Chapter 17
 

Warburton waited for a quarter of an hour after the artist had gone, then set out for his walk. The result of this unexpected conversation with Franks was excellent; the foolish fellow seemed to have recovered his common sense. But Will felt ashamed of himself. Of course he had acted solely with a view to the other's good, seeing no hope but this of rescuing Franks from the slough in which he wallowed; nevertheless, he was stung with shame. For the first time in his life he had asked repayment of money lent to a friend. And he had done the thing blunderingly, without tact. For the purpose in view, it would have been enough to speak of his own calamity; just the same effect would have been produced on Franks. He saw this now, and writhed under the sense of his grossness. The only excuse he could urge for himself was that Franks' behaviour provoked and merited rough handling. Still, he might have had perspicacity enough to understand that the artist was not so sunk in squalor as he pretended.

"Just like me," he growled to himself, with a nervous twitching of the face. "I've no presence of mind. I see the right thing when it's too late, and when I've made myself appear a bounder. How many thousand times have I blundered in this way! A man like me ought to live alone--as I've a very fair chance of doing in future."

His walk did him no good, and on his return he passed a black evening. With Mrs. Hopper, who came as usual to get dinner for him, he held little conversation; in a few days he would have to tell her what had befallen him, or invent some lie to account for the change in his arrangements, and this again tortured Will's nerves. In one sense of the word, no man was less pretentious; but his liberality of thought and behaviour consisted with a personal pride which was very much at the mercy of circumstance. Even as he could not endure subjection, so did he shrink from the thought of losing dignity in the eyes of his social inferiors. Mere poverty and lack of ease did not frighten him at all; he had hardly given a thought as yet to that aspect of misfortune. What most of all distressed his imagination (putting aside thought of his mother and sister) was the sudden fall from a position of genial authority, of beneficent command, with all the respect and gratitude and consideration attaching thereto. He could do without personal comforts, if need were, but it pained him horribly to think of being no longer a patron and a master. With a good deal more philosophy than the average man, and vastly more benevolence, he could not attain to the humility which would have seen in this change of fortune a mere surrender of privileges perhaps quite unjustifiable. Social grades were an inseparable part of his view of life; he recognised the existence of his superiors--though resolved to have as little to do with them as possible, and took it as a matter of course that multitudes of men should stand below his level. To imagine himself an object of pity for Mrs. Hopper and Allchin and the rest of them wrought upon his bile, disordered his digestion.

He who had regarded so impatiently the trials of Norbert Franks now had to go through an evil time, with worse results upon his temper, his health, and whole being, than he would have thought conceivable. For a whole fortnight he lived in a state of suspense and forced idleness, which helped him to understand the artist's recourse to gin and laudanum. The weather was magnificent, but for him no sun rose in the sky. If he walked about London, he saw only ugliness and wretchedness, his eyes seeming to have lost the power of perceiving other things. Every two or three days he heard from Sherwood, who wrote that he was doing his utmost, and continued to hold out hope that he would soon have money: but these letters were not reassuring. The disagreeable interview with Applegarth had passed off better than might have been expected. Though greatly astonished, and obviously in some doubt as to the facts of the matter, Applegarth behaved as a gentleman, resigned all claims upon the defaulters, and brought the affair to a decent close as quickly as possible. But Warburton came away with a face so yellow that he seemed on the point of an attack of jaundice. For him to be the object of another man's generous forbearance was something new and intolerable. Before parting with Sherwood, he spoke to him bitterly, all but savagely. A few hours later, of course, repentance came upon him, and he wrote to ask pardon. An evil time.

At length Sherwood came to Chelsea, having written to ask for a meeting. Will's forebodings were but too well justified. The disastrous man came only to say that all his efforts had failed. His debtor for ten thousand pounds was himself in such straits that he could only live by desperate expedients, and probably would not be able to pay a penny of interest this year.

