The Story of a Lie, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter VIII— Battle Royal

SQUIRE NASEBY, on sitting down to lunch, had inquired for Dick, whom he had not seen since the day before at dinner; and the servant answering awkwardly that Master Richard had come back but had gone out again with the pony phaeton, his suspicions became aroused, and he cross-questioned the man until the whole was out. It appeared from this report that Dick had been going about for nearly a month with a girl in the Vale — a Miss Van Tromp; that she lived near Lord Trevanion’s upper wood; that recently Miss Van Tromp’s papa had returned home from foreign parts after a prolonged absence; that this papa was an old gentleman, very chatty and free with his money in the public-house — whereupon Mr. Naseby’s face became encrimsoned; that the papa, furthermore, was said to be an admiral — whereupon Mr. Naseby spat out a whistle brief and fierce as an oath; that Master Dick seemed very friendly with the papa — ‘God help him!’ said Mr. Naseby; that last night Master Dick had not come in, and to — day he had driven away in the phaeton with the young lady —

‘Young woman,’ corrected Mr. Naseby.

‘Yes, sir,’ said the man, who had been unwilling enough to gossip from the first, and was now cowed by the effect of his communications on the master. ‘Young woman, sir!’

‘Had they luggage?’ demanded the Squire.

‘Yes, sir.’

Mr. Naseby was silent for a moment, struggling to keep down his emotion, and he mastered it so far as to mount into the sarcastic vein, when he was in the nearest danger of melting into the sorrowful.

‘And was this — this Van Dunk with them?’ he asked, dwelling scornfully upon the name.

The servant believed not, and being eager to shift the responsibility of speech to other shoulders, suggested that perhaps the master had better inquire further from George the stableman in person.

‘Tell him to saddle the chestnut and come with me. He can take the gray gelding; for we may ride fast. And then you can take away this trash,’ added Mr. Naseby, pointing to the luncheon; and he arose, lordly in his anger, and marched forth upon the terrace to await his horse.

There Dick’s old nurse shrunk up to him, for the news went like wildfire over Naseby House, and timidly expressed a hope that there was nothing much amiss with the young master.

‘I’ll pull him through,’ the Squire said grimly, as though he meant to pull him through a threshing-mill; ‘I’ll save him from this gang; God help him with the next! He has a taste for low company, and no natural affections to steady him. His father was no society for him; he must go fuddling with a Dutchman, Nance, and now he’s caught. Let us pray he’ll take the lesson,’ he added more gravely, ‘but youth is here to make troubles, and age to pull them out again.’

Nance whimpered and recalled several episodes of Dick’s childhood, which moved Mr. Naseby to blow his nose and shake her hard by the hand; and then, the horse arriving opportunely, to get himself without delay into the saddle and canter off.

He rode straight, hot spur, to Thymebury, where, as was to be expected, he could glean no tidings of the runaways. They had not been seen at the George; they had not been seen at the station. The shadow darkened on Mr. Naseby’s face; the junction did not occur to him; his last hope was for Van Tromp’s cottage; thither he bade George guide him, and thither he followed, nursing grief, anxiety, and indignation in his heart.

‘Here it is, sir,’ said George stopping.

‘What! on my own land!’ he cried. ‘How’s this? I let this place to somebody — M’Whirter or M’Glashan.’

‘Miss M’Glashan was the young lady’s aunt, sir, I believe,’ returned George.

‘Ay — dummies,’ said the Squire. ‘I shall whistle for my rent too. Here, take my horse.’

The Admiral, this hot afternoon, was sitting by the window with a long glass. He already knew the Squire by sight, and now, seeing him dismount before the cottage and come striding through the garden, concluded without doubt he was there to ask for Esther’s hand.

‘This is why the girl is not yet home,’ he thought: ‘a very suitable delicacy on young Naseby’s part.’

And he composed himself with some pomp, answered the loud rattle of the riding-whip upon the door with a dulcet invitation to enter, and coming forward with a bow and a smile, ‘Mr. Naseby, I believe,’ said he.

The Squire came armed for battle; took in his man from top to toe in one rapid and scornful glance, and decided on a course at once. He must let the fellow see that he understood him.

‘You are Mr. Van Tromp?’ he returned roughly, and without taking any notice of the proffered hand.

‘The same, sir,’ replied the Admiral. ‘Pray be seated.’

‘No sir,’ said the Squire, point-blank, ‘I will not be seated. I am told that you are an admiral,’ he added.

‘No sir, I am not an admiral,’ returned Van Tromp, who now began to grow nettled and enter into the spirit of the interview.

‘Then why do you call yourself one, sir?’

‘I have to ask your pardon, I do not,’ says Van Tromp, as grand as the Pope.

But nothing was of avail against the Squire.

‘You sail under false colours from beginning to end,’ he said. ‘Your very house was taken under a sham name.’

