The school, taken to by Mr. Blair, was in one of the suburbs of London. It may be as well not to mention which of them; but some of the families yet living there cannot fail to remember the circumstances when they read this. For what I am going to tell you of is true. It did not happen last year; nor the year before. When it did happen, is of no consequence to any one.
When Pyefinch Blair got into the house, he found that it had some dilapidations, which had escaped his notice, and would have to be repaired. Not an uncommon case by any means. Mr. Blair paid the four hundred pounds for the school, including the furniture and good-will, and that drained him of his money. It was not a bad bargain, as bargains go. He then had the house put into fair order, and bought a little more furniture that seemed necessary to him, intending that his boys should be comfortable, as well as the young wife he was soon to bring home.
The school did not profess to be one of those higher-class schools that charge a hundred a year and extras. It was moderate in terms and moderate in size; the pupils being chiefly sons of well-to-do tradesmen, some of them living on the spot. At first, Blair (bringing with him his Cambridge notions) entertained thoughts of raising the school to a higher price and standard. But it would have been a risk; almost like beginning a fresh venture. And when he found that the school paid well, and masters and boys got on comfortably, he dropped the wish.
More than two years went by. One evening, early in February, Mrs. Blair was sitting by the parlour fire after tea, with a great boy on her lap, who was forward with his tongue, and had just begun to walk with a totter. I don’t think you could have seen much difference in her from what she was as Mary Sanker. She had the same neat sort of dress and quiet manner, the fresh gentle face and sweet eyes, and the pretty, smooth brown hair. Her husband told her sometimes that she would spoil the boys with kindness. If any one fell into disgrace, she was sure to beg him off; it was wonderful what a good mother she was to them, and only twenty-four years old yet.
Mr. Blair was striding the carpet with his head down, as one in perplexed thought, a scowl upon his brow. It was something unusual, for he was always bright. He was as slender and good-looking a fellow as he used to be. Mrs. Blair noticed him and spoke.
“Have you a headache, Pyefinch?” She had long ago got over the odd sound of his Christian name. Habit familiarizes most things.
“What is it, then?”
He did not make any answer; seemed not to hear her. Mrs. Blair put the boy down on the hearthrug. The child was baptized Joseph, after Squire Todhetley, whom they persisted in calling their best friend.
“Run to papa, Joe. Ask him what the matter is.”
The young gentleman went swaying across the carpet, with some unintelligible language of his own. Mr. Blair had no resource but to pick him up: and he carried him back to his mother.
“What is the matter, Pyefinch?” she asked again, taking his hand. “I am sure you are not well.”
“I am quite well,” he said; “but I have got into a little bother lately. What ails me this evening is, that I find I must tell you of it, and I don’t like to do so. There, Mary, send the child away.”
She knew the nursemaid was busy; would not ring, but carried him out herself. Mr. Blair was sitting down when she returned, staring into the fire.
“I had hoped you would never know it, Mary; I had not intended that you should. The fact is ——”
Mr. Blair stopped. His wife glanced at him; a serene calm in her eyes, a firm reliance in her loving tone.
“Do not hesitate, Pyefinch. The greater the calamity, the more need that I should hear it.”
“Nay, it is no such great mischief as to be called a calamity. When I took to this house and school, I incurred a debt, and I am suddenly called upon to pay it.”
“Do you mean Mr. Todhetley’s?”
A smile at the question crossed the schoolmaster’s face. “Mr. Todhetley’s was a present; I thought you understood that, Mary. When I would have spoken of returning it, you may remember that he went into a passion.”
“What debt is it, then?”
“I paid four hundred pounds, you know, for the school; half of it I had saved; the other half was given by Mr. Todhetley. Well and good, so far. But I had not thought of one thing — the money that would be wanted for current expenses, and for the hundred and one odd things that stare you in the face upon taking to a new concern. Repairs had to be done, furniture to be bought in; and not a penny coming in until the end of the quarter: not much then, for most of the boys pay half-yearly. Lockett, who was down here most days, saw that if I could not get some money to go on with, there would be no resource but to resell the school. He bestirred himself, and got me the loan of a hundred and fifty pounds from a friend, at only five per cent. interest. This money I am suddenly called upon to repay.”
“Because he from whom I had it is dead, and the executors have called it in. It was Mr Wells.”
She recognized the name as that of a gentleman with whom they had been slightly acquainted; he had died suddenly, in the prime of life.
“Has any of it been paid off?”
“None. I could have repaid a portion every half-year as it came round, but Mr. Wells would not let me. ‘You had a great deal better use it in improving the school and getting things comfortable about you; I am in no hurry,’ was his invariable rejoinder. Lockett thought he meant eventually to make me a present of the money, being a wealthy man without near relatives. Of course I never looked for anything of the sort; but I was as easy as to the debt as though I had not contracted it.”
“Will the executors not let you have the use of the money still?”
“You should see their curt note, ordering its immediate repayment! Lockett seems more vexed at the turn affairs have taken than even I am. He was here today.”
Mrs. Blair sat in silent reflection, wishing she had known of this. Many an odd shilling that she had thought justified in spending, she would willingly have recalled now. Not that they could have amounted to much in the aggregate. Presently she looked at her husband.
“Pyefinch, it seems to me that there’s only one thing to do. You must borrow the sum from some one else, which of course will make us only as much in debt as we are now; and we must pay it off by instalments as quickly as we possibly can.”
