The banker and the man who was called the Major talked to each other earnestly enough throughout the short drive between Lisford churchyard and Maudesley Abbey; but they spoke in low confidential whispers, and their conversation was interlarded by all manner of strange phrases; the queer, outlandish words were Hindostanee, no doubt, and were by no means easy to comprehend.
As the carriage drove up to the grand entrance of the Abbey, the stranger looked out through the mud-spattered window.
“A fine place!” he exclaimed; “a splendid place!”
“What am I to call you here?” muttered Mr. Dunbar, as he got out of the carriage.
“You may call me anything; as long as you do not call me when the soup is cold. I’ve a two-pair back in the neighbourhood of St. Martin’s Lane, and I’m known there as Mr. Vavasor. But I’m not particular to a shade. Call me anything that begins with a V. It’s as well to stick to one initial, on account of one’s linen.”
From the very small amount of linen exhibited in the Major’s toilette, a malicious person might have imagined that such a thing as a shirt was a luxury not included in that gentleman’s wardrobe.
“Call me Vernon,” he said: “Vernon is a good name. You may as well call me Major Vernon. My friends at the Corner — not the Piccadilly corner, but the corner of the waste ground at the back of Field Lane — have done me the honour to give me the rank of Major, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t retain the distinction. My proclivities are entirely aristocratic: I have no power of assimilation with the canaille. This is the sort of thing that suits me. Here I am in my element.”
Mr. Dunbar had led his shabby acquaintance into the low, tapestried room in which he usually sat. The Major rubbed his hands with a gesture of enjoyment as he looked at the evidences of wealth that were heedlessly scattered about the apartment. He gave a long sigh of satisfaction as he dropped with a sudden plump upon the spring cushion of an easy-chair on one side of the fireplace.
“Now, listen to me,” said Mr. Dunbar. “I can’t afford to talk to you this morning; I have other duties to perform: When they’re over, I’ll come and talk to you. In the meantime, you may sit here as long as you like, and have what you please to eat or drink.”
“Well, I don’t mind the wing of a fowl, and a bottle of Burgundy. It’s a long time since I’ve tasted Burgundy. Chambertin, or Clos de Vougeot, at twelve bob a bottle — that’s the sort of tipple, I rather flatter myself — eh?”
Henry Dunbar drew himself up with a slight shudder, as if repelled and disgusted by the man’s vulgarity.
“What do you want of me?” he asked. “Remember that I am waited for. I am quite ready to serve you — for the sake of ‘auld lang syne!’”
“Yes,” answered the Major, with a sneer; “it’s so pleasant to remember ‘auld lang syne!’”
“Well,” asked Mr. Dunbar, impatiently, “what is it you want of me?”
“A bottle of Burgundy — the best you have in your cellar — something to eat, and — that which a poor man generally asks of his rich friends — his fortunate friends — MONEY!”
“You shall not find me illiberal towards you. I’ll come back by-and-by, and write you a cheque.”
“You’ll make it a thumping one?”
“I’ll make it as much as you want.”
“That’s the sort of thing. There always was something princely and magnificent about you, Mr. Dunbar.”
“You shall not have any reason to complain,” answered the banker, very coldly.
“You’ll send me the lunch?”
“Yes. You can hold your tongue, I suppose? You won’t talk to the servant who waits upon you?”
“Has your friend the manners of a gentleman, or has he not? Hasn’t he had the eminent advantage of a collegiate education — I may say, a prolongued course of collegiate study? But look here, since you’re so afraid of my putting my foot in it, suppose I go back to Lisford now, and I can return to you to-night after dark. Our business will keep. I want a long talk, and a quiet talk; but I must suit my convenience to yours. It’s the dee-yuty of the poor-r-r dependant to wait upon the per-leasure of his patron,” exclaimed Major Vernon, in the studied tones of the villain in a melodrama.
Henry Dunbar gave a sigh of relief.
“Yes, that will be much better,” he said. “I can talk to you comfortably after dinner.”
“Ta-ta, then, old boy. ‘Oh, reservoir!’ as we say in the classics.”
Major Vernon extended a brawny hand of rather doubtful purity. The millionaire touched the broad palm with the tips of his gloved fingers.
“Good-bye,” he said; “I shall expect you at nine o’clock. You know your way out?”
He opened the door as he spoke, and pointed through a vista of two or three adjoining rooms to the hall. It was rather a broad hint. The Major pulled the poodle collar still higher above his ears, and went out with only his nose exposed to the influence of the atmosphere.
