Chapter XX. The Husband's Return
 

Gammon would gladly have answered in person Mrs. Clover's letter, but he had promised Polly that he would neither visit the china shop nor in any way communicate with her aunt. Polly had made a great point of this, and he thought the reason was not far to seek; she still harboured jealousy of her cousin, and no doubt it would be delightful to make known, just how and when she herself saw fit, her triumph over Minnie. So he kept away from Battersea Park Road, though often wishing to spend an evening there in the old way, with Mrs. Clover's bright face on one side of him and Minnie's modestly bent head on the other.

It would have been so restful after all this excitement, for however he tried to grasp the facts, Mrs. Clover and Minnie still seemed remote from the world of wealth and titles; he could not change their names or see them in any other position than that which was familiar and natural. In talk with Polly he always rose to hilarious anticipations, partly the result of amorous fervour; but this mood did not survive their parting. Alone he was frequently troubled with uneasiness, with misgiving, more so as the days went by without bringing any news from Greenacre. Under the cover of night he visited Lowndes Mansions and hung about there for half an hour, like unto one with sinister intentions; but his trouble profited him nothing. Polly was growing impatient. After the manner of her kind she brooded on suspicions, and hatched numerous more or less wild conjectures. What if Greenacre had spirited Lord Polperro away for some dark purpose of his own? Gammon himself could not help suspecting the mysterious man of deep projects which would tend to the disadvantage of Lord Polperro's forsaken wife and child. At the end of a fortnight he wrote to Greenacre at the Bilboes pressing for information. To his surprise and satisfaction this brought about an interview on the following day. Greenacre seemed radiant with a good conscience.

"All is going well," he declared. "Our noble friend is improving in health, temporarily, at all events. Doubtless it is the result of having his mind more at ease. You can't imagine, Gammon, how that man has been tormented by remorse. I am not yet at liberty to disclose his plans. But I shall certainly be so very soon--very soon. I won't say Christmas, but before New Year's Day I feel confident I shall have got things completely in order. I will only hint to you that his lordship wishes to retire from the world, to live a perfectly quiet and simple domestic life in a locality which will be favourable to his health. You will agree with us, I know, that this is far better than trying to brave the gossip and scandal of society. I may now tell you, in strict confidence, that our friend has already written a letter to his wife, ready to be posted as soon as ever the last details are settled. By the by, Gammon, I hope there can be no doubt as to Lady Polperro's willingness to concur in what her husband proposes?"

"I don't know anything about that," Gammon replied. "I can't answer for her."

"Naturally. Of course not. But I hope there will be no unexpected difficulty on that side. Lord Polperro has his fears, which I have done my best to dispel. We can but hope, put our trust in the forgiving nature of woman."

It now wanted but a very short time to Christmas. As the day drew near Gammon felt that this state of worrying suspense was growing intolerable. Polly's suspicions were louder, her temper became uncertain; once or twice she forgot herself and used language calculated to cause a breach of the peace. On these occasions Gammon found himself doubting whether she really was the girl after his own heart; he could have wished that she had rather less spirit. Overcome by her persistence, he at length definitely engaged to wait no longer than the end of the year. If by that time Greenacre had not put things in order, Polly was to seek her aunt and make known all that they had discovered.

"We won't be 'umbugged!" she exclaimed. "And it begins to look to me jolly like 'umbugging. I don't know what you think."

Gammon admitted that the state of things was very unsatisfactory, and must come to an end. The last day of the year--so be it. After that Polly should have her way.

It was the middle of Christmas week. A letter to the Bilboes remained without answer. Gammon and Polly met every day, excited each other, lost their tempers, were stormily reconciled. On the morning of the thirty-first Gammon received four letters begging for pecuniary assistance, but nothing from Greenacre. He had slept badly, his splendid health was beginning to suffer. By jorrocks! there should be an end of this, and that quickly.

As he loitered without appetite over a particularly greasy breakfast, listening to Mrs. Bubb's description of an ailment from which her youngest child was suffering, Moggie came into the kitchen and said that a young man wished to see him. Gammon rushed up to the front door, where, in mist and drizzle, stood a muscular youth whom he did not recognize.

"I'm come from Mrs. Clover's, sir," said this messenger, touching his hat. "She'd be very glad to see you as soon as you could make it convenient to look round."

"Is that all?"

That was all; nothing more could be learnt from the young man, and Gammon promised to come forthwith. Luckily he could absent himself from Quodlings' to-day with no great harm; so after a few words with Mrs. Bubb he pulled on his greatcoat and set off by the speediest way. Only after starting did he remember his promise to Polly. That could not be helped. The case seemed to be urgent, and he must beg for indulgence. He had an appointment with Polly for six o'clock this evening. In the excitement of decisive action (it being the last day of the year) she would probably overlook this small matter.