“It is what Lockett and I have decided on already as the only course. Why, Mary, this worry has been on our minds for a fortnight past,” he added, turning quickly. “But now that it has come to borrowing again, and not from a friend, I felt that I ought to tell you. Besides, there’s another thing.”
“Go on,” she said.
“We have found a man to advance the money. Lockett and I picked him out from the Times advertisements. These fellows are awful rogues, for the most part; but this is not one of the worst. Lockett made inquiries of a parishioner of his who understands these things, and finds Gavity (that’s his name) is tolerably fair for a professional money-lender. I shall have to pay him higher interest. And he wants me to give him a bill of sale on the furniture.”
“A bill of sale on the furniture! What is that?”
“That is what I meant when I said there was another thing,” replied Mr. Blair. “Wells was content with my note of hand; this man requires security on my goods. It is a mere matter of form in my case, he says. As I am doing well, and there’s no fear of my not keeping the interest paid up, I suppose it is. In two or three years from this, all being well, the debt itself will be wiped off.”
“Oh yes; I hope so. The school is prosperous.”
Her tone was anxious, and Mr. Blair detected it. But for considering that she ought to know it, he would rather have kept this trouble to himself. And he was not sure upon another point: whether, in giving this bill of sale upon the furniture, Mr. Gavity might deem it essential to come in and take a list, article by article, bed by bed, table by table. If so, it would not have been possible to conceal it from her. He mentioned this. She, with himself, could not understand the necessity of their furniture being brought into the transaction at all, seeing that there could be no doubt as to their ability to repay. The one knew just as much about bills of sale and the rights they gave, as the other: and, that, was nothing.
And now that the communication to his wife was off his mind — for in that had lain the chief weight — Mr. Blair was more at ease. As they sat talking together, discussing the future in all its aspects, the shadow lifted itself, and things looked brighter. It did not seem to either of them so formidable a matter after all. It was only changing one creditor for another, and paying a little higher interest.
The transaction was accomplished. Gavity advanced the money, and took the bill of sale upon the furniture. He shot up the expenses — as money-lenders of his stamp generally do — and brought up the loan to a hundred and eighty, instead of a hundred and fifty. Still, taking things for all in all, the position was perhaps as fair and hopeful a one as can be experienced under debt. It was but a temporary clog; Mr. and Mrs. Blair both knew that. The school was flourishing; their prospects were good; they were young, and healthy, and hopeful. And though Mr. Gavity would of course exact his rights to the uttermost farthing, he had no intention of playing the rogue. In all candour let it be avowed, the gentleman money-lender did not see that it was a case affording scope for it.
I had to tell that much as well as I could, seeing that it only came to me by hearsay in the future.
And now to go back a little while, and to ourselves at Dyke Manor.
After their marriage the Squire did not lose sight of Mr. and Mrs. Blair. A basket of things went up now and then, and the second Christmas they were invited to come down; but Mary wrote to decline, on account of Joe, the baby. “Let them leave Joe at home,” cried Tod; but Mrs. Todhetley, shaking her head, said the dear little infant would come to sad grief without its mother. Soon after that, when the Squire was in London, he took the omnibus and went to see them, and told us how comfortably they were getting on.
Years went round to another Christmas, when the exacting Joe would be some months over two years old. In the passing of time you are apt to lose sight of interests, unless they are close ones; and for some months we had heard nothing of the Blairs. Mrs. Todhetley spoke of it one evening.
“Send them a Christmas hamper,” said the Squire.
The Christmas hamper went. With a turkey and ham, and a brace of pheasants in it; some bacon and apples to fill up, and sweet herbs and onions. Lena put in her favourite doll, dressed as a little mother, for young Joe. It had a false arm; and no legs, so to say: Hugh cut the feet off one day, and Hannah had to sew the stumps up. We hoped they would enjoy it all, including the doll, and drank good luck to them on Christmas Day.
A week and a half went on, and no news came. Mrs. Todhetley grew uneasy about the hamper, feeling sure it had been confiscated by the railway. Mary Blair had always written so promptly to acknowledge everything sent to them.
One January day the letter came in by the afternoon post. We knew Mary’s handwriting. The Squire and Madam were at the Sterlings’, and it was nine o’clock at night when they drove in. Mrs. Todhetley’s face ached, which was quite usual she had a white handkerchief tied round it. When they were seated round the fire, I remembered the letter, and gave it to her.
“Now to hear the fate of the hamper!” she exclaimed, carrying it to the lamp. But, what with the face-ache, and what with her eyes, which were not so good by candle-light as they used to be, Mrs. Todhetley could not read the contents readily. She looked at the writing, page after page, and then gave a short scream of dismay. Something was wrong.
“Those thieves have grabbed the hamper!” cried the Squire.
“No; I think the Blairs have had the hamper. I fear it is something worse,” she said faintly. “Perhaps you will read it aloud.”
The Squire put his spectacles on as he took the letter. We gathered round the table, waiting. Mrs. Todhetley sat with her head aside, nursing her cheek; and Tod, who had been reading, put his book down. The Squire hammered a good deal over the writing, which was not so legible as Mary’s was in general. She appeared to have meant it for Mrs. Todhetley and the Squire jointly.
“‘MY VERY DEAR FRIENDS,
“‘If I have delayed writing to you it was not for want of iningredients’"——
“Ingredients!” cried one of us.
“It must be gratitude,” corrected the Squire. “Don’t interrupt.”
“‘Gratitude for your most welcome and liberal present, but because my heart and hands have alike shrunk from the ex-ex-explanation it must entail. Alas! a series of very terrible misfortunes have overwormed — overwhelmed us. We have had to give up our school and our prospects together, and to turn out of our once happy dome.’”
