a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: A Romance of Kangaroo Point Author: Dramingo (Ernest Favenc) * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000831h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2010 Date most recently updated: December 2010 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
MY name is Mervington Smythers. I was born in London, but have not had the inestimable advantage of in any way profiting by my short residence in that centre of civilisation, being only some four years old when my parents landed in Sydney.
My father was a gentleman, living upon his income, as the term goes. I did not then know whence this income was derived: I do now. All I knew then was: that as far as my mother and I were concerned it seemed a very inadequate sort of income, although adapted to keep my father in good clothes, hansom cabs, the best cigars, and private delicacies for his own eating, when not dining out anywhere, which, however, was generally the case; for being a man endowed with great social talents he was in request at other people's tables—and he always preferred them to his own.
My mother was pale, quiet, and had evidently been very pretty. She never went out anywhere, was devoted to my father and me: the only two objects, in fact, that she lived for; and we bullied her. She educated me herself, and as I was a sharp boy, and she had received a more liberal education than most women get, I think I did as well, or better, than I would have done at school.
As I grew up and turned out a gentlemanly looking lad, with good taste in dress and not so much gawkishness about me as a boy between fourteen and fifteen usually possesses, my father began to take more notice of me, and gradually I became his companion and pupil, and my mother was left entirely to herself. Finding, I suppose, that her influence was gone, and that she was of no further use in this world, the gentle little soul died; and I must confess that as far as regarded my personal comfort I missed her very much.
My father was a man essentially formed for society. Out of it, in the solitude of his own home, he was—truth compels me to write it an unmitigated brute. He was always talking about his family: how he had offended them by his marriage—allying the blood of a Mervington Smythers with that of an Amberly, my mother's maiden name. We had a coat of arms which I studied assiduously, and believed in implicitly, as I did in a legend my father used to relate of it having been granted to an ancestor of his for prowess displayed at Chevy Chase. I used to quote as peculiarly appropriate,—
These are the arms that once did turn
The tide of fight at Otterbourne.
My father used always to speak of my mother's relations in the most contemptuous manner; and from all I could gather I came to the conclusion that they were low people engaged in trade, and utterly below the notice of a Mervington Smythers, unless perhaps it might be honoring them by accepting their money. Against a brother of my mother's he was particularly fierce in inveighing, accusing him of rolling in wealth (an action I have often heard of but never seen performed), and leaving his relatives to starve.
My mother's death having removed what little check there was on my father, he took to drinking so constantly that in about three years' time he followed my mother to the grave, leaving me as a sole legacy his mantle of good looks and suave manner.
A gentleman of the name of Vaughan, whom I had seen visit my mother once or twice, came to see me, and attended my father's funeral. He then informed me that he had it in charge, on behalf of my mother's brother, to allow me the sum of 100 pounds yearly until I was in a position to dispense with such assistance. He also told me that through the influence of some friends in Brisbane he could obtain for me an appointment in the Civil Service in that colony, and by steadiness and application I might in time rise. I had an idea that Brisbane was a half-civilised sort of place where Mervington Smythers would shine a star of the first magnitude; so accepted the offer and expressed my readiness to depart at once. My temporary guardian asked me if I had no enquiries to make concerning my mother's people, who were now my only relations. But my father's son replied in the negative, loftily and decidedly.
"You have no objection to the hundred a year Amberly will allow you?" he then asked.
Of course I had not.
I asked about my father's family, but he professed total ignorance concerning that point, in a tone almost as lofty as my own, and we parted rather coolly.
I had been in Brisbane about four years when the incident I am about to relate took place.
I had remained, and had risen, in the same department that I had first entered, and considered that my position in Brisbane society was a tolerably good one; not quite what my merits deserved, but still improving. I need not say that my companions in the office were all men of family, at least they all said that they were, and we made it a point of pretending to believe each other. At my instigation we had early formed a coalition to keep out cads, and any who did find their way into the office were glad to get removed again as soon as possible.
My principal friends were Snobleigh Johnstone, my rival in dress, deportment, and ladykilling; Tarquin Staggers, our wit, who gave the nicknames and did the sarcastic; De Joinville Peenopes, the poet, great (in his own opinion) at album verses and elegant epigrams; and Vermont Brussels, who studied family history and heraldry.
We all resided in a boarding-house situated on Kangaroo Point, and considered—or rather regarded—ourselves as the only worthy bearers of Civil appointments out of London. We studied Trollope, and modelled ourselves upon some of his characters, assuming an air of lofty hauteur towards the general public that we fancied rather good style.