Henry Dunbar shut the door, and walked to one of the windows. He leaned his forehead against the glass, and looked out, watching the tall figure of the Major, as he walked rapidly along the broad carriage-drive that skirted the lawn.
The banker watched his shabby acquaintance until Major Vernon was quite out of sight. Then he went back to the fireplace, dropped heavily into his chair, and gave a long groan. It was not a sigh, it was a groan — a groan that seemed to come from a bosom that was rent by all the agony of despair.
“This decides it!” he muttered to himself. “Yes, this decides it! I’ve seen it for a long time coming to a crisis. But this settles everything.”
He got up, passed his hand across his forehead and over his eyelids, like a man who had just been awakened from a long sleep; and then went to play his part in the grand business of the day.
There is a very wide difference between the feelings of the poor adventurer — who, by some lucky accident, is enabled to pounce upon a rich friend — and the sentiments of the wealthy victim who is pounced upon. Nothing could present a stronger contrast than the manner of Henry Dunbar, the banker, and the gentleman who had elected to be called Major Vernon. Whereas Mr. Dunbar seemed plunged into the uttermost depths of despair by the sudden appearance of his old acquaintance, the worthy Major exhibited a delight that was almost uproarious in its manifestation.
It was not until he found himself in a very lonely part of the park, where there were no other witnesses than the timid deer, lurking here and there under the poor shelter of a clump of leafless elms — it was not till Major Vernon felt himself quite alone, that he gave way to the full exuberance of his spirits.
“It’s a gold-mine!” he cried, rubbing his hands; “it’s a regular California!”
He executed a grim caper in his delight, and the scared deer fled away from the neighbourhood of his path; perhaps they took him for some modern gnome, dancing wild dances in the wet woodland. He laughed aloud, with a hollow, fiendish-sounding laugh, and then clapped his hands together till the noise of his brawny palms echoed in the rustic silence.
“Henry Dunbar,” he said to himself; “Henry Dunbar! He’ll be a milch cow — nothing but a milch cow. If —” he stopped suddenly, and the triumphant grin upon his face changed to a thoughtful expression. “If he doesn’t run away,” he said, standing quite still, and rubbing his chin slowly with the palm of his hand. “What if he should give me the slip? He might do that!”
But, after a moment’s pause, he laughed aloud again, and walked on briskly.
“No, he’ll not do that,” he said; “it won’t serve his turn to run away.”
While Major Vernon went back to Lisford, Henry Dunbar took his seat at the breakfast-table, with Laura Lady Jocelyn by his side.
There was very little more gaiety at the wedding-breakfast than there had been at the wedding. Everything was very elegant, very subdued, and aristocratic. Silent footmen glided noiselessly backwards and forwards behind the chairs of the guests; champagne, Moselle, hock, and Burgundy sparkled in shallow glasses that were shaped like the broad leaf of a water-lily. Dresden-china shepherdesses, in the centre of the oval table, held up their chintz-patterned aprons filled with some forced strawberries that had cost about half-a-crown apiece. Smirking shepherds supported open-work baskets, laden with tiny Algerian apples, China oranges, and big purple hothouse grapes.
The bride and bridegroom were very happy; but theirs was a subdued and quiet happiness that had little influence upon those around them. The wedding-breakfast was a very silent meal, for the face of the giver of the feast was as gloomy as the sky above Maudesley Abbey; and every now and then, in awkward pauses of the conversation, the pattering of the incessant raindrops sounded upon the windows.
At last the breakfast was finished. A knife had been cunningly inserted in the outer-wall of the splendid cake, and a few morsels of the rich interior, which looked like a kind of portable Day-and-Martin, had been eaten by one of the bridesmaids. Laura Jocelyn rose and left the table, attended by the three young ladies.
Elizabeth Madden was waiting in the bride’s dressing-room with Lady Jocelyn’s travelling-dress laid in state upon a big sofa. She kissed her young Miss, and cried over her a little, before she was equal to begin the business of the toilette: and then the voices of the bridesmaids broke loose, and there was a pleasant buzz of congratulation, which beguiled the time while Laura was exchanging her bridal costume for a long rustling dress of dove-coloured silk, a purple-velvet cloak trimmed and lined with sable, and a miraculous fabric of pale-pink areophane, and starry jasmine-blossoms, which the Parisian milliner facetiously entitled “a bonnet.”