“Dome!” put in Tod.
“I suppose it’s home,” said the Squire. “This confounded lamp is as dim as it can be to-night!” And he went on fractiously.
“‘Through no fault of my husband’s he had to borrow a hundred and fifty pounds nearly twelve months ago. The man he had it from was a money-lender, a Mr. Gavity; he charged a high rate of interest, and brought the cost up to about thirty pounds; but we have no reason to think he wished to act un-unfar — unfairly by us. He required security — which I suppose was only reasonable. The Reverend Mr. Lockett offered himself; but Gavity said parsons were slippers.’”
“Good gracious!” said Mrs. Todhetley.
“The word’s slippery, I expect,” cried the Squire with a frown. “One would think she had emptied the water-bottle into the inkpot.”
“‘Gavity said parsons were slippery; meaning that they were often worth no more than their word. He took, as security, a bill of sale on the furnace. Stay — furniture. Our school was quite prosperous; there was not the slightest doubt that in a short time the whole of the debt could be cleared off; so we had no hesitation in letting him have the bill of sale. And no harm would have come of it, but for one dreadful misfortune, which (as it seems) was a necessary part of the attendant proceedings. My husband got put into Jer — Jer — Jerry’s Gazelle.’”
“Jerry’s Gazette,” corrected the Squire.
We all spoke at once. He stared at the letters and then at us. We stared back again.
“It is Jerry’s Gazette— as I think. Come and see, Joe.”
Tod looked over the Squire’s shoulder. It certainly looked like “Jerry’s Gazette,” he said; but the ink was pale.
“‘Jerry’s Gazette.’ Go on, father. Perhaps you’ll find an explanation further on.”
“‘This Jerry’s Gazette, it appears, is circulated chiefly (and I think privately) amongst comical men — commercial men; merchants, and tradespeople. When they read its list of names, they know at once who is in difficulties. Of course they saw my husband’s name there, Pyefinch Blair; unfortunately a name so peculiar as not to admit of any doubt. I did not see the Gazette, but I believe the amount of the debt was stated, and that Gavity (but I don’t know whether he was mentioned by name) had a bill of sale on our household furniture.’”
“What the dickens is Jerry’s Gazette?” burst forth the Squire, giving the letter a passionate flick. “I know but of one Gazette, into which men of all conditions go, whether they are made lords or bankrupts. What’s this other thing?”
He put up his spectacles, and stared at us all again, as if expecting an answer. But he might as well have asked it of the moon. Mrs. Todhetley sat with the most hopeless look you ever saw on her face. So he went on reading again.
“‘We knew nothing about Jerry’s Gazette ourselves, or that there was such a pub — pub — publication, or that the transaction had appeared in it; and could not imagine why the school began to fall off. Some of the pupils were taken away, at once, some at Lady-day; and by Midsummer nearly every one had left. We used to lie awake night after night, grieving and wondering what could be the matter, searching in vain for any cause of offence, given unwittingly to the boys or their parents. Often and often we got up in the morning to go about our day’s work, never having closed our eyes. At last, a gentleman, whose son had been one of the first renewed — removed, told Pyefinch the truth: that he had appeared in Jerry’s Gazette. The fathers who subscribed to Jerry’s Gazette had seen it for themselves; and they informed the others.’”
“The devil take Jerry’s Gazette,” interrupted Tod, deliberately. “This reads like an episode of the Secret Inquisition, sir, in the days of the French Revolution.”
“It reads like a thing that an honest Englishman’s ears ought to redden to hear of,” answered the Squire, as he put the lamp nearer, for his outstretched arms were getting cramped.
“‘Pyefinch went round to every one of the boy’s fathers. Some would not see him, some not hear him; but to those who did, he imported — imparted — the whole circumstances; showing how it was that he had had to borrow the money (or rather to reborrow it, but I have not time in this letter to go so far into detail), and that it could not by any possibility injure the boys or touch their interests. Most of them, he said, were very kind and sympathizing, so far as words went, saying that in this case Jerry’s Gazette appeared to have been the means of inflicting a cruel wrong; but they would not agree to replace their sons with us. They either declined point-blank, or said they’d consider of it; but you see the greater portion of the boys were already placed at other schools. All of them told Pyefinch one thing — that they were thoroughly satisfied with his treatment in every respect, and but for this interruption would probably have left their sons with him as long as they wanted intrusion — instruction. The long and short of it was this, my dear friends: they did not choose to have their sons educated by a man who was looked upon in the commercial world as next door to a bankrupt. One of them delicately hinted as much, and said Mr. Blair must be aware that he was liable to have his house topped — stripped — at any moment under the bill of sale. We said to ourselves that evening, as Pyefinch and I talked together, that we might have removed boys of our own from a school under the same circumstances.’”
“That’s true enough,” murmured Mrs. Todhetley.
“‘My letter has grown very long and I must hasten to conclude it. Just before the rent was due at Michaelmas (we paid it half-yearly, by agreement) Gavity put the bill of sale into force. One morning several men came in and swept off the furniture. We were turned out next: though indeed to have attempted to remain in that large house were folly. The landlord came in a passion, and told Pyefinch that he would put him in prison if he were worth it; as he was not, he had better go out of the pitch — place — forthwith, as another tenant was ready to take possession. Since then we have been staying here, Pyefinch vainly seeking to get some employment. What we hoped was, that he would obtain an under-mastership to some public fool ——”
“‘School. But it seems difficult. He sends his best regards to you, and bids me say that the reason you have not heard from us so long is, that we could not bear to tell you the ill news after your former kindness to us. The arrival of the hamper leaves us no resource.
