"To Doctor Valentine., 15th November.
"My dear Val,
—I have reached here at last and am domiciled once more in our young but aspiring metropolis, that is to be (some day) the queen city of the Britain of the South, What is less to my taste, I still have to remain here a week or two on account of some business I have to transact.
"I have been left a legacy! It is not a big one, and it has been left in a muddled-up way which necessitates my furnishing some documents, first to show that I am alive, and that I am myself—not a very hard thing to do, you would think, and yet difficult to prove in some cases—and secondly, to procure the necessary powers for realising, appropriating, and disposing of the money.
"For the first time since my arrival in the colony the mail has brought me glad tidings. I really feel more elated than I could have believed it possible. A few lines on a sheet of notepaper have effected a page 432transformation in the prospect of life and my view of things in general. I fancied myself to be hardened against any such impressions, to have attained to that state of stoical impassiveness which is proof against the disturbing influences of outward events, and yet I found myself actually capering along the streets, twirling my stick, and humming aloud the old ditty—
'Good news from home, good news for me,
Has come across the dark blue sea,'
until I fancied that I was attracting the notice of passers-by. Sober hilarity is evidently a state of things very much out of the common here. Most of the people I meet seem to be terribly in earnest, and their spirits, when they have any, partake largely of brandy. The true colonial is not demonstrative—he seldom relaxes in public unless he happens to be tight
"The occasion of all this elevation is the news that has just reached me that Charley has passed his exam, with flying colours, and has been admitted to Woolwich. This is news indeed. It has been the object of our united ambition and hopes, the aim towards which I have been striving to assist him for the past five years with such slender aid as I have been able to afford. I feel repaid tenfold for any page 433sacrifices I have made on his behalf. Ce cher petit blondin! When I last saw him he was quite a small boy, looking up to me in tender expectation, thankful for half-crowns, and mightily fond of gingerbread. His prospects were not bright at that time, for we were left very poorly provided for, and what little there was to come was tied up. There were many difficulties in the way of giving him a professional education and starting him fairly in life. But these difficulties have been happily overcome.
"Now Master Charles is grown quite a young man, trying to look fierce in his photograph, in spick-and-span uniform, with a sword by his side, and an air to carry it in style. And all his notions appear to have grown in proportion. But he cannot be more delighted than I am.
"I have taken up my old quarters at Peters the chemist's. They are old acquaintances, and they made me very comfortable when I was last in town. I find them changed, however, and that for the worse. The house has lost none of its comfort, and Mrs. Peters is very kind and attentive, but there is a lack of cheerfulness which strikes a chill into one. It used not to be so. But anything is preferable to staying at these noisy bustling hotels. And now, dear boy, good-bye for the present. I have written you so many grievous page 434letters, full of melancholy repinings, that it will be a relief to you to hear me pipe a merrier note. Yet I don't like this place at all, and do not intend remaining here a day longer than I can help. During my enforced idleness I purpose writing to you every few days, if it is only to relieve my mind and find a congenial occupation. As I know you won't reply, I will absolve you beforehand.—
"I told you in my last that I had some business to transact in town, and by way of a change I set about it at once. It was but a small matter—some papers to sign, a declaration to swear, and possibly a power of attorney to furnish. A few hours will do it all, thought I, and the sooner done the better. So I made inquiries concerning a lawyer to be recommended. I found that it was with lawyers very much as with doctors and parsons, every man believes in his own, except a few esprits forts who don't believe in any of them.
"There are no lack of lawyers here, and moreover, they seem to thrive in this virgin soil nearly as luxuriously as they do on antiquated rubbish-heaps in the old country.
"There is something curious and extremely anoma-page 435lous about the Britisher, his law, and his lawyers. In no other country in the world has the legal institution attained to such overspreading dimensions or exercised such predominant influence both for good and for evil. It is a huge parasite, which has penetrated down to the roots and extended upwards to the farthest ramifications of the great national tree. It is known to be rotten to the core, cumbersome in the extreme, and of infinite cumplications; but it is too intimately interwoven round the parent growth to admit of being shaken off, and it is even considered to contribute support to the trunk it lives upon. The monstrous abuses of the system, its shameless exactions, are universally recognised and denounced, yet the average Englishman is willing to grin and bear it, and wherever he goes he carries his law with him as a part and parcel of his establishment.
