The Town Traveller by George Gissing
Chapter XXI. His Lordship's Will
The movement of the vehicle made Lord Polperro drowsy. In ten minutes he seemed to be asleep, and Gammon had to catch his hat as it was falling forward. When the four-wheeler jolted more than usual he uttered groans; once he shouted loudly, and for a moment stared about him in terror. The man of commerce had never made so unpleasant a journey in his life.
On arriving at their destination it was with much difficulty that Gammon aroused his companion, and with still more that he conveyed him from the cab into the building, a house porter (who smiled significantly) assisting in the job. Lord Polperro, when thoroughly awakened, coughed, groaned, and gasped in a most alarming way. His flat was on the first floor; before reaching it he began to shed tears, and to beg that his medical man might be called immediately. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman dressed as a housekeeper, who viewed his lordship with no great concern. She promised to send a messenger to the doctor's, and left the two men alone in a room comfortably furnished, but without elegance or expensiveness. Gammon waited upon the invalid, placed him at ease by the fireside, and reached him a cellaret from a cupboard full of various liquors. A few draughts of a restorative enabled Lord Polperro to articulate, and he inquired if any letters had arrived for him.
"Look on the writing table, Greenacre. Any thing there?"
There were two letters. The invalid examined them with disappointment and tossed them aside.
"Beggars and blackmailers," he muttered. "Nobody else writes to me."
Of a sudden it occurred to him that he was forgetting the duties of hospitality. He urged his guest to take refreshment; he roused himself, went to the cupboard, brought out half a dozen kinds of beverage.
"And of course you will lunch with me, or will it be dinner? Yes, yes, luncheon of course. Excuse me for one moment, I must give some orders."
He left the room. Gammon, having tossed off a glass of wine, surveyed the objects about him with curiosity. An observer of more education would have glanced with peculiar interest at the books; several volumes lay on the table, one of them a recent work on gipsies, another dealing with the antiquities of Cornwall. For the town traveller these things of course had no significance. But he remarked a painting on the wall, which was probably a portrait of one of Lord Polperro's ancestors--a youngish man (the Trefoyle nose, not to be mistaken) in a strange wild costume, his head bare under a sky blackening to storm, in his hand a sort of hunting knife, and one of his feet resting on a dead wolf. When his host reappeared Gammon asked him whom the picture represented.
"That? That's my father--years before I was born. They tell me that he used to say that in his life he had only done one thing to be proud of. It was in some part of Russia. He killed a wolf at close quarters--only a knife to fight with. He was a fine man, my father. Looks it, don't you think?"
Thirst was upon him again; he drank the first liquor that came to hand, then sat down and was silent.
"You feel better?" said Gammon.
"Better? Oh, thanks, much the same. I shan't be better till things are settled. That won't be long. I expected to hear from Greenacre--I think you said you knew Greenacre?"
"What is he doing for you?" Gammon inquired, thinking he might as well take advantage of this lucid moment, the result, seemingly, of alcoholic stimulation.
"Doing? We'll talk of that presently. Mind you, I have complete confidence in Greenacre. I regret that I didn't know him long ago." He sighed and began to wander. "My best years gone--gone! You remember what I was, Gammon? We don't live like other people, something wrong in our blood; we go down--down. But if I had lived as I was, and let the cursed title alone! That was my mistake, Greenacre. I had found happiness--a good wife. You know my wife? What am I saying? Of course you do. Never an unkind word from her, never one. How many men can say that? The best woman living, Greenacre."
"You keep forgetting who I am," said his guest bluntly.
Lord Polperro gave him a look of surprise, and with effort cleared his thoughts.
"Ah, I called you Greenacre. Excuse me, Gammon, my wife's friend. Be her friend still, a better woman doesn't live, believe me. You will lunch with me, Gammon. We are to have a long talk. And I want you to go with me to my solicitor's. I must settle that to-day. I thought Greenacre would be back. The fact is, you know, I must recover my health. The south of Europe, Greenacre thinks, and I agree with him. A place where we can live quietly, my wife and the little girl, no one to bother us or to gossip. She shall know when we get there, not before. This climate is bad for me, killing me; in fact, I hope to start in a few days, just us three, I and my wife and the little girl. She shall use the title if she likes, if not we'll leave it behind us. Ah, that was my misfortune, you know. It oughtn't to have come to me."
He was seized with a hiccough, which in a few moments became so violent that he had to abandon the attempt to converse. When it had lasted for half an hour Gammon found his position intolerable. He rose, meaning to leave the room and speak to the housekeeper, but just then the door opened to admit Lord Polperro's medical attendant. This gentleman, after a glance at the patient, who was not aware of his presence, put a few questions to Gammon. The latter than withdrew quietly, went out from the flat and down into the street where the doctor's carriage stood waiting. He was bewildered with the novelty of experience, felt thoroughly out of his element, and would have liked to have escaped from these complications by simply taking a cab to Norton Folgate and forgetting all he left behind. But his promise to Mrs. Clover (or Lady Polperro) forbade this. He was very curious as to the proceedings of that mysterious fellow Greenacre, who, as likely as not, had got Lord Polperro into his power for rascally purposes. What was that half-heard allusion to another wife, who might be alive or dead? Nothing to cause astonishment assuredly, but the matter ought to be cleared up.
