You have heard of the avalanches that fall without warning and crush luckless dwellers in the Swiss mountains; and of mälströms that suddenly swallow up vessels sailing jauntily along on a calm sea; and of railway trains, filled with happy passengers, that one minute are running smoothly and safely along, and the next are nowhere: but nothing of this sort ever created the consternation that attended the bursting-up of the Clement–Pells.
It was Saturday night. — For we have to trace back a day or two. — Seated in the same room where I had seen him when I went back for Helen Whitney’s bag, was Clement–Pell. That the man had come to his last gasp, he knew better than any one else in the world could have told him. How he had braved it out, and fought against the stream, and still kept off the explosion since the night but one before — Thursday — when Mr. Johnson had intruded himself into the grounds and then stealthily watched him from the trees, and he knew all was over, it might have puzzled him to tell. How he had fought against all for months, ay, and years, turned him sick only to recall. It had been a fierce, continuous, secret battle; and it had nearly worn him out, and turned his face and his hair grey before their time.
On the day following this fête-night, Friday, Clement–Pell took the train and was at his chief Bank early. He held his interview with Mr. Johnson; he saw other people; and his manner was free and open as usual. On this next day, Saturday, he had been denied to nearly all callers at the Bank: he was too busy to be interrupted, he told his clerks: and his son James boldly made appointments with them in his name for the Monday. After dark on Saturday evening, by the last train, he reached home, Parrifer Hall. And there he was, in that room of his; the door and shutters bolted and barred upon him, alternately pacing it in what looked like tribulation, and bending over account-books by the light of two wax candles.
Leaning his forehead on his hand, he sat there, and thought it out. He strove to look the situation fully in the face; what it was, and what it would be. Ruin, and worse than ruin. Clement–Pell had possessed good principles once: so to say, he possessed them still. But he had allowed circumstances to get the better of him and of them. He had come from his distant home (supposed to have been London) as the manager of an insignificant and humble little Bank: that was years ago. It was only a venture: but a certain slice of luck, that need not be recorded here, favoured him, and he got on beyond his best expectations. He might have made an excellent living, nay, a good fortune, and kept his family as gentlepeople, had he been prudent. But the luck, coming suddenly, turned his head, you see. Since then, I, Johnny Ludlow, who am no longer the inexperienced boy of that past time, have known it turn the heads of others. He launched out into ventures, his family launched into expense. The ventures paid; the undue expense did not pay. When matters came to be summed up by a raging public, it was said that it was this expense which had swamped the Pells. That alone, I suppose, it could not have been: but it must have gone some way towards it.
It lay on his mind heavily that Saturday night. Looking back, he got wondering how much more, in round figures, his family had cost him than they ought to have cost. There had been his wife’s different expenses. Her houses, and her staff of servants, her carriages and horses, her dresses and jewels, and all the rest that it would take too long to tell of; and the costly bringing-up of his daughters; and the frightful outlay of his two younger sons. Fabian and Gusty Pell ought to have had ten thousand a year apiece, to have justified it. James had his expenses too, but in a quieter way. Clement–Pell ran his nervous fingers through his damp hair, as he thought of this, and in his bitter mind told himself that his family had ruined him. Unlimited spending — show — the shooting up above their station! He gave a curse to it now. He had not checked it when he might have done so; and it (or they) got the upper hand, and then he could not. Nothing is so difficult as to put down such expenses as these when they have become a habit.
And so the years had soon come that he found need for supplies. Unlimited as his millions were supposed to be by a confiding public, Clement–Pell in secret wanted money more than most people. His operations were gigantic, but then they required gigantic resources to keep them going. Money was necessary — or the smash must have come two or three years earlier. But sufficient money was not then conveniently attainable by Clement–Pell: and so — he created some. He believed when all his returns from these gigantic operations should flow in, that he could redeem the act; could replace the money, and no one ever be the wiser. But (it is the old story; one that has been enacted before and since), he found somehow that he could not replace it. Like Tod and that gambling affair when we were in London, in trying to redeem himself, he only got further into the mire. Tod, in playing on to cover his losses, doubled them; Clement–Pell’s fresh ventures in the stream of speculation only sent him into deeper water. Of late, Clement–Pell had been walking as on a red-hot ploughshare. It burnt and scorched him everlastingly, and he could not get out of it. But the end had come. The thunder-cloud so long hovering in the air was on the very point of bursting, and he was not able to meet it. He must get away: he could not face it.
Get away for good, as he hoped, never to be tracked by friends or foes. What his future life was to be he did not attempt to consider: he only knew that he would give all he ever had been worth to be able to live on, no matter how quietly, with his fellow-men around him. The little moderate home that he and his wife had once looked to as the haven of their desires, would have been a harbour of safety and pride to him now.
