The Ebony Box, by Ellen Wood

The Ebony Box.

1.

In one or two of the papers already written for you, I have spoken of “Lawyer Cockermuth,” as he was usually styled by his fellow-townspeople at Worcester. I am now going to tell of something that happened in his family; that actually did happen, and is no invention of mine.

Lawyer Cockermuth’s house stood in the Foregate Street. He had practised in it for a good many years; he had never married, and his sister lived with him. She had been christened Betty; it was a more common name in those days than it is in these. There was a younger brother named Charles. They were tall, wiry men with long arms and legs. John, the lawyer, had a smiling, homely face; Charles was handsome, but given to be choleric.

Charles had served in the militia once, and had been ever since called Captain Cockermuth. When only twenty-one he married a young lady with a good bit of money; he had also a small income of his own; so he abandoned the law, to which he had been bred, and lived as a gentleman in a pretty little house on the outskirts of Worcester. His wife died in the course of a few years, leaving him with one child, a son, named Philip. The interest of Mrs. Charles Cockermuth’s money would be enjoyed by her husband until his death, and then would go to Philip.

When Philip left school he was articled to his uncle, Lawyer Cockermuth, and took up his abode with him. Captain Cockermuth (who was of a restless disposition, and fond of roving), gave up his house then and went travelling about. Philip Cockermuth was a very nice steady young fellow, and his father was liberal to him in the way of pocket-money, allowing him a guinea a-week. Every Monday morning Lawyer Cockermuth handed (for his brother) to Philip a guinea in gold; the coin being in use then. Philip spent most of this in books, but he saved some of it; and by the time he was of age he had sixty golden guineas put aside in a small round black box of carved ebony. “What are you going to do with it, Philip?” asked Miss Cockermuth, as he brought it down from his room to show her. “I don’t know what yet, Aunt Betty,” said Philip, laughing. “I call it my nest-egg.”

He carried the little black box (the sixty guineas quite filled it), back to his chamber and put it back into one of the pigeon-holes of the old-fashioned bureau which stood in the room, where he always kept it, and left it there, the bureau locked as usual. After that time, Philip put his spare money, now increased by a salary, into the Old Bank; and it chanced that he did not again look at the ebony box of gold, never supposing but that it was safe in its hiding-place. On the occasion of his marriage some years later, he laughingly remarked to Aunt Betty that he must now take his box of guineas into use; and he went up to fetch it. The box was not there.

Consternation ensued. The family flocked upstairs; the lawyer, Miss Betty, and the captain—who had come to Worcester for the wedding, and was staying in the house—one and all put their hands into the deep, dark pigeon-holes, but failed to find the box. The captain, a hot-tempered man, flew into a passion and swore over it; Miss Betty shed tears; Lawyer Cockermuth, always cool and genial, shrugged his shoulders and absolutely joked. None of them could form the slightest notion as to how the box had gone or who was likely to have taken it, and it had to be given up as a bad job.

Philip was married the next day, and left his uncle’s house for good, having taken one out Barbourne way. Captain Cockermuth felt very sore about the loss of the box, he strode about Worcester talking of it, and swearing that he would send the thief to Botany Bay if he could find him.

A few years more yet, and poor Philip became ill. Ill of the disorder which had carried off his mother—decline. When Captain Cockermuth heard that his son was lying sick, he being (as usual) on his travels, he hastened to Worcester and took up his abode at his brother’s—always his home on these visits. The disease was making very quick progress indeed; it was what is called “rapid decline.” The captain called in all the famed doctors of the town—if they had not been called before: but there was no hope.

The day before Philip died, his father spoke to him about the box of guineas. It had always seemed to the captain that Philip must have, or ought to have, some notion of how it went. And he put the question to him again, solemnly, for the last time.

“Father,” said the dying man—who retained all his faculties and his speech to the very end—“I declare to you that I have none. I have never been able to set up any idea at all upon the loss, or attach suspicion to a soul, living or dead. The two maids were honest; they would not have touched it; the clerks had no opportunity of going upstairs. I had always kept the key safely, and you know that we found the lock of the bureau had not been tampered with.”

Poor Philip died. His widow and four children went to live at a pretty cottage on Malvern Link—upon a hundred pounds a-year, supplied to her by her father-in-law. Mr. Cockermuth added the best part of another hundred. These matters settled, Captain Cockermuth set off on his rovings again, considering himself hardly used by Fate at having his limited income docked of nearly half its value. And yet some more years passed on.

