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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter XV

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Chapter XV.

‘This is the curse of life, that not
 Another calmer train
Of wiser thoughts and feelings blot
 Our passions from our brain;
But each day brings its petty dust
 Our soon-choked souls to fill,
And we forget because we must,
 And not because we will.'

Matthew Arnold.

Whether sleep had cleared his ideas or not, Mr. Wishart did not allow the morning to pass over without addressing himself to the question Mrs. Meade had pressed on his notice with such earnestness. No sooner had he seen Stephen out of his door, with the reflection that possibly another person might soon be sent after him, than he determined to cross-examine Randall at once. It happened that Randall was coming to him with the intention of saving him that trouble. They met at the door of Mr. Wishart's room.

‘Oh, come in, I want you,’ he cried. ‘You have something to tell me, haven't you?’

‘Yes, I was looking for you with that purpose,’ said Randall.

Mr. Wishart put on a look proper for a man who thinks his kindness has been abused, and page 278 although he felt he could not keep it up, began in a dignified tone. ‘Now, Randall, I have been mistaken in you. You had no right to come into my house as a stranger when, as it appears, you were nothing of the kind—to one of us at least. I think you ought to have told us—though you might not have liked to do so, it would have been better than living here under false pretences.’

‘False pretences!’ said Randall, resenting the expression.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Wishart, beginning to slide down from his pinnacle of dignity, ‘perhaps I put things a little too strongly; but that is how it looks to me. You owe me an explanation in any case.’

‘And that is what I wish to give you,’ said Randall. ‘If I have deceived any one it has been unintentionally. I came here as a stranger, you say. I expected to find only strangers here. If you put yourself in my place you will feel that I could not have made myself known without speaking of things, not only very painful to me—perhaps that would not have mattered—but much more so to the only other person who knew them, and who might wish them to be entirely forgotten.’

‘I understand. It was another's secret as well as yours. But surely you knew before you came into this house that Miss Desmond and I were related by marriage. Knowing her and her mother so well as you must have done, you ought to have been aware of that.’

‘No; I did not know that Mrs. Desmond had page 279 married again until after I came here. Since I left England I have heard nothing of the family.’

‘You soon found out how it was, though. Was it fair to remain here?’

‘You should at least do me the justice to acknowledge that I wished to go.’

‘Yes, I'll acknowledge that you wanted to hurry away before your work was done, but I had no difficulty in persuading you to stay,’ answered Mr. Wishart, with a smile. ‘But that is of no moment now,’ he added, looking serious and dignified again. ‘You know, of course, that Miss Desmond is not my sister, nor indeed any relation of mine; but for a long while we have been as brother and sister to one another. I think this secret we have just spoken of is the only thing she has ever hidden from me. She told me a little last night, but I want to know all. I could not urge her to say more. You ought not to require urging. It seems that once there was an engagement between you, and that your conduct caused it to be broken. Now, I tell you plainly that if in any way you made yourself unworthy of her, no matter how much I have liked you—how much I like you now—you shall never come near her again, if I can prevent it. She is so much my sister that it is my duty to take care of her, and for her sake I must know all about you.’

‘Mr. Wishart,’ said the other, not angrily, but with the voice of the voice of one who with difficulty controlled himself, ‘do you think that I would not do as much page 280 for her as you? If I am unworthy do not fear that I shall ever try to bring myself to her remembrance again. Have I not offered to go? am I not going now? But you shall know everything; I will keep nothing back. I would rather tell you my whole history than a part.’

‘Randall, I don't mean to be unkind,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘However it may turn out, we won't part so hastily as you think. No, I like you too well for that. I shall, try to prove to you that I'm your friend. I can help you, I am sure. But you can't complain that I have my sister's welfare at heart. You must see that you can't ask her to share your fortunes.’

‘No, truly, I don't want her to share my misfortunes, you might have said.’

‘And is she to wait for good-fortune to come to you?’

‘Not unless she pleases. If what I am about to stake everything on does not succeed by the end of the next four years, I promise you that she shall never see or hear of me again. And during that time she shall not hear of me; for I would not have her wait for what may never come. The obligation shall be all on my side.’