"He is as much attached to it as most men are to their prejudices and to their vices. He fears and reviles the social depredator who thrives on the inherent weaknesses and follies of the community, yet he clings to him with slavish submission, and is willing to exalt him to the highest place in the land, to set him up as a judge, and then fall down and worship as a sort of national fetish. And, strange to say, whatever other abuses and impositions John Bull page 436may rid himself of, this one remains, in its main characteristics, unchanged and unchangeable. Here, in a young community, planted in a new land and thriving in peace and prosperity, one would have hoped to get clear of this hateful infliction. But no! As well might a Spanish colony, in the olden time, have attempted a settlement without the Holy Inquisition. This place is already swarming with lawyers, and we have all the paraphernalia of the British law courts, with its pompous dignitaries, and its train of satellites and spoilers. I pity a people so law-ridden, yet they seem to live under it, which says a good deal for their vitality.
"I was advised to go to Mr. Pike, who is spoken of as an honest man, and therefore is an object of some curiosity. This reputation for honesty is mainly derived from a somewhat extraordinary incident in his legal career—his having; advised a client, on one occasion, not to go to law. Under these circumstances I felt emboldened to seek an interview with Mr. Pike, and I was fortunate enough to find him at home, which I have since ascertained is a very uncommon circumstance. He is a spare man, with a bilious habit, a saturnine countenance, and a hooked nose. He is also snappish, not to say surly, but, as a rule, after venting a torrent of invectives on the page 437world in general, and his office-boy in particular, he will unbend and become communicative, and even jocular. All this is extremely unsolicitor-like, to say the least of it.
"A person who is mostly engaged in the fleecing process should at least observe gravity and decorum in the performance of the operation. But Pike seems to be of an aggressive temperament; he is more intent on victory than plunder, and I do believe that to rend a victim he would forego the wool.
"I found him seated in a very dusty room, before a table that was littered all over, and in front of a very dirty window. He held out his hand to me as I came in, without ever asking my name, apologised profusely for the dust, the dirt, and the litter, which he all put down to an infernal nor'-wester that was blowing at the time; then, having cursed the office-boy, and waved me to a rickety cane-bottomed chair with a hole in it, he folded his hands, with the thumbs extended, and eyed me very much as a real pike would do when just about to dart at a minnow. I had heard that time was of importance in a lawyer's office—a great mistake; it should have been the waste of time—and so I stated my business as concisely as possible, produced my documents, and suggested that we should set about the little matter at once. I believe page 438that I even offered to wait in the office while the necessary papers were being got ready. My legal adviser stared at me, as if he entertained some doubts as to my sanity, then he seemed to grasp the idea, and he gave vent to a comical chuckle.
"'My dear sir,' he remarked with half suppressed hilarity, 'you can't come into a lawyer's office to do business that way. You must leave these papers with me, and we will make an appointment. Let me see—will the day after to-morrow do?'
"I protested that I was in a great hurry, and that half-an-hour would do it.
"'There are no half-hours here,' said Pike, with a grim smile. 'A short or a long conference are the only terms recognised by the profession, and charged for at ten-and-six and a guinea respectively.'
"I inquired rather anxiously how many short or long conferences were likely to be needed in order to settle the little business.
"He shook his head dubiously, and after much consideration remarked that he might perhaps be in a position to inform me at our next interview.
"I tried to explain, but he merely waved his hand in a tragic manner and took a note of it. Then he started to talk on his own account, and for a much longer time than it would have required to attend page 439to my wants he held forth eloquently, impressively, and sarcastically upon every imaginable subject except my business, and ended by cross-examining me on all my affairs, barring the one I came to see him about.
