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I WHAT HAPPENED TO JOHN HARMON

Published 1864–1865

Scene:London and Neighboring Towns
Time:1860

CHARACTERS

Mr. HarmonA rich dust collector
Mr. BoffinForeman of the dust business and
heir to the Harmon fortune
Known as "The Golden Dustman"
Mrs. BoffinHis wife
John HarmonMr. Harmon's son
Later Mr. Boffin's secretary, under the name of
"John Rokesmith"
Mr. VeneeringA rich man with social and political
ambitions
Mr. WilferA clerk in Mr. Veneering's office
BellaHis daughter
Silas WeggA one-legged ballad seller
"Rogue" RiderhoodA riverman of bad reputation
Later a lock tender
HexamA riverman
CharleyHis son
LizzieHis daughter
"Jenny Wren"A crippled friend of Lizzie's, known
as "The Dolls' Dressmaker"
Eugene WrayburnA reckless young lawyer
HeadstoneA schoolmaster
Mr. VenusA dismal young man with a dismal trade—the
stringing together of human skeletons on wires

[Pg 324]


[Pg 325]

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND

I

WHAT HAPPENED TO JOHN HARMON

In London there once lived an old man named Harmon who had made a great fortune by gathering the dust and ashes of the city and sorting it for whatever it contained of value. He lived in a house surrounded by great mounds of dust that he had collected.

He was a hard-hearted man and when his daughter would not marry as he wished he turned her out of the house on a winter's night. The poor girl died soon after, and her younger brother (a boy of only fourteen), indignant at his father's cruelty, ran away to a foreign country, where for years he was not heard of.

The old man, hard-hearted as he was, and though he never spoke of the son save with anger and curses, felt this keenly, for in his own way he had loved the boy.

A Mr. Boffin was foreman of Harmon's dust business, and both he and his wife had loved the two children. Being kind and just people, they did not hesitate to let the father know how wicked they considered his action, and they never ceased[Pg 326] to grieve for the poor little John who had run away. So, though they did not guess it, the old man made up his mind they were an honest and deserving pair.

One morning the dust collector was discovered dead in his bed, and then it was found that he had left a very curious will. The will bequeathed all his vast fortune to the son who had run away, on one condition: that he marry a young lady by the name of Bella Wilfer, the daughter of a poor London clerk.

The son had never seen Bella in his life, and in fact the old man himself had seen her only a few times—and that was a long, long time before, when she was a very little girl. He was sitting in the park one Sunday morning, and the baby Bella, because her father would not go the exact way she wanted, was screaming and stamping her little foot. Old Mr. Harmon, having such a stubborn temper himself, admired it in the little child, and came to watch for her. Then, for some strange reason, which nobody ever could guess, he had put the baby's name in his will, declaring that his son John should get his money only by marrying this little girl. And the will declared, moreover, that if the son, John Harmon, should die, or should refuse to marry Bella, all the fortune should go to Mr. Boffin.

The lawyers had great trouble in finding where John Harmon was, but finally they did so, and received[Pg 327] word that he would return at once to England.

The ship he sailed on reached London, but the passenger it carried did not appear. A few days later, a riverman named Hexam found a body floating in the River Thames, which flows through the middle of London. In his pockets were the letters the lawyers had written to John Harmon, and there seemed no doubt that the unfortunate young man had been murdered and his body thrown into the river.

The night the body was found, while it lay at the police station, a young man, very much excited, came and asked to see it. He would not tell who he was, and his whole appearance was most wild and strange. The police wondered, but they saw no reason to detain the stranger, so after looking at the body, he went away again very hastily.

A great stir was made about the case, and the police tried their best to discover the murderer, but they were unsuccessful. Then it occurred to them that there was something suspicious in the appearance of the young man that night. They tried to find him, but he seemed to have disappeared.

At last the fortune was turned over to Mr. Boffin, and all but a few people thought no more about the murder.

Now, it was not really true that John Harmon had been drowned. This is what had happened:[Pg 328]

The young man had come back to England unwillingly, though he was coming to such wealth. Having left his father so long before in anger, he hardly liked to touch the money. And he dreaded having to marry a young lady he had never seen, with whom all his life he might be most unhappy.

On the ship was a seaman about his own age whose face somewhat resembled his own. With this man Harmon became friendly and before the ship reached England he had told him his trouble and his dread. The other proposed that Harmon disguise himself in sailor's clothes, go into the neighborhood where Miss Bella Wilfer lived, and see if she was one whom he could love.