Say what you will, men do not like to be shown up as black sheep in the eyes of their fellows; especially if they have hitherto stood out as conspicuously white leaders of the flock. The contrast is so great, the fall so startling. The public gives them all sorts of hard names; as it did in the case of Clement–Pell. A desperately hardened man he must be, said the world, with a brazen conscience; unprincipled as — well, yes, as Satan. But we may be very sure of one thing — that upon none does the disgrace tell so keenly, the ruin so heavily, the sense of shame so cruelly, as on these men themselves. Put it, if you will, that they make a purse and carry it off to set up a new home in some foreign land — they carry their sense of humiliation with them also; and their sun of happiness in this life has set. Men have tried this before now, and died of it.
That was the best that lay prospectively before Clement–Pell: what the worst might be, he did not dare dwell upon. Certain ugly possibilities danced before his mental vision, like so many whirling ballet girls. “If I can only get away!” he muttered; “if I can only get away!”
He tried to confine his whole attention to the ledgers before him, and he put on his spectacles again. Mental trouble and mental work will dim the sight as well as whiten the hair and line the face, and Clement–Pell could not see as he had seen a year before. He altered figures; he introduced entries; he tore out whole leaves, and made a bonfire of them in the grate — carefully removing from the grate first of all its paper ornament. One book he burnt wholesale, even to the covers; and the covers made a frightful smell and daunted him.
Money was wanted here, there, everywhere. Snatching a piece of paper he idly dotted down the large sums occurring to him at the moment; and quite laughed as he glanced at the total. These were only business liabilities. At his elbow lay a pile of bills: domestic and family debts. House rent, taxes, horses, carriages, servants’ wages, bills for food, bills for attire: all running back a long while; for no one had pressed Clement–Pell. The outlay for the fête might well have been profuse, since none of it was ever paid for. Beside the bills lay letters from Fabian and Gusty — wanting money as usual. To all these he scarcely gave a thought; they were as nothing. Even though he were made bankrupt upon them, they were still as nothing: for they would not brand his brow with the word felon. And he knew that there were other claims, of which no record appeared here, that might not be so easily wiped out.
Just for a moment, he lost himself in a happy reverie of what might have been had he himself been wise and prudent. It was Gusty’s pressing letter that induced the reflection. He saw himself a prosperous man of moderate expenses and moderate desires, living at his ease in his own proper station, instead of apeing the great world above him. His daughters reared to be good and thoughtful women, his sons to be steady and diligent whatever their calling, whether business or profession. And what were they? “Curse the money and the pride that deluded me and my wife to blindness!” broke with a groan from the lips of Clement–Pell.
A sharp knocking at the door made him start. He looked about to see if there were anything to throw over his tell-tale table, and had a great mind to take off his coat and fling it there. Catching up the ornamental paper of the grate to replace it if he could, the knocking came again, and with it his wife’s voice, asking what that smell of burning was. He let her in, and bolted the door again.
How far Mrs. Clement–Pell had been acquainted with his position, never came out to the world. That she must have known something of it was thought to be certain; and perhaps the additional launching out lately — the sojourn at Kensington, the fête, and all the rest of it — had only been entered upon to disarm suspicion. Shut up together in that room, they no doubt planned together the getting-away. That Mrs. Clement–Pell fought against their leaving home and grandeur, to become fugitives, flying in secret like so many scapegoats, would be only natural: we should all so fight; but he must have shown her that there was no help for it. When she quitted the room again, she looked like one over whom twenty years had passed — as Miss Phebus told us later. And the whole of that night, Mrs. Clement–Pell never went to bed; but was in her room gathering things together barefooted, lest she should be heard. Jewels — dresses — valuables! It must have been an awful night; deciding which of her possessions she should take, and which leave for ever.
At six in the morning, Sunday, Mr. Clement–Pell’s bell rang, and the groom was summoned. He was bade get the small open carriage ready to drive his master to the railway station to catch an early train. Being Sunday, early trains were not common. Mr. Clement–Pell had received news the previous night, as was intimated, of an uncle’s illness. At that early hour, and Sunday besides, Clement–Pell must have thought he was safe from meeting people: but, as it happened (things do happen unexpectedly in this world), in bowling out from his own gates, he nearly bowled over Duffham. The Doctor, coming home from a distant patient, to whom he had been called in the night, was jogging along on his useful old horse.
“Well!” said he to the banker. “You are off early.”
“Drive on, don’t stop,” whispered Clement–Pell to the groom. “I had news last night of the dangerous illness of my poor old uncle, and am going to see him,” he called out to Duffham as they passed. “We shall have it piping hot again today, Doctor!”