She went down stairs presently in this rich attire, looking like a Russian empress, in all the glory of her youth and beauty. The travelling-carriage was standing at the door; Arthur Lovell and Mr. Dunbar were in the hall with the two clergymen. Laura went up to her father to bid him good-bye.
“It will be a long time before we see each other again, papa dear,” she said, in tones that were only loud enough for Mr. Dunbar to hear; “say ‘God bless you!’ once more before I go.”
Her head was on his breast, and her face lifted up towards his own as she said this.
The banker looked straight before him with a forced smile upon his face, that was little more than a nervous contraction of the muscles about the lips.
“I will give you something better than my blessing, Laura,” he said aloud; “I have given you no wedding-present yet, but I have not forgotten. The gift I mean to present to you will take some time to prepare. I shall give you the handsomest diamond-necklace that was ever made in England. I shall buy the diamonds myself, and have them set according to my own design.”
The bridesmaids gave a little murmur of delight.
Laura pressed the speaker’s cold hand.
“I don’t want any diamonds, papa,” she whispered; “I only want your love.”
Mr. Dunbar did not make any response to that entreating whisper. There was no time for any answer, perhaps, for the bride and bridegroom had to catch an appointed train at Shorncliffe station, which was to take them on the first stage of their Continental journey; and in the bustle and confusion of their hurried departure, the banker had no opportunity of saying anything more to his daughter. But he stood in the Gothic porch, watching the departing carriage with a kind of mournful tenderness in his face.
“I hope that she will be happy,” he muttered to himself as he went back to the house. “Heaven knows I hope she may be happy.”
He did not stop to make any ceremonious adieu to his guests, but walked straight to his own apartments. People were accustomed to his strange manners, and were very indulgent towards his foibles.
Arthur Lovell and the three bridesmaids lingered a little in the blue drawing-room. The Melvilles were to drive home to their father’s house in the afternoon, and Dora Macmahon was going with them. She was to stay at their father’s house a few weeks, and was then to go back to her aunt in Scotland.
“But I am to pay my darling Laura an early visit at Jocelyn’s Rock,” she said, when Arthur made some inquiry about her arrangements; “that has been all settled.”
The ladies and the young lawyer took an afternoon tea together before they left Maudesley, and were altogether very sociable, not to say merry. It was upon this occasion that Arthur Lovell, for the first time in his life, observed that Dora Macmahon had very beautiful brown eyes, and rippling brown hair, and the sweetest smile he had ever seen — except in one lovely face, which was like the splendour of the noonday sun, and seemed to extinguish all lesser lights.
The carriage was announced at last; and Mr. Lovell had enough to do in attending to the three young ladies, and the stowing away of all those bonnet-boxes, and shawls, and travelling-bags, and desks, and dressing-cases, and odd volumes of books, and umbrellas, parasols, and sketching-portfolios, which are the peculiar attributes of all female travellers. And then, when all was finished, and he had bowed for the last time in acknowledgment of those friendly becks and wreathed smiles which greeted him from the carriage-window till it disappeared in the curve of the avenue, Arthur Lovell walked slowly home, thinking of the business of the day.
Laura was lost to him for ever. The dreadful grief which had so long brooded darkly over his life had come down upon him at last, and the pang had not been so insupportable as he had expected it to be.
“I never had any hope,” he thought to himself, as he walked along the soddened road between the gates of Maudesley and the old town that lay before him. “I never really hoped that Laura Dunbar would be my wife.”
John Lovell’s house was one of the best in the town of Shorncliffe. It was a queer old house, with a sloping roof, and gable-ends of solid oak, adorned here and there by grim devices, carved by a skilful hand. It was a large house; but low and straggling; and unpretending in its exterior. The red light of a fire was shining in a wainscoted chamber, half sitting-room, half library. The crimson curtains were not yet drawn across the diamond-paned window. Arthur Lovell looked into the room as he passed, and saw his father sitting by the fire, with a newspaper at his feet.
There was no need to bolt doors against thieves and vagabonds in such a quiet town as Shorncliffe. Arthur Lovell turned the handle of the street door and went in. The door of his father’s sitting-room was ajar, and the lawyer heard his son’s step in the hall.
“Is that you, Arthur?” he asked.
“Yes, father,” the young man answered, going into the room.
“I want to speak to you very particularly. I suppose this wedding at Maudesley Abbey has put all serious business out of your head.”
“What serious business, father?”
