MR. HARDIE collapsed as if he had been a man inflated, and that touch had punctured him. “Ah!” said he. “Ah!” said Skinner, in a mighty different tone: insolent triumph to wit.
After a pause, Mr. Hardie made an effort and said contemptuously, “The receipt (if any) was flung into the dusthole and carried away. Do you think I have forgotten that?”
“Don’t you believe it, sir,” was the reply. “While you turned your back and sacked the money, I said to myself, ‘Oho, is that the game?’ and nailed the receipt. What a couple of scoundrels we were! I wouldn’t have her know it for all your money. Come, sir, I see its all right; you will shell out sooner than be posted.”
Here Peggy interposed; “Mr. Skinner, be more considerate; my master is really poor just now.”
“That is no reason why I should be insulted and indicted and trampled under foot,” snarled Skinner all in one breath.
“Show me the receipt and take my last shilling, you ungrateful, vindictive viper,” groaned Mr. Hardie.
“Stuff and nonsense, said Skinner. “I’m not a viper; I’m a man of business. Find me five hundred pounds; and I’ll show you the receipt and keep dark. But I can’t afford to give it you for that, of course.”
Skinner triumphed, and made the great man apologise, writhing all the time, and wishing he was a day labourer with Peggy to wife, and fourteen honest shillings a week for his income. Having eaten humble pie, he agreed to meet Skinner next Wednesday at midnight, alone, under a certain lamp on the North Kensington Road: the interval (four days) he required to raise money upon his scrip. Skinner bowed himself out, fawning triumphantly. Mr. Hardie stood in the middle of the room motionless, scowling darkly. Peggy looked at him, and saw some dark and sinister resolve forming in his mind: she divined it, as such women can divine. She laid her hand on his arm, and said softly, “Richard, it’s not worth that.” He started to find his soul read through his body so clearly. He trembled.
But it was only for a moment. “His blood be on his own head,” he snarled. “This is not my seeking. He shall learn what it is to drive Richard Hardie to despair.”
“No, no,” implored Peggy; “there are other countries beside this: why not gather all you have, and cross the water? I’ll follow you to the world’s end, Richard.”
“Mind your own business,” said he fiercely.
She made no reply, but went softly and sat down again, and sewed the buttons on his shirts. Mr. Hardie wrote to Messrs. Heathfield to get Hardie v. Hardie tried as soon as possible.
Meantime came a mental phenomenon: gliding down Sackville Street, victorious Skinner suddenly stopped, and clenched his hands; and his face writhed as if he had received a death-wound. In that instant Remorse had struck him like lightning; and, perhaps, whence comes the lightning. The sweet face and voice that had smiled on him, and cared for his body, and cared for his soul, came to his mind, and knocked at his heart and conscience. He went home miserable with an inward conflict; and it lasted him all the four days; sometimes Remorse got the better, sometimes Avarice. He came to the interview still undecided what he should do. But, meantime, he had gone to a lawyer and made his will, leaving his little all to Julia Dodd: a bad sign this; looked like compounding with his awakened conscience.
It was a dark and gusty night. Very few people were about. Skinner waited a little while, and shivered, for his avarice had postponed the purchase of a greatcoat until Christmas Day. At last, when the coast seemed clear, Mr. Hardie emerged from a side street. Skinner put his hand to his bosom.
They met. Mr. Hardie said quietly, “I must ask you, just for form, to show me you have the Receipt.”
“Of course, sir; but not so near, please: no snatching, if I know it.”
“You are wonderfully suspicious,” said Mr. Hardie, trying to smile.
Skinner looked, and saw by the lamplight he was deadly pale. “Keep your distance a moment, sir,” said he, and, on Mr. Hardie’s complying, took the Receipt out, and held it under the lamp.
Instantly Mr. Hardie drew a life-preserver, and sprang on him with a savage curse — and uttered a shriek of dismay, for he was met by the long shiny barrel of a horse-pistol, that Skinner drew from his bosom, and levelled full in the haggard face that came at him. Mr. Hardie recoiled, crying, “No! no! for Heaven’s sake!”
“What!” cried Skinner, stepping forward and hissing, “do you think I’m such a fool as to meet a thief unarmed? Come, cash up, or I’ll blow you to atoms.”
“No, no, no!” said Mr. Hardie piteously, retreating as Skinner marched on him with long extended pistol. “Skinner,” he stammered, “th-this is n-not b-b-business.”