“‘Thank you for that. Thank you very truly. The people at the old house have our address, and redirected it here. We received it early on Christmas Eve. How good the things were, you do not need to be told. I stuffed the turkey — I shall make a famous cook in time — and sent it to the backhouse — bakehouse. You should have seen the pill — picture — it was when it came home. Believe me, my dear friends, we are both of us grateful for all your kindness to us, past and present. Little Joe is so delighted with the doll, he scarcely puts it out of his arms. Our best love to all, including Hugh and Lena. Thank Johnny for the beautiful new book he put in. I must apologize in conclusion for my writing; the ink we get in these penny bottles is pale; and baby has been on my lap all the time, never easy a minute. Do not say anything of all this, please, should you be writing to Wales.
“‘Ever most truly yours, “‘MARY BLAIR. “‘13, Difford’s Buildings, Paddington.’”
The Squire put the letter down and his spectacles on it, quite solemnly. You might have heard a pin drop in that room.
“This is a thing that must be inquired into. I shall go up tomorrow.”
“And I’d go too, sir, but for my engagement to the Whitneys,” said Tod.
“She must mean, in speaking of a baby, that there’s another,” spoke Mrs. Todhetley, in a frightened sort of whisper. “Besides little Joe. Dear me!”
“I don’t understand it,” stamped the Squire, getting red. “Turned out of house and home through Jerry’s Gazette! Do we live in England, I’d like to ask? — under English laws? — enjoying English rights and freedom? Jerry’s Gazette? What the deuce is Jerry’s Gazette? Where does it come from? What issues it? The Lord Chamberlain’s Office? — or Scotland Yard? — or some Patent society that we’ve not heard of, down here? The girl must have been imposed upon: her statement won’t hold water.”
“It looks as though she had been, sir.”
“Looks like it, Johnny! It must be so,” said the Squire, growing warmer. “I have temporary need of a sum of money, and I borrow it straightforwardly, honestly purposing and undertaking to pay it back with good interest, but not exactly wanting my neighbours to know about it; and you’d like me to believe that there’s some association, or publication, or whatever else it may be, that won’t allow this to be done privately, but must pounce upon the transaction, and take it down in print, and send it round to the public, just as if it were a wedding or a burying!”
The Squire had grown redder than a roost-cock. He always did when tremendously put out, and the matter would not admit of calling in old Jones the constable.
“Folly! Moonshine! Blair, poor fellow, has been slipping into some disaster, had his furniture seized, and so invents this fable to appease his wife, not liking to tell her the truth. Jerry’s Gazette! When I was a youngster, my father took me to see an exhibition in Worcester called ‘Jerry’s Dogs.’ The worst damage you could get there was a cold, from the holes in the canvas roof, or a pitch over the front into the sawdust. But in Jerry’s Gazette, according to this tale, you may be damaged for life. Don’t tell me! Do we live in Austria, or France, or any of those places, where — as it’s said — a man can’t so much as put on a pair of clean stockings in a morning, but its laid before high quarters in black and white at mid-day by the secret police! No, you need not tell me that.”
“I never heard of Jerry’s Gazette in all my life; I don’t know whether it is a stage performance or something to eat; but I feel convinced Mary Blair would not write this without having good grounds for it,” said Tod, bold as usual.
And do you know — though you may be slow to believe it — the Squire had taken latterly to listen to him. He turned his red old face on him now, and some of its fierceness went out of it.
“Then, Joe, all I can say is this — that English honour and English notions have changed uncommonly from what they used to be. ‘Live and let live’ was one of our mottoes; and most of us tried to act up to it. I know no more of this,” striking his hand on the letter, “than you know, boys; and I cannot think but that she must have been under some unaccountable mistake in writing it. Any way, I’ll go up to London tomorrow: and if you like, Johnny, you can go with me.”
We went up. I did not feel sure of it until the train was off, for Tod seemed three-parts inclined to give up the shooting at the Whitneys’, and start for London instead; in which case the Squire might not have taken me. Tod and some more young fellows were invited to Whitney Hall for three days, to a shooting-match.
It was dusk when we reached London, and as cold as charity. The Squire turned into the railway hotel and had some chops served, but did not wait for a regular dinner. When once he was in for impatience, he was in for it.
“Difford’s Buildings, Paddington,” had been the address, so we thought it would not be far to go. The Squire held on in his way along the crowded streets, as if he were about to set things to rights, elbowing the people, and asking the road at every turn. Some did not know Difford’s Buildings, and some directed us wrongly; but we got there at last. It was in a narrow, quiet street; a row of what Londoners call eight-roomed houses, with little gates opening to the square patches of smoky garden, and “Difford’s Buildings” written up as large as life at the corner.
“Let’s see,” said the Squire, looking sideways at the windows. “Number thirteen, was it not, Johnny?”
Difford’s Buildings were not well lighted, and there was no seeing the numbers. The Squire stopped before the one he thought must be thirteen; when some one came out at the house-door, shutting it behind him, and met us at the gate. A youngish clergyman in a white necktie. He and the Squire stood looking at each other in the gathering darkness.
“Can you tell me if Mr. Blair lives here?”
“Yes, he does,” was the answer. “I think — I think I have the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Todhetley.”
The Squire knew him then — the Reverend Mr. Lockett. They had met when Blair first took to the school.
