A fortunate chance and some influence obtained for Harry, at the time of his bereavement, the position of private secretary to Major-General Sir Thomas Vandeleur, C. B. Sir Thomas was a man of sixty, loud-spoken, boisterous, and domineering. For some reason, some service, the nature of which had been often whispered and repeatedly denied, the Rajah of Kashgar had presented this officer with the sixth largest known diamond of the world. The gift transformed General Vandeleur from a poor into a wealthy man, from an obscure and unpopular soldier into one of the lions of London society; the possessor of the Rajah's Diamond was welcome in the most exclusive circles; and he had found a lady, young, beautiful, and well-born, who was willing to call the diamond hers even at the price of marriage with Sir Thomas Vandeleur. It was commonly said at the time that, as like draws to like, one jewel had attracted another; certainly Lady Vandeleur was not only a gem of the finest water in her own person, but she showed herself to the world in a very costly setting; and she was considered by many respectable authorities as one among the three or four best-dressed women in England.
Harry's duty as secretary was not particularly onerous; but he had a dislike for all prolonged work; it gave him pain to ink his fingers; and the charms of Lady Vandeleur and her toilets drew him often from the library to the boudoir. He had the prettiest ways among women, could talk fashions with enjoyment, and was never more happy than when criticizing a shade of ribbon, or running on an errand to the milliner's. In short, Sir Thomas' correspondence fell into pitiful arrears, and my lady had another lady's maid.
At last the general, who was one of the least patient of military commanders, arose from his place in a violent excess of passion, and indicated to his secretary that he had no further use for his services, with one of those explanatory gestures which are most rarely employed between gentlemen. The door being unfortunately open, Mr. Hartley fell down-stairs head foremost.
He arose somewhat hurt and very deeply aggrieved. The life in the general's house precisely suited him; he moved, on a more or less doubtful footing, in very genteel company, he did little, he ate of the best, and he had a lukewarm satisfaction in the presence of Lady Vandeleur.
Immediately after he had been outraged by the military foot, he hurried to the boudoir and recounted his sorrows.
"You know very well, my dear Harry," replied Lady Vandeleur, for she called him by name like a child or a domestic servant, "that you never by any chance do what the general tells you. I shall be sorry to lose you, but since you cannot stay longer in a house where you have been insulted, I shall wish you good-bye, and I promise you to make the general smart for his behavior."
"My lady," said he, "what is an insult? I should think little indeed of any one who could not forgive them by the score. But to leave one's friends; to tear up the bonds of affection——"
He was unable to continue, for his emotion choked him, and he began to weep.
Lady Vandeleur looked at him with a curious expression.
"This little fool," she thought, "why should he not become my servant instead of the general's? He is good-natured, obliging, and understands dress; and besides, it will keep him out of mischief."
That night she talked over the general, who was already somewhat ashamed of his vivacity; and Harry was transferred to the feminine department, where his life was little short of heavenly. He was always dressed with uncommon nicety, wore delicate flowers in his button-hole, and could entertain a visitor with tact and pleasantry.
One fine morning he came into the drawing-room and began to arrange some music on the top of the piano. Lady Vandeleur, at the other end of the apartment, was speaking somewhat eagerly with her brother, Charlie Pendragon, an elderly young man, much broken with dissipation and very lame of one foot. The private secretary, to whose entrance they paid no regard, could not avoid overhearing a part of their conversation.
"To-day or never," said the lady. "Once and for all, it shall be done to-day."
"To-day, it must be," replied the brother, with a sigh. "But it is a false step, a ruinous step, Clara; and we shall live to repent it dismally."
Lady Vandeleur looked her brother steadily and somewhat strangely in the face.
"You forget," she said; "the man must die at last."
"Upon my word, Clara," said Pendragon, "I believe you are the most heartless rascal in England."
"You men," she returned, "are so coarsely built, that you can never appreciate a shade of meaning. You are yourselves rapacious, violent, immodest, careless of distinction; and yet the least thought for the future shocks you in a woman. I have no patience with such stuff. You would despise in a common banker the imbecility that you expect to find in us."
"You are very likely right," replied her brother; "you were always cleverer than I. And, anyway, you know my motto: the family before all."
"Yes, Charlie," she returned, taking his hand in hers. "I know your motto better than you know it yourself. And 'Clara before the family!' Is not that the second part of it? Indeed, you are the best of brothers, and I love you dearly."
Mr. Pendragon got up, looking a little confused by these family endearments.
"I had better not be seen," said he. "I understand my part to a miracle, and I'll keep an eye on the Tame Cat."
"Do," she replied. "He is an abject creature, and might ruin all."
She kissed the tips of her fingers to him daintily; and the brother withdrew by the boudoir and the back-stair.
"Harry," said Lady Vandeleur, turning toward the secretary as soon as they were alone. "I have a commission for you this morning. But you shall take a cab; I cannot have my secretary freckled."
