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A Rolling Stone Vol. II

Chapter IX

page 156

Chapter IX.

‘Oh, the world goes up and the world goes down,
And the sunshine follows the rain;
And yesterday's sneer and yesterday's frown
Can never come over again,
Never come over again.'

Charles Kingsley.

Mr. Prosser's advent, and certain strong feelings, other than those of respect or admiration excited by his conduct, had hastened Randall's departure. He had felt it impossible to endure the charms of that illustrious person's company for more than one day. Nevertheless, some news which he read in the morning paper a few days after convinced him that it would have been better to have borne with Mr. Prosser for a little longer. If he had not left so hastily he might have taken away all that belonged to him. Then he would not have been bereft of part of his little property by the conflagration which Mrs. Sligo and Mrs. Hickson had perpetrated. Truly, there had been little of value in the box which he had left in the house, some papers excepted, which he might be required to produce. Their loss, however, might be a serious one to him.

The same newspaper which contained an account page 157 of the disaster at Palmer's notified to those whom it might concern that all claims against the estate of the late John Palmer, and all debts owing to it, must be sent into the offices of his solicitors, Messrs. Sampson and Gatherall, before a certain date. This reminded Randall that he had a claim, though he did not see how it was to be proved, since the fire had destroyed nearly all Palmer's accounts and memoranda, as well as his own. However, he wrote to Gatherall and Sampson, stating the amount that was due to him, and explaining the circumstances that prevented him adducing further proof than his own word. Then he considered that he had been very unwise, which is generally our first thought when our neglect or imprudence has brought its own reward.

He saw an unpleasant prospect before him. He was without employment, and he had only a small sum of money. As has been said, he had sent most of his salary to England. That which he had not yet received was the wages of five or six months, not the last, however, which he had spent with Palmer. For several weeks before Palmer's death, Randall as well as the others in his employ had been paid regularly, and Mr. Gatherall had not forgotten to pay Randall for the time during which he had remained in charge of the property.

Mr. Prosser bore the news of the fire to his sister. Mrs. Palmer was much distressed; one misfortune seemed to follow another. Mr. Prosser attempted page 158 to console her by reminding her that the horses and a little of the machinery were left.

‘That's not worth much,’ she said despondingly. ‘I can't think how it is John left so little money. He must have lost it in those mines at the Thames.’

‘I thought he was very shy of speculation,’ said Mr. Prosser, sitting crosswise on a chair. ‘Pity he didn't insure.’

‘Not insured!’ cried Mrs. Palmer, catching at this additional straw of her burden. ‘What a man!’

‘I see the horses are to be sold to-morrow,’ said Mr. Prosser. ‘I'd like to buy one or two of them horses, but I've nothing to spare, and they're sure to go high. I was going to mention it to you before, but you don't seem to have much coming to you after all.’

‘If it's anything you want from us, Josiah,’ said his sister sharply, ‘you won't get it. How can you expect us to throw money about like that when we've such a family to provide for?’

‘Well, did I ask you to throw it about?’ asked Mr. Prosser reproachfully. ‘Ain't I in the family? I thought a little present might have been made, but if you can't, why you can't. You'll have to give something to the young man who waited on him, I suppose.’

‘Give something! why should we? If we once begin giving, people will never stop asking and taking while there's anything left. We can't afford page 159 to give much. He was paid his wages’—she checked herself, and was silent.

Mr. Prosser opined that most people wanted more than their due, and went his way, of which one thing only can be predicated with certainty, that it did not lead to anything requiring hard labour.

His last words had reminded Mrs. Palmer of the letter. Ah, that letter. If she had never touched it! if she had never brought it away from the house! Then it would have perished in the fire, and her husband would never have known of its existence. He knew nothing yet; why should he ever know? She really did not see that any one would be injured. They needed the money far more than Randall. He had no right to a present of a hundred and fifty pounds, and as for that which was owing to him, most likely he would look after it sharply enough. Why should they be expected to re-establish his character? they were not responsible for another's actions. He ought to be able to take care of himself; and perhaps he deserved all he had suffered. With such reasoning she justified herself, as she watched the letter slowly blacken into tinder.

Now, whatever might happen, her lips were sealed. The fear that something might come of it troubled her. She shivered when she thought how her husband would look, and what he would say, if he should find out her fault. There were some things he could not suffer in silence; she knew how despicable this would be in his eyes. She had no firm principles of page 160 her own to rest upon, so all questions of right or wrong resolved themselves into this—what he would approve or condemn. But as long as she kept her own counsel she was safe. It would be unpleasant to have a secret; but she did not mean to be always thinking of it. And, indeed, it was probable that a conscience grown somewhat torpid from disuse would not remind her of it too frequently.