“Have you forgotten Lord Herriston’s offer?”
“The offer of the appointment in India? Oh, no, father, I have not forgotten, only ——”
“I have not been able to decide.”
As he spoke, Arthur Lovell thought of Laura Dunbar. No; she was Laura Jocelyn now. It was a hard thing for the young man to think of her by that new name. Would it not be better for him to go away — to put immeasurable distance between himself and the woman he had loved so dearly? Would it not be better and wiser to go away? And yet what if by so doing he turned his back upon another chance of happiness? What if a lesser star than that which had gone down in the darkness might now be rising dim and distant in the pale grey sky?
“There is no reason that I should decide in a hurry,” the young man said, presently. “Lord Herriston told you that I might take twelve months to think about his offer.”
“He did,” answered John Lovell; “but half of the time is gone, and I’ve had a letter from Lord Herriston by this afternoon’s post. He wants your decision immediately; for a connection of his own has applied to him for the appointment. He still holds to his promise, and will give you the preference; but you must make up your mind at once.”
“Do you wish me to go to India, father?”
“Do I wish you to go to India! Of course not, my dear boy, unless your own ambition takes you there. Remember, you are an only son. You have no occasion to leave this place. You will inherit a very good practice and a comfortable fortune. I thought you were ambitious, and that Shorncliffe was too narrow a sphere for your ambition, or else I should never have entertained any idea of this Indian appointment.”
“And you will not be sorry if I remain in England?”
“Sorry! No, indeed; I shall be very glad. Do you suppose, when a man has only one son, a handsome, clever, high-minded young fellow, whose presence is like sunshine in his father’s gloomy old house — do you think the father wants to get rid of the lad? If you do think so, you must have a very small idea of parental affection.”
“Then I’ll refuse the appointment, father.”
“God bless you, my boy!” exclaimed the lawyer.
The letter to Lord Herriston was written that night; and Arthur Lovell resigned himself to a perpetual residence in that quiet town; within a mile of which the towers of Jocelyn’s Rock crowned the tall cliff above the rushing waters of the Avon.
Mr. Dunbar had given all necessary directions for the reception of his shabby friend.
The Major was ushered at once to the tapestried room, where the banker was still sitting at the dinner-table. He had that meal laid upon a round table near the fire, and the room looked a very picture of comfort and luxury as Major Vernon went into it, fresh from the black foggy night, and the leafless avenue, where the bare trunks of the elms looked like gigantic shadows looming through the obscurity.
The Major’s eyes were almost dazzled by the brightness of that pleasant chamber. This man was a reprobate; but he had begun life as a gentleman. He remembered such a room as this long ago, across a dreary gulf of forty ill-spent years. The sight of this room brought back the memory of a pretty lamplit parlour, with an old man sitting in a high-backed easy-chair: a genial matron bending over her work; two fair-faced girls; a favourite mastiff stretched full length upon the hearth; and, last of all, a young man at home from college, yawning over a sporting newspaper, weary to death of all the simple innocent delights of home, sick of the companionship of gentle sisters, the love of a fond mother, and wishing to be back again at the old uproarious wine-parties, the drunken orgies, the card-playing and prize-fighting, the extravagance and debauchery of the bad set in which he was a chief.
The Major gave a profound sigh as he looked round the room. But the melancholy shadow on his face changed into a grim smile, as he glanced from the tapestried walls and curtained window, with a great Indian jar of hothouse flowers standing upon an inlaid table before it, and filling the room with a faint perfume of jasmine and almond, to the figure of Henry Dunbar.
“It’s comfortable,” said Major Vernon; “to say the least of it, it’s very comfortable. And with a balance of half a million or so at one’s banker’s, or in one’s own bank — which is better still perhaps — one is not so badly off, eh, Mr. Dunbar?”
“Sit down and eat one of those birds,” answered the banker. “I’ll talk to you by-and-by.”
The Major obeyed his friend; he unwound three or four yards of dingy woollen stuff from his scraggy throat, turned down the poodle collar, pulled his chair close to the table, squared his brows, and began business. He made very light of a brace of partridges and a bottle of sparkling Moselle.
When the table had been cleared, and the two men left alone together, Major Vernon stretched his long legs upon the hearth-rug, plunged his hands deep down in his trousers’ pockets, and gave a sigh of satisfaction.
“And now,” said Mr. Dunbar, filling his glass from the starry crystal claret-jug, “what is it that you want to say to me, Stephen Vallance, or Major Vernon, or whatever ridiculous name you may call yourself — what is it you’ve got to say?”