The groom told of this encounter afterwards — as did Duffham too, for that matter. And neither of them had any more suspicion that Clement–Pell was playing a part than a baby could have had. In the course of the morning the groom drove in again, having safely conveyed his master to a distant station. The family went to church as usual, chaperoned by Miss Phebus. Mrs. Clement–Pell stayed at home, saying she had a headache: and no doubt quietly completed her preparations.
About six o’clock at night a telegram was delivered. The uncle was dying: Mrs. Clement–Pell must come as soon as possible, to be in time to see him: as to bringing the children she must do as she pleased about that. In Mrs. Pell’s agitation and dismay she read the telegram aloud to the governess and the servant who brought it to her. Then was confusion! Mrs. Pell seemed to have lost her head. Take the children? — Of course she should take them; — and, oh, when was the earliest time they could start?
The earliest time by rail was the following morning. And part of the night was again passed in preparation — openly, this time. Mrs. Clement–Pell said they should probably stay away some days, perhaps a week or two, and must take things accordingly. The boxes were all brought into her room, that she might superintend; the poor old uncle was so very particular as to dress, she said, and she trusted he might yet recover. On the Monday morning, she and her daughters departed in the large carriage, at the same early hour that her husband had gone, and for the same remote station. After all, not so much luggage went; only a box a-piece. In stepping into her carriage, she told the servants that it would be an excellent opportunity to clean the paint of the sitting-rooms and of the first-floor while she was away: the previous week she had remarked to them that it wanted doing.
The day went on; the household no doubt enjoying their freedom and letting the paint alone. No suspicion was aroused amongst them until late in the afternoon, when a curious rumour was brought over of some confusion at the chief Bank — that it had stopped and its master had flown. At first the governess and servants laughed at this: but confirmation soon came thick and three-fold. Clement–Pell had burst-up.
And why the expression “bursting-up” should have been universally applied to the calamity by all people, high and low, I know no more than you; but it was so. Perhaps in men’s minds there existed some assimilation between a bubble, that shines brightly for its brief existence before bursting, like the worthless froth it is, and the brilliant but foundationless career of Mr. Clement–Pell.
The calamity at first was too great to be believed in. It drove people mad only to fancy it might be true: and one or two, alas! subsequently went mad in reality. For the bursting-up of Mr. Clement–Pell’s huge undertakings caused the bursting-up of many private ones, and of households with them. Means of living went: homes were desolated.
It would be easier to tell you of those who had not trusted money in the hands of Clement–Pell, than of those who had. Some had given him their all. Led away by the fascinating prospect of large interest, they forgot future safety in the dazzling but delusive light of immediate good. I should like it to be distinctly understood that I, Johnny Ludlow, am writing of a matter which took place years ago; and not of any recent event, or events, that may have since occurred to shake public equanimity in our own local world.
Disbelief in the misfortune was natural. Clement–Pell had stood on a lofty pedestal, unapproachable by common individuals. We put greater trust in him — in his unbounded wealth, his good faith, his stability — than we could have put in any other man on the face of the globe. We should almost as soon have expected the skies to fall as Clement–Pell. The interests of so many were involved and the ruin would be so universal, that the terrified natives could only take refuge in disbelief: and Squire Todhetley was amongst them.
The news was brought to Dyke Manor on the Tuesday morning, as you have heard, by the butcher boy, Sam Rimmer; and was confirmed by Mr. Brandon. When the first momentary shock had been digested by the Squire, he arrived at the conclusion that it must be false. But that Sam had trotted off, he might have heard the length of the Pater’s tongue. Sam being gone, he turned his indignation on Mr. Brandon.
“One would have thought you had sense to know better, Brandon,” said he, raging about the breakfast-room with the skirts of his light morning coat held out behind him. “Giving ear to a cock-and-bull story that can’t be true! Take care Pell does not get to hear it. He’d sue you for defamation.”
“He’d be welcome,” nodded old Brandon, in his thin voice, as he stood, whip in hand, against the window.
“The grand fête of last Thursday,” gasped Mrs. Todhetley — who had been puzzling her brains over Sam Rimmer’s master’s book, the writing in which could never be deciphered. “Surely the Clement–Pells would not have given that fête had things been going wrong with them.”
“And poured iced champagne, unlimited, down folk’s throats; and strutted about in point-lace and diamonds,” added old Brandon. “Madam, I’d believe it all the more for that.”
As he spoke, the remembrance of the scene I had witnessed in the grounds, and Clement–Pell’s curious fear later when I told him of the same man watching him, flashed over me, bringing a conviction that the report was true.
“I heard it at the chief Bank yesterday,” began Mr. Brandon. “Having some business to transact in the town, I went over by train in the afternoon, and chanced to meet Wilcox in High Street. He is a red-faced man in general ——”
“Oh, I know Wilcox,” impatiently interrupted the Squire. “Face as red as the sun in a fog. What has that to do with it?”