‘You speak frankly enough,’ said Mr. Wishart. I was to hear all about you, though. Come outside for a walk, and tell it to me.’

They went out, and while they leisurely followed the road through the bush, passing by the very place where they had first seen each other, Randall told his story.

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‘You never knew my father, I believe, but you may have heard of him. He was senior partner in the firm of Randall and Haughton, an old business house. His father and grandfather before him had belonged to the same firm. The business was a large one, and Mr. Haughton and my father were supposed to be wealthy. And so they must have been for several years after I was born.

‘My father had a house near London—I daresay it is in London now. It was a beautiful old-fashioned place, and it had belonged to our family for more than a hundred years. It is lost how. Mr. and Mrs. Desmond were near neighbours and friends of ours. Your sister and mine were playmates; I might say the three of us were playmates, for I was only a boy then, and we were nearly always together. But after her husband's death Mrs. Desmond went to live in the country—’

‘Yes, to live near my father's house,’ interrupted Mr. Wishart; ‘and then, although I was a hobbledehoy of more than seventeen, Maud and I were playmates. But I beg your pardon; go on.’

‘Then,’ continued Randall, ‘we only met at intervals, generally at Mr. Richard Desmond's, your sister's uncle, who lived in town.’

‘I knew him,’ said Mr. Wishart, ‘only a little, but quite as much as I wished.’

‘From what I can remember I don't think my father gave much attention to his business in the city. Music was the business of his life. I have page 282 heard him say that there had always been a musician in the family.’

‘We have had some proof of that,’ said Mr. Wishart.

‘He had studied music as a science, and understood it thoroughly. He played well on three or four different instruments, but best on the violin. Some of his compositions are well known, though he would never have them published: he was contented with distributing them amongst his friends. He delighted in teaching me, and when I was old enough he sent me abroad to study under the best masters. I don't know which pleased me most when I was a child—to listen to his playin, or to have my mother sing to me. She had a delightful voice; the first thing I can remember is hearing her sing.’

‘It seems to me you were brought up with music and song,’ said Mr. Wishart.

‘Oh, that part of my life seems the pleasantest of all when I look back on it. It did not last long. I went to Cambridge when I was eighteen, and when I came home again for the first time, our home was no longer the same.

‘Till this time, if we had not been actually extravagant, it had always appeared as if everything which could be bought with money was at our command, and we had never dreamed of the probability of an ending to such an easy and luxurious way of life. Now, for the first time, my page 283 father began to be troubled about money matters. Want of attention to the business, which had been managed, and not managed well by his partner, had resulted as might have been foreseen. The firm was thrown into the shade by others more enterprising, the business began to grow less, and when Mr. Haughton died suddenly, his own affairs and those of the firm were found to be so inextricably entangled that no one could say exactly whether he had been honest or not. My father was of the opinion that he had been only a most inveterate blunderer. It came to pass, however, from his blundering that the house was on the brink of ruin.

‘No man could have worked harder to save it than my father did from this time. He had never liked business; but now he gave all his time and thought to it; he bent his whole energies on the work. The dread of the disgrace of bankruptcy was always in his mind; he changed greatly, he became gloomy and silent, and in a few months he seemed to grow old and careworn. Still I believe he would have succeeded in clearing himself had more time been allowed. He struggled bravely against misfortune, but it broke his heart at last. The failure of a business house with which he had connections hastened his own—and then—a few weeks after—he died.

‘I was just of age. Long before, my father had been accustomed to tell me, when he was in a pleasant mood, what should be done when that time page 284 came. I cannot help but like him better when I remember his fancies, though others might smile at them. He would talk of the wines that were waiting for that day in some cobwebbed cellar; of the feast that should be made ready; how open house should be kept for all who might please to come, and how some sort of a musical festival should be provided for their entertainment. This last idea was the one he most delighted in and talked of oftenest. Well, I suppose the rare wines have been drunk by some one long ago, but not at such a banquet as he dreamed of. There was mourning in our house that day, instead of feasting. Our house! it was ours no longer; we had nothing in the world; everything was assigned to the creditors, who proceeded to realise the estate with as much haste as could be made. Some of them, however, behaved very kindly to us. They had the more right to do so, as, in the end, my father's properly satisfied their claims to the last penny.

