The words, “The Swiss Postmark,” following so soon upon the housekeeper’s reference to Switzerland, wrought Mr. Wilding’s agitation to such a remarkable height, that his new partner could not decently make a pretence of letting it pass unnoticed.
“Wilding,” he asked hurriedly, and yet stopping short and glancing around as if for some visible cause of his state of mind: “what is the matter?”
“My good George Vendale,” returned the wine-merchant, giving his hand with an appealing look, rather as if he wanted help to get over some obstacle, than as if he gave it in welcome or salutation: “my good George Vendale, so much is the matter, that I shall never be myself again. It is impossible that I can ever be myself again. For, in fact, I am not myself.”
The new partner, a brown-cheeked handsome fellow, of about his own age, with a quick determined eye and an impulsive manner, retorted with natural astonishment: “Not yourself?”
“Not what I supposed myself to be,” said Wilding.
“What, in the name of wonder, DID you suppose yourself to be that you are not?” was the rejoinder, delivered with a cheerful frankness, inviting confidence from a more reticent man. “I may ask without impertinence, now that we are partners.”
“There again!” cried Wilding, leaning back in his chair, with a lost look at the other. “Partners! I had no right to come into this business. It was never meant for me. My mother never meant it should be mine. I mean, his mother meant it should be his — if I mean anything — or if I am anybody.”
“Come, come,” urged his partner, after a moment’s pause, and taking possession of him with that calm confidence which inspires a strong nature when it honestly desires to aid a weak one. “Whatever has gone wrong, has gone wrong through no fault of yours, I am very sure. I was not in this counting-house with you, under the old regime, for three years, to doubt you, Wilding. We were not younger men than we are, together, for that. Let me begin our partnership by being a serviceable partner, and setting right whatever is wrong. Has that letter anything to do with it?”
“Hah!” said Wilding, with his hand to his temple. “There again! My head! I was forgetting the coincidence. The Swiss postmark.”
“At a second glance I see that the letter is unopened, so it is not very likely to have much to do with the matter,” said Vendale, with comforting composure. “Is it for you, or for us?”
“For us,” said Wilding.
“Suppose I open it and read it aloud, to get it out of our way?”
“Thank you, thank you.”
“The letter is only from our champagne-making friends, the house at Neuchatel. ‘Dear Sir. We are in receipt of yours of the 28th ult., informing us that you have taken your Mr. Vendale into partnership, whereon we beg you to receive the assurance of our felicitations. Permit us to embrace the occasion of specially commanding to you M. Jules Obenreizer.’ Impossible!”
Wilding looked up in quick apprehension, and cried, “Eh?”
“Impossible sort of name,” returned his partner, slightly —“Obenreizer. ‘— Of specially commanding to you M. Jules Obenreizer, of Soho Square, London (north side), henceforth fully accredited as our agent, and who has already had the honour of making the acquaintance of your Mr. Vendale, in his (said M. Obenreizer’s) native country, Switzerland.’ To be sure! pooh pooh, what have I been thinking of! I remember now; ‘when travelling with his niece.’”
“With his —?” Vendale had so slurred the last word, that Wilding had not heard it.
“When travelling with his Niece. Obenreizer’s Niece,” said Vendale, in a somewhat superfluously lucid manner. “Niece of Obenreizer. (I met them in my first Swiss tour, travelled a little with them, and lost them for two years; met them again, my Swiss tour before last, and have lost them ever since.) Obenreizer. Niece of Obenreizer. To be sure! Possible sort of name, after all! ‘M. Obenreizer is in possession of our absolute confidence, and we do not doubt you will esteem his merits.’ Duly signed by the House, ‘Defresnier et Cie.’ Very well. I undertake to see M. Obenreizer presently, and clear him out of the way. That clears the Swiss postmark out of the way. So now, my dear Wilding, tell me what I can clear out of YOUR way, and I’ll find a way to clear it.”
More than ready and grateful to be thus taken charge of, the honest wine-merchant wrung his partner’s hand, and, beginning his tale by pathetically declaring himself an Impostor, told it.
