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Monday morning. Before Thomas came down to breakfast, the postman had delivered a letter addressed to him, with the Hastings post-mark upon it.
When Thomas entered, a.d had taken his seat with the usual cool Good morning, his father tossed the letter to him across the table, saying, more carelessly than he felt,
“Who's your Hastings correspondent, Tom?"
The question, coming with the sight of Lucy's handwriting, made the eloquent blood surge into Tom's face. His father was not in the way of missing anything that there was to see, and he saw Tom's face.
“A friend of mine,” stammered Tom. “Gone down for a holiday."
“One of your fellow-clerks ?” asked his father, with a dry signi. ficance that indicated the possible neighbourhood of annoyance, or worse. “I thought the writing of doubtful gender."
For Lucy's writing was not in the style of a field of corn in a hurricane : it had a few mistakable curves about it, though to the experienced eye it was nothing the less feminine that it did not effect feminity.
“No," faltered Tom," he's not a clerk ; he's a-well, he's ateacher of music."
Hm !” remarked Mr. Worboise. "How did you come to make his acquaintance, Tom ?”
And he looked at his son with awful eyes, lighted from behind with growing suspicion.
Tom felt his jaws growing paralyzed. His mouth was as dry as his hand, and it seemed as if his tongue would rattle in it like the clapper of a cracked bell if he tried to speak. But he had nothing to say. A strange tremor went through him from top to toe, making him conscious of every inch of his body at the very moment when his embarrassment might have been expected to make him forget it altogether. His father kept his eyes fixed on him, and Tom's perturbation increased every moment.
“I think, Tom, the best way out of your evident confusion will be to hand me over that letter,” said his father, in a cool, determined tone, at the same time holding out his hand to receive it.
Tom had strength to obey only because he had not strength to resist. But he rose from his seat, and would have left the
“Sit down, sir," said Mr. Worboise, in a voice that revealed growing anger, though he could not yet have turned over the leaf to see the signature. In fact, he was more annoyed at his son's pusillanimity than at his attempted deception.
“ You make a soldier ! ” he added, in a tone of contempt that stung Tom--not to the heart, but to the back-bone. When he had turned the leaf and seen the signature, he rose slowly from his chair, and walked
to the window, folding the letter as he went. After communing with the garden for a while, he turned again to the table and sat down. It was not Mr. Worboise's way to go into a passion when he had anything like reasonable warning that his temper was in danger.
“Tom, you have been behaving like a fool. Thank heaven, it's not too late! How could you be such a fool ? Believe me, it's not a safe amusement to go trifling with girls this way.”
With a great effort, a little encouraged by the quietness of his father's manner, Tom managed to say, " I wasn't trilling.”
“Do you mean to tell me,” said his father, with more sternness than Tom had ever known him assume do you mean to tell me," he repeated, “that you have come under any obligation to this girl?*
“ Yes, I have, father.”
“She's not a dressmaker," said Tom, with some energy, for he was beginning to grow angry, and that alone could give a nature like his courage in such circumstances; "she's a lady, if ever there was one." “ Stuff and nonsense !" said his father.
“Don't get on your high horse with me. She's a beggar, if ever there was one.”
Tom smiled unbelievingly, or tried to smile ; for now his tremor, under the influence of his wholesome anger, had abated, and his breath began to come and go more naturally. A little more, and he would feel himself a hero, stoutly defending his lady-love, fearless of consequences to himself. But he said nothing more just yet.
“ You know better than I do, you think, you puppy! I tell you she's not worth a penny-no, nor her old witch of a grandmother either. A pretty mess you've made of it! You just sit down and tell the poor girl-- it's really too bad of you, Tom !--that you're sorry you've been such a confounded fool, but there's no help for it.”
“Why should I say that ?" “Because it's true. By all that's sacred !” said Mr. Worboise, with solemn fierceness, “ you give up that girl, or you give up me. Not that your father is anything to you ; but I swear, if you carry on with that girl, you shall not cross my door as long as you do ; and not a penny you shall have out of my pocket. You'll have to live on your salary, my fine fellow, and perhaps that'll bring down your proud stomach a bit. By Jove! You may starve for me. Come, my boy," he added with sudden gentleness, “don't be a fool.”
Whether Mr. Worboise meant all he said, I cannot tell, but at least he meant Thomas to believe that he did. And Thomas did believe it. All the terrible contrast between a miserable clerkship, with lodging as well as food to be provided, and a commission in the army with unlimited pocket-money, and the very name of business forgotten, rose before him. A conflict began within him which
sent all the blood to the surface of his body, and made him as hot now as he had been cold just before. He again rose from his seat, and this time his father, who saw that he had aimed well, did not prevc.it him from leaving the room. He only added, as his son reached the door, “ Mark what I say, Tom : I mean it; and when I mean a thing, it's not my fault if it's not done. You can go to the riding-school to-night, or you can look out for a lodging suitable to your means. I should recommend Wapping.”
Thomas stood on the heel of one foot and the toes of the other, holding the handle of the door in his hand till his father had done speaking. He then left the room without reply, closed the door behind him, took his hat and went out. He was half-way to London before he remembered that he had lest Lucy's letter in his father's hands and had not even read it. This crowned his misery. He dared not go back for it; but the thought of Lucy's words to him being at the mercy of his hard-hearted father moved him so, that he almost made up his mind never to enter the house again. And then how Lucy must love him when he had given up everything for her sake, knowing quite well, too, that she was not to have any fortune after all! But he did not make up his mind; he never had made up his mind yet ; or, if he had, he unmade it again upon meeting with the least difficulty. And now his “whole state of man was in confusion. He went into the counting-house as if he had been walking in a dream, sat down to his desk mechanically, droned through the forenoon, had actually only a small appetite for his dinner, and when six o'clock arrived, and the place was closed, knew no more what he was going to do than when he started in the morning.