She spoke the last words with emphasis and a look of half-motherly pride that caused great contentment to poor Harry; and he professed himself charmed to find an opportunity of serving her.
"It is another of our great secrets," she went on archly, "and no one must know of it but my secretary and me. Sir Thomas would make the saddest disturbance; and if you only knew how weary I am with these scenes! Oh, Harry, Harry, can you explain to me what makes you men so violent and unjust? But, indeed, I know you cannot; you are the only man in the world who knows nothing of these shameful passions; you are so good, Harry, and so kind; you, at least, can be a woman's friend; and do you know? I think you make the others more ugly by comparison."
"It is you," said Harry, gallantly, "who are so kind to me. You treat me like——"
"Like a mother," interposed Lady Vandeleur. "I try to be a mother to you. Or, at least," she corrected herself with a smile, "almost a mother. I am afraid I am too young to be your mother really. Let us say a friend—a dear friend."
"But all this is beside our purpose," she resumed. "You will find a bandbox in the left-hand side of the oak wardrobe; it is underneath the pink slip that I wore on Wednesday with my Mechlin. You will take it immediately to this address," and she gave him a slip of paper, "but do not, on any account, let it out of your hands until you have received a receipt written by myself. Do you understand? Answer, if you please—answer! This is extremely important, and I must ask you to pay some attention."
Harry pacified her by repeating her instructions perfectly; and she was just going to tell him more when General Vandeleur flung into the apartment, scarlet with anger, and holding a long and elaborate milliner's bill in his hand.
"Will you look at this, madam?" cried he. "Will you have the goodness to look at this document? I know well enough you married me for my money, and I hope I can make as great allowance as any other man in the service; but, as sure as God made me, I mean to put a period to this disreputable prodigality."
"Mr. Hartley," said Lady Vandeleur, "I think you understand what you have to do. May I ask you to see to it at once?"
"Stop," said the general, addressing Harry, "one word before you go." And then, turning again to Lady Vandeleur, "What is this precious fellow's errand?" he demanded. "I trust him no further than I do yourself, let me tell you. If he had as much as the rudiments of honesty, he would scorn to stay in this house; and what he does for his wages is a mystery to all the world. What is his errand, madam? and why are you hurrying him away?"
"I supposed you had something to say to me in private," replied the lady.
"You spoke about an errand," insisted the general. "Do not attempt to deceive me in my present state of temper. You certainly spoke about an errand."
"If you insist on making your servants privy to our humiliating dissensions," replied Lady Vandeleur, "perhaps I had better ask Mr. Hartley to sit down. No?" she continued; "then you may go, Mr. Hartley. I trust you may remember all that you have heard in this room; it may be useful to you."
Harry at once made his escape from the drawing-room; and as he ran upstairs he could hear the general's voice upraised in declamation, and the thin tones of Lady Vandeleur planting icy repartees at every opening. How cordially he admired the wife! How skillfully she could evade an awkward question! with what secure effrontery she repeated her instructions under the very guns of the enemy! and on the other hand, how he detested the husband!
There had been nothing unfamiliar in the morning's events, for he was continually in the habit of serving Lady Vandeleur on secret missions, principally connected with millinery. There was a skeleton in the house, as he well knew. The bottomless extravagance and the unknown liabilities of the wife had long since swallowed her own fortune, and threatened day by day to ingulf that of the husband. Once or twice in every year exposure and ruin seemed imminent, and Harry kept trotting round to all sorts of furnishers' shops, telling small fibs, and paying small advances on the gross amount, until another term was tided over, and the lady and her faithful secretary breathed again. For Harry, in a double capacity, was heart and soul upon that side of the war; not only did he adore Lady Vandeleur and fear and dislike her husband, but he naturally sympathized with the love of finery, and his own single extravagance was at the tailor's.
He found the bandbox where it had been described, arranged his toilet with care, and left the house. The sun shone brightly; the distance he had to travel was considerable, and he remembered with dismay that the general's sudden interruption had prevented Lady Vandeleur from giving him money for a cab. On this sultry day there was every chance that his complexion would suffer severely; and to walk through so much of London with a bandbox on his arm was a humiliation almost insupportable to a youth of his character. He paused, and took counsel with himself. The Vandeleurs lived in Eaton Place; his destination was near Notting Hill; plainly, he might cross the Park by keeping well in the open and avoiding populous alleys; and he thanked his stars when he reflected that it was still comparatively early in the day.
Anxious to be rid of his incubus, he walked somewhat faster than his ordinary, and he was already some way through Kensington Gardens when, in a solitary spot among trees, he found himself confronted by the general.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Thomas," observed Harry, politely falling on one side; for the other stood directly in his path.
"Where are you going, sir?" asked the general.
"I am taking a little walk among the trees," replied the lad.
The general struck the bandbox with his cane.