This much has been by way of introduction to what has to come. It was best to give it.

Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson, our neighbours at Dyke Manor, had a whole colony of nephews, what with brothers’ sons and sisters’ sons; of nieces also; batches of them would come over in relays to stay at Elm Farm, which had no children of its own. Samson Dene was the favourite nephew of all; his mother was sister to Mr. Jacobson, his father was dead. Samson Reginald Dene he was christened, but most people called him “Sam.” He had been articled to the gentleman who took to his father’s practice; a lawyer in a village in Oxfordshire. Later, he had gone to a firm in London for a year, had passed, and then came down to his uncle at Elm Farm, asking what he was to do next. For, upon his brother-in-law’s death, Mr. Jacobson had taken upon himself the expenses of Sam, the eldest son.

“Want to know what you are to do now, eh?” cried old Jacobson, who was smoking his evening pipe by the wide fire of the dark-wainscoted, handsome dining-parlour, one evening in February. He was a tall, portly man with a fresh-coloured, healthy face; and not, I dare say, far off sixty years old. “What would you like to do?—what is your own opinion upon it, Sam?”

“I should like to set up in practice for myself, uncle.”

“Oh, indeed! In what quarter of the globe, pray?”

“In Worcester. I have always wished to practise at Worcester. It is the assize town: I don’t care for pettifogging places: one can’t get on in them.”

“You’d like to emerge all at once into a full-blown lawyer there? That’s your notion, is it, Sam?”

Sam made no answer. He knew by the tone his notion was being laughed at.

“No, my lad. When you have been in some good office for another year or two maybe, then you might think about setting-up. The office can be in Worcester if you like.”

“I am hard upon twenty-three, Uncle Jacobson. I have as much knowledge of law as I need.”

“And as much steadiness also, perhaps?” said old Jacobson.

Sam turned as red as the table-cover. He was a frank-looking, slender young fellow of middle height, with fine wavy hair almost a gold colour and worn of a decent length. The present fashion—to be cropped as if you were a prison-bird and to pretend to like it so—was not favoured by gentlemen in those days.

“You may have been acquiring a knowledge of law in London, Sam; I hope you have; but you’ve been kicking up your heels over it. What about those sums of money you’ve more than once got out of your mother?”

Sam’s face was a deeper red than the cloth now. “Did she tell you of it, uncle?” he gasped.

“No, she didn’t; she cares too much for her graceless son to betray him. I chanced to hear of it, though.”

“One has to spend so much in London,” murmured Sam, in lame apology.

“I dare say! In my past days, sir, a young man had to cut his coat according to his cloth. We didn’t rush into all kinds of random games and then go to our fathers or mothers to help us out of them. Which is what you’ve been doing, my gentleman.”

“Does aunt know?” burst out Sam in a fright, as a step was heard on the stairs.

“I’ve not told her,” said Mr. Jacobson, listening—“she is gone on into the kitchen. How much is it that you’ve left owing in London, Sam?”

Sam nearly choked. He did not perceive this was just a random shot: he was wondering whether magic had been at work.

“Left owing in London?” stammered he.

“That’s what I asked. How much? And I mean to know. ‘Twon’t be of any use your fencing about the bush. Come! tell it in a lump.”

“Fifty pounds would cover it all, sir,” said Sam, driven by desperation into the avowal.

“I want the truth, Sam.”

“That is the truth, uncle, I put it all down in a list before leaving London; it comes to just under fifty pounds.”

“How could you be so wicked as to contract it?”

“There has not been much wickedness about it,” said Sam, miserably, “indeed there hasn’t. One gets drawn into expenses unconsciously in the most extraordinary manner up in London. Uncle Jacobson, you may believe me or not, when I say that until I added it up, I did not think it amounted to twenty pounds in all.”

“And then you found it to be fifty! How do you propose to pay this?”

“I intend to send it up by instalments, as I can.”

“Instead of doing which, you’ll get into deeper debt at Worcester. If it’s Worcester you go to.”

“I hope not, uncle. I shall do my best to keep out of debt. I mean to be steady.”

Mr. Jacobson filled a fresh pipe, and lighted it with a spill from the mantelpiece. He did not doubt the young fellow’s intentions; he only doubted his resolution.

“You shall go into some lawyer’s office in Worcester for two years, Sam, when we shall see how things turn out,” said he presently. “And, look here, I’ll pay these debts of yours myself, provided you promise me not to get into trouble again. There, no more”—interrupting Sam’s grateful looks—“your aunt’s coming in.”