“What is all this extraordinary history?” burst forth the Squire, seizing him by the button of his great-coat, and taking him a few yards further on. “Mrs. Blair has been writing us a strange rigmarole, which nobody can make head or tail of; about ruin, and sales, and something she calls Jerry’s Gazette.”
“Ay,” quietly answered the clergyman in a tone of pain, as he put his arm inside the Squire’s, and they paced slowly up and down. “It is one of the saddest histories my experience has ever had to do with.”
The Squire was near coming to an explosion in the open street. “Will you be pleased to tell me, sir, whether there exists such a thing as Jerry’s Gazette, or whether it is a fable? I have heard of Jerry’s Performing Dogs; went to see ’em once: but I don’t know what this other invention can be.”
“Certainly there is such a thing,” said Mr. Lockett. “It is, I fancy, a list of people who unfortunately get into difficulties; at least, people who fall into difficulties seem to get shown up in it. I am told it is meant chiefly for private circulation: which may imply, as I imagine (but here I may be wrong) what may be called secret circulation. Blair had occasion to borrow a little money, and his name appeared in it. From that moment he was a marked man, and his school fell off.”
“Goodness bless my soul!” cried the Squire solemnly, completely taken aback at hearing Mary’s letter confirmed. “Who gives Jerry’s Gazette the right to do this?”
“I don’t know about the right. It seems it has the power.”
“It is a power I never heard of before, sir. We have a parson, down our way, who tells us every Sunday the world’s coming to an end. I think it must be. I know it’s getting too clever for me to understand. If a man has the misfortune (perhaps after years of struggling that nobody knows anything about but himself) to break up at last, he goes into the country’s Gazette in a straightforward manner, and the public read it over their breakfast-tables, and there’s nothing underhand about it. But as to this other thing — if I comprehend the matter rightly — Blair did not as much as know of its existence, or that his name was going into it.”
“I am sure he did not; or I, either,” said Mr. Lockett.
“I should like its meaning explained, then,” cried the Squire, getting hotter and angrier. “Is it a fair, upright, honest thing; or is it a sort of Spanish Inquisition?”
“I cannot tell you,” answered the parson, as they both stood still. “Mr. Blair was informed by the father of one of his pupils that he believed the sheet was first of all set up as a speculation, and was found to answer so well that it became quite an institution. I do not know whether this is true.”
“I have heard of an institution for idiots, but I never heard of one for selling up men’s chairs and tables,” stormed the Squire. “No, sir, and I don’t believe it now. I might take up my standing tomorrow on the top of the Monument, and say to the public, ‘Here I am, and I’ll ferret out what I can about you, and whisper it to one another of you;’ and so bring a serpent’s trail on the unsuspecting heads, and altogether play Old Gooseberry with the crowds below me. Do you suppose, sir, the Lord Chancellor would wink his eye at me, stuck aloft there at my work, and would tolerate such a spectacle?”
“I fear the Lord Chancellor has not much to do with it,” said Mr. Lockett, smiling at the Squire’s random logic.
“Then suppose we say good men — public opinion — commercial justice and honour? Come!”
He shook the frail railings, on which his hand was resting, until they nearly came to grief. Mr. Lockett related the particulars of the transaction from the beginning; the original debt, which Blair was suddenly called upon to pay off, and the contraction of the one to Gavity. He said that he himself had had as much to do with it as Blair, in the capacity of friend and adviser, and felt almost as though he were responsible for the turn affairs had taken; which had caused him scarcely to enjoy an easy moment since. The Squire began to abuse Gavity, but Mr. Lockett said the man did not appear to have had any ill intention. As to his having sold off the goods — if he had not sold them, the landlord would have done so.
“And what’s Blair doing now?” asked Mr. Todhetley.
“Battling with illness for his life,” said the clergyman. “I have just been praying with him.”
The Squire retreated towards the lamp-post, as if some one had given him a blow. Mr. Lockett explained further.
It was in September that they had left their home. His own lodging and the church of which he was curate were in Paddington, and he found rooms for Blair and his wife in the same neighbourhood — two parlours in Difford’s Buildings. Blair (who had lost heart so terribly as to be good for little) spared no time or exertion in seeking for something to do. He tried to get into King’s College; they liked his appearance and testimonials, but at present had no vacancy: he tried private schools for an ushership, but did did not get one: nothing seemed to be vacant just then. Then he tried for a clerk’s place. Day after day, ill or well, rain or fine, feasting or fasting, he went tramping about London streets. At last, one of those who had had sons at his school, gave him some out-door employment — that of making known a new invention and soliciting customers for it from shop to shop: Blair to be paid on commission. Naturally, he did not let weather hinder him, and would come home to Difford’s Buildings at night, wet through. There had been a great deal of rain in November and December. But he got wet once too often, and was attacked with rheumatic fever. The fever was better now; but the weakness it had left was dangerous.
“She did not say anything about this in her letter,” interrupted the Squire resentfully, when Mr. Lockett had explained so far.
“Blair told her not to do so. He thought if their position were revealed to the friends who had once shown themselves so kind, it might look almost like begging for help again.”
“Blair’s a fool!” roared the Squire.
“Mrs. Blair has not made the worst of it to her family in Wales. It would only distress them, she says, for they could not help her. Mr. Sanker has been ill again for some time past, has not been allowed, I believe, to draw his full salary, and there’s no doubt they want every penny of their means for themselves; and more too.”
“How have they lived here?” asked the Squire, as we went slowly back to the gate.