"With that thing?" he cried; "you lie, sir, and you know you lie!"
"Indeed, Sir Thomas," returned Harry, "I am not accustomed to be questioned in so high a key."
"You do not understand your position," said the general. "You are my servant, and a servant of whom I have conceived the most serious suspicions. How do I know but that your box is full of teaspoons?"
"It contains a silk hat belonging to a friend," said Harry.
"Very well," replied General Vandeleur. "Then I want to see your friend's silk hat. I have," he added, grimly, "a singular curiosity for hats; and I believe you know me to be somewhat positive."
"I beg your pardon, Sir Thomas, I am exceedingly grieved," Harry apologized; "but indeed this is a private affair."
The general caught him roughly by the shoulder with one hand, while he raised his cane in the most menacing manner with the other. Harry gave himself up for lost; but at the same moment Heaven vouchsafed him an unexpected defender in the person of Charlie Pendragon, who now strode forward from behind the trees.
"Come, come, general, hold your hand," said he, "this is neither courteous nor manly."
"Aha!" cried the general, wheeling round upon his new antagonist, "Mr. Pendragon! And do you suppose, Mr. Pendragon, that because I have had the misfortune to marry your sister, I shall suffer myself to be dogged and thwarted by a discredited and bankrupt libertine like you? My acquaintance with Lady Vandeleur, sir, has taken away all my appetite for the other members of her family."
"And do you fancy, General Vandeleur," retorted Charlie, "that because my sister has had the misfortune to marry you, she there and then forfeited her rights and privileges as a lady? I own, sir, that by that action she did as much as anybody could to derogate from her position; but to me she is still a Pendragon. I make it my business to protect her from ungentlemanly outrage, and if you were ten times her husband I would not permit her liberty to be restrained, nor her private messenger to be violently arrested."
"How is that, Mr. Hartley?" interrogated the general. "Mr. Pendragon is of my opinion, it appears. He, too, suspects that Lady Vandeleur has something to do with your friend's silk hat."
Charlie saw that he had committed an unpardonable blunder, which he hastened to repair.
"How, sir?" he cried; "I suspect, do you say? I suspect nothing. Only where I find strength abused and a man brutalizing his inferiors, I take the liberty to interfere."
As he said these words he made a sign to Harry, which the latter was too dull or too much troubled to understand.
"In what way am I to construe your attitude, sir?" demanded Vandeleur.
"Why, sir, as you please," returned Pendragon.
The general once more raised his cane, and made a cut for Charlie's head; but the latter, lame foot and all, evaded the blow with his umbrella, ran in, and immediately closed with his formidable adversary.
"Run, Harry, run!" he cried; "run, you dolt!"
Harry stood petrified for a moment, watching the two men sway together in this fierce embrace; then he turned and took to his heels. When he cast a glance over his shoulder he saw the general prostrate under Charlie's knee, but still making desperate efforts to reverse the situation; and the gardens seemed to have filled with people, who were running from all directions toward the scene of the fight. This spectacle lent the secretary wings, and he did not relax his pace until he had gained the Bayswater Road, and plunged at random into an unfrequented by-street.
To see two gentlemen of his acquaintance thus brutally mauling each other was deeply shocking to Harry. He desired to forget the sight; he desired, above all, to put as great a distance as possible between himself and General Vandeleur; and in his eagerness for this he forgot everything about his destination, and hurried before him headlong and trembling. When he remembered that Lady Vandeleur was the wife of one and sister of the other of these gladiators, his heart was touched with sympathy for a woman so distressingly misplaced in life. Even his own situation in the general's house looked hardly so pleasing as usual in the light of these violent transactions.
He had walked some little distance, busied with these meditations, before a slight collision with another passenger reminded him of the bandbox on his arm.
"Heavens!" cried he, "where was my head? and whither have I wandered?"
Thereupon he consulted the envelope which Lady Vandeleur had given him. The address was there, but without a name. Harry was simply directed to ask for "the gentleman who accepted a parcel from Lady Vandeleur," and if he were not at home to await his return. The gentleman, added the note, should present a receipt in the handwriting of the lady herself. All this seemed mighty mysterious, and Harry was above all astonished at the omission of the name and the formality of the receipt. He had thought little of this last when he heard it dropped in conversation; but reading it in cold blood, and taking it in connection with the other strange particulars, he became convinced that he was engaged in perilous affairs. For half a moment he had a doubt of Lady Vandeleur herself; for he found these obscure proceedings somewhat unworthy of so high a lady, and became more critical when her secrets were preserved against himself. But her empire over his spirit was too complete, he dismissed his suspicions, and blamed himself roundly for having so much as entertained them.
In one thing, however, his duty and interest, his generosity and his terrors, coincided—to get rid of the bandbox with the greatest possible dispatch.