"Happily," said Sherwood, "his father's health is breaking. One is obliged to talk in this brutal way, you know. At the father's death it will be all right; I shall then have my legal remedy, if there's need of it. To take any step of that sort now would be ruinous; my friend would be cut off with a shilling, if the affair came to his father's ears."

"So this is how we stand," said Warburton, grimly. "It's all over."

Sherwood laid on the table a number of bank-notes, saying simply:

"There's two hundred and sixty pounds--the result of the sale of my furniture and things. Will you use that and trust me a little longer?"

Warburton writhed in his chair.

"What have you to live upon?" he asked with eyes downcast.

"Oh, I shall get on all right. I've one or two ideas."

"But this is all the money you have?"

"I've kept about fifty pounds," answered the other, "out of which I can pay my debts--they're small--and the rent of my house for this quarter."

Warburton pushed back the notes.

"I can't take it--you know I can't."

"You must."

"How the devil are you going to live?" cried Will, in exasperation.

"I shall find a way," replied Sherwood with an echo of his old confident tone. "I need a little time to look about me, that's all, There's a relative of mine, an old fellow who lives comfortably in North Wales, and who invites me down every two or three years. The best thing will be for me to go and spend a short time with him, and get my nerves into order--I'm shaky, there's no disguising it. I haven't exhausted all the possibilities of raising money; there's hope still in one or two directions; if I get a little quietness and rest I shall be able to think things out more clearly Don't you think this justifiable?"

As to the money he remained inflexible. Very reluctantly Warburton consented to keep this sum, giving a receipt in form.

"You haven't said anything to Mrs. Warburton yet?" asked Sherwood nervously.

"Not yet," muttered Will.

"I wish you could postpone it a little longer. Could you--do you think--without too much strain of conscience? Doesn't it seem a pity--when any day may enable me to put things right?"

Will muttered again that he would think of it; that assuredly he preferred not to disclose the matter if it could decently be kept secret. And on this Sherwood took his leave, going away with a brighter face than he had brought to the interview; whilst Will remained brooding gloomily, his eyes fixed on the bank-notes, in an unconscious stare.

Little of a man of business as he was, Warburton knew very well that things at the office were passing in a flagrantly irregular way: he knew that any one else in his position would have put this serious affair into legal hands, if only out of justice to Sherwood himself. More than once he had thought of communicating with Mr. Turnbull, but shame withheld him. It seemed improbable, too, that the solicitor would connive at keeping his friends at The Haws ignorant of what had befallen them, and with every day that passed Will felt more disposed to hide that catastrophe, if by any means that were possible. Already he had half committed himself to this deception, having written to his mother (without mention of any other detail) that he might, after all, continue to live in London, where Applegarth's were about to establish a warehouse. The question was how; if he put aside all the money he had for payment of pretended dividend to his mother and sister, how, in that case, was he himself to live? At the thought of going about applying for clerk's work, or anything of that kind, cold water flowed down his back; rather than that, he would follow Allchin's example, and turn porter--an independent position compared with bent-backed slavery on an office-stool. Some means of earning money he must find without delay. To live on what he had, one day longer than could be helped, would be sheer dishonesty. Sherwood might succeed in bringing him a few hundreds--of the ten thousand Will thought not at all, so fantastic did the whole story sound--but that would be merely another small instalment of the sum due to the unsuspecting victims at St. Neots. Strictly speaking, he owned not a penny; his very meals to-day were at the expense of his mother and Jane. This thought goaded him. His sleep became a mere nightmare; his waking, a dry-throated misery.

In spite of loathing and dread, he began to read the thick-serried columns of newspaper advertisement, Wanted! Wanted! Wanted! Wants by the thousand; but many more those of the would-be employed than those of the would-be employers, and under the second heading not one in a hundred that offered him the slightest hint or hope. Wanted! Wanted. To glance over these columns is like listening to the clamour of a hunger-driven multitude; the ears sing, the head turns giddy. After a quarter of an hour of such search, Will flung the paper aside, and stamped like a madman about his room. A horror of life seized him; he understood, with fearful sympathy, the impulse of those who, rather than be any longer hustled in this howling mob dash themselves to destruction.

