Chapter 15
 

"After all, there's something in presentiment."

This was the first thought that took shape in Will's whirling mind. The second was, that he might rationally have foreseen disaster. All the points of strangeness which had struck him in Sherwood's behaviour came back now with such glaring significance that he accused himself of inconceivable limpness in having allowed things to go their way--above all in trusting Godfrey with the St. Neots cheque. On this moment of painful lucidity followed blind rage. Why, what a grovelling imbecile was this fellow! To plunge into wild speculation, on the word of some City shark, with money not his own! But could one credit the story? Was it not more likely that Sherwood had got involved in some cunning thievery which he durst not avow? Perhaps he was a mere liar and hypocrite. That story of the ten thousand pounds he had lent to somebody--how improbable it sounded; why might he not have invented it, to strengthen confidence at a critical moment? The incredible baseness of the man! He, who knew well all that depended upon the safe investment of the St. Neots money--to risk it in this furiously reckless way. In all the records of City scoundrelism, was there a blacker case?

Raging thus, Warburton became aware that Mrs. Hopper spoke to him. She had just laid breakfast, and, as usual when she wished to begin a conversation, had drawn back to the door, where she paused.

"That Boxon, the grocer, has had a bad accident, sir."

"Boxon?--grocer?"

"In the Fulham Road, sir; him as Allchin was with."

"Ah!"

Heedless of her master's gloomy abstraction, Mrs. Hopper continued. She related that Boxon had been at certain races where he had lost money and got drunk; driving away in a trap, he had run into something, and been thrown out, with serious injuries, which might prove fatal.

"So much the worse for him," muttered Warburton. "I've no pity to spare for fools and blackguards."

"I should think not, indeed sir. I just mentioned it, sir, because Allchin was telling us about it last night. He and his wife looked in to see my sister, Liza, and they both said they never see such a change in anybody. And they said how grateful we ought to be to you, sir, and that I'm sure we are, for Liza'd never have been able to go away without your kindness."

Listening as if this talk sounded from a vague distance, Warburton was suddenly reminded of what had befallen himself; for as yet he had thought only of his mother and sister. He was ruined. Some two or three hundred pounds, his private bank account, represented all he had in the world, and all prospect of making money had been taken away from him. Henceforth, small must be his charities. If he gained his own living, he must count himself lucky; nothing more difficult than for a man of his age and position, unexpectedly cut adrift, to find work and payment. By good fortune, his lease of this flat came to an end at Michaelmas, and already he had given notice that he did not mean to renew. Mrs. Hopper knew that he was on the point of leaving London, and mot a little lamented it, for to her the loss would be serious indeed. Warburton's habitual generosity led her to hope for some signal benefaction ere his departure; perhaps on that account she was specially emphatic in gratitude for her sister's restoration to health.

"We was wondering, sir," she added, now having wedged herself between door and jamb, "whether you'd be so kind as to let my sister Liza see you just for a minute or two, to thank you herself as I'm sure she ought? She could come any time as wouldn't be ill-convenient to you."

"I'm extremely busy, Mrs. Hopper," Will replied. "Please tell your sister I'm delighted to hear she's done so well at Southend, and I hope to see her some day; but not just now. By the bye, I'm not going out this morning, so don't wait, when you've finished."

By force of habit he ate and drank. Sherwood's letter lay open before him; he read it through again and again. But he could not fix his thoughts upon it. He found himself occupied with the story of Boxon, wondering whether Boxon would live or die. Boxon, the grocer --why, what an ass a man must be, a man with a good grocery business, to come to grief over drink and betting! Shopkeeping-- what a sound and safe life it was; independent, as far as any money-earning life can be so. There must be a pleasure in counting the contents of one's till every night. Boxon! Of course, a mere brute. There came into Will's memory the picture of Boxon landed on the pavement one night, by Allchin's fist or toe--and of a sudden he laughed. When he had half-smoked his pipe, comparative calmness fell upon him. Sherwood spoke of at once raising the money he owed, and, if he succeeded in doing so, much of the mischief would be undone. The four thousand pounds might be safely invested somewhere, and life at The Haws would go on as usual. But was it certain that Sherwood could "raise" such sums, being himself, as he declared, penniless? This disclosure showed him in an unpleasantly new light, as anything but the cautious man of business, the loyal friend, he had seemed to be. Who could put faith in a money-market gambler? Why, there was no difference to speak of between him and Boxon. And if his promise proved futile--what was to be done?