“Blair earned a little while he could get about; and his wife has been enabled to procure some kind of wool-work from a warehouse in the city, which pays her very well,” said the clergyman, dropping his voice to a whisper, as if he feared to be overheard. “Unfortunately there’s the baby to take up much of her time. It was born in October, soon after they came there.”
“And I should like to know what business there has to be a baby?” cried the Squire, who was like a man off his head. “Couldn’t the baby have waited for a more convenient season?”
“It might have been better; it is certainly a troublesome, crying little thing,” said the parson. “Yes, you can go straight in: the parlour door is on the right. I have a service this evening at seven, and shall be late for it. This is your son, I presume, sir?”
“My son! law bless you! My son is a strapping young fellow, six feet two in his stockings. This is Johnny Ludlow.”
He shook hands pleasantly, and was good enough to say he had heard of me. The Squire went on, and I with him. There was no lamp in the passage, and we had to feel on the right for the parlour door.
“Come in,” called out Mary, in answer to the knock. I knew her voice again.
We can’t help our thoughts. Things come into the mind without leave or licence; and it is no use saying they ought not to, or asking why they do. Nearly opposite the door in the small room was the fireplace. Mary Blair sat on a low stool before it, doing some work with coloured wools with a big hooked needle, a baby in white lying flat on her lap, and the little chap, Joe, sitting at her feet. All in a moment it put me in mind of Mrs. Lease, sitting on her stool before the fire that day long ago (though in point of fact, as I discovered afterwards, hers had been a bucket turned upside down) with the sick child on her lap, and the other little ones round her. Why this, to-night, should have reminded me of that other, I cannot say, but it did; and in the light of an omen. You must ridicule me if you choose: it is not my fault; and I am telling nothing but the truth. Lease had died. Would Pyefinch Blair die?
The Squire went in gingerly, as if he had been treading on ploughshares. The candle stood on the mantel-piece, a table was pushed back under the window. Altogether the room was poor, and a small saucepan simmered on the hob. Mary turned her head, and rose up with a flushed face, letting the work fall on the baby’s white nightgown, as she held out her hand. Little Joe, a sturdy fellow in a scarlet frock, with big brown eyes, backed against the wall by the fireplace and stood staring, Lena’s doll held safely under his pinafore.
She lost her presence of mind. The Squire was the veriest old stupid, when he wanted to make-believe, that you’d see in a winter’s day. He began saying something about “happening to be in town, and so called.” But he broke down, and blurted out the truth. “We’ve come to see after you, my dear; and to learn what all this trouble means.”
And then she broke down. Perhaps it was the sight of us, recalling the old time at Dyke Manor, when the future looked so fair and happy; perhaps it was the mention of the trouble. She put her hands before her face, and the tears rained through her fingers.
“Shut the door, will you, Johnny,” she whispered. “Very softly.”
It was the other door she pointed to, one at the end of the room, and I closed it without noise. Except for a sob now and again, that she kept down as well as she could, the grief passed away. Young Joe, frightened at matters, suddenly went at her, full butt, and hid his eyes in her petticoats with a roar. I took him on my knee and got him round again. Somehow children are never afraid of me. The Squire rubbed his old red nose, and said he had a cold.
But, was she not altered! Now that the flush had faded, and emotion passed, the once sweet, fresh, blooming face stood out in its reality. Sweet, indeed, it was still; but the bloom and freshness had given place to a haggard look, and to dark circles round the soft brown eyes, weary now.
She had no more to tell of the past calamities than her letter and Mr. Lockett had told. Jerry’s Gazette was the sore point with the Squire, but she did not seem to understand it better than we did.
“I want to know one thing,” said he, quite fiercely. “How did Jerry’s Gazette get at the transaction between your husband and Gavity? Did Gavity go to it, open-mouthed, with the news?”
Mary did not know. She had heard something about a register — that the bill of sale had to be registered somewhere, and thought Jerry’s Gazette might have obtained the information from that source.
“Heaven bless us all!” cried the Squire. “Can’t a man borrow a bit of money but it must become known to his enemies, if he has any, bringing them down upon him like a pack of hounds in full cry? This used to be the freest land on earth.”
The baby began to scream. She put down the wool-work, and hushed it to her. I am sure the Squire had half a mind to tell her to give it a gentle shaking. He looked upon screaming babies as natural enemies: the truth is, with all his abuse, he was afraid of them.
“Has it got a name?” he asked gruffly.
“Yes — Mary: he wished it,” she said, glancing at the door. “I thought we should have to call it Polly, in contradistinction to mine.”
Polly! That was another coincidence. Lease’s eldest girl was Polly. And what made her speak of things in the past tense? She caught me looking at her; caught, I fancy, the fear on my face. I told her hurriedly that little Joe must be a Dutchman, for not a word could I understand of the tale he was whispering about his doll.
What with Mary’s work, and the little earned by Blair while he was about, they had not wanted for necessaries in a plain way. I suppose Lockett took care they should not do so: but he was only a curate.
The baby needed its supper, to judge by the squealing. Mary poured the contents of the saucepan — some thin gruel — into a saucer, and began feeding the little mite by teaspoonfuls, putting each one to her own lips first to test it.
“That’s poor stuff,” cried the Squire, in a half-pitying, half-angry tone, his mind divided between resentment against babies in general and sympathy with this one. As the baby was there, of course it had to be fed, but what he wanted to know was, why it need have come just when trouble was about. When put out, he had no reason at all. Mrs. Blair suddenly turned her face towards the end door, listening; and we heard a faint voice calling “Mary.”