“I’ll tell you that in a very few words,” answered the Major, quietly; “I want to talk to you about the man who was murdered at Winchester some months ago.”
The banker’s hand lost its steadiness, the neck of the claret-jug knocked against the thin lip of the glass, and shivered it into half-a-dozen pieces.
“You’ll spill your wine,” said Major Vernon. “I’m very sorry for you if your nerves are no better than that.”
When Major Vernon that night left his friend, he carried away with him half-a-dozen cheques for different amounts, making in all two thousand pounds, upon that private banking-account which Mr. Dunbar kept for himself in the house of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby.
It was after midnight when the banker opened the hall-door, and passed out with the Major upon the broad stone flags under the Gothic porch. There was no rain now; but it was very dark, and the north-easterly winds were blowing amongst the leafless branches of giant oaks and elms.
“Shall you present those cheques yourself?” Henry Dunbar asked, as the two men were about to part.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Dress yourself decently, then, before you do so,” said the banker; “they’d wonder what dealings you and I could have together, if you were to show yourself in St. Gundolph Lane in your present costume.”
“My friend is proud,” exclaimed the Major, with a mock tragic accent; “he is proud, and he despises his humble dependant.”
“Good night,” said Mr. Dunbar, rather abruptly; “it’s past twelve o’clock, and I’m tired.”
“To be sure. You’re tired. Do you — do you — sleep well?” asked Major Vernon, in a whisper. There was no mock solemnity in his tone now.
The banker turned away from him with a muttered oath. The light of a lamp suspended from the groined roof of the porch shone upon the two men’s faces. Henry Dunbar’s countenance was overclouded by a black frown, and was by no means agreeable to look upon; but the grinning face of the Major, the thin lips wreathed into a malicious smile, the small black eyes glittering with a sinister light, looked like the face of a Mephistopheles.
“Good night,” repeated the banker, turning his back upon his friend, and about to re-enter the house.
Major Vernon laid his bony fingers upon Henry Dunbar’s shoulder, and stopped him before he could cross the threshold.
“You’ve given me two thou’,” he said; “that’s liberal enough to start with; but I’m an old man; I’m tired of the life of a vagabond, and I want to live like a gentleman; — not as you do, of course; that’s out of the question; it isn’t everybody that has the good luck to be a millionaire, like Henry Dunbar; but I want a bottle of claret with my dinner, a good coat upon my back, and a five-pound note in my pocket constantly. You must do as much as that for me; eh, dear boy?”
“I don’t refuse to do it, do I?” asked Henry Dunbar, impatiently; “I should think what you’ve got in your pocket already is a pretty good beginning.”
“My dear fellow, it’s a stupendous beginning!” exclaimed Major Vernon; “it’s a princely beginning; it’s a Napoleonic beginning. But that two thou isn’t meant for a blind, is it? It’s not to be the beginning, middle, and the end? You’re not going to do the gentle bolt — eh?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re not going to run away? You’re not going to renounce the pomps and vanities of this wicked world, and make an early expedition across the herring-pond — eh, friend of my soul?”
“Why should I run away?” asked Henry Dunbar, sternly.
“That’s the very thing I say myself, dear boy. Why should you? A wise man doesn’t run away from landed estates, and fine houses, and half a million of money. But when you broke that claret-glass after dinner, it struck me somehow that you were — shall I venture the word? —rather nervous! Nervous people do all manner of things. Give me your word that you’re not going to bolt, and I’m satisfied.”
“I tell you, I have no such idea in my mind,” Mr. Dunbar answered, with increasing impatience. “Will that do?”
“It will, dear boy. Your hand upon it! What a cold hand you’ve got! Take care of yourself; and once more — good night!”
“You’re going to London?”
“Yes — to cash the cheques, and make a few business arrangements.”
Mr. Dunbar bolted the great door as the footsteps of his friend the Major died away upon the gravelled walk, which had been quickly dried by the frosty wind. The banker had dismissed his servants at ten o’clock that night; so there was nobody to wait upon him, or to watch him, when he went back to the tapestried room.
He sat by the low fire for a little time, thinking, with a settled gloom upon his face, and drinking Burgundy out of a tumbler. Then he went to bed; and the light of the night-lamp shining upon his face as he slept, showed it distorted by strange shadows, that were not altogether the shadows of the draperies above his head.