He crossed the street and walked up and down, keeping his eye on Lowndes Mansions. Before long the doctor came out and drove away. After much indecision Gammon again entered and knocked at the door of his noble friend. The housekeeper said that Lord Polperro was asking for him impatiently. But when he entered the sitting-room there lay his lordship on the sofa fast asleep.
The sleep lasted for a couple of hours, during which Gammon sat in the room, bearing tedium as best he could. He was afraid to go away, lest an opportunity of learning something important should be lost; but never had time passed so slowly. Some neglect of business was involved, but fortunately he had no appointment that could not be postponed. As he said to himself, it was better to "see the thing through," and to make the most of Greenacre's absence.
When Lord Polperro at length awoke he had command of his intellect (such as remained to him), but groaned in severe pain. His first inquiry was whether any letter or telegram had arrived. Assured that there was nothing he tottered about the room for a few minutes, then declared that he must go to bed.
"I always feel better in the evening, Gammon. You'll excuse me, I know; we are old friends. I must see you again to-day; you'll promise to come back? Oh, how ill I am! I don't think this can go on much longer."
"What did the doctor tell you to do?"
"Oh, nothing, nothing," was the irritable reply. "Of course, I must get away as soon as possible. If only I could hear from Greenacre."
Seeing there was no likelihood of the man's leaving home for the next few hours Gammon promised to return in the afternoon, and so took his leave. On the stairs he passed two ladies, who, as he learnt in a moment by the sound of their knock above, were making a call upon the invalid. In the street stood their carriage. He watched it for some time from the other side of the way until the ladies came forth again. It would have soothed Gammon's mind could he have known that they were Lord Polperro's sister and his niece.
Just as the brief daylight was flickering. out (the air had begun to nip with a threat of frost) he once more presented himself at Lowndes Mansions. In the meantime he had seen Polly Sparkes, informed her of what was happening, and received her promise that she would take no step until he could communicate with her again. This interview revived his spirits; he felt equal to another effort such as that of the morning--which had taxed him more than the hardest day's work he was ever called upon to do.
Lord Polperro again sat by the fireside with a decanter and glass within his reach. He was evidently more at ease, but seemed to have a difficulty in recognizing his visitor.
"Have you come from Greenacre?" he asked cautiously, peering through the dull light.
"I don't know anything about him."
"No? I cannot understand why I have no news from him. Pray sit down; we were talking about--"
Presently he shook his recollections into order, and when a lamp was brought in he began to talk lucidly.
"Gammon, I feel very uneasy in my mind. This morning I quite intended to have gone and seen Cuthbertson; but I was taken ill, you know. What is the time? I wonder whether Cuthbertson is likely to be at his office still?"
"That's your lawyer, isn't it? Would you like me to go and try to get hold of him? I might bring him here."
"You are very kind, Gammon. For some reason I feel that I really ought to see him to-day. Suppose we go together?"
"But you oughtn't to be out at night, ought you?"
"Oh, I feel much better. Besides, we shall drive, you know--quite comfortable. I really think we will go. Then you shall come back and dine with me. Yes, I think we will go."
Between this decision and the actual step half an hour was wasted in doubts, fresh resolves, moments of forgetfulness, and slow preparation. A messenger had been dispatched for a cab, and at length almost by force Gammon succeeded in getting his lordship down the stairs and out into the street. They drove to Old Jewry Chambers. Throughout the journey Lord Polperro kept up a constant babbling, which he meant for impressive talk; much of it was inaudible to his companion, from the noise of the cab, and the sentences that could be distinguished were mere repetitions of what he had said before leaving home--that he felt it absolutely necessary to see Cuthbertson, and that he could not understand Greenacre's silence. They reached the solicitor's office at about half-past five. Lord Polperro entered only to return with a face of disappointment.
"He has gone. No one there but a clerk--no use."
"Couldn't you find him at his private address?" asked Gammon.
"Private address? to be sure! I'll go in again and ask for it."
Mr. Cuthbertson lived at Streatham.
"I tell you what," said Lord Polperro, whose mind seemed to be invigorated by his activity, "we'll go to Streatham, but first of all we must have something to eat. The fact is, I had no lunch; I begin to feel rather faint."
He bade the cabman drive to any restaurant not far away. There the vehicle was dismissed, and they sat down to a meal. Gammon as usual ate heartily. Lord Polperro pretended to do the same but in reality swallowed only a few mouthfuls, and gave his more serious attention to the wine. Every few minutes he assured his companion in a whisper that he would feel quite at ease when he had seen Cuthbertson.