He accosted the first policeman and courteously inquired his way. It turned out that he was already not far from his destination, and a walk of a few minutes brought him to a small house in a lane, freshly painted, and kept with the most scrupulous attention. The knocker and bell-pull were highly polished; flowering pot-herbs garnished the sills of the different windows; and curtains of some rich material concealed the interior from the eyes of curious passengers. The place had an air of repose and secrecy; and Harry was so far caught with this spirit that he knocked with more than usual discretion, and was more than usually careful to remove all impurity from his boots.
A servant-maid of some personal attractions immediately opened the door, and seemed to regard the secretary with no unkind eyes.
"This is the parcel from Lady Vandeleur," said Harry.
"I know," replied the maid, with a nod. "But the gentleman is from home. Will you leave it with me?"
"I cannot," answered Harry. "I am directed not to part with it but upon a certain condition, and I must ask you, I am afraid, to let me wait."
"Well," said she, "I suppose I may let you wait. I am lonely enough, I can tell you, and you do not look as though you would eat a girl. But be sure and do not ask the gentleman's name, for that I am not to tell you."
"Do you say so?" cried Harry. "Why, how strange! But, indeed, for some time back I walk among surprises. One question I think I may surely ask without indiscretion: Is he the master of this house?"
"He is a lodger, and not eight days old at that," returned the maid. "And now a question for a question: Do you know Lady Vandeleur?"
"I am her private secretary," replied Harry, with a glow of modest pride.
"She is pretty, is she not?" pursued the servant.
"Oh, beautiful!" cried Harry; "wonderfully lovely, and not less good and kind!"
"You look kind enough yourself," she retorted; "and I wager you are worth a dozen Lady Vandeleurs."
Harry was properly scandalized.
"I?" he cried. "I am only a secretary!"
"Do you mean that for me?" said the girl. "Because I am only a housemaid, if you please." And then, relenting at the sight of Harry's obvious confusion, "I know you mean nothing of the sort," she added; "and I like your looks; but I think nothing of your Lady Vandeleur. Oh, these mistresses!" she cried. "To send out a real gentleman like you—with a bandbox—in broad day!"
During this talk they had remained in their original positions—she on the doorstep, he on the sidewalk, bareheaded for the sake of coolness, and with the bandbox on his arm. But upon this last speech Harry, who was unable to support such point-blank compliments to his appearance, nor the encouraging look with which they were accompanied, began to change his attitude, and glance from left to right in perturbation. In so doing he turned his face toward the lower end of the lane, and there, to his indescribable dismay, his eyes encountered those of General Vandeleur. The general, in a prodigious fluster of heat, hurry and indignation, had been scouring the streets in chase of his brother-in-law; but so soon as he caught a glimpse of the delinquent secretary his purpose changed, his anger flowed into a new channel, and he turned on his heel and came tearing up the lane with truculent gestures and vociferations.
Harry made but one bolt of it into the house, driving the maid before him; and the door was slammed in his pursuer's countenance.
"Is there a bar? Will it lock?" asked Harry, while a salvo on the knocker made the house echo from wall to wall.
"Why, what is wrong with you?" asked the maid. "Is it this old gentleman?"
"If he gets hold of me," whispered Harry, "I am as good as dead. He has been pursuing me all day, carries a sword-stick, and is an Indian military officer."
"These are fine manners," cried the maid. "And what, if you please, may be his name?"
"It is the general, my master," answered Harry. "He is after this bandbox."
"Did not I tell you?" cried the maid in triumph. "I told you I thought worse than nothing of your Lady Vandeleur; and if you had an eye in your head you might see what she is for yourself. An ungrateful minx, I will be bound for that!"
The general renewed his attack upon the knocker, and his passion growing with delay, began to kick and beat upon the panels of the door.
"It is lucky," observed the girl, "that I am alone in the house; your general may hammer until he is weary, and there is none to open for him. Follow me!"
So saying she led Harry into the kitchen, where she made him sit down, and stood by him herself in an affectionate attitude, with a hand upon his shoulder. The din at the door, so far from abating, continued to increase in volume, and at each blow the unhappy secretary was shaken to the heart.
"What is your name?" asked the girl.
"Harry Hartley," he replied.
"Mine," she went on, "is Prudence. Do you like it?"
"Very much," said Harry. "But hear for a moment how the general beats upon the door. He will certainly break it in, and then, in Heaven's name, what have I to look for but death?"
"You put yourself very much about with no occasion," answered Prudence. "Let your general knock, he will do no more than blister his hands. Do you think I would keep you here if I were not sure to save you? Oh, no, I am a good friend to those that please me! and we have a back door upon another lane. But," she added, checking him, for he had got upon his feet immediately on this welcome news, "but I will not show where it is unless you kiss me. Will you, Harry?"
"That I will," he cried, remembering his gallantry, "not for your back door, but because you are good and pretty."
And he administered two or three cordial salutes, which were returned to him in kind.