Major Vernon walked briskly down the long avenue leading to the lodge-gates.
“Two thou’ is comfortable,” he muttered to himself; “very satisfactory for a first go-in at the gold-diggin’s! but I shall expect my California to produce a little more than that before we close the shaft, and retire upon the profits of the speculation. I think my friend is safe — I don’t think he’ll run away. But I shall keep my eye upon him, nevertheless. The human eye is a great institution; and I shall watch my friend.”
In spite of a natural eagerness to transform those oblong slips of paper — the cheques signed with the well-known name of Henry Dunbar — into the still more convenient and flimsy paper circulating medium dispensed by the Old Lady in Threadneedle Street, or the yellow coinage of the realm, Major Vernon did not seem in any very great hurry to leave Lisford.
A great many of the Lisfordians had seen the shabby stranger take his seat in Henry Dunbar’s carriage, side by side with the great banker. This fact became universally known throughout the parish of Lisford and two neighbouring parishes, before the shadows of night came down upon the day of Laura Dunbar’s wedding, and the Major was respected accordingly.
He was shabby, certainly; queer-about the heels of his boots; and very mangy with regard to the poodle collar. His hat was more shiny than was consistent with the hat-manufacturing interest. His bony hands were red and bare, and only one miserable mockery of a glove dangled between his thumb and finger as he swaggered along the village street.
But he had been seen riding in Henry Dunbar’s carriage, and from that moment he had become invested with a romantic interest. He was a reduced gentleman, who had seen better days; or he was a miser, perhaps — an eccentric individual, who wore shabby boots and shiny hats for his own love and pleasure.
People paid respect, therefore, to the stranger at the Rose and Crown, and touched their hats to him as he went in and out, and were glad to answer any questions he chose to put to them as he loitered about the village. He contrived to find out a good deal in this way about things in general, and the habits of Henry Dunbar in particular. The banker had given his shabby acquaintance a handful of sovereigns for present use, as well as the cheques; and the Major was able to live upon the best the Rose and Crown could afford, and pay liberally for all he consumed.
“I find the Warwickshire air agree with me remarkably well,” he said to the landlord, as he sat at breakfast in the bar-parlour, upon the second day after his interview with Henry Dunbar; “and if you know of any snug little box in the neighbourhood that would suit a lonely old bachelor with a comfortable income, and nobody to help him spend it, why, I really should have a very great inclination to take it, and furnish it.”
The landlord scratched his head, and reflected for a few minutes. Then he slapped his leg with a sounding and triumphant slap.
“I know the very thing as would suit you, Major Vernon,” he said — the Major had assumed the name of Vernon, as agreed upon between himself and Henry Dunbar —“the very thing,” repeated the landlord; “you might say it had been made to order like. There’s a sale comes off next Thursday. Mr. Grogson, the Shorncliffe auctioneer, will sell, at eleven o’clock precisely, the furniture and lease of the snuggest little box in these parts — Woodbine Cottage it’s called — a sweet pretty little place, as was the property of old Admiral Manders. The admiral died in the house, and having been a bachelor, and his money having gone to distant relatives, the lease and furniture of the cottage will be sold. But I should think,” added the landlord, gravely, looking rather doubtfully at his guest as he spoke, “I should think the lease and furniture, pictures and plate, will fetch a matter of eight hundred to a thousand pound; and perhaps you mightn’t care to go to that?”
The landlord could not refrain from glancing furtively at the white and shining aspect of the cloth that covered the sharp knees of his customer, which were exactly under his eyes as the two men sat opposite to each other beside the snug little round table.
“You mightn’t care to go to that price,” he repeated, as he helped himself to about three-quarters of a pound of cold ham.
The Major lifted his bristly eyebrows with a contemptuous twitch.
“If the cottage suits me,” he said, “I don’t mind a thousand for it. To-day’s Saturday; — I shall run up to town to-morrow, or Monday morning, to settle a bit of business I’ve got on hand, and come back here in time to attend the sale.”
“My wife and me was thinkin’ of goin’ sir,” the landlord answered, with, unwonted reverence in his voice; and, if it was agreeable, we could drive you over in a four-wheel shay. Woodbine Cottage is about a mile and a half from here, and little better than a mile from Maudesley Abbey. There’s a copper coal-scuttle of the old admiral’s as my wife has got rather a fancy for. But p’raps if you was to make a hoffer previous to the sale, the property might be disposed of as it stands by private contrack.”