“Well, it was as pale yesterday as the moon on a frosty night,” went on old Brandon. “I asked if he had an attack of bile — being subject to it myself — and he said No, it was an attack of fright. And then he told me there was a report in town that something was wrong with Pell’s affairs, and that he had run away. Wilcox will lose every penny of his savings.”
“All talk; all talk,” said the Pater in his obstinacy.
“And for a man to come to Wilcox’s age, which must be five-and-fifty, it is no light blow to lose a life’s savings,” calmly went on old Brandon. “I went to the Bank, and found it besieged by an excited and angry crowd fighting to get in, the door locked, and the porter vainly trying to put up the shutters. That was enough to show me what the matter was, and I left Wilcox to it.”
The Squire stared in perplexity, rubbing up his scanty hair the wrong way while his senses came to him.
“It is all true,” said Mr. Brandon, nodding to him. “Church Dykely is in an uproar this morning already.”
“I’ll go and see for myself,” said the Squire, stripping off his nankeen coat in haste so great that he tore one sleeve nearly out. “I’ll go and see; this is not credible. Clement–Pell would never have swindled me out of two hundred pounds only a day or two before he knew he was going all to smash.”
“The most likely time for him to do it,” persisted Mr. Brandon. “People, as a rule, only do these things when they are desperate.”
But the Squire did not stay to listen. Settling himself into his other coat, he went driving on across the fields as though he were walking for a wager. Mr Brandon mounted his cob, and put up his umbrella against the sun.
“Never embark any money with these beguiling people that promise you undue interest, Johnny Ludlow,” said Mr. Brandon, as I kept by his side, and opened the gates for him. “Where would you have been now, young man — or, worse, where should I have been — had I, the trustee of your property, consented to risk it with Pell? He asked me to do it.”
“Clement–Pell did, sir? When?”
“A year or two ago. I gave him an answer, Johnny; and I fancy he has not altogether liked me since. ‘I could not think of placing even a shilling of Johnny Ludlow’s where I did not know it to be safe,’ I said to him. ‘It will be safe with me,’ says Pell, sharply. ‘Possibly so, Mr Pell,’ I answered; ‘but you see there’s only your word as guarantee, and that is not enough for an honest trustee.’ That shut him up.”
“Do you mean to say you have doubted Clement–Pell’s stability, Brandon?” demanded the Squire, who was near enough to hear this.
“I don’t know about doubting,” was the answer. “I have thought it as likely to come to a smash as not. That the chances for it were rather better than half.”
This sent the Squire on again. He had no umbrella; and his straw hat glistened in the heat.
Church Dykely was in a commotion. Folk were rushing up to the little branch Bank black in the face, as if their collars throttled them; for the news was spreading like fire in dry turf. The Squire went bolting in through every obstruction, and seized upon the manager.
“Do you mean to tell me that it’s true, Robertson?” he fiercely cried. —“That things have gone to smash?”
“I am afraid it is, sir,” said Robertson, who looked more dead than alive. “I am unable to understand it. It has fallen upon me with as much surprise as it has on others.”
“Now, don’t you go and tell falsehoods, Robertson,” roared the Squire, as if he meant to shake the man. “Surprise upon you, indeed! Why, have you not been here — at the head and tail of everything?”
“But I did not know how affairs were going. Indeed, sir, I tell you truth.”
“Tell a jackass not to bray!” foamed the Squire. “Have you been short of funds here lately, or have you not? Come, answer me that.”
“It is true. We have been short. But Mr. Clement–Pell excused it to me by saying that a temporary lock-up ran the Banks short, especially the small branch Banks. I declare, before Heaven, that I implicitly believed him,” added Robertson, “and never suspected there could be any graver cause.”
“Then you are either a fool or a knave.”
“Not a knave, Squire Todhetley. A fool I suppose I have been.”
“I want my two hundred pounds,” returned the Squire. “And, Robertson, I mean to have it.”
But Robertson had known nothing of the loan; was surprised to hear of it now. As to repayment, that was out of his power. He had not two hundred pence left in the place, let alone pounds.
“It is a case of swindle,” said the Squire. “It’s not one of ordinary debt.”
“I can’t help it,” returned Robertson. “If it were to save Mr. Clement–Pell from hanging, I could not give a stiver of it. There’s my own salary, sir, since Midsummer; that, I suppose, I shall lose: and I can’t afford it, and I don’t know what will become of me and my poor little children.”
At this, the Squire’s voice and anger dropped, and he shook hands with Robertson. But, as a rule, every one began by brow-beating the manager. The noise was deafening.