“It was on this matter, no doubt, that you were sending for Bintrey when I came in?” said his partner, after reflecting.
“He has experience and a shrewd head; I shall be anxious to know his opinion. It is bold and hazardous in me to give you mine before I know his, but I am not good at holding back. Plainly, then, I do not see these circumstances as you see them. I do not see your position as you see it. As to your being an Impostor, my dear Wilding, that is simply absurd, because no man can be that without being a consenting party to an imposition. Clearly you never were so. As to your enrichment by the lady who believed you to be her son, and whom you were forced to believe, on her showing, to be your mother, consider whether that did not arise out of the personal relations between you. You gradually became much attached to her; she gradually became much attached to you. It was on you, personally you, as I see the case, that she conferred these worldly advantages; it was from her, personally her, that you took them.”
“She supposed me,” objected Wilding, shaking his head, “to have a natural claim upon her, which I had not.”
“I must admit that,” replied his partner, “to be true. But if she had made the discovery that you have made, six months before she died, do you think it would have cancelled the years you were together, and the tenderness that each of you had conceived for the other, each on increasing knowledge of the other?”
“What I think,” said Wilding, simply but stoutly holding to the bare fact, “can no more change the truth than it can bring down the sky. The truth is that I stand possessed of what was meant for another man.”
“He may be dead,” said Vendale.
“He may be alive,” said Wilding. “And if he is alive, have I not — innocently, I grant you innocently — robbed him of enough? Have I not robbed him of all the happy time that I enjoyed in his stead? Have I not robbed him of the exquisite delight that filled my soul when that dear lady,” stretching his hand towards the picture, “told me she was my mother? Have I not robbed him of all the care she lavished on me? Have I not even robbed him of all the devotion and duty that I so proudly gave to her? Therefore it is that I ask myself, George Vendale, and I ask you, where is he? What has become of him?”
“Who can tell!”
“I must try to find out who can tell. I must institute inquiries. I must never desist from prosecuting inquiries. I will live upon the interest of my share — I ought to say his share — in this business, and will lay up the rest for him. When I find him, I may perhaps throw myself upon his generosity; but I will yield up all to him. I will, I swear. As I loved and honoured her,” said Wilding, reverently kissing his hand towards the picture, and then covering his eyes with it. “As I loved and honoured her, and have a world of reasons to be grateful to her!” And so broke down again.
His partner rose from the chair he had occupied, and stood beside him with a hand softly laid upon his shoulder. “Walter, I knew you before to-day to be an upright man, with a pure conscience and a fine heart. It is very fortunate for me that I have the privilege to travel on in life so near to so trustworthy a man. I am thankful for it. Use me as your right hand, and rely upon me to the death. Don’t think the worse of me if I protest to you that my uppermost feeling at present is a confused, you may call it an unreasonable, one. I feel far more pity for the lady and for you, because you did not stand in your supposed relations, than I can feel for the unknown man (if he ever became a man), because he was unconsciously displaced. You have done well in sending for Mr. Bintrey. What I think will be a part of his advice, I know is the whole of mine. Do not move a step in this serious matter precipitately. The secret must be kept among us with great strictness, for to part with it lightly would be to invite fraudulent claims, to encourage a host of knaves, to let loose a flood of perjury and plotting. I have no more to say now, Walter, than to remind you that you sold me a share in your business, expressly to save yourself from more work than your present health is fit for, and that I bought it expressly to do work, and mean to do it.”
With these words, and a parting grip of his partner’s shoulder that gave them the best emphasis they could have had, George Vendale betook himself presently to the counting-house, and presently afterwards to the address of M. Jules Obenreizer.
As he turned into Soho Square, and directed his steps towards its north side, a deepened colour shot across his sun-browned face, which Wilding, if he had been a better observer, or had been less occupied with his own trouble, might have noticed when his partner read aloud a certain passage in their Swiss correspondent’s letter, which he had not read so distinctly as the rest.