He thought over the list of his friends. Friends--what man has more than two or three? At this moment he knew of no one who wished him well who could be of the slightest service. His acquaintances were of course more numerous. There lay on his table two invitations just received--the kind of invitation received by every man who does not live the life of a hermit. But what human significance had they? Not a name rose in his mind which symbolised helpfulness. True, that might be to some extent his own fault; the people of whom he saw most were such as needed, not such as could offer, aid. He thought of Ralph Pomfret. There, certainly, a kindly will would not be lacking, but how could he worry with his foolish affairs a man on whom he had no shadow of claim? No: he stood alone. It was a lesson in social science such as reading could never have afforded him. His insight into the order of a man's world had all at once been marvellously quickened, the scope of his reflections incredibly extended. Some vague consciousness of this now and then arrested him in his long purposeless walks; he began to be aware of seeing common things with new eyes. But the perception was akin to fear; he started and looked nervously about, as if suddenly aware of some peril.

One afternoon he was on his way home from a westward trudge, plodding along the remoter part of Fulham Road, when words spoken by a woman whom he passed caught his ears.

"See 'ere! The shutters is up. Boxon must be dead."

Boxon? How did he come to know that name? He slackened his pace, reflecting. Why, Boxon was the name of the betting and drinking grocer, with whom Allchin used to be. He stopped, and saw a group of three or four women staring at the closed shop. Didn't Mrs. Hopper say that Boxon had been nearly killed in a carriage accident? Doubtless he was dead.

He walked on, but before he had gone a dozen yards, stopped abruptly, turned, crossed to the other side of the road, and went back till he stood opposite the closed shop. The name of the tradesman in great gilt letters proved that there was no mistake. He examined the building; there were two storys above the shop; the first seemed to be used for storage; white blinds at the windows of the second showed it to be inhabited. For some five minutes Will stood gazing and reflecting; then, with head bent as before, he pursued his way.

When he reached home, Mrs. Hopper regarded him compassionately; the good woman was much disturbed by the strangeness of his demeanour lately, and feared he was going to be ill.

"You look dre'ful tired, sir," she said. "I'll make you a cup of tea at once. It'll do you good."

"Yes, get me some tea," answered Warburton, absently. Then, as she was leaving the room, he asked, "Is it true that the grocer Boxon is dead?"

"I was going to speak of it this morning, sir," replied Mrs. Hopper, "but you seemed so busy. Yes, sir, he's died--died the day before yesterday, they say, and it'd be surprising to hear as anybody's sorry."

"Who'll take his business?" asked Warburton.

"We was talking about that last night, sir, me and my sister Liza, and the Allchins. It's fallen off a great deal lately, what else could you expect? since Boxon got into his bad ways. But anybody as had a little money might do well there. Allchin was saying he wished he had a few 'undreds."

"A few hundred would be enough?" interrupted the listener, without noticing the look of peculiar eagerness on Mrs. Hopper's face.

"Allchin thinks the goodwill can be had for about a 'undred, sir; and the rent, it's only eighty pounds--"

"Shop and house?"

"Yes, sir; so Allchin says. It isn't much of a 'ouse, of course."

"What profits could be made, do you suppose, by an energetic man?"

"When Boxon began, sir," replied Mrs. Hopper, with growing animation, "he used to make--so Allchin says--a good five or six 'undred a year. There's a good deal of profit in the grocery business, and Boxon's situation is good; there's no other grocer near him. But of course--as Allchin says--you want to lay out a good deal at starting--"

"Yes, yes, of course, you must have stock." said Will carelessly. "Bring me some tea at once, Mrs. Hopper."

It had suddenly occurred to him that Allchin might think of trying to borrow the capital wherewith to start this business, and that Mrs. Hopper might advise her brother-in-law to apply to him for the loan.

But this was not at all the idea which had prompted Will's inquiries.