How had Pell got off? By which route: road or rail? By day or night? It was a regular hubbub of questions. Mr. Brandon sat on his cob all the while, patiently blinking his eyes at the people.
Palmerby of Rock Cottage came up; his old hands trembling, his face as white as the new paint on Duffham’s windows. “It can’t be true!” he was crying. “It can’t be true!”
“Had you money in his hands, Palmerby?”
“Every shilling I possess in the world.”
Mr. Brandon opened his lips to blow him up for foolishness: but something in the poor old face stopped him. Palmerby elbowed his way into the Bank. Duffham came out of his house, a gallipot of ointment in his hand.
“Well, this is a pretty go!”
The Squire took him by the buttonhole. “Where’s the villainous swindler off to, Duffham?”
“I should like to know,” answered the surgeon. “I’d be pretty soon on his trail and ask him to refund my money.”
“But surely he has none of yours?”
“Pretty nigh half the savings of my years.”
“Mercy be good to us!” cried the Pater. “He got two hundred pounds out of me last week. What’s to become of us all?”
“It’s not so much a question of what is to become of us — of you and me, Squire,” said Duffham, philosophically, “as of those who had invested with him their all. We can bear the loss: you can afford it without much hurt; I must work a few years longer, Heaven permitting me, than I had thought to work. That’s the worst of us. But what will those others do? What will be the worst for them?”
Mr. Brandon nodded approvingly from his saddle.
“Coming home last night from Duck Lane — by the way, there’s another infant at John Mitchel’s, because he had not enough before — the blacksmith accosted me, saying Clement–Pell was reported to be in a mess and to have run off. The thing sounded so preposterous that I thought at first Dobbs must have been drinking; and told him that I happened to know Clement–Pell was only off to a relative’s death-bed. For on Sunday morning, you see ——”
A crush and rush stopped Duffham’s narrative, and nearly knocked us all down. Ball the milkman had come bumping amongst us in a frantic state, his milk-cans swinging from his shoulders against my legs.
“I say, Ball, take care of my trousers. Milk stains, you know.”
“Master Ludlow, sir, I be a’most mad, I think. Folks is saying as Mr. Clement–Pell and his banks have busted-up.”
“Well? You have not lost anything, I suppose?”
“Not lost!” panted poor Ball. “I’ve lost all I’ve got. ’Twere a hundred pound, Mr. Johnny, scraped together hard enou’, as goodness knows. Mr. Clement–Pell were a-talking to me one day, and he says, says he, Ah, says he, it’s difficult to get much interest now; money’s plentiful. I give eight per cent., says he; most persons gets but three. Would ye take mine, sir, says I; my hundred pound? If you like, he says. And I took it to him, gentlemen, thinking what luck I was in, and how safe it were. My hundred pound!”— letting the cans down with a clatter. “My hundred pound that I’d toiled so hard for! Gentlefolk, wherever be all the money a-gone?”
Well, it was a painful scene. One we were glad to get out of. The Squire, outrageously angry at the way he had been done out of his money, insisted on going to Parrifer Hall. Mr. Brandon rode his cob; Duffham stepped into his surgery to get his hat.
One might have fancied a sale was going on. The doors were open: boxes belonging to some of the servants were lying by the side-entrance, ready to be carted away; people (creditors and curiosity-mongers) stood about. Sam Rimmer’s master, the butcher, came out of the house as we went in, swearing. Perkins had not been paid for a twelvemonth, and said it would be his ruin. Miss Phebus was in the hall, and seemed to have been having it out with him. She was a light-haired, bony lady of thirty-five, or so, and had made a rare good gipsy that day in the tent. Her eyes were peculiar: green in some lights, yellow in others: a frightfully hard look they had in them this morning.
“Oh, Mr. Todhetley, I am so glad to see you!” she said. “It is a cruel turn that the Clement–Pells have served me, leaving me here without warning, to bear the brunt of all this! Have you come in the interests of the family?”
“I’ve come after my own interests, ma’am,” returned the Pater. “To find out, if I can, where Clement–Pell has gone to: and to see if I can get back any of the money I have been done out of.”
“Why, it seems every one must be a creditor!” she exclaimed in surprise, on hearing this.
“I know I am one,” was his answer.
“To serve me such a trick — to behave to me with this duplicity: it is infamous,” went on Miss Phebus, after she had related to us the chief events of the Sunday, as connected with the story of the dying uncle and the telegram. “If I get the chance, I will have the law against them, Mr. Todhetley.”
“It is what a few more of us mean to do, ma’am,” he answered.