He found Mrs. Clover in the shop. She reddened at sight of him, and after a hurried greeting asked him to step into the parlour, where she carefully closed the door.

"Mr. Gammon, have you heard anything about my husband?"

The question disconcerted him; he tried ineffectually to shape a denial.

"You have, I can see you have! It doesn't matter. I don't want you to tell me anything. But he's now in this house."

She was greatly agitated, not angry, but beset by perplexities and distress.

"He came last night about ten o'clock--came to the door wrapped up like a stranger--it was almost too much for me when I heard his voice. He wanted to come in--to stay; and of course I let him. Minnie had to know, poor girl. He's in the spare room. Did you know he meant to come?"

"I? Hadn't an idea of it, Mrs. Clover!"

"But you know something about him. He tells me you do. He wants to see you. There's only one thing I ask--has he been doing wrong? Oh, do tell me that!"

Gammon protested that he knew nothing of the kind, and added that he had only seen the man once, for a minute, now more than a month ago.

"And you kept it from me!" said his friend reproachfully. "I didn't think you'd have done that, Mr. Gammon!"

"There was a reason. I shouldn't have thought of doing it if there hadn't been a good reason."

"Never mind. I won't interfere. I feel as if it had nothing to do with me. Will you go upstairs to him? He looks to me as if he hadn't very long to live, indeed he does. Listen, that's his cough! Oh, I am so upset. It came so sudden. And to think you'd seen him and never told me! Never mind, go up to him, if you will, and see what he wants with you."

Gammon did her bidding. He ascended lightly and tapped at the door Mrs. Clover indicated. A cough sounded from within; then a voice which the visitor recognized, saying," Come in." On the bed, but fully dressed, lay a tall, meagre man, with a woollen comforter about his neck. The room was in good order, and warmed by a fire, which the sufferer's condition seemed to make very necessary. He fixed his eyes on Gammon, as if trying to smile, but defeated in the effort by pain and misery.

"I'm here, you see," he said hoarsely. "There's no doubt about me now."

"Got a bad cold, eh?" replied the other, as cheerfully as he could.

"Yes, a cold. Always have a cold. Would you mind reaching me the kettle?"

He poured out some brandy from a bottle which stood on the floor, and mixed it with a little hot water. Gammon the while observed him with much curiosity. In five years or a little more he had become an old and feeble man; his thin hair was all but completely grey, his flesh had wasted and discoloured, his hand trembled, his breath came with difficulty. Present illness accounted perhaps for the latter symptoms; but, from that glimpse of him in Norton Folgate, Gammon had known that he was much aged and shaken. Hat, overcoat, and muffler had partly disguised what was now evident. He spoke with the accent of an educated man, and in the tone of one whom nature has endowed with amiable qualities. The bottle beside him seemed to explain certain peculiarities of his manner. When he had drunk thirstily he raised himself to a sitting posture, and nodded to his visitor an invitation to take a chair.

"I'm here, you see, Gammon. Here at last."

"Why did you come?"

"Why?--ah, why indeed!"

Having sighed out this ejaculation he seemed to grow absent, to forget that he was not alone. A violent cough shook him into wakefulness again; he stared at Gammon with red eyes full of pain and fear, and said thickly:

"Are you an honest man--you?

"Well, I hope so; try to be."

"What's his name? You know him, don't you?"

"Do you mean Greenacre?" asked Gammon, feeling very uncomfortable, for the man before him looked like one who struggles for his last breath.

"Greenacre, yes. What has he told you about me?"

Gammon answered with the simple truth; the situation alarmed him, and he would have nothing more to do with conspiracy in such a case. He could not feel sure that his explanations were followed and understood; now and then the bloodshot eyes turned blankly to him as if in a drunken dream; but in the end he saw a look of satisfaction.

"You're an honest man, aren't you? We used to know each other, you know when. My wife likes you, doesn't she?"

"We've always been friends, of course," Gammon replied.

"Would you mind giving me the kettle?" He mixed another glass of brandy, spilling a great deal in the process. "I don't offer you any, Greenacre, it's medicine; I take it as such. One doesn't offer one's friends a glass of medicine, you know, Greenacre."

"My name is Gammon."

"What am I thinking about! There was something I wanted to ask you. Yes, of course. Does she know?"

"You mean does your wife know who you really are?" said Gammon in a cautious voice.

"Haven't you told her?"

"Not yet."

"Then I don't think anyone else has."

The man had fallen back upon the pillow. He began to cough, struggled to raise himself, and became seated on the edge of the bed.

"Well, it's time we were going."