For a couple of hours, Will stared at this question. When the clock on his mantelpiece struck eleven, he happened to notice it, and was surprised to find how quickly time had passed. By the bye, he had never thought of looking at his newspaper, though Sherwood referred him to that source of information on the subject of Biggles, Thorpe and Biggles. Yes, here it was. A firm of brokers; unfortunate speculations; failure of another house--all the old story. As likely as not, the financial trick of a cluster of thieves. Will threw the paper aside. He had always scorned that cunning of the Stock Exchange, now he thought of it with fiery hatred.

Another hour passed in feverish waiting; then, just at mid-day, a knock sounded at the outer door. Anything but a loud knock; anything but the confident summons of a friend. Will went to open. There stood Godfrey Sherwood, shrunk together like a man suffering from cold; he scarcely raised his eyes.

Will's purpose, on finding Sherwood at his door, was to admit him without a word, or any form of greeting; but the sight of that changed face and pitiful attitude overcame him; he offered a hand, and felt it warmly pressed.

They were together in the room; neither had spoken. Will pointed to a chair, but did not himself sit down.

"I suppose it's all true, Warburton," began the other in a low voice, "but I can't believe it yet. I seem to be walking in a nightmare; and when you gave me your hand at the door, I thought for a second that I'd just woke up."

"Sit down," said Will, "and let's have it out. Give me the details."

"That's exactly what I wish to do. Of course I haven't been to bed, and I've spent the night in writing out a statement of all my dealings for the past fifteen months. Here it is--and here are my pass-books."

Will took the paper, a half-sheet of foolscap, one side almost covered with figures. At a glance he saw that the statement was perfectly intelligible. The perusal of a few lines caused him to look up in astonishment.

"You mean to say that between last September and the end of the year you lost twenty-five thousand pounds?"

"I did."

"And you mean to say that you still went on with your gambling?"

"Things were getting bad in Ailie Street, you know."

"And you did your best to make them desperate." Sherwood's head seemed trying to bury itself between his shoulders; his feet hid themselves under the chair, he held his hat in a way suggestive of the man who comes to beg.

"The devil of the City got hold of me," he replied, with a miserable attempt to look Warburton in the face.

"Yes," said Will, "that's clear. Then, a month ago, you really possessed only nine thousand pounds?"

"That was all I had left, out of nearly forty thousand."

"What astonishes me is, that you won from time to time."

"I did!" exclaimed Godfrey, with sudden animation. "Look at the fifth of February--that was a great day! It's that kind of thing that tempts a man on. Afterwards I lost steadily but I might have won any day. And I had to make a good deal, if we were to come to terms with Applegarth. I nearly did it. I was as cautious as a man could be--content with small things. If only I hadn't been pressed for time! It was only the want of time that made me use your money. Of course, it was criminal. Don't think I wish to excuse myself for one moment. Absolutely criminal. I knew what was at stake. But I thought the thing was sure. It promised at the least twenty-five per cent. We should have started brilliantly at Bristol--several thousands for advertisement, beyond our estimate. I don't think the Biggles people were dishonest--"

"You don't think so!" interrupted Will, contemptuously. "If there's any doubt we know on which side it weighs. Just tell me the facts. What was the security?"

Sherwood replied with a brief, clear, and obviously honest account of the speculation into which he had been drawn. To the listener it seemed astounding that any responsible man should be lured by such gambler's chance; he could hardly find patience to point out the manifest risks so desperately incurred. And Sherwood admitted the full extent of his folly; he could only repeat that he had acted on an irresistible impulse, to be explained, though not defended, by the embarrassment in which he found himself.