Now if there was one person to whom I was partly indebted for my position in the upper strata of Brisbane society it was Mrs. Memphis. She had known my father in his best Sydney days—he was great at fascinating middle-aged women, and she was middle-aged in his time and always spoke of him as that delightful man.
Mrs. Memphis took me up when I first came to Brisbane, and excepting that she seemed to regard me as private property, to be entirely at her commands, I had no objection to being patronised by a lady of her standing.
The worst of it was, though, that Aurelia Sphinx, her niece, who resided with her, also seemed to consider me in the light of private property, and this I decidedly objected to.
We used to have very pleasant little parties on the Point in those days, there being some very nice girls in our set.
There was Bessie de Boys, called Bessie Doughboy amongst ourselves. Vermont Brussels, who was born in Brisbane, and knows everything about everybody, says that the paternal Patrick Doughboy kept a small public-house in the outskirts of the town, and having made a fortune by some lucky speculations, changed his name to Dubois, and came out, or rather the younger branches did. The old couple were not presentable as one of the 'first families.' However, in the course of her boarding-school education in Melbourne, Bessie discovered that Dubois was not considered a very aristocratic name in sunny France. Therefore, in a most ingenious manner, and with an utter disregard of the science of nomenclature, 'Dubois' became 'De Boys,' and as de Boys they shone in our select circle. Bessie was given to dog French. Tarquin Staggers used to compare her to a page of one of Ouida's novels.
Aurelia Sphinx, I have already mentioned; her forte was the intensely respectable, in which she resembled her aunt, who was the incarnation of gentility.
Sophy Montcalm, who essayed the fast line, and indulged in slang, and Georgey Widrington, who gushed, make up the sum of all I need mention for the purpose of illustrating my story. Of the many friends of my father who had invited him to their tables for the sake of his convivial talents, none had shown the slightest interest in my fate or fortunes. My father had been proud of my good looks and appearance during the last years of his life, had been in the habit of introducing me to his friends, and saying, apropos of myself, "A chip of the old stem, blood must tell—as old a pedigree as anybody in the kingdom that boy can boast of." And I did boast of it, but am not aware that I derived any benefit beyond self-gratification by so doing. Consequently I now looked upon Brisbane as my settled home, and had lost all connection with my past life in Sydney, save the business one of receiving 25 pounds quarterly from Vaughan.
I was beginning to think seriously of taking unto myself a wife, and thereby adding to my worldly importance and respectability, but was waiting for another step in promotion, and had not quite decided where to throw my handkerchief.
Aurelia Sphinx, I knew, looked upon me as booked, but so did not I, for she was ten years my senior if she was a day. Bessie de Boys was good-looking, good-tempered, and often sat out a dance with me. But truth to tell there was another 'faire ladye' whose gray eyes had cast a spell over me. I did not mention her amongst the bevy of demoselles already cited, for in fact she was not altogether one of our set. Even Tarquin Staggers had not dared to invest her with a sobriquet.
Mrs. Vane was by some called everything that was charming, and by others voted 'stuck-up' and exclusive, and her daughter Clara shared both verdicts. I was never quite sure myself as to my own opinion.
Sometimes when freely ventilating my opinions in her presence as to the absurd pretensions of some people to be considered anything else but cads, I could detect a smile of amused contempt flicker over her regular features, and a cool look come into the great gray eyes that made me feel that she understood and appreciated me thoroughly. Then I thought her odious. But again, when in her own house, her perfect manner so entirely set you at ease, her soft voice seemed so modulated to nothing but tones of courtesy and kindness, that then she appeared to me the most witching piece of womanhood I had ever seen. But she was an only child; her mother had a secure little fortune which Clara would inherit, and that anchored my drifting fancy.
This, then, was my position when I received a letter that rather frightened me. It ran thus:
"My dear nephew,—I hear from Vaughan that you are getting on steadily and well in the profession you have chosen to adopt. I am about starting to India on important business, and as I shall have some leisure time at my disposal when it is settled, I intend returning to England by way of Australia and America. I shall call at Brisbane en route, and will then see you.
"By the way, there is a graceless young friend of mine on a cattle station somewhere in Queensland: his name is Fred. Conway; try and find him out and make his acquaintance. I have written to him and expect he will come to Brisbane to see me. I should like you to be friends.
"I hope to arrive in Brisbane by the mail boat leaving Singapore in October next, and trust that I shall find in you something to remind me of my sister.
"Your affectionate uncle,
The reader may think that there was nothing in this proposed visit of a wealthy uncle to cause a clerk in the—department, with 100 pounds a year besides his screw to feel frightened, but so it was.
