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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter XVI

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Chapter XVI.

‘Heute geh’ ich, komm' ioh wieder
Singen wir ganz andre Lieder.
Wo so viel sich hoffen lässt
Ist der’ Abschied ja ein Fest.


Although the day on which Randall had intended to depart was not his last at Mr. Wishart's, his kind host could not persuade him to stay for another week. He would not wait, though as yet the path which he must take was only dimly visible. The plans that he had formed, or that others had proposed to him, were involved in bewildering uncertainty. But one thing was plain—on his road standing still was as dangerous as turning back. ‘Shun delays, they breed remorse,’ an old writer says, amongst other excellent things. Of careless delay or of hesitation Randall had known too much.

He took his leave. The house he had left—which perhaps he would never visit again—dwindled to a small white patch amongst the trees; the forest-covered hills, dashed with sunshine and misty rain, grew lower and fainter in the distance. The train soon brought him into the throng of the town, in good time to fulfil an appointment he had made with page 300 his whimsical acquaintance, Professor Crasher. That gentleman had pressed Randall to visit him, and had made this offer of his hospitality so often and so warmly that to neglect it would have been inexcusable. Moreover, the Professor desired to introduce him to Virchow, a celebrated musician on his tour round the world, and it had been arranged that they should go together to one of his concerts.

It was in the cool of the evening when Randall, after a systematic exploration of several back-streets and by-lanes, in a populous but not a fashionable suburb, discovered the Professor's abode, a verandahed cottage, festooned with creepers which darkened the windows, and embowered in trees much too large for the little garden. It was so cool, now that the sun was declining, that it was surprising to find the Professor, who had a great affection for fireside comforts, outside, rapidly perambulating the garden and backyard bareheaded. At first he appeared to be taking violent exercise; then Randall conjectured that he and another man must be trying which could get round the house in the shortest space of time; then it became evident that the Professor wanted to get into the house, and that the other man was ambitious of attaining the same end, but was not particular as to means. The Professor, however, was desirous that his companion should stay outside. Now and again Mrs. Crasher, who also seemed to wish that her husband should come in, and that the stranger should remain where he was, would page 301 cautiously open a door for about three inches, and the Professor, notwithstanding the disadvantage of his weight, would dart towards it like an arrow from the bow. So also would his companion, and as he was a lanky man, with limbs which seemed to have been made for running, he always won the race, and, had not Mrs. Crasher invariably shut the door in the nick of time, would have been in, leaving the Professor in the cold blast.

They had been three times round the house, and at three different points of attack—the front door, the back door, and the kitchen window—had tried to effect an entrance, with discouraging results, when the unknown man retired to the wood-pile to sit upon it and rest, and Professor Crasher leaned against the verandah post and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. He happened to look towards the gate, and seeing Randall, hastened to meet him.

‘Very glad to see you,’ he cried, ‘though you find us in peculiar circumstances. But what of that? a friend is always welcome. If you can help me to get in without letting that long-legged scoundrel in as well, you shall be doubly welcome.’

‘He appears to be very active, unfortunately,’ said Randall.

‘He can run for any length of time without stopping,’ said the Professor. ‘I wouldn't bother about it just now; I'd stay here till he was tired, if I didn't want to go with you to hear Virchow, and I page 302 can't go in these clothes; I must dress myself suitably.’

An upstairs window was now opened, and Mrs. Crasher leaned out and invited the Professor to draw near.

‘I'm so afraid you'll catch cold, dear,’ she cried.

‘I've caught cold already,’ gloomily replied the Professor. ‘I can feel it coming on. Can't you throw out my hat? I should be more comfortable if I had it.’

Mrs. Crasher, threw out the hat, and the Professor put it on, at the same time favouring the man at the wood-pile with a glance which was meant to express utter indifference to whatever that person might choose to do.

‘My dear Randall,’ he said, as he carefully adjusted his hat, this is a cold reception; but if we can only get inside—Hallo! what does that stupid girl mean by opening the door? She will have the fellow in if she doesn't mind.’

The servant girl executed a very successful sally from the back door, and captured three billets of wood from the pile on which the man was sitting. He was politely anxious to carry them for her, which she would by no means allow. While they were skirmishing with each other, Randall suggested to the Professor that now was the time for them to make an attempt at the front of the house.

‘Nothing of the kind,’ said the Professor firmly. ‘He's watching us, and don't you see that he's at page 303 least three yards nearer to the corner of the house than we are? Such a start to a man of his activity means everything. You perceive the meaning of my unfortunate situation, I suppose?’