“Cash up, then; that’s business. Fling the five hundred pounds down, and walk away. Mind it is loaded with two bullets; I’ll make a double entry on your great treacherous carcass.”
“It’s no use trying to deceive such a man as you,” said Mr. Hardie, playing on his vanity. “I could not get the money before Saturday, and so I listened to the dictates of despair. Forgive me.”
“Then come again Saturday night. Come alone, and I shall bring a man to see I’m not murdered. And look here, sir, if you don’t come to the hour and do the right thing without any more of these unbusiness-like tricks, by Heaven, I’ll smash you before noon on Monday.”
“I’ll blow you to Mr. Alfred and Miss Dodd.”
“I’ll come, I tell you.”
“I’ll post you for a thief on every brick in the Exchange.”
“Have mercy, Skinner. Have pity on the wretched man whose bread you have eaten. I tell you I’ll come.”
“Well, mind you do, then, cash and all,” said Skinner sulkily, but not quite proof against the reminiscences those humble words awakened.
Each walked backwards a good dozen steps, and then they took different roads, Skinner taking good care not to be tracked home. He went up the high stairs to the hole in the roof he occupied, and lighted a rushlight. He had half a mind to kindle a fire, he felt so chilly; but he had blocked up the vent, partly to keep out the cold, partly to shun the temptation of burning fuel. However, he stopped the keyhole with paper, and also the sides of the window, till he had shut the wintry air all out. Still, what with the cold and what with the reaction after so great an excitement, his feeble body began to shiver desperately. He thought at last he would light a foot-warmer he had just purchased for old iron at a broker’s; that would only spend a halfpenneyworth of charcoal. No, he wouldn’t; he would look at his money; that would cheer him. He unripped a certain part of his straw mattress and took out a bag of gold. He spread three hundred sovereigns on the floor and put the candle down among them. They sparkled; they were all new ones, and he rubbed them with an old toothbrush and whiting every week. “That’s better than any fire,” he said, “they warm the heart. For one thing, they are my own: at all events, I did not steal them, nor take them of a thief for a bribe to keep dark and defraud honest folk.” Then remorse gripped him: he asked himself what he was going to do. “To rob an angel,” was the answer. “The fourteen thousand pounds is all hers, and I could give it her in a moment. Curse him, he would have killed me for it.”
Then he pottered about and took out his will. “Ah,” said he, “that is all right so far. But what is a paltry three hundred when I help do her out of fourteen thousand? Villain!” Then, to ease his conscience, he took a slip of paper and wrote on it a short account of the Receipt, and how he came by it, and lo: as if an unseen power had guided his hand, he added, “Miss Dodd lives at 66, Pembroke Street, and I am going to take it to her as soon as I am well of my cold.” Whether this preceded an unconscious resolve which had worked on him secretly for some time, or whether it awakened such a resolve, I hardly know: but certain it is, that having written it, he now thought seriously of doing it; and, the more seriously he entertained the thought, the more good it seemed to do him. He got “The Sinner’s Friend” and another good book she had lent him, and read a bit: then, finding his feet frozen, he lighted his chafer and blew it well, and put it under his feet and read. The good words began to reach his heart more and more: so did the thought of Julia’s goodness. The chafer warmed his feet and legs. “Ay,” said he, “men don’t want fires; warm the feet and the body warms itself.” He took out “The Receipt” and held it in his hand, and eyed it greedily, and asked himself could he really part with it. He thought he could — to Julia. Still holding it tight in his left hand, he read on the good but solemn words that seemed to loosen his grasp upon that ill-gotten paper. “How good it was of her,” he thought, “to come day after day and feed a poor little fellow like him, body and soul. She asked nothing back. She didn’t know he could make her any return. Bless her! bless her!” he screamed. “Oh, how cruel I have been to her, and she so kind to me. She would never let me want, if I took her fourteen thousand pounds. Like enough give me a thousand, and help me save my poor soul, that I shall damn if I meet him again. I won’t go his way again. Lead us not into temptation. I repent. Lord have mercy on me a miserable sinner.” And tears bedewed those wizened cheeks, tears of penitence, sincere, at least for the time.
A sleepy languor now came over him, and the good book fell from his hand; but his resolution remained unshaken. By-and-by waking up from a sort of heavy dose, he took, as it were, a last look at the receipt, and murmured, “My head, how heavy it feels.” But presently he roused himself, full of his penitent resolution, and murmured again brokenly, “I’ll —— take it to —— Pembroke Street to —— morrow: to —— mor —— row.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12