As I have said before, I always imagined that my mother was the daughter of some wealthy tradesman whom (my mother, not the tradesman) my father had married for her pretty face. I had shunned asking Vaughan if it were so, for fear of his confirming it; and it was now as fixed an article of my belief as was the greatness of my father's family—though both were equally vague and misty deductions. Another belief was strong within me: namely, that Ralph Amberly, my maternal uncle, and R. Amberly, maker of "Amberly's celebrated Suffolk sauce," vide advertisements, were one and the same person.
Now I had so bored my friends with histories of the Mervington Smythers' family, so blown my own heraldic trumpet, that should my uncle turn out a mere maker of Suffolk sauce, whose name in glaring colors was in any grocer's window, I was lost beyond redemption. My rising sun of borrowed gentility would set in clouds of ridicule.
I was troubled in mind, the more so as I found that, in consequence of the mail having been delayed a fortnight, another fortnight would land my uncle on the shores of Queensland: brief breathing time in which to decide on a course of action. I re-read the letter, and then thought about looking up this Conway. Perhaps he was already in Brisbane. If so where should I find him? Where did bush fellows generally stay when in town? There were two or three places where I would enquire on the morrow.
Chance favored me the next day. At the first hotel where I enquired the waiter told me that a Mr. Conway was staying there. Was he at home? The waiter took my card and went to see; presently he returned and ushered me upstairs to a private sitting-room.
A young fellow about my own age, sunburnt, and bearded, was lying on a sofa, reading. His heels were higher than his head, his coat was off, he was smoking a short clay pipe, and on the floor, within reach of his hand, were a large tumbler of iced claret and water and a palm leaf fan.
He sprang up as I entered, and greeted me in an open cordial manner, if somewhat eccentric.
"It's frightful weather for the time of year, is it not? You look hot; sit down and take your coat off, and have some iced claret. Here, take a couple of chairs in front of the window—you'll get a little draft there. The men who built such houses for a climate like this want crucifying, don't they?"
I accepted one chair and some claret, but declined to take my coat off. In fact I felt hurt at being told that I looked hot—I, Mervington Smythers, who prided myself on never looking hot.
"I'm glad to make your acquaintance," went on my new friend; "your uncle has been a second father to me. You don't know him personally, I believe."
I said "No," and we drifted on to the common topics of the day, and I found Conway not half so bucolic as I had anticipated. For I always had fought shy of bush fellows, imagined they were always talking about riding buckjumpers, and insisting on 'shouting' for you.
I did not draw him out about my uncle at first, for I thought that I could find out what I wanted to know better when I knew more of my new acquaintance. Presently Conway looked at his watch as I rose to go. "You live at Kangaroo Point, and as you say you can't stop to dine with me to-day," (the dinner invitation should have come from me, but I wasn't quite sure about him at first), "I'll go over the river with you, and give a call I have to make over there."
"Perhaps I know your friends," I said. "I know most of the people over there."
"O very likely. Mrs. Vane; she was an old friend of my mother's."
"I know them well," I replied, "and will go with you. I owe a call there."
"I saw them once when I first came to the colony, three years ago, but have never been in Brisbane since. Excuse me half a minute."
My companion returned almost within the half minute, not having changed the light gray coat he wore, or donned anything more imposing than a common straw hat.
I suppose I was guilty of looking rather critically at his dress, and then at my own faultless and accurate get-up, for he glanced enquiringly at me but said nothing. At any rate, I thought he is calling on his own responsibility; I am not introducing him. But I had to admit that although his dress did not accord with my strict notions of the proper thing, he looked well in it. As we walked down the street we talked about my uncle.
"Is he much given to talking shop?" I asked, nervously approaching the dreadful subject.
"To tell the truth he is a little given to it, but not so much as most men who have made their mark."
"This sort of thing," I said, with a sickly smile, indicating a flaming placard in a window, setting forth the merits of "Amberly's Suffolk Sauce."
My companion looked me in the face with a puzzled expression of countenance. Suddenly a light seemed to dawn upon his mind, and he burst into a fit of ungovernable laughter.
"Don't!" I said; "pray remember that we are in the main street," and I glanced apprehonsively around.
"'Pon my soul it's too rich," he said amid renewed merriment
"What is? what is?" I asked.
"I will tell you directly," he replied.
"I was thinking," he went on when he had attained command of his facial muscles, "how happily you had hit your uncle's character. That sort of thing is his hobby. Once get him started on the merits of his incomparable sauce and he will hold forth for any length of time."