"Distracted by this unexpected outburst, and rather uneasy in my mind concerning the scale of charges for long conferences, I proposed as a diversion that we should adjourn to the next public-house and have a drink. The offer was accepted, although there were half-a-dozen people waiting to see him. So we sallied forth. The Blue Dragon was only twenty yards off; it took us just twenty minutes to get there, for we met twenty people on the way, and my legal friend (who knows everybody) stopped them all, and insisted on introducing me to every man Jack of them.
"He was very demonstrative, prodded some of his strange acquaintances with his stick, patted others on the back, shook hands vigorously with most of them, and laughed at them all. When at last we did reach the hotel bar I asked him what he was going to have, but at that moment he started a boisterous flirtation with the barmaid, and he became so much engrossed in carrying on a lively repartee at the top of his voice, evidently for the edification of all listeners, that it was another quarter of an hour before page 440I could direct his attention to the main issue under consideration, and get him to decide on brandy pale. At this moment an enraged client, whose urgent case had been postponed through three court sessions in consequence of Mr. Pike having forgotten all about it, rushed upon the scene and tackled the man of law.
"I left them in high dispute, Pike holding forth eloquently on the advantages of delay, and I was glad of the opportunity of escaping.
"So that is as far as I have got with my business as yet, and I think that I may as well leave it there for the present and conclude, your devoted
"My dear Val,
—I have not been a fortnight here, and I am heartily sick of the place already. These colonial mushroom townships are the dreariest of abodes for an idler to live in. They are absolutely wanting in all the attractions of a refined civilisation, the beauties of art, or the charms of old associations. They are without interest in everything except their progress. Their existence is a ceaseless activity, their soul is business, and their motto 'Go ahead.' But if they have nothing to look back upon, they are elated to bursting with their present importance and future page 441grandeur. 'Look at me,' is the everlasting refrain; 'a few years ago I was a barren waste—now see!' And you are supposed to fall down and worship at the shrine of Modern Progress. The people live in a state of mutual admiration at their own superhuman efforts. Undoubtedly their efforts have been great, and are deserving of praise; they have done wonders, and, what is better still, they have made them pay. The thorough colonial only believes in reproductive works. Anything else is looked upon as a waste of energy. He makes an exception, indeed, with regard to education, and great outlay is lavished on State schools, institutes, and public libraries; but that arises from an erroneous and democratic idea that indirectly education pays—that it is a remunerative investment. 'We shall save it in police and the maintenance of jails' say our legislators, and the populace applauds.
"The country has advanced at a rapid pace, and it gets ample credit for it, although at the rate we keep borrowing money I should fancy that this credit will come to an end some day. But I confess that I cannot subsist on this ardent applause. It is interesting to know that our grandest parade was ten years ago a stinking swamp where bullocks got bogged, that our finest wharf was within the memory of numerous in-page 442habitants a muddy dyke, and that our hardy pioneers went through unheard-of trials and privations in converting a barren desert into smiling fields, and so on. This is interesting to hear about—in moderation. But you can have too much of it.
"For my part I feel like a lost sheep in the place, for the simple reason, I suppose, that I have nothing to do, while every one around me is striving, bustling, worrying, and clamouring. The only recreation grounds common to all are the public-houses, which are always full. Money-making and the nobbler!
"There are a few 'men about town' to be seen, but I cannot say that I am tempted to associate with them. They are mostly new chums, in the way of getting rid of their surplus cash, and some rather dissipated fellows who are intent on having 'a spree.' I frequently meet Jim Flash, with half-a-dozen young sparks of like kidney. They issue forth from the club about eleven of a morning, got up in elaborate style, and may be seen strolling languidly towards the Imperial; thence they adjourn to the White Horse, thence to the Blue Dragon, and so on until they have imbibed all round the town; then to return to billiards and cards, and to spend the night in less reputable places.
"The swells are not popular with the masses. page 443Their kid gloves and perfumes raise a jeer from the crowd, and often evoke some coarse chaff from the more rowdy element that is rollicking about the streets or roaring in the pubs. As for the city itself, while I think it has the making of a fine place, it has all its attractions to come.
"There is a dull uniformity about it; its very regularity is a weariness; the straight and the square may be the correct principles to act upon, but to walk on—give me the crookedest lane; it has more of the line of beauty in it.