Messrs. Sampson and Gatherall were a long time in winding up the estate of their deceased client, but at length accomplished it in the most legal and satisfactory manner. They could not say they had had much trouble with the business; the estate was small, and totally unencumbered with debts, if that owing to Randall be excepted. That Messrs. Sampson and Gatherall sturdily refused to pay unless it could be proved, and as it could not be proved to their satisfaction, it was not paid. Mr. Langridge spoke to them about it, declaring the claim ought to be admitted, whereupon Mr. Gatherall told him an ancient story.

‘Yes, you may believe me, my dear sir,’ he said, gracefully leaning back in his office chair, a very easy one. ‘I thought the name was familiar to me. Your young gentleman you are so anxious to befriend has been concerned in one or two little affairs which might have enabled him to spend a few years in a certain public institution, had it not been for the soft-heartedness of his employers. Oh yes! he disgraced himself in England years ago, and very page 161 soon after he got his first situation in this town he was detected in the same old thing—the common fault of fast young men—embezzling his employer's money.’

‘Bless me! Why, I could have sworn he was the soul of honesty!’

‘His appearance is rather prepossessing,’ admitted Mr. Gatherall, ‘and he knows how to make the best of it; but don't trust him any further than you can see him, is my advice.’

‘If any one but you had said it, I wouldn't have listened to a word against him!’ exclaimed Mr. Langridge, with indignation. ‘I had taken a great fancy to him. I was going to find him a good place. You know what a friend of mine Palmer was; well, this Randall nursed him all through his last illness like his own son.’

‘Oh yes, yes.’ Mr. Gatherall laughed softly. ‘Your friend hadn't a son of his own. He was reputed to be rich. Human nature! My dear Mr. Langridge, it is wonderful in its artifices. My profession gives me some insight into it. I think I may say I know something of human nature.’

‘You ought to, anyway, by this time,’ bluntly answered the farmer. ‘But don't you judge too harshly?’

‘I should be sorry to injure the young man’, calmly replied the lawyer. ‘If he were at all anxious to redeem his character I should be very happy to lend him a helping hand. But I'm afraid page 162 he is irreclaimable. His statements are more than improbable—they are palpably false, and such an imposture deserves to be exposed.’

‘Oh, don't let's do that!’ cried Mr. Langridge. ‘Don't mention it. I shan't breathe a word, and, of course, you won't.’

‘Certainly not,’ said Mr. Gatherall. He had mentioned it already as an instance of the depravity of human nature, but this trifling circumstance had escaped his memory.

‘Is there nothing to show that Palmer was not in the habit of paying him regularly?’ asked Mr. Langridge.

‘Nothing, On the contrary, there is evidence that he did pay him. There are entries in an account-book which was saved from the fire to prove that. The very last entry relates to one of those payments. He acknowledges that for the last three months he was paid up to the very week before Mr. Palmer's death, and that he had his wages regularly every week for nearly a year after he came into his employ. He claims for five or six months between the two periods, but he cannot give the exact dates. It is absurd to suppose that Mr. Palmer would have paid him week by week for nearly a year, and then suddenly discontinued such a sensible practice, only to begin it again shortly afterwards. It is at variance with all that we knew of him. I am sure you will remember that one of his most marked peculiarities was an exaggerated fear of being in any one's debt. page 163 This is the only claim on his estate; besides this he did not owe a penny when he died. He paid cash for everything, and all his labourers, no matter how many he might have, received their money regularly at the end of every week.’

‘You are quite right; he was very strict on that point. He never ran a bill in his life, I believe Well, I'm sorry for Randall. I liked him so much.’

‘It really does you credit, Mr. Langridge,’ said the lawyer, with great sweetness, ‘to feel in that way; but your charity is wasted on him.’

‘But don't you think the family ought to give him something after all?’ persisted Mr. Langridge. ‘It will look bad if they don't. No matter what he expected to get for it, he waited on a near relative of theirs, he sat up with him at nights, he hardly left him at other times, and he was with him when he died. I don't care what his motives were, he behaved well to my old friend, and, if no one else will, I'll make him a present out of my own pocket.’

‘Very good of you,’ said the amiable Gatherall. ‘If there were not such kind-hearted persons as yourself my dear sir, roguery couldn't thrive, and gentlemen like Mr. Randall would be obliged to live by honest hard labour instead of by their wits. What you say, however, is perfectly true; it would look better, as he really attended well to our friend, if some little present were made him—ten guineas or so; it might help to keep him out of the way of temptation till he finds a situation.’

page 164

‘Well, if you or Mrs. Palmer don't send something, I shall,’ said the farmer. ‘We don't know much of him, Mr. Gatherall; he mayn't be so black as he's painted, and worse men have lived down their faults.’