"Where to?" asked Gammon.

The other stared at him in surprise and distress.

"Surely I haven't to tell you all over again! Weren't you listening? You're a man of business, are you not? Surely you ought to have a clear head the first thing in the morning."

"Just tell me again in a word or two. What can I do for you? Do you want to see anybody?"

"Yes, yes, I remember." He laid a hand on his companion's shoulder. "The matter stands thus, Greenacre I trust you implicitly, once more I assure you of that; but it is absolutely necessary for me to see a solicitor."

"All right. What's his name?"

"I'll tell you, Cuthbertson--Old Jewry Chambers. But first of all let us come to an understanding about that man Quodling. I called upon his brother--why, I told you all that before, didn't I?"

"You had just been there when I met you in Norton Folgate," said Gammon, who felt that before long his own wits would begin to wander.

"To be sure. And now we really must be going."

He stood up staggering, gained his balance, and walked to the window. The prospect thence seemed to recall him to a consciousness of the actual present, and he looked round appealingly, distressfully.

"I tell you what it is," said Gammon. "You ought to get into bed and have a doctor. Shall I help you?"

"No, no; I regret that I came here, Greenacre. I am not welcome; how could I expect to be? If I am going to be ill it mustn't be here."

"Then let me get a cab and take you to your own place, if your wife is willing."

"That would be best. The truth is I feel terribly queer, Greenacre. Suppose I--suppose I died here? Of course, I ought never to have come. Think of the talk there would be; and that's just what I wanted to spare them, the talk and the disgrace. It can all be managed by my solicitor. But I felt that come I must. After all, you see, it's home. You understand that? It's really my home. I've been here often at night, just to see the house. The wonder is that I didn't come in before. Of course, I knew I couldn't be welcome--but one's wife and child, Greenacre. The real wife, whether the other's alive or not."

Gammon started.

"What did you say?" he asked in a whisper.

"Nothing--nothing. You are a good fellow, I am sure, and my wife likes you, that's quite enough. The point is this now, I must destroy that will, and get Cuthbertson to draw a deed of gift, all in order, you know, but nothing that could get wind and make a scandal. The will would be publicly known, I ought to have remembered that. I repeat, Greenacre, that what I have to do is to provide for them both without causing them any trouble or disgrace."

Catching the listener's eye he became silent and confused for a moment, then added quickly:

"I beg your pardon. I addressed you by the wrong name. Gammon, I meant to say. Gammon, my wife's friend, a thoroughly honest man. Have I made myself clear, Gammon? I--you see how the matter stands?"

Gammon was beginning to see that the matter stood in a perilous position, and that the sooner Mr. Cuthbertson--if such a person existed--could be brought on to the scene the better for every one concerned. He asked himself whether he ought to summon Mrs. Clover. His glance towards the door must have betrayed his thought, for the sick man spoke as though in reply to it.

"We will say nothing to her yet, if you please. I--I begin to feel a little better. Our long confidential talk has done me good. By the by, Greenacre--I beg your pardon, Gammon--you quite understand that it is all in the strictest confidence. I trust you implicitly as my dear wife's friend; it is all in her interests, as you see. I think now, if you would kindly get a cab--yes, I feel quite equal to it now--we will go to Lowndes Mansions."

The voice was thin, husky, senile; but his tone had more of rationality, and he appeared to have made up his mind to a course of action. Gammon presently went downstairs and told Mrs. Clover that her husband wished to go into town on business. She made no objection, but asked whether Gammon would take the responsibility of looking after him. This he promised. Whether the man would return hither or not was left uncertain.

"If he goes to his own house," said Gammon, "I'll see him safe there and let you know. He lives in the West End. Now don't upset yourself; if he doesn't come back you shall know where he is, and if you want to you shall go and see him. I promise you that. I know all about him, and so shall you; so just keep yourself quiet. He'll have to go to bed and stay there; anyone can see that. If you take my advice you'll let us go out quietly and not speak to him. Just trust to me, Mrs. Clover."

"Do you think he's right in his mind?" she asked.

"Well, he's very shaky, and ought to be kept quiet. What has he told you?"

"Nothing at all; he sat crying for an hour last night, and talked about the old times. When I asked questions he put me off. And when I went into his room this morning he said nothing except that he wanted to see you, and that he must have some brandy for his cold."

"All right; let us leave the house quietly, and I'll see you again to-day or to-morrow. Oh, I say, has a man called Greenacre been here at any time?"

"I don't know anyone of that name," answered Mrs. Clover as she turned distressfully away.

A cab was summoned, and Gammon, having helped the sick man to clothe himself warmly in overcoat and muffler, led him from the house. They drove straightway to Lowndes Mansions.