"I have been trying to account for the change I find in the Peters household. What has gone wrong? Poor P. is much the same as ever, to outward appearances anyhow, with his long, leather-like face, and its comical twist through the wildest contortions as he stutters forth his mild observations. Was there ever such a stammerer? It is a source of entertainment and affliction combined to his unfortunate listeners.
"Yesterday morning he caused utter consternation at the breakfast table, and nearly had a fit, in making a frantic attempt to ask for the butter. I was in the greatest trepidation, and kept looking wildly round the table in my anxiety to find out what he wanted. I seized upon every article but the one thing needed; page 444I rushed the eggs and bacon at him, I plied him with marmalade, I upset the milk over him, I salted him, I peppered him, but all to no avail. Then I gave up in despair, and waited in abject misery until the fatal word was pronounced, or rather hurled forth.
It came at last with a rush. What a commotion he would have spared us if he had only pointed to the thing required. But stammerers won't do that. They are the most stubborn and persevering people I know of. If Peters has to battle with a word, for very life he will never give in; he will mouth it, and shake it, and spit at it, and keep on worrying it, at the risk of apoplexy. His safety valve is to stop short, and whistle. The other day he was playfully quoting Dr. Watts. 'The mind's the'——There he stuck fast, and we saw that we were in for a tussle. 'St—st—st—(frightful hissing)—sta, sssta—(gasps and contortions), buzz—buzz—(more hissing)—aa—aarn—(choking fit as if he had swallowed a fish-bone)—st, sst, gurr, gurr (a rush of blood to the head, mouth open, eyes staring wildly)—st, st—(a pause, then a long low whistle)—standard of the man!'
"It came out like a shot from a gun.
"A sickly smile of satisfaction on his flushed countenance—he had conquered. An immense feeling of page 445relief to all present, and a call for brandy and soda.
"What between Peters and Pike I ought to learn patience.
"At other times, when he is not excited, the poor fellow can manage to express himself without much difficulty.
"But what a good fellow he is—how true-hearted, generous and confiding, and what a kind, devoted husband he makes. Yet the poor man seems to be under a cloud; he has aged much in appearance, and has a careworn expression—at times almost haggard in its intensity. Some hidden grief must evidently be preying on his mind; and it cannot be due to monetary troubles, for his business is prospering well.
"Mrs. Peters too has changed—she is no longer her former dear little self. She lighted up, indeed, when I arrived on the scene, and ran to meet me with both hands extended, exclaiming "Oh, it's good for sore eyes to see you!" We had a long pleasant chat about old times, and she rattled away in her pretty giddy style. But I soon noticed an air of absent-mindedness and constraint about her, the sunshine would seem to have gone out of her face. Evidently the woman is unhappy.page 446
"Yet these two used to be the fondest, the merriest couple under heaven—as playful as kittens, devoted to one another, and careless of all the world besides. Poor P. must have found it difficult to express in words, at times, the exuberance of his amorous sentiments; but then, you know, there are so many ways of making love without speaking.
"What may account for the change is the presence of a third party on the scene. I have my suspicions—please God that they may prove unfounded.
"There is a lodger here—a permanent lodger, to all appearances, and a very disreputable one, by all accounts. He is a handsome young man, of good address and rather insinuating manners, and he has succeeded in insinuating himself effectually into the confidence of Peters, and the good graces of Peters' wife. I believe that he has free quarters here, in return for some services which he is supposed to render in business matters. I took extreme antipathy to the man at first sight. I believe him to be as shallow as he is cunning and unprincipled. I have since been warned against him, and no doubt Mr. and Mrs. Peters have both been warned against him also on many occasions by male and female friends, for the man is known to be a depraved loafer, yet they cannot see it.page 447
"It is a pitiful case, but a difficult and dangerous one to interfere with; I shall keep an eye upon it.