‘I cannot think of this, even now, without indignation. They had driven him into what they called a bankruptcy when in reality he was perfectly solvent. He had no debts of his own; the liabilities belonged to the firm: on the other hand, most of the assets were represented by his private property, which was given up to the creditors, even to the family plate and jewellery. He had filled his house with valuable collections: rare books and manu- page 285 scripts, engravings, paintings, old furniture, and plate: all these were scattered. They sold for unheard-of prices; and it was this part of his property, which no one had thought of but himself, and which perhaps he had never valued at the immense sum it brought at the sale, that saved us. We were left without a shilling; but we had one thing to be thankful for—we were free of every obligation, and though the old firm had ended in disaster it left no debts behind it.

‘Our best friend was a Mr. Moresby, who had been intimate with us for years. He loaded us with kindnesses. He took me into his office, and promised to do all in his power for me. He had bought our house; but, as he did not wish to occupy it at once, he begged that my mother would continue to live there for some time. Through him also, as I found out afterwards, many things we had prized but had to been able to keep, were returned to us. There was a motive for these kindnesses, though we did not suspect it. I thought he was generous to us because he had been my father's friend. That may have been one reason, but there was another.

‘I have told you that I had a sister. I could not tell you how much she was to us—how beautiful, how clever—how proud we were of her. It was impossible to know her and not to love her. She was the other reason. Others beside Mr. Moresby would have befriended us for her sake, and page 286 for her he would have given us much more than we could ever have accepted.

‘I was with him for nearly a year, and all that time he treated me like a favourite. He gave me a high salary, he advanced me over the heads of men who had served him as many years as I had months, and he promised me a better and more independent position as soon as I understood the business. The firm had a branch house in Marseilles, which was managed by a distant relative of Mr. Moresby, called Edwards. Edwards was half a Frenchman; his parents were English, but he had been born in France, and was a naturalised subject of that country. Mr. Moresby proposed that I should go to Marseilles, and after I had gained experience, take the place of Edwards, who, it was expected, would leave the office after his approaching marriage to a rich lady, the widow of a merchant of Marseilles. I was eager to go. I should have grasped at anything which had seemed to bring me nearer to the end I longed for. I was in haste to be rich. I hated business—it had never been intended that I should meddle with it—but I was determined to work as hard as I could, so that I might escape from it all the sooner. I think I did work hard, too. They wondered at the quickness with which I learnt every detail of the business; this, too, when I had come into the office ignorant of nearly everything that could be of use to me there.

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‘Before I went to Marseilles my mother told me that Mr. Moresby had made an offer of marriage to my sister. I felt offended as well as surprised. He was between forty-five and fifty; my sister was hardly eighteen. The disparity between their ages was not the only thing to be considered; he was singular in his habits, gloomy and morose, a man whose life had been spent in money making, and who, now that he had made it, was not able to enjoy his money. The proposal was refused, as might have been expected, but there was no change in his friendship—he continued to be the most frequent visitor at our house, and to me he was kinder than ever.

‘I liked my new place under Mr. Edwards very much. There was nothing English about him but his name, unless, as his friends said, it was his face, which was round and red, and had the stolid expression of selfish good-nature which appears in French caricatures of an Englishman. He had even succeeded in forgetting his mother-tongue. This however was no hindrance to our becoming intimate; for, having lived for some years in Paris when quite young, I spoke French almost as well as my own language.

‘Mr. Edwards looked stupid in the face: he was anything but that in reality, as most persons found out who dealt with him. He had been clever enough to have made a tolerable fortune—out of nothing, apparently, for his salary had never been large, and page 288 he had seemed to live to the full extent of his means. The explanation of this riddle lay in the fact that, like many Frenchmen of his class, he gambled in the share market. He was very adroit, this little French-Englishman; so that stocks rose and fell, it seemed, only for his advantage, and he was never too late in selling out or too rash in buying. He thought it a great proof of his friendship to teach me this dangerous business, and at first I thought so too. I bought and sold when he told me, and I was usually successful.