But he neither went to the riding-school in Finsbury, nor to look for a lodging in Wapping.
DOWN AT LAST.
In the very absence of purpose, he strolled up Guild Court to call upon Molken, who was always at home at that hour.
Molken welcomed him even niore heartily than usual. After a few minutes' conversation they went out together : having no plan of his own, Thomas was in the hands of any one who had a plan of which he formed a part. They betook themselves to one of their usual haunts, It was too early yet for play, so they called for some refreshment, and Thomas drank more than he had ever Grunk before, not with any definite idea of drowning the trouble in his mind, but sipping and sipping from mere restlessness and the Auttering motions of a will unable to act.
It was a cold evening. An autumn wind which had dropped in its way all the now mournful memories of nature, and was itseif the more dreary therefore, tumbled a stray billow now and then through the eddies of its chimney-rocks, and houseiop-shoals upon the dirty window of the small dreary den in which they sat, drinking their gin and water at a degraded card-table whose inlaid borders were not yet quite obscured by the filth caked upon it from greasy fingers and dusters dirtier than the smoke they would remove. They talked--not about gaming---no: they talked about politics and poetry ; about Goethe and Heine; and Molken exerted all his wit and all his sympathy to make himself agreeable to his dejected friend, urging him to rise above his dejection by an effort of the will; using in fact much the same arguments as Lady Macbeth when she tried to persuade her husband that the whole significance of things depended on how he chose to regard them: “ These things must not be thought after these ways." Thomas, however, had not made a confidant of Molken. He had only dropped many words that a man like him would not fail to piece together into some theory regarding the condition and circumstances of one of whom he meant to make gain.
At length, what between Molken's talk and the gin, a flame of excitement began to appear in Thomas's weary existence; and almost at the same instant a sound of voices and footsteps was heard below ; they came up the stair ; the door of the room opened ; and several fellows entered, all eager for the excitement of play as a drunkard for his drink, all talking, laughing, chaffing. A blast of wind laden with rain from a labouring cloud which had crept up from the west and darkened the place, smote on the windows, and soft yet keen the drops pattered on the glass. All outside was a chaos of windy mist and falling rain. They called for lights, and each man ordered his favourite drink; the face of nature, who was doing her best to befriend them, was shut out by a blind of green and black stripes stained with yellow ; two dirty packs of cards
were produced—not from the pocket of any of the company, for none of the others would have trusted such a derivation, but from the archives of the house ; and drawing round the table, they began to offer their sacrifice to the dreary excitement for whose presence their souls had been thirsting all the day. Two of them besides Molken were foreigners, one of them apparently a German, a very quiet and rather gentlemanly man, between whom and Molken, however, if Thomas had been on the outlook, he might, I fancy, have seen certain looks of no good omen interchanged.
They began playing very gently-and fairly, no doubt; and Thomas for some time went on winning.
There was not even the pretence of much money amongst them. Probably a few gold pieces was the most any of them had. When one of them had made something at this sort of small private game,
he would try his luck at one of the more public tables, I presume, As the game went on and they grew more excited, they increased their stakes a little. Still they seemed content to go on for little. Thomas and Molken were partners, and still they won. Gradually the points were increased, and betting began. Thomas began to lose, and lost, of course, more rapidly than he had won. He had had two or three pounds in his pocket when he began, but all went now—the last of it in a bet on the odd trick. He borrowed of Molken-lost; borrowed and lost, still sipping his gin and water, till Molken declared he had himself lost everything. Thomas laid his watch on the table, for himself and Molken-it was not of great value--a gift of his mother only. He lost it. What was to be done? He had one thing left-a ring of some value which Lucy had given him to wear for her. It had belonged to her mother. He pulled it off his finger, showed that it was a rose diamond, and laid it on the table. It followed the rest. He rose, caught up his hat, and, as so many thousands of gamblers have done before, rushed out into the rain and the darkness.
Through all the fumes of the gin which had begun to render “the receipt of reason a limbeck only," the thought gleamed upon his cloudy mind that he ought to have received his quarter's salary that very day. If he had had that, what might he not have done? It was his, and yet he could not have it. His mind was all in a confused despair, ready to grasp at anything that offered him a chance of winning back what he had lost. If he had gone home and told his father-but he was not capable of reasoning out anything. Lucy's ring was his chief misery : so much must be said for him. Something-he did not know what-drove him toward Guild Court. I believe, though in his after reflections he could not identify the impulse, that it was the same which he obeyed at last. Before he knew where he was going, he was at Mrs. Boxall's door. He found it ajar, and walked up the stair to the sitting-room. That door too was open, and there was no one there. But he saw at a glance, from the box on the floor and the shawl on the table that Lucy had returned, and he supposed that her grandmother had gone upstairs with her. The same moment his eyes sought the wall, and there hung two keys. They were the keys of the door of communication, and of the safe.
Mr. Stopper, wise in his generation, sought, as we have seen, to stand as well as possible with the next of kin and supposed heir to Mr. Boxall, namely, his mother. He had, therefore, by degrees, made himself necessary to her, in her fancy at least, by giving her good advice till she thought she could not do without his wisdom. Nor that alone: he had pleased her by a hundred little acknowledgments of her suzerainty, especially grateful to one who loved power as Mrs. Boxall did. Amongst the rest, one evening, after locking up the counting-house, he went to her with those two keys in his