"This reprobate goes by the name of Doctor Faint-well. Do not flare up, my dear Val, at the notion that a medical practitioner can deserve such an epithet; calm thy rising choler, for know that this designing scamp is unqualified. I know that I can attach no worse stigma to him in the eyes of the profession. He has, indeed, no right to the title of doctor, although he pretends to have gone through a medical training of some sort, nor does he venture to practise on the persons of the public, but only on their pockets. The insidious scoundrel! If his crime is as black as I deem it to be, there is no retribution on earth dire enough to punish the evil he has wrought in return for benefits received and under the guise of friendship. But we cannot condemn him on suspicion alone.—
"Decidedly, my dear Val,
Pike is an original, and as he evidently looks upon me as a somewhat congenial character, we have taken a liking to one another. At the same time, I must confess that Pike possesses attributes which I cannot lay claim to, for page 448he is a thorough humbug. Now, I don't mean that word in an unkindly sense, for there are good humbugs in the world as well as bad ones, or at least, if you take exception to that postulate, you cannot but admit that it is with humbugs as with snakes—they are venomous or non-venomous. Personally, I am rather partial to the humbug, providing he is amusing and no impostor. Now, Pike is a humbug of that sort—he is decidedly entertaining; nor does he impose upon any one unless it is a juryman, which is all in the way of business.
"But he indulges habitually in the grandest talk, delivered in a most theatrical manner and with crushing emphasis. It matters little what the occasion may be, from an act of cannibalism to a missing shirt-button, it draws down a fiery outburst; the bloodthirsty Maori and the negligent washerwoman both come in for it on much the same terms. 'Suiting the action to the word' is a good maxim, but unfortunately my friend is so profuse with the one that he has no time left for the other. I have called upon him several times to urge my little business, but nothing has been done; and my belief is that he has never yet even looked at the papers. On the other hand, he was good enough to relieve my serious apprehensions as to the bill of costs for so many conferences, page 449by informing me that he had no intention of sticking it on. 'If you were some bumptious, blown-out cad of a pork butcher, who had made his pile,' he pleasantly observed the other day, 'I should bleed you properly; or if you were a pompous ass of a mutton-lord, or some jumped-up, snivelling, swindling, psalm-singing huckster, I should make you pay accordingly; but as you are only a poor devil of an artist, and have the misfortune of being a gentleman to boot, I will let you down easily. I make my charges with due regard to the circumstances of each case and the character of my clients. Wealthy scoundrels I have no compunction for, wealthy fools come next—they must pay for their folly in going to law. I also charge for my exasperated feelings, and I live in an atmosphere of exasperation.
"'Perverse idiots annoy me, and half the people who come to me are perverse idiots. They take up my time—my valuable time—with infernal drivel. They won't speak to the point; they are liars, sir, habitual liars. That they should lie to one another is natural enough, that they should lie in court is perhaps excusable under some circumstances, but they even lie to me—yes, sir, to me! But then——don't I make them pay for it! 'And the irate Pike dropped his inflated eloquence, and ended with a chuckle.page 450
"After this he invited me to come and partake of a mid-day dinner with him on Sunday, the only day, he explained, when he was not bothered with visitors, the only day when he could escape from perverse idiots or scheming scoundrels, the only day when he could find time to work.
"Flattered at the distinction he was good enough to make on my behalf, I accepted, and I spent a pleasant afternoon at his house. I found Pike as a paterfamilias much more amiable than in his judicial capacity, and although still tigerish in his antics, he drew in his claws when disporting with his cubs. His wife appeared to be a very gentle and amiable lady. After dinner, over our coffee and cigars, the man of law unbent very much, and related to me several of his wonderful achievements in the administration of justice.