Then Prudence led him to the back gate, and put her hand upon the key.
"Will you come and see me?" she asked.
"I will, indeed," said Harry. "Do not I owe you my life?"
"And now," she added, opening the door, "run as hard as you can, for I shall let in the general."
Harry scarcely required this advice; fear had him by the forelock; and he addressed himself diligently to flight. A few steps, and he believed he would return to Lady Vandeleur in honor and safety. But these few steps had not been taken before he heard a man's voice, hailing him by name with many execrations, and, looking over his shoulder, he beheld Charlie Pendragon waving him with both arms to return. The shock of this new incident was so sudden and profound, and Harry was already worked into so high a state of nervous tension, that he could think of nothing better than to accelerate his pace, and continue running. He should certainly have remembered the scene in Kensington Gardens; he should certainly have concluded that, where the general was his enemy, Charlie Pendragon could be no other than a friend. But such was the fever and perturbation of his mind that he was struck by none of these considerations, and only continued to run the faster up the lane.
Charlie, by the sound of his voice and the vile terms that he hurled after the secretary, was obviously beside himself with rage. He, too, ran his very best; but, try as he might, the physical advantages were not upon his side, and his outcries and the fall of his lame foot on the macadam began to fall further and further into the wake.
Harry's hopes began once more to arise. The lane was both steep and narrow, but it was exceedingly solitary, bordered on either hand by garden walls, overhung with foliage; and, for as far as the fugitive could see in front of him, there was neither a creature moving nor an open door. Providence, weary of persecution, was now offering him an open field for his escape.
Alas! as he came abreast of a garden door under a tuft of chestnuts, it was suddenly drawn back, and he could see inside, upon a garden path, the figure of abutcher's boy with his tray upon his arm. He had hardly recognized the fact before he was some steps beyond upon the other side. But the fellow had had time to observe him; he was evidently much surprised to see a gentleman go by at so unusual a pace; and he came out into the lane and began to call after Harry with shouts of ironical encouragement.
His appearance gave a new idea to Charlie Pendragon, who, although he was now sadly out of breath, once more upraised his voice.
"Stop thief!" he cried.
And immediately the butcher's boy had taken up the cry and joined in the pursuit.
This was a bitter moment for the hunted secretary. It is true that his terror enabled him once more to improve his pace, and gain with every step on his pursuers; but he was well aware that he was near the end of his resources, and should he meet any one coming the other way, his predicament in the narrow lane would be desperate indeed.
"I must find a place of concealment," he thought, "and that within the next few seconds, or all is over with me in this world."
Scarcely had the thought crossed his mind than the lane took a sudden turning; and he found himself hidden from his enemies. There are circumstances in which even the least energetic of mankind learn to behave with vigor and decision; and the more cautious forget their prudence and embrace foolhardy resolutions. This was one of those occasions for Harry Hartley; and those who knew him best would have been the most astonished at the lad's audacity. He stopped dead, flung the bandbox over a garden wall, and, leaping upward with incredible agility and seizing the copestone with his hands, he tumbled headlong after it into the garden.
He came to himself a moment afterward, seated in a border of small rosebushes. His hands and knees were cut and bleeding, for the wall had been protected against such an escalade by a liberal provision of old bottles; and he was conscious of a general dislocation and a painful swimming in the head. Facing him across the garden, which was in admirable order, and set with flowers of the most delicious perfume, he beheld the back of a house. It was of considerable extent, and plainly habitable; but, in odd contrast to the grounds, it was crazy, ill-kept, and of a mean appearance. On all other sides the circuit of the garden wall appeared unbroken.
He took in these features of the scene with mechanical glances, but his mind was still unable to piece together or draw a rational conclusion from what he saw. And when he heard footsteps advancing on the gravel, although he turned his eyes in that direction, it was with no thought either for defense or flight.
The newcomer was a large, coarse, and very sordid personage, in gardening clothes, and with a watering-pot in his left hand. One less confused would have been affected with some alarm at the sight of this man's huge proportions and black and lowering eyes. But Harry was too gravely shaken by his fall to be so much as terrified; and if he was unable to divert his glances from the gardener, he remained absolutely passive, and suffered him to draw near, to take him by the shoulder, and to plant him roughly on his feet, without a motion of resistance.
For a moment the two stared into each other's eyes, Harry fascinated, the man filled with wrath and a cruel, sneering humor.
"Who are you?" he demanded at last. "Who are you to come flying over my wall and break my Gloire de Dijons? What is your name?" he added, shaking him; "and what may be your business here?"
Harry could not as much as proffer a word in explanation.
But just at that moment Pendragon and the butcher's boy went clumping past, and the sound of their feet and their hoarse cries echoed loudly in the narrow lane. The gardener had received his answer; and he looked down into Harry's face with an obnoxious smile.