Sam opened the door for Mrs. Jacobson. A little pleasant-faced woman in a white net cap, with small flat silver curls under it. She carried a small basket lined with blue silk, in which lay her knitting.

“I’ve been looking to your room, my dear, to see that all’s comfortable for you,” she said to Sam, as she sat down by the table and the candles. “That new housemaid of ours is not altogether to be trusted. I suppose you’ve been telling your uncle all about the wonders of London?”

“And something else, too,” put in old Jacobson gruffly. “He wanted to set up in practice for himself at Worcester: off-hand, red-hot!”

“Oh dear!” said Mrs. Jacobson.

“That’s what the boy wanted, nothing less. No. Another year or two’s work in some good house, to acquire stability and experience, and then he may talk about setting up. It will be all for the best, Sam; trust me.”

“Well, uncle, perhaps it will.” It was of no use for him to say perhaps it won’t: he could not help himself. But it was a disappointment.

Mr. Jacobson walked over to Dyke Manor the next day, to consult the Squire as to the best lawyer to place Sam with, himself suggesting their old friend Cockermuth. He described all Sam’s wild ways (it was how he put it) in that dreadful place, London, and the money he had got out of amidst its snares. The Squire took up the matter with his usual hearty sympathy, and quite agreed that no practitioner in the law could be so good for Sam as John Cockermuth.

John Cockermuth proved to be agreeable. He was getting to be an elderly man then, but was active as ever, saving when a fit of the gout took him. He received young Dene in his usual cheery manner, upon the day appointed for his entrance, and assigned him his place in the office next to Mr. Parslet. Parslet had been there more than twenty years; he was, so to say, at the top and tail of all the work that went on in it, but he was not a qualified solicitor. Samson Dene was qualified, and could therefore represent Mr. Cockermuth before the magistrates and what not: of which the old lawyer expected to find the benefit.

“Where are you going to live?” he questioned of Sam that first morning.

“I don’t know yet, sir. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson are about the town now, I believe, looking for lodgings for me. Of course they couldn’t let me look; they’d think I should be taken in,” added Sam.

“Taken in and done for,” laughed the lawyer. “I should not wonder but Mr. Parslet could accommodate you. Can you, Parslet?”

Mr. Parslet looked up from his desk, his thin cheeks flushing. He was small and slight, with weak brown hair, and had a patient, sad sort of look in his face and in his meek, dark eyes.

James Parslet was one of those men who are said to spoil their own lives. Left alone early, he was looked after by a bachelor uncle, a minor canon of the cathedral, who perhaps tried to do his duty by him in a mild sort of manner. But young Parslet liked to go his own ways, and they were not very good ways. He did not stay at any calling he was put to, trying first one and then another; either the people got tired of him, or he of them. Money (when he got any) burnt a hole in his pocket, and his coats grew shabby and his boots dirty. “Poor Jamie Parslet! how he has spoilt his life” cried the town, shaking its pitying head at him: and thus things went on till he grew to be nearly thirty years of age. Then, to the public astonishment, Jamie pulled up. He got taken on by Lawyer Cockermuth as copying clerk at twenty shillings a-week, married, and became as steady as Old Time. He had been nothing but steady from that day to this, had forty shillings a-week now, instead of twenty, and was ever a meek, subdued man, as if he carried about with him a perpetual repentance for the past, regret for the life that might have been. He lived in Edgar Street, which is close to the cathedral, as every one knows, Edgar Tower being at the top of it. An old gentleman attached to the cathedral had now lodged in his house for ten years, occupying the drawing-room floor; he had recently died, and hence Lawyer Cockermuth’s suggestion.

Mr. Parslet looked up. “I should be happy to, sir,” he said; “if our rooms suited Mr. Dene. Perhaps he would like to look at them?”

“I will,” said Sam. “If my uncle and aunt do not fix on any for me.”

Is there any subtle mesmeric power, I wonder, that influences things unconsciously? Curious to say, at this very moment Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson were looking at these identical rooms. They had driven into Worcester with Sam very early indeed, so as to have a long day before them, and when breakfast was over at the inn, took the opportunity, which they very rarely got, of slipping into the cathedral to hear the beautiful ten-o’clock service. Coming out the cloister way when it was over, and so down Edgar Street, Mrs. Jacobson espied a card in a window with “Lodgings” on it. “I wonder if they would suit Sam?” she cried to her husband. “Edgar Street is a nice, wide, open street, and quiet. Suppose we look at them?”