A curious colony of mountaineers has long been enclosed within that small flat London district of Soho. Swiss watchmakers, Swiss silver-chasers, Swiss jewellers, Swiss importers of Swiss musical boxes and Swiss toys of various kinds, draw close together there. Swiss professors of music, painting, and languages; Swiss artificers in steady work; Swiss couriers, and other Swiss servants chronically out of place; industrious Swiss laundresses and clear-starchers; mysteriously existing Swiss of both sexes; Swiss creditable and Swiss discreditable; Swiss to be trusted by all means, and Swiss to be trusted by no means; these diverse Swiss particles are attracted to a centre in the district of Soho. Shabby Swiss eating-houses, coffee-houses, and lodging-houses, Swiss drinks and dishes, Swiss service for Sundays, and Swiss schools for week-days, are all to be found there. Even the native-born English taverns drive a sort of broken-English trade; announcing in their windows Swiss whets and drams, and sheltering in their bars Swiss skirmishes of love and animosity on most nights in the year.
When the new partner in Wilding and Co. rang the bell of a door bearing the blunt inscription OBENREIZER on a brass plate — the inner door of a substantial house, whose ground story was devoted to the sale of Swiss clocks — he passed at once into domestic Switzerland. A white-tiled stove for winter-time filled the fireplace of the room into which he was shown, the room’s bare floor was laid together in a neat pattern of several ordinary woods, the room had a prevalent air of surface bareness and much scrubbing; and the little square of flowery carpet by the sofa, and the velvet chimney-board with its capacious clock and vases of artificial flowers, contended with that tone, as if, in bringing out the whole effect, a Parisian had adapted a dairy to domestic purposes.
Mimic water was dropping off a mill-wheel under the clock. The visitor had not stood before it, following it with his eyes, a minute, when M. Obenreizer, at his elbow, startled him by saying, in very good English, very slightly clipped: “How do you do? So glad!”
“I beg your pardon. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Not at all! Sit, please.”
Releasing his visitor’s two arms, which he had lightly pinioned at the elbows by way of embrace, M. Obenreizer also sat, remarking, with a smile: “You are well? So glad!” and touching his elbows again.
“I don’t know,” said Vendale, after exchange of salutations, “whether you may yet have heard of me from your House at Neuchatel?”
“In connection with Wilding and Co.?”
“Is it not odd that I should come to you, in London here, as one of the Firm of Wilding and Co., to pay the Firm’s respects?”
“Not at all! What did I always observe when we were on the mountains? We call them vast; but the world is so little. So little is the world, that one cannot keep away from persons. There are so few persons in the world, that they continually cross and re- cross. So very little is the world, that one cannot get rid of a person. Not,” touching his elbows again, with an ingratiatory smile, “that one would desire to get rid of you.”
“I hope not, M. Obenreizer.”
“Please call me, in your country, Mr. I call myself so, for I love your country. If I COULD be English! But I am born. And you? Though descended from so fine a family, you have had the condescension to come into trade? Stop though. Wines? Is it trade in England or profession? Not fine art?”
“Mr. Obenreizer,” returned Vendale, somewhat out of countenance, “I was but a silly young fellow, just of age, when I first had the pleasure of travelling with you, and when you and I and Mademoiselle your niece — who is well?”
“Thank you. Who is well.”
“— Shared some slight glacier dangers together. If, with a boy’s vanity, I rather vaunted my family, I hope I did so as a kind of introduction of myself. It was very weak, and in very bad taste; but perhaps you know our English proverb, ‘Live and Learn.’”
“You make too much of it,” returned the Swiss. “And what the devil! After all, yours WAS a fine family.”
George Vendale’s laugh betrayed a little vexation as he rejoined: “Well! I was strongly attached to my parents, and when we first travelled together, Mr. Obenreizer, I was in the first flush of coming into what my father and mother left me. So I hope it may have been, after all, more youthful openness of speech and heart than boastfulness.”