“They owe me forty pounds. Yes, Mr. Duffham, it is forty pounds: and I cannot afford to lose it. Mrs. Pell has put me off from time to time: and I supposed it to be all right; I suspected nothing. They have not treated me well lately, either. Leaving me here to take care of the house while they were enjoying themselves up in Kensington! I had a great mind to give warning then. The German governess got offended while they were in town, and left. Some friend of Fabian Pell’s was rude to her.”
A little man looked into the room just then; noting down the furniture with his eye. “None of these here articles must be moved, you understand, mum,” he said to Miss Phebus.
“Don’t talk to me,” she answered wrathfully. “I am going out of the house as soon as I can put my things together.” And the man went away.
“If I had only suspected!” she resumed to us, her angry tone full of pain; “and I think I might have done so, had I exercised my wits. My room is next to Mrs. Pell’s; but it’s not much larger than a closet, and has no fireplace in it: she only gave it me because it was not good enough for any one else. Saturday night was very hot — as you must remember — and I could not sleep. The window was open, but the room felt like an oven. After tossing about for I don’t know how long, I got up and opened the door, thinking it might admit a breath of air. At that moment I heard sounds below — the quiet shutting of a door, and advancing footsteps. Wondering who could be up so late, I peeped out and saw Mrs. Pell. She came up softly, a candle in her hand, and her face quite curious and altered — aged and pale and haggard. She must be afraid of the ghosts, I thought to myself, as she turned off into her chamber — for we had been telling ghost-stories that night up to bed-time. After that, I did not get to sleep; not, as it seemed, for hours; and all the time I heard drawers being opened and shut in her bed and dressing-room. She must even then have been preparing for flight.”
“And the dying uncle was invented for the occasion, I presume,” remarked Mr. Duffham.
“All I know is, I never heard of an uncle before,” she tartly answered. “I asked Mrs. Clement–Pell on Sunday night where the uncle lived, and how long a journey they had to go: she answered shortly that he was at his country house, and bade me not tease her. Mr. Duffham, can my own boxes be stopped?”
“I should think no one would attempt to do it,” he answered. “But I’d get them out as soon as I could, were I you, Miss Phebus.”
“What a wreck it will be!” she exclaimed.
“You have used the right word, ma’am,” put in Mr. Brandon, who had left his horse outside. “And not only here. Wrecks they will be; and many of them.”
We stood looking at one another ruefully. The Pater had come to hunt up his two hundred pounds; but there did not seem much chance of his doing it. “Look here,” said he suddenly to the governess, “where was that telegram sent from?”
“We have not been able to discover. It was only seen by Mrs. Pell. After she had read it aloud, she crushed it up in her hand, as if in frightful distress, and called out about the poor dear old uncle. She took care it should not be seen: we may be very sure of that.”
“But who sent the telegram?”
“I don’t know,” said Miss Phebus viciously. “Her husband, no doubt. Neither was the luggage that they took with them labelled: we have remembered the fact since.”
“I think we might track them by that luggage,” observed the Pater. “Five big boxes.”
“If you do track them by it I’ll eat the luggage wholesale,” cried wise old Brandon. “Clement–Pell’s not a fool, or his wife either. They’ll go off just in the opposite direction that they appeared to go — and their boxes in another. As to Pell, he was probably unknown at the distant station the groom drove him to.”
There was no end to be served in staying longer at the house, and we quitted it, leaving poor Miss Phebus to her temper. I had never much liked her; but I could not help feeling for her that unlucky morning.
“What’s to be done now?” gloomily cried the Squire, while old Brandon was mounting. “It’s like being in a wood that you can’t get out of. If Clement–Pell had played an honest part with me: if he had come and said, ‘Mr. Todhetley, I am in sore need of a little help,’ and told me a bit about things: I don’t say that I would have refused him the money. But to dupe me out of it in the specious way he did was nothing short of swindling; and I will bring him to book for it if I can.”
That day was only the beginning of sorrow. There have been such cases since: perhaps worse; where a sort of wholesale ruin has fallen upon a neighbourhood: but none, to me, have equalled that. It was the first calamity of the kind in my experience; and in all things, whether of joy or sorrow, our earliest impressions are the most vivid. It is the first step that costs, the French tell us: and that is true of all things.
The ruin turned out to be wider even than was feared; the distress greater. Some had only lost part of their superfluous cash. It was mortifying; but it did not further affect their prosperity, or take from them the means of livelihood; no luxuries need be given up, or any servants dispensed with. Others had invested so much that it would throw them back years, perhaps cripple them for life. Pitiable enough, that, but not the worst. It was as nothing to those who had lost their all.