"Thank Heaven, this is over!" he exclaimed at last, passing his handkerchief over a moist forehead. "I don't know how I got through last night. More than once, I thought it would be easier to kill myself than to come and face you. But there was the certainty that I could make good your loss. I may be able to do so very soon. I've written to--"

He checked himself on the point of uttering a name; then with eyes down, reflected for a moment.

"No; I haven't the right to tell you, though I should like to, to give you confidence. It's the story of the ten thousand pounds, you remember? When I lent that money, I promised never to let any one know. Even if I can't realise your capital at once, I can pay you good interest until the money's forthcoming. That would be the same thing to you?"

Warburton gave him a keen look, and said gravely--

"Let's understand each other, Sherwood. Have you any income at all?"

"None whatever now, except the interest on the ten thousand; and that--well, I'm sorry to say it hasn't been paid very regularly. But in future it must be--it shall be. Between two and three thousand are owing to me for arrears."

"It's a queer story."

"I know it is," admitted Godfrey. "But I hope you don't doubt my word?"

"No, I don't--What's to be done about Applegarth?"

"I must see him," replied Sherwood with a groan. "Of course you have no part in the miserable business. I must write at once, and then go and face him."

"Of course I shall go with you."

"You will? That's kind of you. Luckily he's a civilised man, not one of the City brutes one might have had to deal with."

"We must hope he'll live up to his reputation," said Warburton, with the first smile, and that no cheery one, which had risen to his lips during this interview.

From that point the talk became easier. All the aspects of their position were considered, without stress of feeling, for Will had recovered his self-control; and Sherwood, soothed by the sense of having discharged an appalling task, tended once more to sanguine thoughts. To be sure, neither of them could see any immediate way out of the gulf in which they found themselves; all hope of resuming business was at an end; the only practical question was, how to earn a living; but both were young men, and neither had ever known privation; it was difficult for them to believe all at once that they were really face to face with that grim necessity which they had thought of as conquering others, but never them. Certain unpleasant steps, however, had at once to be taken. Sherwood must give up his house at Wimbledon; Warburton must look about for a cheap lodging into which to remove at Michaelmas. Worse still, and more urgent, was the duty of making known to Mrs. Warburton what had happened.

"I suppose I must go down at once," said Will gloomily.

"I see no hurry," urged the other. "As a matter of fact, your mother and sister will lose nothing. You undertook to pay them a minimum of three per cent. on their money, and that you can do; I guarantee you that, in any case."

Will mused. If indeed it were possible to avoid the disclosure--? But that would involve much lying, a thing, even in a good cause, little to his taste. Still, when he thought of his mother's weak health, and how she might be affected by the news of this catastrophe, he began seriously to ponder the practicability of well-meaning deception. That, of course, must depend upon their difficulties with Applegarth remaining strictly private; and even so, could Mr. Turnbull's scent for disaster be successfully reckoned with?

"Don't do anything hastily, Warburton, I beg of you," continued the other. "Things are never so bad as they look at first sight. Wait till I have seen--you know who. I might even be able to--but it's better not to promise. Wait a day or two, at all events."

And this Warburton resolved to do; for, if the worst came to the worst, he had some three hundred pounds of his own still in the bank, and so could assure, for two years at all events, the income of which his mother and Jane had absolute need. For himself, he should find some way of earning bread and cheese; he could no longer stand on his dignity, and talk of independence, that was plain.

When at length his calamitous partner had gone, he made an indifferent lunch on the cold meat he found in Mrs. Hopper's precincts, and then decided that he had better take a walk; to sit still and brood was the worst possible way of facing such a crisis. There was no friend with whom he could discuss the situation; none whose companionship would just now do him any particular good. Better to walk twenty miles, and tire himself out, and see how things looked after a good night's sleep, So he put on his soft hat, and took his walking-stick, and slammed the door behind him. Some one was coming up the stairs; sunk in his own thoughts he paid no heed, even when the other man stood in front of him. Then a familiar voice claimed his attention.

"Do you want to cut me, Warburton?"