"A thief!" he said. "Upon my word, and a very good thing you must make of it; for I see you dressed like a gentleman from top to toe. Are you not ashamed to go about the world in such a trim, with honest folk, I dare say, glad to buy your cast-off finery second-hand? Speak up, you dog," the man went on; "you can understand English, I suppose; and I mean to have a bit of talk with you before I march you to the station."
"Indeed, sir," said Harry, "this is all a dreadful misconception; and if you will go with me to Sir Thomas Vandeleur's in Eaton Place, I can promise that all will be made plain. The most upright person, as I now perceive, can be led into suspicious positions."
"My little man," replied the gardener, "I will go with you no further than the station-house in the next street. The inspector, no doubt, will be glad to take a stroll with you as far as Eaton Place, and have a bit of afternoon tea with your great acquaintances. Or would you prefer to go direct to the home secretary? Sir Thomas Vandeleur, indeed! Perhaps you think I don't know a gentleman when I see one, from a common run-the-hedge like you? Clothes or no clothes, I can read you like a book. Here is a shirt that maybe cost as much as my Sunday hat; and that coat, I take it, has never seen the inside of Rag-fair, and then your boots——"
The man, whose eyes had fallen upon the ground, stopped short in his insulting commentary, and remained for a moment looking intently upon something at his feet. When he spoke his voice was strangely altered.
"What, in God's name," said he, "is all this?"
Harry, following the direction of the man's eyes, beheld a spectacle that struck him dumb with terror and amazement. In his fall he had descended vertically upon the bandbox and burst it open from end to end; thence a great treasure of diamonds had poured forth, and now lay abroad, part trodden in the soil, part scattered on the surface in regal and glittering profusion. There was a magnificent coronet which he had often admired on Lady Vandeleur; there were rings and brooches, eardrops and bracelets, and even unset brilliants rolling here and there among the rosebushes like drops of morning dew. A princely fortune lay between the two men upon the ground—a fortune in the most inviting, solid, and durable form, capable of being carried in an apron, beautiful in itself, and scattering the sunlight in a million rainbow flashes.
"Good Heavens!" said Harry. "I am lost!"
His mind raced backward into the past with the incalculable velocity of thought, and he began to comprehend his day's adventures, to conceive them as a whole, and to recognize the sad imbroglio in which his own character and fortunes had become involved. He looked round him, as if for help, but he was alone in the garden, with his scattered diamonds and his redoubtable interlocutor; and when he gave ear, there was no sound but the rustle of the leaves and the hurried pulsation of his heart. It was little wonder if the young man felt himself a little deserted by his spirits, and with a broken voice repeated his last ejaculation:
"I am lost!"
The gardener peered in all directions with an air of guilt; but there was no face at any of the windows, and he seemed to breathe again.
"Pick up a heart," he said, "you fool! The worst of it is done. Why could you not say at first there was enough for two? Two!" he repeated, "ay, and for two hundred! But come away from here, where we may be observed; and, for the love of wisdom, straighten out your hat and brush your clothes. You could not travel two steps the figure of fun you look just now."
While Harry mechanically adopted these suggestions, the gardener, getting upon his knees, hastily drew together the scattered jewels and returned them to the bandbox. The touch of these costly crystals sent a shiver of emotion through the man's stalwart frame; his face was transfigured, and his eyes shone with concupiscence; indeed, it seemed as if he luxuriously prolonged his occupation, and dallied with every diamond that he handled. At last, however, it was done; and, concealing the bandbox in his smock, the gardener beckoned to Harry and preceded him in the direction of the house.
Near the door they were met by a young man evidently in holy orders, dark and strikingly handsome, with a look of mingled weakness and resolution, and very neatly attired after the manner of his caste. The gardener was plainly annoyed by this encounter; but he put as good a face upon it as he could, and accosted the clergyman with an obsequious and smiling air.
"Here is a fine afternoon, Mr. Rolles," said he; "a fine afternoon, as sure as God made it! And here is a young friend of mine who had a fancy to look at my roses. I took the liberty to bring him in, for I thought none of the lodgers would object."
"Speaking for myself," replied the Reverend Mr. Rolles, "I do not; nor do I fancy any of the rest of us would be more difficult upon so small a matter. The garden is your own, Mr. Raeburn; we must none of us forget that; and because you give us liberty to walk there we should be indeed ungracious if we so far presumed upon your politeness as to interfere with the convenience of your friends. But, on second thoughts," he added, "I believe that this gentleman and I have met before. Mr. Hartley, I think. I regret to observe that you have had a fall."
And he offered his hand.
A sort of maiden dignity and a desire to delay as long as possible the necessity for explanation moved Harry to refuse this chance of help, and to deny his own identity. He chose the tender mercies of the gardener, who was at least unknown to him, rather than the curiosity and perhaps the doubts of an acquaintance.