"One case in particular was harrowing in its details. He had been called upon to defend a villain of the deepest dye, a bloodthirsty ruffian who had cut his wife's throat and then burnt the house over her. The case was clear, the evidence overwhelming. There was practically no defence, and nothing but a miracle could save the criminal from the gallows. Yet that miracle was performed by my friend, in a manner which evoked the highest encomiums from the page 451bench, and won universal applause from an admiring public. The counsel's address to the jury was redelivered almost in extenso for my special benefit; its most impassioned outbursts were declaimed in a voice of thunder, which would have startled the household but for the fact that they must have heard it in similar tones on many previous occasions. Such a torrent of eloquence carried all before it, and against the clearest proof of guilt the murderer was acquitted. Pike is justly proud of that performance. I congratulated him upon it, while expressing my regret that the wretch he had defended should have escaped hanging.—
—Since I have been here I have received plenty of advice. That is the one thing which is never stinted to me wherever I go. From what I learn I am positively astounded at the number of ways there are of getting on in the world, every one of which must infallibly lead on to fortune if only followed with common sense on the lines indicated. The difficulty is to understand how so many poor people go astray, and the only explanation of this deplorable fact would appear to be that they never were favoured with the good advice tendered page 452to me, or that they are absolutely deficient in common sense. I have been very much interested in these considerations, and have treasured up many valuable precepts, but I am rather puzzled at their variety and sometimes by their contradictory character. There is another distressing circumstance that gives rise to unpleasant reflections, and that is that none of my kind advisers have ever succeeded themselves. And when I come to think about it, I cannot remember ever receiving any useful advice from a successful man. My instructors in the art of carving out a fortune have all been poor impecunious devils, who are only conspicuous by their failures. This state of things has been very variously accounted for; some have explained that they succumbed to a tide of ill fortune that no human foresight could have guarded against—that no endurance could withstand; even a Napoleon was powerless against the elements.
"Others candidly admitted that they made mistakes, and that they only acquired wisdom in the school of adversity; at present they are only waiting for an opportunity to distinguish themselves on correct principles; but, alas! that opportunity never comes. The unfortunate fact remains. There's Wink-ham, for instance; I don't know whether you ever met him. He is a stout man, with a rather im-page 453pressive manner, a prematurely bald head, and a threadbare coat. He came to see me yesterday, ostensibly to renew an old acquaintance, but really to borrow a five-pound note from me, which he promised to repay in a week—that is, never. In return for this small assistance he held forth at great length, and he afforded me a fund of information on financial questions which, at the lowest computation, ought to be worth half a million. 'You have done me a good turn, old man,' he said, 'and for the moment I can only repay you with some good advice, which may be worth little or much, just according to the use you choose to make of it.' My poor friend's financial advice is generally paid for at a fixed rate of ten-and-sixpence per column. He writes the money article for the Saturday's issue of the Southern Hemisphere. Therein he sets forth all the hidden causes that bring about fluctuations in the market; he exposes shams, criticises banking returns, denounces the greediness of capitalists, and warns the public against risky speculations—in the abstract. He is wise enough never to descend to particulars, or to meddle with local interests, but he is great on the principles of finance. Some months ago he lectured on 'Money-making made easy,' and attracted considerable audiences. That lecture was fairly remunerative (to page 454himself), but in other respects Winkham has been a failure, and is always in difficulties, while scratching out a miserable pittance as an accountant. Yet the man has discernment, and even talent; he is excellent company, and he can see in the dark as far as most people. Perhaps his weakness lies in his belief that he can see farther. He has another failing which has brought him low in fortune, but always keeps him up in spirits—'all his geese are swans.' Winkham gave me a most entertaining discourse on money and the way to get it. According to him, it is as easy as pat; but then he admitted that he was about the only man in the place who understood the theory of the process. 'Many people,' he said, 'make money, they don't know how, many others because they can't help it, and yet the multiplying power of money is founded on clear and scientific principles, which nobody, with the exception of myself, ever studies, and which very few can even understand.' Then he went on to give me an illustration of doubling or even trebling your command of capital. 'We will suppose that you have £500 to invest—it is but a small sum, but see how it can be indefinitely extended—at any rate, according to the banking practice that obtains here. You place your money in shares of the Bank of Oceana—a sound invest-page 455ment, steadily rising, and paying 10 per cent. dividends. You deposit these shares in the bank, and on that security you obtain an advance of £300. This you may invest in Marine Insurance stock, which has risen 25 per cent. within the last twelve months. and is also giving splendid returns. On that scrip you get a further advance of say £200, with which you might take up shares in the newly-formed Wheat and Wool Company, a most promising concern, which cannot go wrong. On the £200 you might easily borrow some more, and so on; but even without doing that you have already doubled your capital.'