“All openness of speech and heart! No boastfulness!” cried Obenreizer. “You tax yourself too heavily. You tax yourself, my faith! as if you was your Government taxing you! Besides, it commenced with me. I remember, that evening in the boat upon the lake, floating among the reflections of the mountains and valleys, the crags and pine woods, which were my earliest remembrance, I drew a word-picture of my sordid childhood. Of our poor hut, by the waterfall which my mother showed to travellers; of the cow-shed where I slept with the cow; of my idiot half-brother always sitting at the door, or limping down the Pass to beg; of my half-sister always spinning, and resting her enormous goitre on a great stone; of my being a famished naked little wretch of two or three years, when they were men and women with hard hands to beat me, I, the only child of my father’s second marriage — if it even was a marriage. What more natural than for you to compare notes with me, and say, ‘We are as one by age; at that same time I sat upon my mother’s lap in my father’s carriage, rolling through the rich English streets, all luxury surrounding me, all squalid poverty kept far from me. Such is MY earliest remembrance as opposed to yours!’”
Mr. Obenreizer was a black-haired young man of a dark complexion, through whose swarthy skin no red glow ever shone. When colour would have come into another cheek, a hardly discernible beat would come into his, as if the machinery for bringing up the ardent blood were there, but the machinery were dry. He was robustly made, well proportioned, and had handsome features. Many would have perceived that some surface change in him would have set them more at their ease with him, without being able to define what change. If his lips could have been made much thicker, and his neck much thinner, they would have found their want supplied.
But the great Obenreizer peculiarity was, that a certain nameless film would come over his eyes — apparently by the action of his own will — which would impenetrably veil, not only from those tellers of tales, but from his face at large, every expression save one of attention. It by no means followed that his attention should be wholly given to the person with whom he spoke, or even wholly bestowed on present sounds and objects. Rather, it was a comprehensive watchfulness of everything he had in his own mind, and everything that he knew to be, or suspected to be, in the minds of other men.
At this stage of the conversation, Mr. Obenreizer’s film came over him.
“The object of my present visit,” said Vendale, “is, I need hardly say, to assure you of the friendliness of Wilding and Co., and of the goodness of your credit with us, and of our desire to be of service to you. We hope shortly to offer you our hospitality. Things are not quite in train with us yet, for my partner, Mr. Wilding, is reorganising the domestic part of our establishment, and is interrupted by some private affairs. You don’t know Mr. Wilding, I believe?”
Mr. Obenreizer did not.
“You must come together soon. He will be glad to have made your acquaintance, and I think I may predict that you will be glad to have made his. You have not been long established in London, I suppose, Mr. Obenreizer?”
“It is only now that I have undertaken this agency.”
“Mademoiselle your niece — is — not married?”
George Vendale glanced about him, as if for any tokens of her.
“She has been in London?”
“She IS in London.”
“When, and where, might I have the honour of recalling myself to her remembrance?”
Mr. Obenreizer, discarding his film and touching his visitor’s elbows as before, said lightly: “Come up-stairs.”
Fluttered enough by the suddenness with which the interview he had sought was coming upon him after all, George Vendale followed up- stairs. In a room over the chamber he had just quitted — a room also Swiss-appointed — a young lady sat near one of three windows, working at an embroidery-frame; and an older lady sat with her face turned close to another white-tiled stove (though it was summer, and the stove was not lighted), cleaning gloves. The young lady wore an unusual quantity of fair bright hair, very prettily braided about a rather rounder white forehead than the average English type, and so her face might have been a shade — or say a light — rounder than the average English face, and her figure slightly rounder than the figure of the average English girl at nineteen. A remarkable indication of freedom and grace of limb, in her quiet attitude, and a wonderful purity and freshness of colour in her dimpled face and bright gray eyes, seemed fraught with mountain air. Switzerland too, though the general fashion of her dress was English, peeped out of the fanciful bodice she wore, and lurked in the curious clocked red stocking, and in its little silver-buckled shoe. As to the elder lady, sitting with her feet apart upon the lower brass ledge of the stove, supporting a lap-full of gloves while she cleaned one stretched on her left hand, she was a true Swiss impersonation of another kind; from the breadth of her cushion-like back, and the ponderosity of her respectable legs (if the word be admissible), to the black velvet band tied tightly round her throat for the repression of a rising tendency to goitre; or, higher still, to her great copper-coloured gold ear-rings; or, higher still, to her head- dress of black gauze stretched on wire.