"I fear there is some mistake," said he. "My name is Thomlinson, and I am a friend of Mr. Raeburn's."
"Indeed?" said Mr. Rolles. "The likeness is amazing."
Mr. Raeburn, who had been upon thorns throughout this colloquy, now felt it high time to bring it to a period.
"I wish you a pleasant saunter, sir," said he.
And with that he dragged Harry after him into the house, and then into a chamber on the garden. His first care was to draw down the blind, for Mr. Rolles still remained where they had left him, in an attitude of perplexity and thought. Then he emptied the broken bandbox on the table, and stood before the treasure, thus fully displayed, with an expression of rapturous greed, and rubbing his hand upon his thighs. For Harry, the sight of the man's face under the influence of this base emotion added another pang to those he was already suffering. It seemed incredible that, from his life of pure and delicate trifling, he should be plunged in a breath among sordid and criminal relations. He could reproach his conscience with no sinful act; and yet he was now suffering the punishment of sin in its most acute and cruel forms—the dread of punishment, the suspicions of the good, and the companionship and contamination of vile and brutal natures. He felt he could lay his life down with gladness to escape from the room and the society of Mr. Raeburn.
"And now," said the latter, after he had separated the jewels into two nearly equal parts, and drawn one of them nearer to himself; "and now," said he, "everything in this world has to be paid for, and some things sweetly. You must know, Mr. Hartley, if such be your name, that I am a man of a very easy temper, and good nature has been my stumbling block from first to last. I could pocket the whole of these pretty pebbles, if I chose, and I should like to see you dare to say a word; but I think I must have taken a liking to you; for I declare I have not the heart to shave you so close. So, do you see, in pure kind feeling, I propose that we divide; and these," indicating the two heaps, "are the proportions that seem to me just and friendly. Do you see any objection, Mr. Hartley, may I ask? I am not the man to stick upon a brooch."
"But, sir," cried Harry, "what you propose to me is impossible. The jewels are not mine, and I cannot share what is another's, no matter with whom, nor in what proportions."
"They are not yours, are they not?" returned Raeburn. "And you could not share them with anybody, couldn't you? Well, now, that is what I call a pity; for here I am obliged to take you to the station. The police—think of that," he continued; "think of the disgrace for your respectable parents; think," he went on, taking Harry by the wrist; "think of the Colonies and the Day of Judgment."
"I cannot help it," wailed Harry. "It is not my fault. You will not come with me to Eaton Place."
"No," replied the man, "I will not, that is certain. And I mean to divide these playthings with you here."
And so saying he applied a sudden and severe torsion to the lad's wrist.
Harry could not suppress a scream, and the perspiration burst forth upon his face. Perhaps pain and terror quickened his intelligence, but certainly at that moment the whole business flashed across him in another light; and he saw that there was nothing for it but to accede to the ruffian's proposal, and trust to find the house and force him to disgorge, under more favorable circumstances, and when he himself was clear from all suspicion.
"I agree," he said.
"There is a lamb," sneered the gardener. "I thought you would recognize your interests at last. This bandbox," he continued, "I shall burn with my rubbish; it is a thing that curious folk might recognize; and as for you, scrape up your gayeties and put them in your pocket."
Harry proceeded to obey, Raeburn watching him, and every now and again, his greed rekindled by some bright scintillation, abstracting another jewel from the secretary's share, and adding it to his own.
When this was finished, both proceeded to the front door, which Raeburn cautiously opened to observe the street. This was apparently clear of passengers; for he suddenly seized Harry by the nape of the neck, and holding his face downward so that he could see nothing but the roadway and the doorsteps of the houses, pushed him violently before him down one street and up another for the space of perhaps a minute and a half. Harry had counted three corners before the bully relaxed his grasp, and crying, "Now be off with you!" sent the lad flying headforemost with a well-directed and athletic kick.
When Harry gathered himself up, half-stunned and bleeding freely at the nose, Mr. Raeburn had entirely disappeared. For the first time, anger and pain so completely overcame the lad's spirits that he burst into a fit of tears and remained sobbing in the middle of the road.
After he had thus somewhat assuaged his emotion, he began to look about him and read the names of the streets at whose intersection he had been deserted by the gardener. He was still in an unfrequented portion of West London, among villas and large gardens; but he could see some persons at a window who had evidently witnessed his misfortune; and almost immediately after a servant came running from the house and offered him a glass of water. At the same time, a dirty rogue, who had been slouching somewhere in the neighborhood, drew near him from the other side.
"Poor fellow," said the maid, "how vilely you have been handled, to be sure! Why, your knees are all cut, and your clothes ruined! Do you know the wretch who used you so?"
"That I do!" cried Harry, who was somewhat refreshed by the water; "and shall run him home in spite of his precautions. He shall pay dearly for this day's work, I promise you."
