Mr. Richard appeared in his dressing-gown. Three years of good living and hard drinking had deprived his figure of its athletic beauty. He was past forty years of age, and the sudden cessation from severe bodily toil to which in his active life as a convict and squatter he had been accustomed, had increased Rex’s natural proneness to fat, and instead of being portly he had become gross. His cheeks were inflamed with the frequent application of hot and rebellious liquors to his blood. His hands were swollen, and not so steady as of yore. His whiskers were streaked with unhealthy grey. His eyes, bright and black as ever, lurked in a thicket of crow’s feet. He had become prematurely bald—a sure sign of mental or bodily excess. He spoke with assumed heartiness, in a boisterous tone of affected ease.
“Ha, ha! My dear uncle, sit down. Delighted to see you. Have you breakfasted?—of course you have. I was up rather late last night. Quite sure you won’t have anything. A glass of wine? No—then sit down and tell me all the news of Hampstead.”
“Thank you, Richard,” said the old gentleman, a little stiffly, “but I want some serious talk with you. What do you intend to do with the property? This indecision worries me. Either relieve me of my trust, or be guided by my advice.”
“Well, the fact is,” said Richard, with a very ugly look on his face, “the fact is—and you may as well know it at once—I am much pushed for money.”
“Pushed for money!” cried Mr. Wade, in horror. “Why, Purkiss said the property was worth twenty thousand a year.”
“So it might have been—five years ago—but my horse-racing, and betting, and other amusements, concerning which you need not too curiously inquire, have reduced its value considerably.”
He spoke recklessly and roughly. It was evident that success had but developed his ruffianism. His “dandyism” was only comparative. The impulse of poverty and scheming which led him to affect the “gentleman” having been removed, the natural brutality of his nature showed itself quite freely. Mr. Francis Wade took a pinch of snuff with a sharp motion of distaste. “I do not want to hear of your debaucheries,” he said; “our name has been sufficiently disgraced in my hearing.”
“What is got over the devil’s back goes under his belly,” replied Mr. Richard, coarsely. “My old father got his money by dirtier ways than these in which I spend it. As villainous an old scoundrel and skinflint as ever poisoned a seaman, I’ll go bail.”
Mr. Francis rose. “You need not revile your father, Richard—he left you all.”
“Ay, but by pure accident. He didn’t mean it. If he hadn’t died in the nick of time, that unhung murderous villain, Maurice Frere, would have come in for it. By the way,” he added, with a change of tone, “do you ever hear anything of Maurice?”
“I have not heard for some years,” said Mr. Wade. “He is something in the Convict Department at Sydney, I think.”
“Is he?” said Mr. Richard, with a shiver. “Hope he’ll stop there. Well, but about business. The fact is, that—that I am thinking of selling everything.”
“Yes. ’Pon my soul I am. The Hampstead place and all.”
“Sell North End House!” cried poor Mr. Wade, in bewilderment. “You’d sell it? Why, the carvings by Grinling Gibbons are the finest in England.”
“I can’t help that,” laughed Mr. Richard, ringing the bell. “I want cash, and cash I must have.—Breakfast, Smithers.—I’m going to travel.”
Francis Wade was breathless with astonishment. Educated and reared as he had been, he would as soon have thought of proposing to sell St. Paul’s Cathedral as to sell the casket which held his treasures of art—his coins, his coffee-cups, his pictures, and his “proofs before letters”.
“Surely, Richard, you are not in earnest?” he gasped.
“I am, indeed.”
“But—but who will buy it?”
“Plenty of people. I shall cut it up into building allotments. Besides, they are talking of a suburban line, with a terminus at St. John’s Wood, which will cut the garden in half. You are quite sure you’ve breakfasted? Then pardon me.”
“Richard, you are jesting with me! You will never let them do such a thing!”
“I’m thinking of a trip to America,” said Mr. Richard, cracking an egg. “I am sick of Europe. After all, what is the good of a man like me pretending to belong to ‘an old family’, with ‘a seat’ and all that humbug? Money is the thing now, my dear uncle. Hard cash! That’s the ticket for soup, you may depend.”