‘You can guess how this is going to end. I was in a position of great trust. I was treated by Edwards not as a subordinate but as one who had as much authority in the office as himself. Perhaps he thought he was pleasing Mr. Moresby in this. I was left to myself in the midst of dangerous opportunities and temptations which to one in my position were very strong. I do not wish to make excuses for myself; I have none to make, except this one that has been made for hundreds of others who have committed the same fault as mine. I was very young and very ignorant. I might add also that my only friend and adviser was a man of the sort with whom honesty means expediency.

‘I can't tell you how I was led into using money that was not my own, nor how I deluded myself into believing that what I purposed to do was not dishonest. I suppose every one who yields to such a temptation find arguments in plenty to satisfy page 289 himself that he is doing nothing amiss. It is so easy to deceive oneself, and, while it lasts, self-deception is so pleasant. Mine lasted only a short time. I knew that I was a thief, and then my agony for what I had done, and the position in which I had placed myself, was so great that I felt as if I should die if I kept it to myself. I went to Edwards and told him all. I felt covered with shame; but he, after he had listened to me gravely, not in the least affected as I stammered out my tale, looked at me and laughed.

‘“My dear Henry,” he said, “you are very young. You take things too seriously, you are too ready to despair. Take courage, my young friend, this is not going to ruin you. It is a common fault; it happens every day. What! is this misplacement, we will call it, of a paltry sum to bring disgrace upon your head? You will replace it, of course.” I vowed that I would. I could not. We had been fortunate in our speculations until this time; now we began to lose heavily, for me at least, who had staked everything, even reputation itself, itself, on this last chance. Yet if I had made a thousand fortunes by my ventures they would not have been worth the tortures I suffered; the thought of my disgrace and the dread of exposure; the wearying and incessant strain of excitement.

‘It came to an end at last. When the discovery was made I did the most foolish thing possible—I ran away. I hid myself in London, in the house of page 290 one of our old servants. I wrote to my mother, determined that I would tell her myself what I had done. Unfortunately she was not at home; she had gone to stay with a friend who was dangerously ill. My sister opened my letter, as she had been directed to do. She did not hesitate a moment, but took the next train to London, and went to entreat Mr. Moresby to save me from exposure. Do you think any one could have denied her request, he least of all when she came to him in tears, and begged for my pardon; when in her excitement she threw herself before him, and held his hand, refusing to let it go until he had given her his promise? Oh yes, then he could be generous! But he set a price upon his generosity, and it was a high one—it was herself.

‘If you think all this improbable, you must remember she was only a girl of eighteen, and as ignorant of the world as she was superior to its craft. My letter, written in the height of my despair, had driven her nearly frantic, and she was proud and high-spirited enough to think disgrace worse than death. She gave herself away without stopping to consider, and her promise once given was fixed. When I read her letter telling me at what a sacrifice she had saved me I think I went mad.

‘I had been going about from place to place, so I did not receive the letter for several weeks after it had been written. I found it waiting for me when I returned to my first hiding-place. I went to Mr. page 291 Moresby at once; he refused to see me, he would not allow me even to come into his office, and my letters were returned to me unread. I hurried down into the country, where my sister and mother were living then. They were gone to Brighton, I was told. I followed them. I was resolved to prevent the marriage by some means. I found the hotel where they were staying, and just as I had reached the door I saw the carriages returning from a wedding. I saw her, looking more like a child than ever in her white dress, and I saw him beside her, a gray-haired, elderly man. She knew me across the street, and, as they passed me, she turned her face away and burst into tears.