‘It is not my house. I am my daughter’s guest,’ replied the Admiral. ‘If it WERE my house — ’

‘Well?’ said the Squire, ‘what then? hey?’

The Admiral looked at him nobly, but was silent.

‘Look here,’ said Mr. Naseby, ‘this intimidation is a waste of time; it is thrown away on me, sir; it will not succeed with me. I will not permit you even to gain time by your fencing. Now, sir, I presume you understand what brings me here.’

‘I am entirely at a loss to account for your intrusion,’ bows and waves Van Tromp.

‘I will try to tell you then. I come here as a father’ — down came the riding-whip upon the table — ‘I have right and justice upon my side. I understand your calculations, but you calculated without me. I am a man of the world, and I see through you and your manoeuvres. I am dealing now with a conspiracy — I stigmatise it as such, and I will expose it and crush it. And now I order you to tell me how far things have gone, and whither you have smuggled my unhappy son.’

‘My God, sir!’ Van Tromp broke out, ‘I have had about enough of this. Your son? God knows where he is for me! What the devil have I to do with your son? My daughter is out, for the matter of that; I might ask you where she was, and what would you say to that? But this is all midsummer madness. Name your business distinctly, and be off.’

‘How often am I to tell you?’ cried the Squire. ‘Where did your daughter take my son to-day in that cursed pony carriage?’

‘In a pony carriage?’ repeated Van Tromp.

‘Yes, sir — with luggage.’

‘Luggage?’ — Van Tromp had turned a little pale.

‘Luggage, I said — luggage!’ shouted Naseby. ‘You may spare me this dissimulation. Where’s my son. You are speaking to a father, sir, a father.’

‘But, sir, if this be true,’ out came Van Tromp in a new key, ‘it is I who have an explanation to demand?’

‘Precisely. There is the conspiracy,’ retorted Naseby. ‘Oh!’ he added, ‘I am a man of the world. I can see through and through you.’

Van Tromp began to understand.

‘You speak a great deal about being a father, Mr. Naseby,’ said he; ‘I believe you forget that the appellation is common to both of us. I am at a loss to figure to myself, however dimly, how any man — I have not said any gentleman — could so brazenly insult another as you have been insulting me since you entered this house. For the first time I appreciate your base insinuations, and I despise them and you. You were, I am told, a manufacturer; I am an artist; I have seen better days; I have moved in societies where you would not be received, and dined where you would be glad to pay a pound to see me dining. The so-called aristocracy of wealth, sir, I despise. I refuse to help you; I refuse to be helped by you. There lies the door.’

And the Admiral stood forth in a halo.

It was then that Dick entered. He had been waiting in the porch for some time back, and Esther had been listlessly standing by his side. He had put out his hand to bar her entrance, and she had submitted without surprise; and though she seemed to listen, she scarcely appeared to comprehend. Dick, on his part, was as white as a sheet; his eyes burned and his lips trembled with anger as he thrust the door suddenly open, introduced Esther with ceremonious gallantry, and stood forward and knocked his hat firmer on his head like a man about to leap.

‘What is all this?’ he demanded.

‘Is this your father, Mr. Naseby?’ inquired the Admiral.

‘It is,’ said the young man.

‘I make you my compliments,’ returned Van Tromp.

‘Dick!’ cried his father, suddenly breaking forth, ‘it is not too late, is it? I have come here in time to save you. Come, come away with me — come away from this place.’

And he fawned upon Dick with his hands.

‘Keep your hands off me,’ cried Dick, not meaning unkindness, but because his nerves were shattered by so many successive miseries.

‘No, no,’ said the old man, ‘don’t repulse your father, Dick, when he has come here to save you. Don’t repulse me, my boy. Perhaps I have not been kind to you, not quite considerate, too harsh; my boy, it was not for want of love. Think of old times. I was kind to you then, was I not? When you were a child, and your mother was with us.’ Mr. Naseby was interrupted by a sort of sob. Dick stood looking at him in a maze. ‘Come away,’ pursued the father in a whisper; ‘you need not be afraid of any consequences. I am a man of the world, Dick; and she can have no claim on you — no claim, I tell you; and we’ll be handsome too, Dick — we’ll give them a good round figure, father and daughter, and there’s an end.’

He had been trying to get Dick towards the door, but the latter stood off.

‘You had better take care, sir, how you insult that lady,’ said the son, as black as night.

‘You would not choose between your father and your mistress?’ said the father.

‘What do you call her, sir?’ cried Dick, high and clear.

Forbearance and patience were not among Mr. Naseby’s qualities.

‘I called her your mistress,’ he shouted, ‘and I might have called her a — ’

‘That is an unmanly lie,’ replied Dick, slowly.

‘Dick!’ cried the father, ‘Dick!’

‘I do not care,’ said the son, strengthening himself against his own heart; ‘I— I have said it, and it is the truth.’

There was a pause.