A young servant-maid, called by her mistress “Sally,” answered the knock. Mrs. Parslet, a capable, bustling woman of ready speech and good manners, came out of the parlour, and took the visitors to the floor above. They liked the rooms and they liked Mrs. Parslet; they also liked the moderate rent asked, for respectable country people in those days did not live by shaving one another; and when it came out that the house’s master had been clerk to Lawyer Cockermuth for twenty years, they settled the matter off-hand, without the ceremony of consulting Sam. Mrs. Jacobson looked upon Sam as a boy still. Mr. Jacobson might have done the same but for the debts made in London.

And all this, you will say, has been yet more explanation; but I could not help it. The real thing begins now, with Sam Dene’s sojourn in Mr. Cockermuth’s office, and his residence in Edgar Street.

The first Sunday of his stay there, Sam went out to attend the morning service in the cathedral, congratulating himself that that grand edifice stood so conveniently near, and looking, it must be confessed, a bit of a dandy, for he had put a little bunch of spring violets into his coat, and “button-holes” were quite out of the common way then. The service began with the Litany, the earlier service of prayers being held at eight o’clock. Sam Dene has not yet forgotten that day, for it is no imaginary person I am telling you of, and never will forget it. The Reverend Allen Wheeler chanted, and the prebendary in residence (Somers Cocks) preached. While wondering when the sermon (a very good one) would be over, and thinking it rather prosy, after the custom of young men, Sam’s roving gaze was drawn to a young lady sitting in the long seat opposite to him on the other side of the choir, whose whole attention appeared to be given to the preacher, to whom her head was turned. It is a nice face, thought Sam; such a sweet expression in it. It really was a nice face, rather pretty, gentle and thoughtful, a patient look in the dark brown eyes. She had on a well-worn dark silk, and a straw bonnet; all very quiet and plain; but she looked very much of a lady. Wonder if she sits there always? thought Sam.

Service over, he went home, and was about to turn the handle of the door to enter (looking another way) when he found it turned for him by some one who was behind and had stretched out a hand to do it. Turning quickly, he saw the same young lady.

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said Sam, all at sea; “did you wish to come in here?”

“If you please,” she answered—and her voice was sweet and her manner modest.

“Oh,” repeated Sam, rather taken aback at the answer. “You did not want me, did you?”

“Thank you, it is my home,” she said.

“Your home?” stammered Sam, for he had not seen the ghost of any one in the house yet, saving his landlord and landlady and Sally. “Here?”

“Yes. I am Maria Parslet.”

He stood back to let her enter; a slender, gentle girl of middle height; she looked about eighteen, Sam thought (she was that and two years on to it), and he wondered where she had been hidden. He had to go out again, for he was invited to dine at Lawyer Cockermuth’s, so he saw no more of the young lady that day; but she kept dancing about in his memory. And somehow she so fixed herself in it, and as the time went on so grew in it, and at last so filled it, that Sam may well hold that day as a marked day—the one that introduced him to Maria Parslet. But that is anticipating.

On the Monday morning all his ears and eyes were alert, listening and looking for Maria. He did not see her; he did not hear a sound of her. By degrees he got to learn that the young lady was resident teacher in a lady’s school hard by; and that she was often allowed to spend the whole day at home on Sundays. One Sunday evening he ingeniously got himself invited to take tea in Mrs. Parslet’s parlour, and thus became acquainted with Maria; but his opportunities for meeting her were rare.

There’s not much to tell of the first twelvemonth. It passed in due course. Sam Dene was fairly steady. He made a few debts, as some young men, left to themselves, can’t help making—at least, they’d tell you they can’t. Sundry friends of Sam’s in Worcester knew of this, and somehow it reached Mr. Cockermuth’s ears, who gave Sam a word of advice privately.

This was just as the first year expired. According to agreement, Sam had another year to stay. He entered upon it with inward gloom. On adding up his scores, which he deemed it as well to do after his master’s lecture, he again found that they amounted to far more than he had thought for, and how he should contrive to pay them out of his own resources he knew no more than the man in the moon. In short, he could not do it; he was in a fix; and lived in perpetual dread of its coming to the ears of his uncle Jacobson.