‘I could not bring myself to go to her or to my mother, though I longed to do so. Mr. Moresby wrote to me, offering to reinstate me in my place, declaring that he forgave me. I could not forgive him. I would take nothing more from him. I was thoroughly reckless now. I had no money, and I had no character. My sister had thought to hide my disgrace, but all who knew me had heard the story. I do not know where I should have gone, or what I should have become, if I had not met with one friend who was not ashamed to own me. I had known him at Cambridge, but had not been very intimate with him—indeed, I and my companions had been accustomed to make him the butt of our small jokes, and had looked down on him as a simple, odd kind of fellow, too eccentric to be anything but page 292 amusing when we had nothing better to amuse ourselves with. Now he can afford to smile at us in his turn; the simple fellow whom we thought so dull has left all those who laughed at him far behind. Sometimes I wonder if, in his busy public life, he finds time to think of us and the foolish tricks we played on him. Most likely he has forgotten long ago how he helped me when he found me out in my trouble. He advised me to go to one of the colonies, and he spoke of New Zealand because he happened to have a relative there, to whom he promised me a letter of recommendation. He lent me my passage-money, he went with me on board the ship, and he was the only one to whom I could say good-bye when I left England. I wrote to tell my mother and sister where I was going. There was no one else to tell. I had no longer any right to think that your sister would wish to hear of me again. Mrs. Desmond had, written to me, insisting that the engagement must be broken, and I felt that she was right. She had never approved of it since my father's death.

‘I had a place found for me as soon as I presented the letter from my friend. I was the bookkeeper in Trevet and Stapleton's, and for some time I kept the situation; long enough to return to Mr. Moresby most of the money I had taken. I paid the rest afterwards. But I soon found that my disgrace had followed me even here. Some one who had known me a little in England had brought out the story, page 293 and, as if it was not bad enough in itself, had made additions of his own. It was whispered about. My employers heard it, and though they had no cause to complain, they “kept their eye on me,” as they said. Those who watch a man closely will find grounds for suspicion in the end. They lost money by one of their clerks, and they were only too ready to believe that I was the guilty one. What could I do? I could not prove that I had not taken it, and though I had my own suspicions, I could not accuse another on suspicion only. There was that old fault of mine, which they all knew of weighing heavily in the balance against me. It ruined me a second time. I was dismissed, and reminded that I only escaped severer punishment because of the merciful forbearance of Messrs. Trevet and Stapleton. I believe it was Mr. Stapleton's; the quality of Mr. Trevet's mercy was very inferior. After this there was no possibility of obtaining another situation in the same town.

‘That was nearly six years ago. It would take a long time to tell you how I spent those years. I went from place to place. I tried first one occupation and then anther. I found it very easy to make a living, and after a time I gave up caring to do more. I liked a wandering life, and so I have, I should think, walked some thousands of miles in Australia and Tasmania, as well as in New Zealand. It was a rough life; but I liked in for the constant change, the beautiful scenery which was often around me, page 294 and the pleasure of living so much in the open air under the clear skies of a fine climate. And it seemed to me, from the free and hospitable manners of the people, that I had a friend in every house I came to. Such a life has many pleasures for one who had good health, and is not too fastidious, and does not trouble himself with the thought that he might employ his time in a better manner.

‘You know what my life has been for the last year or two. This is all that I need tell you. I have kept nothing back which I could wish to hide from you. You know the worst of me. I was foolish and guilty once; but since that time, though I have been in greater straits and temptations, I have done nothing of which I am ashamed. That is what I wish you to believe of me.’

‘Yes; I believe you have told me the truth,’ said Mr. Wishart, ‘and I am almost sorry to have made you talk of old troubles again. It is wisest to “let the dead past bury its dead.” I think Mr. Edwards was right, though he ought to have given you good advice as well, when he said you were too excitable and too ready to despair. That old giant Despair is a terrible fellow to encounter, and you know that many have died in his dungeons. But come, we have talked enough for one day. You are not going away just yet either, as soon as we have found you out.’

Mr. Wishart gave Randall the benefit of his advice while they walked about together. Who does page 295 not like to advise? It is to be questioned whether middle-aged and elderly people especially like any thing else half so well. Mr. Wishart thought his advice had been dictated by good sound sense; and feeling happy because he had been able to give it, went to tell his sister what had been said. Mrs. Meade was reading her novel, and as it was very affecting, crying over it, in which melting mood her brother found her.