‘Dick,’ said the old man at last, in a voice that was shaken as by a gale of wind, ‘I am going. I leave you with your friends, sir — with your friends. I came to serve you, and now I go away a broken man. For years I have seen this coming, and now it has come. You never loved me. Now you have been the death of me. You may boast of that. Now I leave you. God pardon you.’

With that he was gone; and the three who remained together heard his horse’s hoofs descend the lane. Esther had not made a sign throughout the interview, and still kept silence now that it was over; but the Admiral, who had once or twice moved forward and drawn back again, now advanced for good.

‘You are a man of spirit, sir,’ said he to Dick; ‘but though I am no friend to parental interference, I will say that you were heavy on the governor.’ Then he added with a chuckle: ‘You began, Richard, with a silver spoon, and here you are in the water like the rest. Work, work, nothing like work. You have parts, you have manners; why, with application you may die a millionaire!’ Dick shook himself. He took Esther by the hand, looking at her mournfully.

‘Then this is farewell,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ she answered. There was no tone in her voice, and she did not return his gaze.

‘For ever,’ added Dick.

‘For ever,’ she repeated mechanically.

‘I have had hard measure,’ he continued. ‘In time I believe I could have shown you I was worthy, and there was no time long enough to show how much I loved you. But it was not to be. I have lost all.’

He relinquished her hand, still looking at her, and she turned to leave the room.

‘Why, what in fortune’s name is the meaning of all this?’ cried Van Tromp. ‘Esther come back!’

‘Let her go,’ said Dick, and he watched her disappear with strangely mingled feelings. For he had fallen into that stage when men have the vertigo of misfortune, court the strokes of destiny, and rush towards anything decisive, that it may free them from suspense though at the cost of ruin. It is one of the many minor forms of suicide.

‘She did not love me,’ he said, turning to her father.

‘I feared as much,’ said he, ‘when I sounded her. Poor Dick, poor Dick. And yet I believe I am as much cut up as you are. I was born to see others happy.’

‘You forget,’ returned Dick, with something like a sneer, ‘that I am now a pauper.’

Van Tromp snapped his fingers.

‘Tut!’ said he; ‘Esther has plenty for us all.’

Dick looked at him with some wonder. It had never dawned upon him that this shiftless, thriftless, worthless, sponging parasite was yet, after and in spite of all, not mercenary in the issue of his thoughts; yet so it was.

‘Now,’ said Dick, ‘I must go.’

‘Go?’ cried Van Tromp. ‘Where? Not one foot, Mr. Richard Naseby. Here you shall stay in the meantime! and — well, and do something practical — advertise for a situation as private secretary — and when you have it, go and welcome. But in the meantime, sir, no false pride; we must stay with our friends; we must sponge a while on Papa Van Tromp, who has sponged so often upon us.’

‘By God,’ cried Dick, ‘I believe you are the best of the lot.’

‘Dick, my boy,’ replied the Admiral, winking, ‘you mark me, I am not the worst.’

‘Then why,’ began Dick, and then paused. ‘But Esther,’ he began again, once more to interrupt himself. ‘The fact is, Admiral,’ he came out with it roundly now, ‘your daughter wished to run away from you to-day, and I only brought her back with difficulty.’

‘In the pony carriage?’ asked the Admiral, with the silliness of extreme surprise.

‘Yes,’ Dick answered.

‘Why, what the devil was she running away from?’

Dick found the question unusually hard to answer.

‘Why,’ said he, ‘you know, you’re a bit of a rip.’

‘I behave to that girl, sir, like an archdeacon,’ replied Van Tromp warmly.

‘Well — excuse me — but you know you drink,’ insisted Dick.

‘I know that I was a sheet in the wind’s eye, sir, once — once only, since I reached this place,’ retorted the Admiral. ‘And even then I was fit for any drawing-room. I should like you to tell me how many fathers, lay and clerical, go upstairs every day with a face like a lobster and cod’s eyes — and are dull, upon the back of it — not even mirth for the money! No, if that’s what she runs for, all I say is, let her run.’

‘You see,’ Dick tried it again, ‘she has fancies — ’

‘Confound her fancies!’ cried Van Tromp. ‘I used her kindly; she had her own way; I was her father. Besides I had taken quite a liking to the girl, and meant to stay with her for good. But I tell you what it is, Dick, since she has trifled with you — Oh, yes, she did though! — and since her old papa’s not good enough for her — the devil take her, say I.’

‘You will be kind to her at least?’ said Dick.

‘I never was unkind to a living soul,’ replied the Admiral. ‘Firm I can be, but not unkind.’

‘Well,’ said Dick, offering his hand, ‘God bless you, and farewell.’

The Admiral swore by all his gods he should not go. ‘Dick,’ he said, ‘You are a selfish dog; you forget your old Admiral. You wouldn’t leave him alone, would you?’

It was useless to remind him that the house was not his to dispose of, that being a class of considerations to which his intelligence was closed; so Dick tore himself off by force, and, shouting a good-bye, made off along the lane to Thymebury.

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