“I’ll see about that,” answered Major Vernon. “I’ll stroll over to Shorncliffe, this, morning, and look in upon Mr. Grogson — Grogson, I think you said was the auctioneer’s name?”
“Yes, sir; Peter Grogson, and very much looked up to be is, and a warm man, folks do say. His offices is in Shorncliffe High Street, sir; next door but two from Mr. Lovell’s, the solicitor’s, and not more than half-a-dozen yards from St. Gwendoline’s Church.”
Major Vernon, as he now chose to call himself, walked from Lisford to Shorncliffe. He was a very good walker, and, indeed, had become pretty well used to pedestrian exercise in the course of long weary trampings from one racecourse to another, when he was so far down on his luck as to be unable to pay his railway fare. The frost had set in for the first time this year; so the roads were dry and hard once more, and the sound of horses’ hoofs and rolling wheels, the jingling of bells, the occasional barking of a noisy sheep-dog, and sturdy labourers’ voices calling to each other on the high-road, travelled far in the thin frosty air.
The town of Shorncliffe was very quiet to-day, for it was only on market-days that there was much life or bustle in the queer old streets, and Major Vernon found no hindrance to the business that had brought him from Lisford.
He went straight to Mr. Grogson, the auctioneer, and from that gentleman heard all particulars respecting the pending sale at Woodbine Cottage. The Major offered to take the lease at a fair price, and the furniture, as it stood, by valuation.
“All I want is a comfortable little place that I can jump into without any trouble to myself,” Major Vernon said, with the air of a man of the world. “I like to take life easily. If you can honestly recommend the place as worth seven or eight hundred pounds, I’m willing to pay that money for it down on the nail. I’ll take it at your valuation, if the present owners are agreeable to sell it on those terms, and I’ll pay a deposit of a couple of hundred or so on Tuesday afternoon, to show that my proposition is a bona fide one.”
A little more was said, and then Mr. Grogson pledged himself to act for the best in the interests of Major Vernon, consistently with his allegiance to the present owners of the property.
The auctioneer had been at first a little doubtful of this tall, shabby stranger in the napless dirty-white beaver and the mangy poodle collar; but the offer of a deposit of two hundred pounds or so gave a different aspect to the case. There are always eccentric people in the world, and appearances are very apt to be deceptive. There was a confident air about the Major which seemed like that of a man with a balance at his banker’s.
The Major went back to the Rose and Crown, ate a comfortable little dinner, which he had ordered before setting out for Shorncliffe, paid his bill, and made all arrangements for starting by the first train for London on the following morning. It was nearly ten o’clock by the time he had done this: but late as it was, Major Vernon put on his hat, turned his poodle collar up about his ears, and went out into Lisford High Street.
There was scarcely one glimmer of light in the street as the Major walked along it. He took the road leading to Maudesley Abbey, and walked at a brisk pace, heedless of the snow, which was still falling thick and fast.
He was covered from head to foot with snow when he stopped before the stone porch, and rang a bell, that made a clanging noise in the stillness of the night. He looked like some grim white statue that had descended from its pedestal to stalk hither and thither in the darkness.
The servant who opened the door yawned undisguisedly in the face of his master’s friend.
“Tell Mr. Dunbar that I shall be glad to speak to him for a few minutes,” the Major said, making as if he would have passed into the hall.
“Mr. Dunbar left the habbey uppards of a hour ago,” the footman answered, with supreme hauteur; “but he left a message for you, in case you was to come. The period of his habsence is huncertain, and if you wants to kermoonicate with him, you was to please to wait till he come back.”
Major Vernon pushed aside the servant, and strode into the hall. The doors were open, and through two or three intermediate rooms the Major saw the tapestried chamber, dark and empty.
There was no doubt that Henry Dunbar had given him the slip — for the time, at least; but did the banker mean mischief? was there any deep design in this sudden departure? — that was the question.
“I’ll write to your master,” the Major said, after a pause; “what’s his London address?”
“Mr. Dunbar left no address.”
“Humph! That’s no matter. I can write to him at the bank. Good night.”
Major Vernon stalked away through the snow. The footman made no response to his parting civility, but stood watching him for a few moments, and then closed the door with a bang.
“Hif that’s a spessermin of your Hinjun acquaintances, I don’t think much of Hinjur or Hinjun serciety. But what can you expect of a nation as insults the gentleman who waits behind his employer’s chair at table by callin’ him a kitten-muncher?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50