Now the man whom Harmon was thus trusting was a villain, who, while he had been listening to the other's story, had been planning a crime against him. He had made up his mind to kill Harmon, and, as he looked so much like him, to marry Bella himself and claim the fortune.

Near the docks where the ship came in was a sailors' boarding-house owned by a riverman of bad reputation named "Rogue" Riderhood. Riderhood had once been the partner of Hexam, the man who found the floating body, but one day he was caught trying to rob a live man and Hexam had cast him off. The seaman took Harmon to this house and there he secretly got from Riderhood some poison. Last he persuaded Harmon to change clothes with him.[Pg 329]

All that remained now was to get rid of the real Harmon. To do this he put the poison in a cup of coffee, and Harmon, drinking this, became insensible.

The lodging-house hung out over the river and the wicked man had intended throwing the other's body, dressed now in seaman's clothing, into the water. But fate was quickly to spoil his plan. He and some others fell to quarreling over the money found in the clothing of the unconscious man. The result was a desperate fight, and when it was over there were two bodies thrown from the window into the black river—the drugged man and the seaman who had planned his murder.

The shock of the cold water brought the drugged Harmon to his senses. He struck out, and after a terrible struggle succeeded in reaching shore. The exposure and the poison made him very ill and he lay abed in an inn for some days. While he was lying helpless there the drowned body of the seaman was found by Hexam, the riverman. As it wore the clothes of John Harmon, and had his papers in its pockets, every one supposed, of course, that it was the body of the missing heir.

The first thing John Harmon saw after he was well enough to walk was a printed notice announcing the finding of his own dead body—which gave him a very queer sensation. Lying there he had had time to think over the adventure and he had[Pg 330] guessed pretty nearly how it all had happened. He went at once to the police station to look at the corpse and saw it was that of his false friend, who had tried to lure him to his death. So it was the real John Harmon who had so excitedly appeared that night to the police inspectors, and had vanished immediately, and whom they had searched for so long in vain, under the suspicion that he himself was the murderer.

He had a very good reason for not letting the police find him, too. Now that the world considered him dead, he had determined, before he came to life, to carry out his first plan, and to find out for himself just what kind of person the Bella Wilfer he was expected to marry was, and whether Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, who had been so kind to him in his childhood, would still be as true to his memory in their wealth. For this reason he did not correct the error that had been made. He took the name of John Rokesmith, and, to get acquainted with Bella, hired lodgings in her own father's house.

Mr. Wilfer was a clerk for a Mr. Veneering, a man who had made a big fortune in the drug business and wanted now to get into Parliament. Everything the Veneerings had was brand new. They spent a great deal of money entertaining society people at dinners, but Mr. Veneering spent very little on his clerks. Bella's father, though he was always as happy as a cherub, was so poor that[Pg 331] he never had been able to buy a whole new suit at once. His hat was shabby before he could afford a coat, and his trousers were worn before he got to new shoes. So he was glad enough indeed to get a lodger.

Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, to be sure, now had the great fortune. They bought a fine house, and everybody called Mr. Boffin "The Golden Dustman," because he was so rich. Mrs. Boffin wore velvet dresses, and Mr. Boffin, thinking that now he was rich he ought to know a great deal about books, bought a big volume of the History of the Roman Empire and hired a man with a wooden leg who kept a ballad shop near by to come and read to him in the evenings.

But in spite of all their fine things, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin remained the same good, kind-hearted couple they had always been. John Harmon (or John Rokesmith, as he now called himself), soon found this out, for he cleverly got a position as Mr. Boffin's secretary, taking charge of all his papers and preventing many dishonest people from cheating him. And Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, never suspecting who he really was, instead of "secretary," called him "Our Mutual Friend," and soon grew fond of him.

Nor did they forget Bella Wilfer (for whose disappointment, at not getting the rich husband she had expected, they felt very sorry), and soon invited her to live with them. Bella was a good-tempered,[Pg 332] pretty girl, though inclined to be somewhat selfish and spoiled, and she was not sure, after all, that she would have liked a husband who had been willed to her like a dozen silver spoons; so she did not grieve greatly, and accepted Mr. and Mrs. Boffin's offer gratefully.

So now the secretary, John Rokesmith, beside being constantly with Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, whom he had always loved, had a chance to see Bella every day, and he was not long in finding out that it would be very easy, indeed, for him to fall in love with her.

May 19, 2018, 8:19 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
Read next chapter II LIZZIE HEXAM AND THE DOLLS' DRESSMAKER

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