People made it their business to find out more about Mr. and Mrs. Clement–Pell than had been known before. Both were of quite obscure origin, it turned out, and he had not been a lawyer in London, but only a lawyer’s clerk. So much the more credit to him for getting on to be something better. If he had only had the sense to let well alone! But she? — well, all I mean to say here, is this: the farmers she had turned up her nose at were far, far better born and bred, even the smallest of them, than she was. Let that go: other women have been just as foolishly upstart as Mrs. Clement–Pell. One fact came out that I think riled the public worse than any other: that his Christian name was Clement and his surname Pell. He had united the two when growing into a great man, and put a “J.” before the Clement, which had no right there. Mr. Brandon had known it all along — at least he chanced to know that in early life his name was simply Clement Pell. The Squire, when he heard of this, went into a storm of reproach at old Brandon, because he had not told it.
“Nay, why should I have sought to do the man an injury?” remonstrated Mr. Brandon. “It was no business of mine, that I should interfere. We must live and let live, Squire, if we care to go through the world peaceably.”
The days went on, swelling the list of creditors who came forward to declare themselves. The wonder was, that so many had been taken in. But you see, people had not made it their business to proclaim that their money lay with Clement–Pell. Gentlefolk who lived on their fortunes; professional men of all classes, including the clergy; commercial men of high and low degree; small tradespeople; widows with slender incomes, and spinsters with less. If Clement–Pell had taken the money of these people, not intentionally to swindle them, as the Squire put it in regard to his own, but only knowing there was a chance that it would not be safe, he must have been a hard and cruel man. I think the cries of the defrauded of that unhappy time must have gone direct to heaven.
He was not spared. Could hard words injure an absentee, Clement–Pell must have come in for all sorts of harm. His ears burned, I should fancy — if there’s any truth in the saying that ears burn when distant friends give pepper. The queerest fact was, that no money seemed to be left. Of the millions that Clement–Pell had been worth, or had had to play with, nothing remained. It was inconceivable. What had become of the stores? The hoards of gold; the chests, popularly supposed to be filled with it; the bank-notes; the floating capital — where was it all? No one could tell. People gazed at each other with dismayed faces as they asked it. Bit by bit, the awful embarrassment in which he had been plunged for years came to light. The fictitious capital he had created had consumed itself: and the good money of the public had gone with it. Of course he had made himself secure and carried off loads, said the maddened creditors. But they might have been mistaken there.
For a week or two confusion reigned. Accountants set to work in a fog; official assignees strove to come to the bottom of the muddy waters. There existed some of what people called securities; but they were so hemmed in by claims that the only result would be that there would not be anything for any one. Clement–Pell had done well to escape, or the unhappy victims had certainly tarred and feathered him. All that time he was being searched for, and not a clue could be obtained to him. Stranger perhaps to say, there was no clue to his wife and daughters either. The five boxes had disappeared. It was ascertained that certain boxes, answering to the description, had been sent to London on the Monday from a populous station by a quick train, and were claimed at the London terminus by a gentleman who did not bear any resemblance to Clement–Pell. I’m sure the excitement of the affair was something before unknown to the Squire, as he raged up hill and down dale in the August weather, and it must have been as good as a course of Turkish baths to him.
Ah me! it is all very well to write of it in a light strain at this distance of time; but God alone knows how many hearts were broken by it.
One of the worst cases was poor Jacob Palmerby’s. He had saved money that brought him in about a hundred a year in his old age. Clement–Pell got hold of the money, doubled the interest, and Palmerby thought that a golden era had set in. For several years now he had enjoyed it. His wife was dead; his only son, who had been a sizar at Cambridge, was a curate in London. With the bursting up of Clement–Pell, Jacob Palmerby’s means failed: he had literally not a sixpence left in the world. The blow seemed to have struck him stupid. He mostly sat in silence, his head down; his clothes neglected.
“Come, Palmerby, you must cheer up, you know,” said the Squire to him one evening that we looked in at Rock Cottage, and found Mr. Brandon there.
“Me cheer up,” he returned, lifting his face for a moment — and in the last fortnight it had grown ten years older. “What am I to cheer up for? There’s nothing left. I can go into the workhouse — but there’s poor Michael.”
“My son, the parson. The capital that ought to have been his after me, and brought him in his hundred a year, as it did me before I drew it from the funds, is gone. Gone. It is of him I think. He has been a good son always. I hope he won’t take to cursing me.”
“Parsons don’t curse, you know, and Michael will be a good son still,” said Mr. Brandon, shrilly. “Don’t you fret, Palmerby. Fretting does no good.”
“It ‘ud wear out a donkey — as I tell him,” put in the old woman-servant, Nanny, who had brought in his supper of bread-and-milk.
He did not lift his head; just swayed it once from side to side by way of general response.
“It’s the way he goes on all day, masters,” whispered Nanny when we went out. “His heart’s a-breaking — and I wish it was that knave of a Pell’s instead. All these purty flowers to be left,” pointing to the clusters of roses and geraniums and honeysuckles within the gate, “and the chairs and tables to be sold, and the very beds to be took from under us!”