The spring assize, taking place early in March, was just over; the judges had left the town for Stafford, and Worcester was settling down again to quietness. Miss Cockermuth gave herself and her two handmaidens a week’s rest—assize time being always a busy and bustling period at the lawyer’s, no end of chance company looking in-and then the house began its spring cleaning, a grand institution with our good grandmothers, often lasting a couple of weeks. This time, at the lawyer’s house, it was to be a double bustle; for visitors were being prepared for.

It had pleased Captain Cockermuth to write word that he should be at home for Easter; upon which, the lawyer and his sister decided to invite Philip’s widow and her children also to spend it with them; they knew Charles would be pleased. Easter–Day was very early indeed that year, falling at the end of March.

To make clearer what’s coming, the house had better have a word or two of description. You entered from the street into a wide passage; no steps. On the left was the parlour and general sitting-room, in which all meals were usually taken. It was a long, low room, its two rather narrow windows looking upon the street, the back of the room being a little dark. Opposite the door was the fireplace. On the other side the passage, facing the parlour-door, was the door that opened to the two rooms (one front, one back) used as the lawyer’s offices. The kitchens and staircase were at the back of the passage, a garden lying beyond; and there was a handsome drawing-room on the first floor, not much used.

The house, I say, was in a commotion with the spring cleaning, and the other preparations. To accommodate so many visitors required contrivance: a bedroom for the captain, a bedroom for his daughter-in-law, two bedrooms for the children. Mistress and maids held momentous consultations together.

“We have decided to put the three little girls in Philip’s old room, John,” said Miss Betty to her brother, as they sat in the parlour after dinner on the Monday evening of the week preceding Passion Week; “and little Philip can have the small room off mine. We shall have to get in a child’s bed, though; I can’t put the three little girls in one bed; they might get fighting. John, I do wish you’d sell that old bureau for what it will fetch.”

“Sell the old bureau!” exclaimed Mr. Cockermuth.

“I’m sure I should. What good does it do? Unless that bureau goes out of the room, we can’t put the extra bed in. I’ve been in there half the day with Susan and Ann, planning and contriving, and we find it can’t be done any way. Do let Ward take it away, John; there’s no place for it in the other chambers. He’d give you a fair price for it, I dare say.”

Miss Betty had never cared for this piece of furniture, thinking it more awkward than useful: she looked eagerly at her brother, awaiting his decision. She was the elder of the two; tall, like him; but whilst he maintained his thin, wiry form, just the shape of an upright gas-post with arms, she had grown stout with no shape at all. Miss Betty had dark, thick eyebrows and an amiable red face. She wore a “front” of brown curls with a high and dressy cap perched above it. This evening her gown was of soft twilled shot-green silk, a white net kerchief was crossed under its body, and she had on a white muslin apron.

“I don’t mind,” assented the lawyer, as easy in disposition as Miss Betty was; “it’s of no use keeping it that I know of. Send for Ward and ask him, if you like, Betty.”

Ward, a carpenter and cabinet-maker, who had a shop in the town and sometimes bought second-hand things, was sent for by Miss Betty on the following morning; and he agreed, after some chaffering, to buy the old bureau. It was the bureau from which Philip’s box of gold had disappeared—but I dare say you have understood that. In the midst of all this stir and clatter, just as Ward betook himself away after concluding the negotiation, and the maids were hard at work above stairs with mops and pails and scrubbing-brushes, the first advance-guard of the visitors unexpectedly walked in: Captain Cockermuth.

Miss Betty sat down in an access of consternation. She could do nothing but stare. He had not been expected for a week yet; there was nothing ready and nowhere to put him.

“I wish you’d take to behaving like a rational being, Charles!” she exclaimed. “We are all in a mess; the rooms upside down, and the bedside carpets hanging out at the windows.”

Captain Cockermuth said he did not care for bedside carpets, he could sleep anywhere—on the brewhouse-bench, if she liked. He quite approved of selling the old bureau, when told it was going to be done.

Ward had appointed five o’clock that evening to fetch it away. They were about to sit down to dinner when he came, five o’clock being the hour for late dinners then in ordinary life. Ward had brought a man with him and they went upstairs.

Miss Betty, as carver, sat at the top of the dining-table, her back to the windows, the lawyer in his place at the foot, Charles between them, facing the fire. Miss Betty was cutting off the first joint of a loin of veal when the bureau was heard coming down the staircase, with much bumping and noise.