"I confess that I was rather startled, and even fascinated, at such an inviting prospect. 'There must be a screw loose somewhere,' I said.
"'Not a bit of it,' replied Winkham; 'you would be as right as the bank. I have given the tip to a few friends, and they are quietly but steadily making their fortunes; but it would not do to let all the world into the secret.'
"'But supposing,' I remarked, 'these blessed shares were to take a turn and go down; what then?'
"Winkham winced a little, then he continued gaily, 'Of course, my dear fellow, one must reckon upon something, and I am reckoning upon a rising market. If there was a falling tendency you should sell out page 456at once. In such cases the man who hesitates is lost.'
"'And with a falling market,' I inquired, 'how would you do?"
"'You would have to adopt an entirely different system. One,' he added, 'which I have thoroughly mastered also.'
"'Then all that remains,' I exclaimed with some enthusiasm, 'is to make certain of the tendency of the money market; that point gained, and the trick is won! Winkham, you are a genius!'
"He gave me a knowing wink, as much as to say that I had guessed right; then he laid his finger on his lips to admonish me to secrecy on a matter of such tremendous import, and with a hearty grasp of the hand, he made a precipitate retreat.—
"My Dear Val,
—I told you a few days ago about the Peters household, and the domestic trouble I saw brewing there.
"Better acquaintance has convinced me that the worst may be feared—an estrangement between man and wife, and a threatened disruption of their former happy home. That cursed villain has wrought it all; page 457a foul tempter ensnaring them to perdition. It would be hard to understand how such a commonplace scoundrel should have been able to work so much mischief, did we not know how easily evil is accomplished, both morally and physically, in the world. Peters, from his very kind and confiding nature, is cut out for a dupe, and his wife must be as weak and as giddy as the humming-bird which falls a prey to the fascinating gaze of a vile reptile. I have not been let into the secret, nor have I indeed endeavoured to pry into their affairs, but judging from appearances their happiness has been utterly destroyed.
"There can be no doubt but that this designing reprobate has led poor Peters into evil ways, and has robbed him to boot; he has allured him from his home and his business, and incited him to bad and intemperate habits. Until quite lately these two have been inseparable, but whether their dubious transactions have turned out disastrously, or whether it is that the unfortunate man's eyes have been opened to the other's infamy I know not, but there has been a terrible change visible. My poor friend seems at times roused to feverish excitement, and at other times he is plunged into morbid despondency. He is savage and sullen by turns, and I fear that he often flies for solace to the bottle. Towards Mrs. Peters the page 458so-called Doctor is sufficiently marked in his attentions to compromise her seriously in the eyes of the world—everybody can see it except the unconscious husband.
"The insidious knave is always sneaking about; he affects to be one of the household, and privileged to dance attendance on the wife, accompany her out, carry her parcels, and receive whispered confidences. Peters used to laugh heartily at these tender flirtations (so he called them), but lately they have angered him, and there have been some unpleasant bickerings in consequence. Last night the gathering storm would appear to have burst with unwonted fury.
"Fortunately I was not present, for these scenes distress me horribly, and I am always glad to escape from them. When I returned to the house the bluster was over, and I went straight to my bedroom, anxious to avoid the quarrelsome pair. The Doctor had decamped suddenly, and Peters was closeted with his wife in his office downstairs.
"I could overhear his voice; it was not in anger, but in pitiful, broken, stuttering tones that struck me as the saddest I had ever heard. His wife was crying. After a while she parted from him, and came slowly up the stairs alone, stifling her sobs, and several times she stopped and looked back, as if yearning to page 459return to him, but he had closed the door against her. Poor thing! I pitied her then—I pity her still more now, whether she is deserving of pity or not.