‘I should be glad to hear of his doing the same,’ said Mr. Gatherall; ‘but I can't hope for it. I know him better, I think. Ask Trevet, my brother-in-law, who had him as bookkeeper, and he will tell you enough. Trevet has never had another bookkeeper; he was satisfied with his one experience. And he told me that, only last year, a young lady, very handsome, and respectably dressed, came to him to ask after Randall. He, of course, thought it kindest to let her know the worst, and she went away in great distress. Stapleton, his partner, fancied she might be a sister, but that was impossible; Randall's only sister, Mrs. Moresby, was lost in the Cairngorm. But she was on her way to New Zealand to look after this scapegrace of the family, it is supposed. Who the other lady was, no one can guess. Some poor girl who thought better of him than he deserved, no doubt. He has brought disgrace on his relatives, and sorrow to all who cared for him, I'm afraid.’

‘Oh, if he really is a fellow of that kind,’ said Mr. Langridge, with a changed tone, ‘he deserves little enough from us. Still, he didn't look it.’

An elegantly-worded letter from Gatherall and Sampson informed Randall that his claim could not be allowed. They ventured to doubt that their late page 165 client had ever been indebted to him for such a sum as he mentioned. Mr. Gatherall had been kind enough to take special pains to investigate the matter thoroughly, and it was with deep sorrow he was constrained to state that he had found nothing which would tend to substantiate Randall's claim, but much evidence against it. Mr. Gatherall had been so kind that the letter was not only of his own wording, but in his own handwriting. It was not an ordinary lawyer's letter at all, but contained good advice, as well as some delicate references to past misfortunes, which he hoped his correspondent might now obliterate from the memory of all who had known and sorrowed over his faults, by walking soberly in the right path, and avoiding temptation to turn aside to ways that must infallibly end in tribulation.

There was an enclosure in the letter, a cheque of ten guineas, which Mr. Gatherall offered with a few mild and consolatory sentences, much as if he were applying a plaster to a wound of his own making. It was in return for those services to his esteemed friend and client, the late Mr. Palmer, which had not been paid for, and would prove to Randall that neither the family nor himself bore any ill-feeling towards him notwithstanding his conduct.

Mr. Gatherall wrote this in all sincerity. He was sincere also in the hope which he expressed to his partner that the faulty person for whom his kindly exhortations were intended might be affected by them. And though it was not of the kind de- page 166 sired by Mr. Gatherall, they certainly had a powerful effect on him.

He read the letter with an angry flush on his face. Years afterwards he could have repeated the closing sentences. The pharisaical moralising, the doubt cast upon his truthfulness, the half-veiled allusions to a fault which had marred his life, burnt like an insult into his mind. The present that was cast to him rather than offered, because, as only too plainly appeared, it was the proper thing to do, he only touched to transfer it from one envelope to another. Mr. Gatherall need not have hesitated to offer it; Mrs. Palmer need not have grudged it—it was coming back to them.

The note in reply caused amazement and indignation in the office of Gatherall and Sampson. The amazement was on the part of the chief clerk, who could not understand such foolishness as the rejection of a cheque; the indignation was aroused in Mr. Gatherall's breast, who was shocked at the ingratitude revealed to him by this new development of human nature. He read the letter to his partner, and demanded to know what he thought of it. Now, getting a thought from Mr. Sampson was like drawing water out of a very deep well. He was a quiet man, who spoke little and did less, and as he went through the world peaceably and harmed no one, he was credited with possessing all the unobtrusive virtues which were not claimed by Mr. Gatherall. Not that Gatherall was thought inferior page 167 to him in moral worth: it could hardly be so, when his conversation dwelt so much on doing good and eschewing evil, that most persons believed he never did wrong, except when he mistook it for right. Mr. Sampson pondered for a while, and then made the following wise remark, ‘He must have been very angry when he wrote that.’

‘Angry!’ said Mr. Gatherall, with an aggrieved air. ‘What right has he to be angry? He's an unreasonable, hot-headed fellow.’

‘Proud—very proud,’ murmured Mr. Sampson to himself, taking up the letter, and noticing with what a firm hand it had been written. He studied it for some time; and then said, with slow gravity, ‘If I were you, Gatherall, I would not advise except in the way of business.’

Mr. Gatherall sulkily intimated that it was the last time he should cast his pearls away so recklessly. ‘As he throws my kindness in my face,’ he said, ‘I think I'm justified in leaving him to his own devices. I shall tell Langridge of this.’

He lost no time in doing so, and the worthy farmer was surprised and disappointed.

‘Won't have it, do you say? What did you say to him?’

‘Rather ask what he said to me’, answered Mr. Gatherall, with a little laugh. ‘I should call his letter insulting in its very politeness. Just notice the haughty way in which he thanks me for the interest I have taken in his affairs, and for the page 168 cheque which he begs I will allow him to return to me.’

‘Yes, it's cool and cutting,’ said Mr. Langridge, not without some satisfaction in the thought that Gatherall had been smartly answered. ‘Upon my word, he seems to have the upper hand of you in correspondence. But you're right, there's no good to be done with him—better leave him alone.’