They looked out the trains to Streatham, and left just in time to catch one. On the journey his lordship dozed. He was growing very husky again, and the cough shook him badly after each effort to talk, so Gammon felt glad to see him resting. By the gaslight in the railway carriage his face appeared to flush and go pale alternately; at moments it looked horribly cadaverous with its half-open eyes, shrivelled lips, and thin, sharp, high-ridged nose. On arriving the man lost all consciousness of where he was and what he purposed; it took many minutes before Gammon could convey him into a cab and extort from him Mr. Cuthbertson's address.
"Greenacre," his lordship kept repeating, "I trust you implicitly. I am convinced you have my interests at heart. When all is settled I shall show myself grateful--believe me."
Between seven and eight o'clock they drove up to a house on Streatham Hill, and without consulting Lord Polperro, Gammon went to parley at the door. Ill luck pursued them. Mr. Cuthbertson was dining in town, and could not be home till late. When made to understand this Lord Polperro passed from lethargy to violent agitation.
"We must go back at once!" he exclaimed. "To Lowndes Mansions at once Greenacre, tell him to drive straight to Sloane Street. You don't know what depends upon it. We must lose not a moment."
The cabman consented, and the return journey began at a good speed. When Gammon, out of regard for the invalid's condition, insisted on having the window of the hansom dropped, Lord Polperro grumbled and lamented. The cool air did him good; he was beginning to breathe more easily than he had done for a long time.
"You are too imperious with me, Greenacre. I have noticed it in you before. You take too much upon yourself."
"I suppose it's no use telling you once more," said his companion, "that my name isn't Greenacre."
"Dear me! dear me! I beg your pardon a thousand times. I meant to say Gammon. I can't tell you, Gammon, how much I feel your kindness. But for you I should never have managed all this in my state of health. You don't mind coming home with me?"
"Of course not. What are you going to do when you get there?"
"I told you, my dear Gammon, it shall be done this very night, whether I have news or not. I shall see Cuthbertson the first thing to-morrow, and get him to draw the deed of gift. That settles everything; no gossip, no scandal, if anything should happen. Life is so uncertain, and as you see I am in anything but robust health. Yes, it shall be done this very night."
Tired of futile questioning Gammon resolved to wait and see what was done, though it seemed to him more than likely that nothing at all would come of these vehement expressions. At all events Lord Polperro was now wide awake, and seemed in no danger of relapsing into the semi-comatose or semi-delirious condition. He no longer addressed his companion by the name of Greenacre; his talk was marked with a rational reserve; he watched the course of their drive along the highways of South London, and showed satisfaction as they approached his own district.
The cabman was paid with careless liberality, and Lord Polperro ran up the stairs to his flat. More strictly speaking, he ran for a few yards, when breath failed him, and it was all he could do to stagger with loud pantings up the rest of the ascent. Arrived in his sitting-room he sank exhausted on to the nearest chair. Gammon saw that he pointed feebly to the drink cupboard, and heard a gasp that sounded like "brandy."
"Better not," replied the clear-headed man. "I wouldn't if I were you."
But his lordship insisted, looking reproachfully, and the brandy was produced. It did him good; that is to say, it brought colour to his face, and enabled him to sit upright. No sooner was he thus recovered than his eyes fell upon the envelope of a telegram which lay on his writing-table.
"There it is, at last!"
He tore the paper, all but sobbing with agony of impatience.
"Good God, I can't see it! I've gone half blind all at once. Read it for me, Gammon."
"Hope see you to-night. Important news. If not, in morning. --Greenacre."
"Where did he send it from?"
"Euston, six o'clock."
"Then he came by the Irish day-mail. Why didn't I think of that and meet the train? What does he mean by to-night or to-morrow morning? What does he mean?"
"How can I tell?" replied Gammon. "Perhaps he has called here while you were away."
Lord Polperro rang the bell, only to find that no one had asked for him. He was in a state of pitiable agitation, kept shuffling about the room with coughs and gasps, demanding ceaselessly why Greenacre left the hour of his appearance uncertain. Gammon, scarcely less excited in his own way, shouted assurances that the fellow might turn up at any moment. It was not yet ten o'clock. Why not sit down and wait quietly?
"I will," said the other. "I will thank you, Gammon. I will sit down and wait. But I cannot conceive why he didn't come straight here from Euston. I may as well tell you he has been to Ireland for me on business of the gravest importance. I am not impatient without cause. I trust Greenacre implicitly. He had a gentleman's education. I am convinced he could not deceive me."
More brandy helped him to surmount this crisis, then he was silent for a few minutes. Gammon thought he had begun to doze again, but of a sudden he spoke distinctly and earnestly.
"I am forgetting. You remember what I had decided to do. It shall be done at once, Gammon. I know it will relieve my mind."
He rose, went to the writing-table, unlocked a drawer, and took out a large sealed envelope, on which something was written.
"Gammon, you are witness of what I now do. This is my will, executed about a year ago. I have reasons for wishing to dispose of my property in another way. Cuthbertson will see to that for me to-morrow. A will becomes public. I did not think of that at the time. There!"
He threw the sealed packet into the fire, where it was quickly caught by the flames and consumed.
"Now I feel easier in mind, much easier."
He drank from the replenished glass, smiling and nodding.