"A mournful silence prevailed in the house, the lights had been put out, and all was dark, save a faint glimmer of the moon which shone through the passage window. Peters remained shut up in his office, and gave no sign of life; I had undressed, but could not sleep, oppressed with the contagion of wretchedness which prevailed in others. I was pondering in my own mind whether it would not be well for me to seek an interview with the poor fellow, whose misery inspired my compassion, reveal to him all I knew, endeavour to win his confidence in the hope that I might assist him in this hour of trial—possibly be the means of averting a further calamity. Then I was startled by the sound of a footfall. My door was slightly ajar, and opening on to the landing; I cautiously approached it, and listened attentively. The sound was repeated. In the dim obscurity I perceived the crouching form of a man stealthily creeping up the stairs. He had taken off his shoes to avoid making any noise, and he was quite unaware that he was watched.
"When he came to the door of Mrs. Peters' bedroom he tried the handle, but it was locked; then I page 460heard him scratch at the panel in a peculiar way, and immediately afterwards the door was opened and a white form appeared and stood at the entrance. Then there was a whispered conference between the two, the woman speaking in hurried and tremulous tones and with great agitation, while the man only muttered some words which reached me as a confused murmur, but I could distinguish a sneering accent which was familiar to me, and I caught an allusion to Peters, intimating that he was too drunk to occasion any apprehension. The woman appeared to be greatly alarmed and distressed, and there was a moving piteousness in her supplication to him to leave her and to save her from misery and dishonour.
"After a few minutes the intruder consented to retire; but as he turned to go I saw him approach her, and I heard the sound of an ardent kiss. It gave me a sickening sensation of disgust and indignation; yet for that poor deluded victim, whom I had known so blithe and bonnie—such an artless and happy little wife—I could only feel unbounded commiseration, pity for her present degradation, pity for the utter wreck of her future.
"After this you may be sure I felt no wish to warn the husband, or to seek for confidences with any one. It was too late! My only anxiety has been to get page 461away, and I have determined to leave town to-morrow morning on a long-promised visit to the Darrells, who live some twenty miles south. I shall probably be away a few days, and then I shall make straight for you, dear friend, and give up my wanderings for a time.
"I have seen Mr. Pike again; he has attended to my business at last, and only charged me a song for it. Truly he is an honest man, and a true-hearted one too, notwithstanding his taunts and his tantrums. For once I felt that I could heartily join in with his fierce denunciations against the rascality of mankind. I reserve my opinion as to whether the world is essentially bad, or original sin inherent to our natures; but truly there are villains in the world so black that their presence alone must taint the mass, and spread a contagion of foulness and suffering through it.
"Good-bye for the present; I shall soon be with you.—
"The Austral Hotel, City, 7th December.
"My dear Val,
—Returning to town yesterday, I heard on the way the dreadful news, which has probably reached you ere this by the papers, of Peters' death. When I left this place last week I had a presentiment that some dire calamity was hanging page 462over that ill-fated pair which it was beyond my power to avert. Yet the sad tidings came upon me with a violent shock, and I have felt quite upset over it ever since.
"I liked the man, and while making merry at times—God knows, in no uncharitable mood—at his naïve eccentricities and physical infirmity, I always felt drawn towards him by a bond of sympathy with his kind and simple nature. Poor fellow! he was struck to the heart. As for his wife, I cannot think of her without conflicting sentiments of resentment and compassion.
"What a wretched future she has in store for her! How far she may have sinned I know not, nor care to know; I extend my sympathy only to her afflictions. He used to worship her with a sort of childish devotion which was almost ludicrous to witness; she was his own particular star, that brightened his path and guided his fate, and when that light went out he sought the greater darkness that covers all. The unfortunate man would appear to have acted with full deliberation, for he put his affairs in order to the best of his ability, and then took a dose of poison from the ample store at hand, which rendered death inevitable. He expired in a few minutes, but in great agony; and when questioned as to his reason for seeking death, page 463he only replied, 'I am tired of living.' His wife was called in haste, and was with him at the last moment; he embraced her tenderly, and bade her good-bye. He had not an unkind word for her.
"The devilish instigator of this awful tragedy has cleared off, but there is a warrant out for his apprehension—not indeed for this foul deed of treacherous villany, for the law takes no cognisance of it, but for stealing a watch!
"The inquest is to be held to-day, and I am purposely keeping out of the way, as I have no wish to be dragged into the inquiry. What light I could shed upon it had better be hidden for ever.
"I shall leave town to-morrow.