“Joe, dear, go and tell papa that I will be with him in one minute.”
The little chap slid down, giving me his doll to nurse, and went pattering across the carpet, standing on tiptoe to open the door. The Squire said he should like to go in and see Blair. Mary went on first to warn him of our advent.
My goodness! That Pyefinch Blair, who used to flourish his cane, and cock it over us boys at Frost’s! I should never have known him for the same.
He lay in bed, too weak to raise his head from the pillow, the white skin drawn tightly over his hollow features; the cheeks slightly flushing as he watched us coming. And again I thought of Lease; for the same look was on this face that had been on his when he was dying.
“Lord bless us!” cried the Squire, in what would have been a solemn tone but for surprise. And Mr. Blair began faintly to offer a kind of apology for his illness, hoping he should soon get over it now.
It was nothing but the awful look, putting one unpleasantly in mind of death, that kept the Squire from breaking out with a storm of abuse all round. Why could they not have sent word to Dyke Manor, he wanted to know. As to asking particulars about Jerry’s Gazette, which the Squire’s tongue was burning to do, Blair was too far gone for it. While we stood there the doctor came in; a little man in spectacles, a friend of Mr. Lockett’s. He told Blair he was getting on all right, spoke to Mrs. Blair, and took his departure. The Squire, wishing good night in a hurry, went out after the doctor, and collared him as he was walking up the street.
“Won’t he get over it?”
“Well, sir, I am afraid not. His state of weakness is alarming.”
The Squire turned on him with a storm, just as though he had known him for years: asking why on earth Blair’s friends (meaning himself) had not been written to, and promising a prosecution if he let him die. The doctor took it sensibly, and was cool as iced water.
“We medical men are only gifted at best with human skill, sir,” he said, looking the Squire full in the face.
“Blair is young — not much turned thirty.”
“The young die as well as the old, when it pleases Heaven to take them.”
“But it doesn’t please Heaven to take him,” retorted the Squire, worked up to the point when he was not accountable for his words. “But that you seem in earnest, young man, probably meaning no irreverence, I’d ask you how you dare bring Heaven’s name into such a case as this? Did Heaven fling him out of house and home into Jerry’s Gazette, do you suppose? Or did man? Man, sir: selfish, hard, unjust man. Don’t talk to me, Mr. Doctor, about Heaven.”
“All I wished to imply, sir, was, that Mr. Blair’s life is not in my keeping, or in that of any human hands,” said the doctor, when he had listened quietly to the end. “I will do my best to bring him round; I can do no more.”
“You must bring him round.”
“There can be no ‘must’ about it: and I doubt if he is to be brought round. Mr. Blair has not naturally a large amount of what we call stamina, and this illness has laid a very serious hold upon him. It would be something in his favour if the mind were at ease: which of course it cannot be in his circumstances.”
“Now look here — you just say outright he is going to die,” stormed the Squire. “Say it and have done with it. I like people to be honest.”
“But I cannot say he is. Possibly he may recover. His life and his death both seem to hang on the turn of a thread.”
“And there’s that squealing young image within earshot! Could Blair be got down to my place in the country? You might come with him if you liked. There’s some shooting.”
“Not yet. It would kill him. What we have to fight against now is the weakness: and a hard fight it is.”
The Squire’s face was rueful to look at. “This London has a reputation for clever physicians: you pick out the best, and bring him here with you tomorrow morning. Do you hear, sir?”
“I will bring one, if you wish it. It is not essential.”
“Not essential!” wrathfully echoed the Squire. “If Blair’s recovery is not essential, perhaps you’ll tell me, sir, whose is! What is to become of his poor young wife if he dies? — and the little fellow with the doll? — and that cross-grained puppet in white? Who will provide for them? Let me tell you, sir, that I won’t have him die — if doctors can keep him alive. He belongs to me, sir, in a manner: he saved my son’s life — as fine a fellow as you could set eyes on, six feet two without his boots. Not essential! What next?”
“It is not so much medical skill he requires now as care, and rest, and renovation,” spoke the doctor in his calm way.
“Never mind. You take a physician to him, and let him attend him with you, and don’t spare expense. In all my life I never saw anybody want patching up so much as he wants it.”
The Squire shook hands with him, and went on round the corner. I was following, when the doctor touched me on the shoulder.
“He has a good heart, for all his hot speech,” whispered he, nodding towards the Squire. “In talking with him this evening, when you find him indulging hopes of Blair’s recovery, don’t encourage them: rather lead him, if possible, to look at the other side of the question.”
The surgeon was off before I recovered from my surprise. But it was now my turn to run after him.
“Do you know that he will not get well, sir?”
“I do not know it; the weak and the strong are alike in the hands of God; but I think it scarcely possible that he can recover,” was the answer; and the voice had a solemn tone, the face a solemn aspect, in the uncertain light. “And I would prepare friends always to meet the worst when it is in my power to do so.”
“Now then, Johnny! You were going to take the wrong turning, were you, sir! Let me tell you, you might get lost in London before knowing it.”
The Squire had come back to the corner, looking for me. I walked on by his side in silence, feeling half dazed, the hopeless words playing pranks in my brain.
“Johnny, I wonder where we can find a telegraph office? I shall telegraph to your mother to send up Hannah tomorrow. Hannah knows what the sick need: and that poor thing with her children ought not to be left alone.”
But as to giving any hint to the Squire of the state of affairs, I should like the doctor to have tried it himself. Before I had finished the first syllable, he attacked me as if I had been a tiger; demanding whether those were my ideas of Christianity, and if I supposed there’d be any justice in a man’s dying because he had got into Jerry’s Gazette.