“Miss Marguerite,” said Obenreizer to the young lady, “do you recollect this gentleman?”
“I think,” she answered, rising from her seat, surprised and a little confused: “it is Mr. Vendale?”
“I think it is,” said Obenreizer, dryly. “Permit me, Mr. Vendale. Madame Dor.”
The elder lady by the stove, with the glove stretched on her left hand, like a glover’s sign, half got up, half looked over her broad shoulder, and wholly plumped down again and rubbed away.
“Madame Dor,” said Obenreizer, smiling, “is so kind as to keep me free from stain or tear. Madame Dor humours my weakness for being always neat, and devotes her time to removing every one of my specks and spots.”
Madame Dor, with the stretched glove in the air, and her eyes closely scrutinizing its palm, discovered a tough spot in Mr. Obenreizer at that instant, and rubbed hard at him. George Vendale took his seat by the embroidery-frame (having first taken the fair right hand that his entrance had checked), and glanced at the gold cross that dipped into the bodice, with something of the devotion of a pilgrim who had reached his shrine at last. Obenreizer stood in the middle of the room with his thumbs in his waistcoat-pockets, and became filmy.
“He was saying down-stairs, Miss Obenreizer,” observed Vendale, “that the world is so small a place, that people cannot escape one another. I have found it much too large for me since I saw you last.”
“Have you travelled so far, then?” she inquired.
“Not so far, for I have only gone back to Switzerland each year; but I could have wished — and indeed I have wished very often — that the little world did not afford such opportunities for long escapes as it does. If it had been less, I might have found my follow- travellers sooner, you know.”
The pretty Marguerite coloured, and very slightly glanced in the direction of Madame Dor.
“You find us at length, Mr. Vendale. Perhaps you may lose us again.”
“I trust not. The curious coincidence that has enabled me to find you, encourages me to hope not.”
“What is that coincidence, sir, if you please?” A dainty little native touch in this turn of speech, and in its tone, made it perfectly captivating, thought George Vendale, when again he noticed an instantaneous glance towards Madame Dor. A caution seemed to be conveyed in it, rapid flash though it was; so he quietly took heed of Madame Dor from that time forth.
“It is that I happen to have become a partner in a House of business in London, to which Mr. Obenreizer happens this very day to be expressly recommended: and that, too, by another house of business in Switzerland, in which (as it turns out) we both have a commercial interest. He has not told you?”
“Ah!” cried Obenreizer, striking in, filmless. “No. I had not told Miss Marguerite. The world is so small and so monotonous that a surprise is worth having in such a little jog-trot place. It is as he tells you, Miss Marguerite. He, of so fine a family, and so proudly bred, has condescended to trade. To trade! Like us poor peasants who have risen from ditches!”
A cloud crept over the fair brow, and she cast down her eyes.
“Why, it is good for trade!” pursued Obenreizer, enthusiastically. “It ennobles trade! It is the misfortune of trade, it is its vulgarity, that any low people — for example, we poor peasants — may take to it and climb by it. See you, my dear Vendale!” He spoke with great energy. “The father of Miss Marguerite, my eldest half- brother, more than two times your age or mine, if living now, wandered without shoes, almost without rags, from that wretched Pass — wandered — wandered — got to be fed with the mules and dogs at an Inn in the main valley far away — got to be Boy there — got to be Ostler — got to be Waiter — got to be Cook — got to be Landlord. As Landlord, he took me (could he take the idiot beggar his brother, or the spinning monstrosity his sister?) to put as pupil to the famous watchmaker, his neighbour and friend. His wife dies when Miss Marguerite is born. What is his will, and what are his words to me, when he dies, she being between girl and woman? ‘All for Marguerite, except so much by the year for you. You are young, but I make her your ward, for you were of the obscurest and the poorest peasantry, and so was I, and so was her mother; we were abject peasants all, and you will remember it.’ The thing is equally true of most of my countrymen, now in trade in this your London quarter of Soho. Peasants once; low-born drudging Swiss Peasants. Then how good and great for trade:” here, from having been warm, he became playfully jubilant, and touched the young wine-merchant’s elbows again with his light embrace: “to be exalted by gentlemen.”