“Nay, nay, Nanny, it may turn out better than that,” spoke the Squire.
“Why, how can it turn out better, sirs?” she asked. “Pell didn’t pay the dividends this two times past: and the master, believing as all his excuses was gospel, never thought of pressing for it. If we be in debt to the landlord and others, is it our fault? But the sticks and stones must be sold to pay, and the place be given up. There be the work’us for me; I know that, and it don’t much matter; but it’ll be a crying shame if the poor master have to move into it.”
So it would be. And there were others in a similar plight to his; nothing else but the workhouse before them.
“He won’t never live to go — that’s one consolation,” was Nanny’s last comment as she held the gate open. “Good evening to ye, sirs; good evening, Master Johnny.”
What with talking to Dobbs the blacksmith, and staying with Duffham to drink what he called a dish of tea, it was almost dark when I set out home; the Squire and Mr. Brandon having gone off without me. I was vaulting over the stile the near way across the fields, expecting to catch it for staying, when a man shot into my path from behind the hedge.
Well, I did feel surprised. It was Gusty Pell!
“Halloa!” said I. “I thought you were in Scotland.”
“I was there,” he answered. And then, while we looked at one another, he began to tell me the reason of his coming away. Why it is that all kinds of people seem to put confidence in me and trust me with matters they’d never speak of to others, I have never found out. Had it been Tod, for instance, Gusty Pell would never have shown himself out of the hedge to talk to him.
Gusty, shooting the grouse on the moors, had found his purse emptied of its last coin. He wrote to his father for more money: wrote and wrote; but none arrived: neither money nor letter. Being particularly in want of supplies, he borrowed a sovereign or two from his friends, and came off direct to see the reason why. Arrived within a few miles of home he heard very ugly rumours; stories that startled him. So he waited and came on by night, thinking it more prudent not to show himself.
“Tell me all about it, Johnny Ludlow, for the love of goodness!” he cried, his voice a little hoarse with agitation, his hand grasping my arm like a vice. “I have been taking a look at the place outside”— pointing up the road towards Parrifer Hall —“but it seems to be empty.”
It was empty, except for a man who had charge of the things until the sale could take place. Softening the narrative a little, and not calling everything by the name the public called it, I gave the facts to Gusty.
He drew a deep breath at the end, like a hundred sighs in one. Then I asked him how it was he had not heard these things — had not been written to.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I have been moving about Scotland: perhaps a letter of theirs may have miscarried; and I suppose my later letters did not reach them. The last letter I had was from Constance, giving me an account of some grand fête here that had taken place the previous day.”
“Yes. I was at it with Todhetley and the Whitneys. The — the crisis came three or four days after that.”
“Johnny, where’s my father?” he asked, after a pause, his voice sunk to a whisper.
“It is not known where he is.”
“Is it true that he is being — looked for?”
“I am afraid it is.”
“And, if they find him — what then? Why don’t you speak?” he added impatiently.
“I don’t know what. Some people say it will only be a bad case of bankruptcy.”
“Any way, it is a complete smash.”
“Yes, it’s that.”
“Will it, do you think, be ruin, Johnny? Ruin utter and unmitigated?”
“It is that already — to many persons round about.”
“But I mean to my own people,” said he, impatiently.
“Well, I should fear it would be.”
Gusty took off his hat to wipe his brow. He looked white in the starlight.
“What will become of me? I must fly too,” he muttered, as if to the stars. “And what of Fabian? — he cannot remain in his regiment. Johnny Ludlow, this blow is like death to me.”
And it struck me that of the two calamities, Gusty Pell, non-religious though he was, would rather have met death. I felt dreadfully sorry for him.
“Where’s James?” he suddenly asked. “Is he gone too?”
“James disappeared on the Sunday, it is said. It would hardly have been safe for him to remain: the popular feeling is very bitter.”
“Well, I must make myself scarce again also,” he said, after a pause. “Could you lend me a pound or so, Johnny, if you’ve got it about you?”
I told him I wished I had; he should have been heartily welcome to it. Pulling out my pockets, I counted it all up — two shillings and fivepence. Gusty turned from it with disdain.
“Well, good evening, Johnny. Thank you for your good wishes — and for telling me what you have. I don’t know to whom else I could have applied: and I am glad to have chanced to meet you.”
He gave another deep sigh, shook my hand, got over the stile, and crept away, keeping close to the hedge, as if he intended to make for Alcester, I stood and watched him until he was lost in the shadows.
And so the Pells, one and all, went into exile in some unknown region, and the poor duped people stayed to face their ruin at home. It was an awful time, and that’s the truth.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55