‘Why, yes, I think so,’ said Randall. It was all he could do to avoid smiling, and the Professor himself did not appear to be much saddened by the situation.

‘I am sorry to say,’ he observed, ‘that my affairs are not in such a flourishing state as I could wish. When one has a family of twelve to provide for it is a difficult task to live within one's income.’

‘I should think so indeed,’ replied Randall.

‘And then I fear—I really am afraid that I am not a very economical sort of person. Dear me! my opinion of economy is that its as disagreeable a business as a man can set himself to learn. There's something very ungentlemanly about it too; anyway it's repugnant to my nature. Many people say to me, “Crasher, you should give up this or that; such and such a thing is a luxury, not a necessary.” They can't understand that things which are called luxuries by the commonalty are indispensable to some natures. I couldn't live if I were deprived of everything but the bare necessaries of life. Why—will you believe it, my dear fellow?—some people have actually advised me to adopt another style of dress, to wear horrid ill-fitting clothes and big clumsy boots, to give up cigars, button-hole bouquets, and so on. I assure you that such persons, if I followed their advice, would soon have me walking about in page 304 a winding-sheet like a mummy cloth to save tailors’ bills. I say, I feel cold, don't you?’

‘It is unpleasantly cold under these trees,’ said Randall. ‘Why not make a dash just now and get in?’

‘I believe I will; the fellow is staring over the fence at that carriage in the street. Now!’

The man at the wood-pile saw them start, and rushed after them, but he was too late; the door closed in his face. The Professor could not deny himself the pleasure of looking out of the window and satirically smiling at his discomfited persecutor. ‘Aha, done you!’ he said. ‘I hope, my dear,’ he exclaimed to Mrs. Crasher, ‘that there is a good fire in the dining-room. I am chilled to the bone. I really feel for that poor man now I have got in. I suppose he's only doing his duty, and I'm sure it can't be a pleasant one on a day like this.’

Mrs. Crasher, who was a languid, pale-looking woman, replied that she had taken care there should be a good fire, and also that the dinner was ready, and had been waiting some time.

‘It shall wait no longer,’ said the Professor. ‘I have an appetite this evening.’

They went into the dining-room. Randall supposed that the majority of the family of twelve which the Professor had referred to must be still in the seclusion of the nursery, as only four young ladies, whose ages ranged from about sixteen to nine, sat down with them at dinner. The course of the page 305 dinner did not run smoothly. Mrs. Crasher was displeased because every dish was overdone or had got cold. The servant who waited at table had been so frightened by the burglarious attempts of the man in the yard that she was absent-minded, and made serious blunders in her ministrations. There were several alarms also, Mrs. Crasher continually fancying that some one was coming in by door or window. The Professor alone was serene and composed; as exuberant in his spirits, and eating with as good an appetite, as if there were no such things as bills of sale or executions in the world. His benevolence expanded with the warmth of the fire and the comfort of a dinner he had felt himself to be greatly in need of, and again he pitied the man outside.

‘Selina,’ he said to Mrs. Crasher, ‘don't you think we might send a plateful of something warm to that starved wretch? I suppose he won't go away yet. Is he there, Charlotte?’

‘He nearly got in just now, sir,’ answered the maid, ‘but I trapped his toe in the door.’

‘Oh, he wouldn't mind that; he's an enthusiast in his profession—a new hand most likely.’

‘I believe I hear him in the kitchen,’ said Mrs. Crasher.

‘You need not be afraid, Selina. I remember looking up the question when we had the same unpleasant affair before, and I believe he can't break into the house, and he'll have to go away at sunset.’

Charlotte was despatched with a plateful for the page 306 man—if he should not be in, Mrs. Crasher said; but the Professor observed that he might as well have it whether he were in or not, as he could not see what difference it made; sooner or later he would succeed in thi design. This proved true. Shortly afterwards a loud noise was heard from the kitchen, which in this suburban villa was by no means remote from the dining-room. There was a scuffle, a rush, a sound as if a door were being torn off its hinges, then the tramp of a heavy foot on the kitchen floor, and immediately after the servant girl darted into the room, crying, ‘Ma'am, he's in!’

‘Yes, I expected you would let him in, Charlotte,’ severely remarked Mrs. Crasher.

‘My dear, he was sure to get in,’ said the Professor. ‘I thought him a most extraordinary man for his perseverance.’

‘I couldn't help it,’ whimpered the servant. ‘I was obliged to fill the boiler or it would have bursted, and he squeezed past me all at once.’

‘Pooh! what does it matter?’ said the Professor. ‘Give the fellow a chair by the kitchen fire. We will have a little music, I think, Randall.’