“I do not think so,” said Marguerite, with a flushed cheek, and a look away from the visitor, that was almost defiant. “I think it is as much exalted by us peasants.”
“Fie, fie, Miss Marguerite,” said Obenreizer. “You speak in proud England.”
“I speak in proud earnest,” she answered, quietly resuming her work, “and I am not English, but a Swiss peasant’s daughter.”
There was a dismissal of the subject in her words, which Vendale could not contend against. He only said in an earnest manner, “I most heartily agree with you, Miss Obenreizer, and I have already said so, as Mr. Obenreizer will bear witness,” which he by no means did, “in this house.”
Now, Vendale’s eyes were quick eyes, and sharply watching Madame Dor by times, noted something in the broad back view of that lady. There was considerable pantomimic expression in her glove-cleaning. It had been very softly done when he spoke with Marguerite, or it had altogether stopped, like the action of a listener. When Obenreizer’s peasant-speech came to an end, she rubbed most vigorously, as if applauding it. And once or twice, as the glove (which she always held before her a little above her face) turned in the air, or as this finger went down, or that went up, he even fancied that it made some telegraphic communication to Obenreizer: whose back was certainly never turned upon it, though he did not seem at all to heed it.
Vendale observed too, that in Marguerite’s dismissal of the subject twice forced upon him to his misrepresentation, there was an indignant treatment of her guardian which she tried to cheek: as though she would have flamed out against him, but for the influence of fear. He also observed — though this was not much — that he never advanced within the distance of her at which he first placed himself: as though there were limits fixed between them. Neither had he ever spoken of her without the prefix “Miss,” though whenever he uttered it, it was with the faintest trace of an air of mockery. And now it occurred to Vendale for the first time that something curious in the man, which he had never before been able to define, was definable as a certain subtle essence of mockery that eluded touch or analysis. He felt convinced that Marguerite was in some sort a prisoner as to her freewill — though she held her own against those two combined, by the force of her character, which was nevertheless inadequate to her release. To feel convinced of this, was not to feel less disposed to love her than he had always been. In a word, he was desperately in love with her, and thoroughly determined to pursue the opportunity which had opened at last.
For the present, he merely touched upon the pleasure that Wilding and Co. would soon have in entreating Miss Obenreizer to honour their establishment with her presence — a curious old place, though a bachelor house withal — and so did not protract his visit beyond such a visit’s ordinary length. Going down-stairs, conducted by his host, he found the Obenreizer counting-house at the back of the entrance-hall, and several shabby men in outlandish garments hanging about, whom Obenreizer put aside that he might pass, with a few words in patois.
“Countrymen,” he explained, as he attended Vendale to the door. “Poor compatriots. Grateful and attached, like dogs! Good-bye. To meet again. So glad!”
Two more light touches on his elbows dismissed him into the street.
Sweet Marguerite at her frame, and Madame Dor’s broad back at her telegraph, floated before him to Cripple Corner. On his arrival there, Wilding was closeted with Bintrey. The cellar doors happening to be open, Vendale lighted a candle in a cleft stick, and went down for a cellarous stroll. Graceful Marguerite floated before him faithfully, but Madame Dor’s broad back remained outside.
The vaults were very spacious, and very old. There had been a stone crypt down there, when bygones were not bygones; some said, part of a monkish refectory; some said, of a chapel; some said, of a Pagan temple. It was all one now. Let who would make what he liked of a crumbled pillar and a broken arch or so. Old Time had made what HE liked of it, and was quite indifferent to contradiction.
The close air, the musty smell, and the thunderous rumbling in the streets above, as being, out of the routine of ordinary life, went well enough with the picture of pretty Marguerite holding her own against those two. So Vendale went on until, at a turning in the vaults, he saw a light like the light he carried.
“O! You are here, are you, Joey?”