Mr. Cockermuth stepped out of the dining-room to look on. The captain followed: being a sociable man with his fellow-townspeople, he went to ask Ward how he did.

The bureau came down safely, and was lodged at the foot of the stairs; the man wiped his hot face, while Ward spoke with Captain Cockermuth. It seemed quite a commotion in the usual quiet dwelling. Susan, a jug of ale in her hand, which she had been to the cellar to draw, stood looking on from the passage; Mr. Dene and a younger clerk, coming out of the office just then to leave for the evening, turned to look on also.

“I suppose there’s nothing in here, sir?” cried Ward, returning to business and the bureau.

“Nothing, I believe,” replied Mr. Cockermuth.

“Nothing at all,” called out Miss Betty through the open parlour-door. “I emptied the drawers this morning.”

Ward, a cautious man and honest, drew back the lid and put his hand in succession into the pigeon-holes; which had not been used since Philip’s time. There were twelve of them; three above, and three below on each side, and a little drawer that locked in the middle. “Halloa!” cried Ward, when his hand was in the depth of one of them: “here’s something.”

And he drew forth the lost box. The little ebony box with all the gold in it.

Well now, that was a strange thing. Worcester thinks so, those people who are still living to remember it, to this day. How it was that the box had appeared to be lost and was searched for in vain over and over again, by poor Philip and others; and how it was that it was now recovered in this easy and natural manner, was never explained or accounted for. Ward’s opinion was that the box must have been put in, side upwards, that it had in some way stuck to the back of the deep, narrow pigeon-hole, which just about held the box in width, that those who had searched took the box for the back of the hole when their fingers touched it and that the bumping of the bureau now in coming downstairs had dislodged the box and brought it forward. As a maker of bureaus, Ward’s opinion was listened to with deference. Any way, it was a sort of theory, serving passably well in the absence of any other. But who knew? All that was certain about it was the fact; the loss and the recovery after many years. It happened just as here described, as I have already said.

Sam Dene had never heard of the loss. Captain Cockermuth, perfectly beside himself with glee, explained it to him. Sam laughed as he touched with his forefinger the closely packed golden guineas, lying there so snug and safe, offered his congratulations, and walked home to tea.

It chanced that on that especial Tuesday evening, matters were at sixes and sevens in the Parslets’ house. Sally had misbehaved herself and was discharged in consequence; and the servant engaged in her place, who was to have entered that afternoon, had not made her appearance. When Sam entered, Maria came out of the parlour, a pretty blush upon her face. And to Sam the unexpected sight of her, it was not often he got a chance of it, and the blush and the sweet eyes came like a gleam of Eden, for he had grown to love her dearly. Not that he had owned it to himself yet.

Maria explained. Her school had broken up for the Easter holidays earlier than it ought, one of the girls showing symptoms of measles; and her mother had gone out to see what had become of the new servant, leaving a request that Mr. Dene would take his tea with them in the parlour that evening, as there was no one to wait on him.

Nothing loth, you may be sure, Mr. Dene accepted the invitation, running up to wash his hands, and give a look at his hair, and running down in a trice. The tea-tray stood in readiness on the parlour table, Maria sitting behind it. Perhaps she had given a look at her hair, for it was quite more lovely, Sam thought, more soft and silken than any hair he had ever seen. The little copper kettle sang away on the hob by the fire.

“Will papa be long, do you know?” began Maria demurely, feeling shy and conscious at being thus thrown alone into Sam’s company. “I had better not make the tea until he comes in.”

“I don’t know at all,” answered Sam. “He went out on some business for Mr. Cockermuth at half-past four, and was not back when I left. Such a curious thing has just happened up there, Miss Parslet!”

“Indeed! What is it?”

Sam entered on the narrative. Maria, who knew all about the strange loss of the box, grew quite excited as she listened. “Found!” she exclaimed. “Found in the same bureau! And all the golden guineas in it!”

“Every one,” said Sam: “as I take it. They were packed right up to the top!”

“Oh, what a happy thing!” repeated Maria, in a fervent tone that rather struck Sam, and she clasped her fingers into one another, as one sometimes does in pleasure or in pain.

“Why do you say that, Miss Parslet?”

“Because papa—but I do not think I ought to tell you,” added Maria, breaking off abruptly.

“Oh yes, you may. I am quite safe, even if it’s a secret. Please do.”

“Well,” cried the easily persuaded girl, “papa has always had an uncomfortable feeling upon him ever since the loss. He feared that some people, knowing he was not well off, might think perhaps it was he who had stolen upstairs and taken it.”