He sat down to the piano and played till he thought it was time to dress for the concert. He had made some sort of a toilet before dinner, he now made another much more elaborate. To know how to dress with good taste, the Professor informed Randall, ought to be as much the accomplishment of every gentleman as it is allowed to be one of the page 307 many that are included in the making of a lady. As he said this he smiled, as if happy in the consciousness that he was an example of the fine art carried to perfection. ‘My dear fellow, pardon me,’ he said, ‘but at your age you should dress better. You should change your tailor.’ Professor Crasher's tailor was a man driven to desperation. He had as yet only been repaid by seeing how well his suits fitted the Professor. But the Professor advertised him continually.

They joined a stream of people going towards the music-hall. There was a crowd at the door, and a line of carriages along the street.

‘There will be a full house,’ said the Professor, ‘It is wonderful what audiences he draws. He has a fine talent, and it is wasted. They say that he is drinking himself to death, and that his agent Philimore has hard work to get through with him.’

‘Philimore?’ said Randall reflectively. ‘I had a friend who was called Philimore, and it is not a common name.’

‘There he is, talking to a very tall man. He towers head and shoulder above little Philimore.’

‘Little Philimore! that is what we used to call him. Yes, it is the same; how strange that he should be here!’

‘Why, for that matter, you are here too,’ said the Professor, ‘and so am I, and many another unlucky wight who never thought of vegetating in the colonies a few years ago. But here comes Virchow.’

page 308

There was an impatient burst of applause as a short, broad-shouldered man came on to the platform. He looked down, not at the rows of faces before him, and the stolid expression of his face remained unmoved, as if an enthusiastic reception mattered nothing to him. It was a face which bore out the truth of the Professor's words—dull, heavy, and covered with an unhealthy purple flush. Handsome it never could have been, but once it had been singularly intelligent; the eyes were fine and large, and the forehead was a broad and massive one. It was the face of a man who had sacrificed his intellect to a vile craving. Yet something of the lost light of expression came back when he commenced to play, only tolerably at first, then better and better as the music roused him from his apathy. The dull vacant eye grew bright, his features even seemed to alter, to become more dignified, and he held his head erect, as if conscious that, though degraded in other things, in this at least he had the superiority, and could lead his audience captive as long as it was his pleasure.

There was one listener who hung on every note and watched every movement of his hands with untiring interest. He knew the pieces note for note, and he acknowledged that they were faithfully rendered. But he said to himself, and felt that it was no boast, ‘What he is doing I can do as well. With time and opportunity I could do better than that.’

page 309

He spoke the last words aloud, though in an undertone.

‘Can you?’ said his companion pertinently. ‘Then why don't you?’ ‘If I could—ah, then I should not have an unbidden guest in my house at present, and I should not, my dear Randall, be obliged to ask you for the trifling loan of ten shillings. Thank you very much; shall I give you an I O U for the amount?—perhaps it is hardly worth while.’

Randall agreed with the Professor in this—his I O U's were not worth much.

There had been a short interval between the two parts of the concert, and Virchow had left the platform. He was expected to come on again to play the first piece in the second part of the programme—a violin solo—but he did not appear. The audience waited patiently; those who went to Virchow's concerts were often obliged to wait. At last, as the musician was not forthcoming, a change was made in the programme, and another member of the company, a lady celebrated for her soprano voice, sang one of Beethoven's melodies. Another pause, and one of Beethoven's melodies. Another pause, and then Mr. Philimore came forward, in an agitated manner, and entreated the indulgence of the audience. On account of a sudden attack of illness it was impossible for Virchow to appear again that evening. There were expressions of disapprobation, notwithstanding Mr. Philimore's polite and prettily-worded excuses. No one cared for the soprano, page 310 which was rather the worse for wear, nor for a dreary combination of harp and piano, and a drearier song from a gentleman whose voice had the merit of coming from the lowest depth of his chest. There was some difficulty in clearing the hall, and some parsimonious individuals complained loudly that they had not had their money's worth. In the crush at the door, Randall saw the man again who had been talking to Philimore before the concert began. He heard him whisper hurriedly to a friend, ‘Have you heard? Virchow is dead.’

‘What!’ cried the other, starting back. ‘So suddenly?’

‘Philimore told me himself. It is rather a blow for him.’

‘Poor little Philimore!’ was the last that Randall heard of this conversation. He parted from the Professor at the door, and made his way through the crowd mechanically, turning this way and that with the abstracted manner of one who is occupied with a new thought. On his way to his lodgings more than once he heard the words passed from mouth to mouth—‘Virchow is dead.’

End of Vol. II.