In the morning the Squire went on an expedition to Gavity’s office in the city. It was a dull place of two rooms, with a man to answer people. We had not been there a minute when the Squire began to explode, going on like anything at the man for saying Mr. Gavity was engaged and could not be seen. The Squire demanded if he thought we were creditors, that he should deny Gavity.
What with his looks and his insistence, and his promise to bring in Sir Richard Mayne, he got to see Gavity. We went into a good room with a soft red carpet and marble-topped desk in it. Mr. Gavity politely motioned to chairs before the blazing fire, and I sat down.
Not the Squire. Out it all came. He walked about the room, just as he walked at home when he was in a way, and said all kinds of things; wanting to know who had ruined Pyefinch Blair, and what Jerry’s Gazette meant. Gavity seemed to be used to explosions: he took it so coolly.
When the Squire calmed down, he almost grew to see things in Gavity’s own light — namely, that Gavity had not been to blame. To say the truth, I could not understand that he had. Except in selling them up. And Gavity said if he had not done it, the landlord would.
So nothing was left for the Squire to vent his wrath on but Jerry’s Gazette. He no more understood what Jerry’s Gazette really was, or whether it was a good or bad thing in itself, than he understood the construction of the planet Jupiter. It’s well Dwarf Giles was not present. The day before we came to London, he overheard Giles swearing in a passion, and the Squire had pounced upon him with an indignant inquiry if he thought swearing was the way to get to heaven. What he said about Jerry’s Gazette caused Gavity’s eyes to grow round with wonder.
“Lord love ye!” said Gavity, “Jerry’s Gazette a thing that wants putting down! Why, it is the blessedest of institutions to us City men. It is a public Benefactor. The commercial world has had no boon like it. Did you know the service it does, you’d sing its praises, sir, instead of abusing it.”
“How dare you tell me so to my face?” demanded the Squire.
“Jerry’s Gazette’s like a gold mine, sir. It is making its fortune. A fine one, too.”
“I shouldn’t like to make a fortune out of my neighbours’ tears, and blood, and homes, and hearths,” was the wrathful answer. “If Pyefinch Blair dies in his illness, will Jerry’s Gazette settle a pension from its riches on his widow and children? Answer me that, Mr. Gavity.”
Mr. Gavity, to judge by his looks, thought the question nearly as unreasonable as he thought the Squire. He wanted to tell of the vast benefit Jerry’s Gazette had proved in certain cases; but the Squire stopped his ears, saying Blair’s case was enough for him.
“I do not deny that the Gazette may work mischief once in a way,” acknowledged Mr. Gavity. “It is but a solitary instance, sir; and in all commercial improvements the few must suffer for the many.”
No good. The Squire went at him again, hammer and tongs, and at last dashed away without saying good morning, calling out to me to come on, and not stop a moment longer in a nest of thieves and casuists.
Difford’s Buildings had us in the afternoon. The baby was in its basket, little Joe lay asleep before the fire, the doll against his cheek, and Mary was kneeling by the bed in the back room. She got up hastily when she saw us.
“I think he is weaker,” she said in a whisper, as she came through the door and pushed it to. “There is a look on his face that I do not like.”
There was a look on hers. A wan, haggard, patiently hopeless look, that seemed to say she could struggle no longer. It was not natural; neither was the calm, lifeless tone.
“Stay here a bit, my dear, and rest yourself,” said the Squire to her. “I’ll go in and sit with him.”
There could be no mistake now. Death was in every line of his face. His head was a little raised on the pillow; and the hollow eyes tried to smile a greeting. The Squire was good for a great deal, but not for making believe with that sight before him. He broke down with a great sob.
“Don’t grieve for me,” murmured poor Blair. “Hard though it seems to leave her, I have learnt to say, ‘God’s will be done.’ It is all for the best — oh, it is all for the best. We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom.”
And then I broke down, and hid my face on the counterpane. Poor old Blair! And we boys had called him Baked Pie!
I went to Paddington station to meet the train. Hannah was in it, and came bursting out upon me with a shriek that might have been heard at Oxford. Upon the receipt of the telegram, she and Mrs. Todhetley came to the conclusion that I had been run over, and was lying in some hospital with my legs off. That was through the Squire’s wording of the message; he would not let me write it. “Send Hannah to London tomorrow by mid-day train, to nurse somebody that’s in danger.”
Blair lingered three days yet before he died, sensible to the last, and quite happy. Not a care or anxiety on his mind about what had so troubled him all along — the wife and children.
“Through God’s mercy; He knows how to soothe the death-bed,” said Mr. Lockett.
Whether Mary would have to go home to Wales with her babies, or stay and do what she could for them in London, depending on the wool-work, the clergyman said he did not know, when talking to us at the hotel. He supposed it must be one of the two.
“We’ll have them down at the Manor, and fatten ’em up a bit, Johnny,” spoke the Squire, a rueful look on his good old face. “Mercy light upon us! and all through Jerry’s Gazette!”
I must say a word for myself. Jerry’s Gazette (if there is such a thing still in existence) may be, as Mr. Gavity expressed it to us then, the “blessedest of institutions to him and commercial men.” I don’t wish to deny it, and I could not if I wished; for except in this one instance (which may have been an exceptional case, as Gavity insisted) I know nothing of it or its working. But I declare on my honour I have told nothing but the truth in regard to what it did for the schoolmaster, Pyefinch Blair.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55