ill-smelling vehicle and of the human beast that guided it — first do that; do that, at least; do that at once.
And just then the cab suddenly stopped, and there was his persecutor rapping on the front glass. John let it down, and beheld the port-wine countenance inflamed with intellectual triumph.
‘I ken wha ye are!’ cried the husky voice. ‘I mind ye now. Ye’re a Nucholson. I drove ye to Hermiston to a Christmas party, and ye came back on the box, and I let ye drive.’
It is a fact. John knew the man; they had been even friends. His enemy, he now remembered, was a fellow of great good nature — endless good nature — with a boy; why not with a man? Why not appeal to his better side? He grasped at the new hope.
‘Great Scott! and so you did,’ he cried, as if in a transport of delight, his voice sounding false in his own ears. ‘Well, if that’s so, I’ve something to say to you. I’ll just get out, I guess. Where are we, any way?’
The driver had fluttered his ticket in the eyes of the branch-toll keeper, and they were now brought to on the highest and most solitary part of the by-road. On the left, a row of fieldside trees beshaded it; on the right, it was bordered by naked fallows, undulating down-hill to the Queensferry Road; in front, Corstorphine Hill raised its snow-bedabbled, darkling woods against the sky. John looked all about him, drinking the clear air like wine; then his eyes returned to the cabman’s face as he sat, not ungleefully, awaiting John’s communication, with the air of one looking to be tipped.
The features of that face were hard to read, drink had so swollen them, drink had so painted them, in tints that varied from brick-red to mulberry. The small grey eyes blinked, the lips moved, with greed; greed was the ruling passion; and though there was some good nature, some genuine kindliness, a true human touch, in the old toper, his greed was now so set afire by hope, that all other traits of character lay dormant. He sat there a monument of gluttonous desire.
John’s heart slowly fell. He had opened his lips, but he stood there and uttered nought. He sounded the well of his courage, and it was dry. He groped in his treasury of words, and it was vacant. A devil of dumbness had him by the throat; the devil of terror babbled in his ears; and suddenly, without a word uttered, with no conscious purpose formed in his will, John whipped about, tumbled over the roadside wall, and began running for his life across the fallows.
He had not gone far, he was not past the midst of the first afield, when his whole brain thundered within him, ‘Fool! You have your watch!’ The shock stopped him, and he faced once more toward the cab. The driver was leaning over the wall, brandishing his whip, his face empurpled, roaring like a bull. And John saw (or thought) that he had lost the chance. No watch would pacify the man’s resentment now; he would cry for vengeance also. John would be had under the eye of the police; his tale would be unfolded, his secret plumbed, his destiny would close on him at last, and for ever.
He uttered a deep sigh; and just as the cabman, taking heart of grace, was beginning at last to scale the wall, his defaulting customer fell again to running, and disappeared into the further fields.
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.’
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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