“Then what do you propose doing, sir?”
“To buy my mother’s life interest as provided, realize upon the property, and travel,” said Mr. Richard, helping himself to potted grouse.
“You amaze me, Richard. You confound me. Of course you can do as you please. But so sudden a determination. The old house—vases—coins—pictures—scattered—I really—Well, it is your property, of course—and—and—I wish you a very good morning!”
“I mean to do as I please,” soliloquized Rex, as he resumed his breakfast. “Let him sell his rubbish by auction, and go and live abroad, in Germany or Jerusalem if he likes, the farther the better for me. I’ll sell the property and make myself scarce. A trip to America will benefit my health.”
A knock at the door made him start.
“Come in! Curse it, how nervous I’m getting. What’s that? Letters? Give them to me; and why the devil don’t you put the brandy on the table, Smithers?”
He drank some of the spirit greedily, and then began to open his correspondence.
“Cussed brute,” said Mr. Smithers, outside the door. “He couldn’t use wuss langwidge if he was a dook, dam ’im!—Yessir,” he added, suddenly, as a roar from his master recalled him.
“When did this come?” asked Mr. Richard, holding out a letter more than usually disfigured with stampings.
“Lars night, sir. It’s bin to ’Amstead, sir, and come down directed with the h’others.” The angry glare of the black eyes induced him to add, “I ’ope there’s nothink wrong, sir.”
“Nothing, you infernal ass and idiot,” burst out Mr. Richard, white with rage, “except that I should have had this instantly. Can’t you see it’s marked urgent? Can you read? Can you spell? There, that will do. No lies. Get out!”
Left to himself again, Mr. Richard walked hurriedly up and down the chamber, wiped his forehead, drank a tumbler of brandy, and finally sat down and re-read the letter. It was short, but terribly to the purpose.
“The George Hotel, Plymouth,” 17th April, 1846.
“My Dear Jack,—
“I have found you out, you see. Never mind how just at present. I know all about your proceedings, and unless Mr. Richard Devine receives his “wife” with due propriety, he’ll find himself in the custody of the police. Telegraph, dear, to Mrs. Richard Devine, at above address.
“Yours as ever, Jack, “Sarah.
“To Richard Devine, Esq., “North End House, “Hampstead.”
The blow was unexpected and severe. It was hard, in the very high tide and flush of assured success, to be thus plucked back into the old bondage. Despite the affectionate tone of the letter, he knew the woman with whom he had to deal. For some furious minutes he sat motionless, gazing at the letter. He did not speak—men seldom do under such circumstances—but his thoughts ran in this fashion: “Here is this cursed woman again! Just as I was congratulating myself on my freedom. How did she discover me? Small use asking that. What shall I do? I can do nothing. It is absurd to run away, for I shall be caught. Besides, I’ve no money. My account at Mastermann’s is overdrawn two thousand pounds. If I bolt at all, I must bolt at once—within twenty-four hours. Rich as I am, I don’t suppose I could raise more than five thousand pounds in that time. These things take a day or two, say forty-eight hours. In forty-eight hours I could raise twenty thousand pounds, but forty-eight hours is too long. Curse the woman! I know her! How in the fiend’s name did she discover me? It’s a bad job. However, she’s not inclined to be gratuitiously disagreeable. How lucky I never married again! I had better make terms and trust to fortune. After all, she’s been a good friend to me.—Poor Sally!—I might have rotted on that infernal Eaglehawk Neck if it hadn’t been for her. She is not a bad sort. Handsome woman, too. I may make it up with her. I shall have to sell off and go away after all.—It might be worse.—I dare say the property’s worth three hundred thousand pounds. Not bad for a start in America. And I may get rid of her yet. Yes. I must give in.—Oh, curse her!—[ringing the bell]—Smithers!” [Smithers appears.] “A telegraph form and a cab! Stay. Pack me a dressing-bag. I shall be away for a day or so. [Sotto voce]—I’d better see her myself. —[ Aloud]—Bring me a Bradshaw! [Sotto voce]—Damn the woman.”