Sam laughed at that.

“He has never said so, but somehow we have seen it, my mother and I. It was altogether so mysterious a loss, you see, affording no clue as to when it occurred, that people were ready to suspect anything, however improbable. Oh, I am thankful it is found!”

The kettle went on singing, the minutes went on flitting, and still nobody came. Six o’clock struck out from the cathedral as Mr. Parslet entered. Had the two been asked the time, they might have said it was about a quarter-past five. Golden hours fly quickly; fly on angels’ wings.

Now it chanced that whilst they were at tea, a creditor of Sam’s came to the door, one Jonas Badger. Sam went to him: and the colloquy that ensued might be heard in the parlour. Mr. Badger said (in quite a fatherly way) that he really could not be put off any longer with promises; if his money was not repaid to him before Easter he should be obliged to take steps about it, should write to Mr. Jacobson, of Elm Farm, to begin with. Sam returned to the tea-table with a wry face.

Soon after that, Mrs. Parslet came in, the delinquent servant in her rear. Next, a friend of Sam’s called, Austin Chance, whose father was a solicitor in good practice in the town. The two young men, who were very intimate and often together, went up to Sam’s room above.

“I say, my good young friend,” began Chance, in a tone that might be taken for jest or earnest, “don’t you go and get into any entanglement in that quarter.”

“What d’you mean now?” demanded Sam, turning the colour of the rising sun.

“I mean Maria Parslet,” said Austin Chance, laughing. “She’s a deuced nice girl; I know that; just the one a fellow might fall in love with unawares. But it wouldn’t do, Dene.”

“Why wouldn’t it do?”

“Oh, come now, Sam, you know it wouldn’t. Parslet is only a working clerk at Cockermuth’s.”

“I should like to know what has put the thought in your head?” contended Sam. “You had better put it out again. I’ve never told you I was falling in love with her; or told herself, either. Mrs. Parslet would be about me, I expect, if I did. She looks after her as one looks after gold.”

“Well, I found you in their room, having tea with them, and——”

“It was quite an accident; an exceptional thing,” interrupted Sam.

“Well,” repeated Austin, “you need not put your back up, old fellow; a friendly warning does no harm. Talking of gold, Dene, I’ve done my best to get up the twenty pounds you wanted to borrow of me, and I can’t do it. I’d let you have it with all my heart if I could; but I find I am harder up than I thought for.”

Which was all true. Chance was as good-natured a young man as ever lived, but at this early stage of his life he made more debts than he could pay.

“Badger has just been here, whining and covertly threatening,” said Sam. “I am to pay up in a week, or he’ll make me pay—and tell my uncle, he says, to begin with.”

“Hypocritical old skinflint!” ejaculated Chance, himself sometimes in the hands of Mr. Badger—a worthy gentleman who did a little benevolent usury in a small and quiet way, and took his delight in accommodating safe young men. A story was whispered that young M., desperately hard-up, borrowed two pounds from him one Saturday night, undertaking to repay it, with two pounds added on for interest, that day month; and when the day came and M. had not got the money, or was at all likely to get it, he carried off a lot of his mother’s plate under his coat to the pawnbroker’s.

“And there’s more besides Badger’s that is pressing,” went on Dene. “I must get money from somewhere, or it will play the very deuce with me. I wonder whether Charley Hill could lend me any?”

“Don’t much think so. You might ask him. Money seems scarce with Hill always. Has a good many ways for it, I fancy.”

“Talking of money, Chance, a lot has been found at Cockermuth’s today. A boxful of guineas that has been lost for years.”

Austin Chance stared. “You don’t mean that box of guineas that mysteriously disappeared in Philip’s time?”

“Well, they say so. It is a small, round box of carved ebony, and it is stuffed to the brim with old guineas. Sixty of them, I hear.”

“I can’t believe it’s true; that that’s found.”

“Not believe it’s true, Chance! Why, I saw it. Saw the box found, and touched the guineas with my fingers. It has been hidden in an old bureau all the time,” added Sam, and he related the particulars of the discovery.

“What an extraordinary thing!” exclaimed young Chance: “the queerest start I ever heard of.” And he fell to musing.

But the “queer start,” as Mr. Austin Chance was pleased to designate the resuscitation of the box, did not prove to be a lucky one.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wood/ellen/ebony-box/chapter1.html

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01