"You had better come into the house and have yourself washed and brushed," continued the maid. "My mistress will make you welcome, never fear. And see, I will pick up your hat. Why, love of mercy!" she screamed, "if you have not dropped diamonds all over the street!"
Such was the case; a good half of what remained to him after the depredations of Mr. Raeburn had been shaken out of his pockets by the somersault, and once more lay glittering on the ground. He blessed his fortune that the maid had been so quick of eye; "there is nothing so bad but it might be worse," thought he; and the recovery of these few seemed to him almost as great an affair as the loss of all the rest. But, alas! as he stooped to pick up his treasures the loiterer made a rapid onslaught, overset both Harry and the maid with a movement of his arms, swept up a double handful of the diamonds, and made off along the street with an amazing swiftness.
Harry, as soon as he could get upon his feet, gave chase to the miscreant with many cries, but the latter was too fleet of foot, and probably too well acquainted with the locality; for turn where the pursuer would he could find no traces of the fugitive.
In the deepest despondency Harry revisited the scene of his mishap, where the maid, who was still waiting, very honestly returned to him his hat and the remainder of the fallen diamonds. Harry thanked her from his heart, and being now in no humor for economy, made his way to the nearest cab stand, and set off for Eaton Place by coach.
The house, on his arrival, seemed in some confusion, as if a catastrophe had happened in the family; and the servants clustered together in the hall, and were unable, or perhaps not altogether anxious, to suppress their merriment at the tatterdemalion figure of the secretary. He passed them with as good an air of dignity as he could assume, and made directly for the boudoir. When he opened the door, an astonishing and even menacing spectacle presented itself to his eyes; for he beheld the general and his wife, and, of all people, Charlie Pendragon, closeted together, and speaking with earnestness and gravity on some important subject. Harry saw at once that there was little left for him to explain—plenary confession had plainly been made to the general of the intended fraud upon his pocket, and the unfortunate miscarriage of the scheme; and they had all made common cause against a common danger.
"Thank Heaven!" cried Lady Vandeleur, "here he is! The bandbox, Harry, the bandbox!"
But Harry stood before them silent and downcast.
"Speak!" she cried. "Speak! Where is the bandbox?"
And the men, with threatening gestures, repeated the demand.
Harry drew a handful of jewels from his pocket. He was very white.
"This is all that remains," said he. "I declare before Heaven it was through no fault of mine; and if you will have patience, although some are lost, I am afraid, forever, others, I am sure, may be still recovered!"
"Alas!" cried Lady Vandeleur, "all our diamonds are gone, and I owe ninety thousand pounds for dress!"
"Madam," said the general, "you might have paved the gutter with your own trash; you might have made debts to fifty times the sum you mention; you might have robbed me of my mother's coronet and rings; and Nature might have still so far prevailed that I could have forgiven you at last. But, madam, you have taken the Rajah's Diamond—the Eye of Light, as the Orientals poetically termed it—the Pride of Kashgar! You have taken from me the Rajah's Diamond," he cried, raising his hands, "and all, madam, all is at an end between us!"
"Believe me, General Vandeleur," she replied, "that is one of the most agreeable speeches that ever I heard from your lips; and since we are to be ruined I could almost welcome the change, if it delivers me from you. You have told me often enough that I married you for your money; let me tell you now that I always bitterly repented the bargain; and if you were still marriageable, and had a diamond bigger than your head, I should counsel even my maid against a union so uninviting and disastrous. As for you, Mr. Hartley," she continued, turning on the secretary, "you have sufficiently exhibited your valuable qualities in this house; we are now persuaded that you equally lack manhood, sense and self-respect; and I can see only one course open for you—to withdraw instanter, and, if possible, return no more. For your wages you may rank as a creditor in my late husband's bankruptcy."
Harry had scarcely comprehended this insulting address before the general was down upon him with another.
"And in the meantime," said that personage, "follow me before the nearest inspector of police. You may impose upon a simple-minded soldier, sir, but the eye of the law will read your disreputable secret. If I must spend my old age in poverty through your underhand intriguing with my wife, I mean at least that you shall not remain unpunished for your pains; and God, sir, will deny me a very considerable satisfaction if you do not pick oakum from now until your dying day."
With that the general dragged Harry from the apartment and hurried him down-stairs and along the street to the police-station of the district.
Here (says my Arabian author) ended this deplorable business of the bandbox. But to the unfortunate secretary the whole affair was the beginning of a new and manlier life. The police were easily persuaded of his innocence; and, after he had given what help he could in the subsequent investigation, he was even complimented by one of the chiefs of the detective department on the probity and simplicity of his behavior. Several persons interested themselves in one so unfortunate; and soon after he inherited a sum of money from a maiden aunt in Worcestershire. With this he married Prudence, and set sail for Bendigo, or, according to another account, for Trincomalee, exceedingly content, and with the best of prospects.17 мая 2018 г. 19:28:18 0 Отчет Добавить 0
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