‘What! in tears?’ he cried, in his loudest voice—he had a loud voice when he was in good spirits, and not specially careful to moderate it. ‘This is a day for smiles and congratulations.’

‘Congratulations?’ said Mrs.: Meade, gently mopping her pale-coloured eyes. ‘Have you come to tell me the date of your wedding-day, or something of that kind?’

‘Alas! no; my wedding-day is still involved in doubt and uncertainty. But four years hence—’.

‘Four years! Algernon, are you crazy? As if the engagement was not long enough already! Of course, Violet is still very young; but you are old enough, I should think.’

‘Yes; I am old, as you consolingly remark, my dear sister—very old; but the people who are thinking of a four years’ extension of an engagement are not quite so aged as to be afraid to wait so long.’

‘The people—what people?’

‘Eleanor, much novel-reading has turned your brain.’

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‘If you mean Maud, and if you have allowed her to engage herself to Mr. Randall, you have acted very unwisely. Oh, Algy, how could you! You ought to have reasoned with her, and persuaded her to send him away; you have more influence than I have; she has always thought so much of you.’

‘My influence only extends to a certain point. If I tried to strain it beyond that I might reason till doomsday and do no good. Besides, have I any right to control her? She is of age, remember, and able to judge for herself. And I don't perceive anything so very bad about the poor fellow whom you would have me hunt from my doors.’

‘He must have disgraced himself in some way.’

‘Yes; and he has told me how. He made a false step at the beginning of his career, and has been severely punished for it. But if Maud can forgive that fault, and if, during the time of probation which has been granted to him, he shows himself to be really worthy of her, I can't see what right we have to object.’

‘So they were engaged years ago,’ said Mrs. Meade thoughtfully. ‘I remember hearing that there had been some foolish affair of the kind when Maud was a girl of seventeen or eighteen; but I was never told the gentleman's name. It must have been when John and I were in India, and you had gone out to New Zealand. Maud never said a word about it to me: she is like her mother; a woman you'd like to tell your own secrets to, but who page 297 wouldn't for the world let you have one of hers. They never spoke of it. And since then what splendid chances she has thrown away!’

‘Splendid in the opinion of others,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘This young lad is not likel to marry a man of another person's choosing.’

‘What are they going to live on, I wonder? She loses her fortune if she marries. Does he know that?’

‘He does know it. They will live on what he can make for himself.’

‘I never heard anything so preposterous! Who would ever think of Maud as a poor man's wife? Why, she doesn't know the value of money—it has been so common with her all her life. And she would be miserable if she hadn't plenty to give away.’

‘Well, perhaps they won't be so very poor,’ said Mr. Wishart. ‘People have made a good deal out of music, you know.’

‘Oh, it is that, is it? He is a genius; but, so far as I know, geniuses are always wretchedly poor. I don't think he will ever get on.’

‘Yes it's an ill-thriven kind of thing, this genius, in the opinion of many people,’ said her brother, with a laugh. ‘I believe there are persons who, at the sound of the word, immediately have a vision of a sallow-faced, hollow-eyed, miserable wretch, in a coat out at elbows, and boots worn down at the heels with tramping the streets in search of a buyer for his useless talents. There are such poor fellows, of page 298 course; but I suspect that three-quarters of them haven't got the real thing at all, and that the remainder don't know what to do with it. They're idle, perhaps, or faint-hearted and timid, and a man who wants to “get on,” as you say, ought to be bold—very bold. It's not that genius is a drug in the market, for every century the world needs it more and more. It is only when it lies idle that we have a right to pity its owner. When genius puts its shoulder to the wheel there is nothing it may not do.’

‘Ah; but if this friend of ours shouldn't know what to do with his genius, or if it should turn out that he hasn't any?’

‘Why, then it is my belief that he will never come to tell us of his failure. He is too proud to make a parade of his misfortunes. If he should lose this chance we have seen the last of him.’