“Oughtn’t it rather to go, ‘O! YOU’RE here, are you, Master George?’ For it’s my business to be here. But it ain’t yourn.”
“Don’t grumble, Joey.”
“O! I don’t grumble,” returned the Cellarman. “If anything grumbles, it’s what I’ve took in through the pores; it ain’t me. Have a care as something in you don’t begin a grumbling, Master George. Stop here long enough for the wapours to work, and they’ll be at it.”
His present occupation consisted of poking his head into the bins, making measurements and mental calculations, and entering them in a rhinoceros-hide-looking note-book, like a piece of himself.
“They’ll be at it,” he resumed, laying the wooden rod that he measured with across two casks, entering his last calculation, and straightening his back, “trust ’em! And so you’ve regularly come into the business, Master George?”
“Regularly. I hope you don’t object, Joey?”
“I don’t, bless you. But Wapours objects that you’re too young. You’re both on you too young.”
“We shall got over that objection day by day, Joey.”
“Ay, Master George; but I shall day by day get over the objection that I’m too old, and so I shan’t be capable of seeing much improvement in you.”
The retort so tickled Joey Ladle that he grunted forth a laugh and delivered it again, grunting forth another laugh after the second edition of “improvement in you.”
“But what’s no laughing matter, Master George,” he resumed, straightening his back once more, “is, that young Master Wilding has gone and changed the luck. Mark my words. He has changed the luck, and he’ll find it out. I ain’t been down here all my life for nothing! I know by what I notices down here, when it’s a-going to rain, when it’s a-going to hold up, when it’s a-going to blow, when it’s a-going to be calm. I know, by what I notices down here, when the luck’s changed, quite as well.”
“Has this growth on the roof anything to do with your divination?” asked Vendale, holding his light towards a gloomy ragged growth of dark fungus, pendent from the arches with a very disagreeable and repellent effect. “We are famous for this growth in this vault, aren’t we?”
“We are Master George,” replied Joey Ladle, moving a step or two away, “and if you’ll be advised by me, you’ll let it alone.”
Taking up the rod just now laid across the two casks, and faintly moving the languid fungus with it, Vendale asked, “Ay, indeed? Why so?”
“Why, not so much because it rises from the casks of wine, and may leave you to judge what sort of stuff a Cellarman takes into himself when he walks in the same all the days of his life, nor yet so much because at a stage of its growth it’s maggots, and you’ll fetch ’em down upon you,” returned Joey Ladle, still keeping away, “as for another reason, Master George.”
“What other reason?”
“(I wouldn’t keep on touchin’ it, if I was you, sir.) I’ll tell you if you’ll come out of the place. First, take a look at its colour, Master George.”
“I am doing so.”
“Done, sir. Now, come out of the place.”
He moved away with his light, and Vendale followed with his. When Vendale came up with him, and they were going back together, Vendale, eyeing him as they walked through the arches, said: “Well, Joey? The colour.”
“Is it like clotted blood, Master George?”
“Like enough, perhaps.”
“More than enough, I think,” muttered Joey Ladle, shaking his head solemnly.
“Well, say it is like; say it is exactly like. What then?”
“Master George, they do say —”
“How should I know who?” rejoined the Cellarman, apparently much exasperated by the unreasonable nature of the question. “Them! Them as says pretty well everything, you know. How should I know who They are, if you don’t?”
“True. Go on.”
“They do say that the man that gets by any accident a piece of that dark growth right upon his breast, will, for sure and certain, die by murder.”
As Vendale laughingly stopped to meet the Cellarman’s eyes, which he had fastened on his light while dreamily saying those words, he suddenly became conscious of being struck upon his own breast by a heavy hand. Instantly following with his eyes the action of the hand that struck him — which was his companion’s — he saw that it had beaten off his breast a web or clot of the fungus even then floating to the ground.
For a moment he turned upon the Cellarman almost as scared a look as the Cellarman turned upon him. But in another moment they had reached the daylight at the foot of the cellar-steps, and before he cheerfully sprang up them, he blew out his candle and the superstition together.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53