"But," I asked, "does he mention it amongst his friends apart from business?"
"Decidedly! His motto is, advertise everywhere. At a dinner party, for instance, he will say: 'I see you use my sauce; now if you want to save, order it directly from the manufactory. Come! give me an order now, and I'll book it and make you the usual trade allowance.'"
This was awful; my worst fears had never pictured anything so bad as this.
"He carries little handbills," my companion went on, "and distributes them to everyone he is introduced to. He has often given me a lot to take to a ball or party."
"And did you take them?"
"Well you see he is such a fine-hearted old fellow in the main, and has been such a good friend to me that I couldn't refuse. He will make you laugh in spite of yourself. He thinks nothing of going up to a young lady, thrusting a handbill into her hand, and saying, 'There, my dear, when you get married—and that's sure to be soon, with a pretty face like yours—you buy plenty of my sauce, and you'll find your husband come home to his dinner as regular as clockwork.'"
Whatever should I do? Ask for leave of absence, and fly the country for a time? Impossible! I had just had a holiday.
My companion did not see, or did not heed, my disquietude, for he harped on the subject still.
"But his grandest point of all is telling how he first got the recipe for the ingredients of which the sauce is composed. He always commences in the same words; I have heard him tell it a score of times, and know directly it's coming. He begins: 'Now I'll tell you how I once got the better of a Jew.'"
Conway, doubtless, guessed why I was so silent and subdued, for after a short pause he said—
"But you must not imagine that he is always like this. Sometimes he can be most correct in his behaviour, but never for long, it's only acting a part."
This was a feeble ray of hope. Perhaps I could induce him to act a part all the time he stayed in Brisbane. An idea, a glimmer of salvation began to form in the troubled chaos of my mind. We reached the house where Mrs. Vane lived, and I was rather surprised to see that my companion's neglige costume brought no censuring look into Clara's face.
Mrs. Vane was delighted to see Conway, and I felt vexed at noting the interest Clara displayed in his conversation. Had it been possible for a visitor at their house to feel himself out in the cold, I should have felt so that afternoon despite the warmth of the weather.
But my annoyance was capped when Mrs. Vane asked Conway if he did not think Clara altered since they last met. Actually asking him—for it amounted to nothing else, I thought, in my vexation—to look at and admire her daughter's blooming beauty.
I was supposed just then to be engaged looking over some music, searching for a song I had asked permission to borrow, but could not resist stealing a glance at Miss Vane to see how she took it.
To my disgusmt she laughed merrily.
"If I am much altered, Mr. Conway is altered too, since we used to romp together."
"Don't remind me how old I am getting," said Mrs. Vane, and as I came forward with the sought-for song the conversation at once changed, and we shortly afterwards left.
"I suppose you saw a good deal of the Vanes when you first came out?" I said carelessly, as we strolled away.
"No, very little," he replied, "I only stayed a few days in Brisbane, and went straight up the bush where I have been ever since."
This was worse and worse; putting Clara down at nineteen, and deducting the three years my companion had been out in the colony, she would have been sixteen when they used to romp together. The idea was terrible—worse than my uncle's visit. The calm Clara Vane, the type of maidenly reserve and womanly propriety, romping at the age of sixteen with a young man she scarcely knew. After this the deluge!
"I knew them long ago in England," said my companion at this point of my meditations.
"Oh! that is where you used to romp together," I exclaimed, unguardedly showing what my thoughts had been.
"Yes," he replied, with the slightest elevation of his eyebrows. "Did you imagine it was out here? When I was a boy at school I used to spend half my holidays at their house."
I felt relieved, and Clara was back on her old pedestal again.
I saw my new friend down to the ferry, and promised to dine with him on the next day.
As I walked back to my lodgings I mused deeply upon the best way of combining two apparently antagonistic courses of action—namely, the best mode of presenting my uncle to my friends without endangering my presumed reputation for good family, and yet keeping carefully in his favor, so as not to forfeit my chance of obtaining a monetary acknowledgement of the tie of relationship existing between us. Had he been poor and vulgar of course I would have at once ignored the relationship; but rich and vulgar—that was a horse of another color.
I could not quite understand how it came about that Conway and my uncle were so intimate. Conway was evidently well-bred, and a gentleman, if somewhat careless of appearance, and yet he seemed to have been on a perfectly familiar footing with my uncle.
Still what he said was explicit enough, and reliable, and upon his utterances I built my plan of action.
My uncle intended coming out by way of India, where doubtless his business was establishing an agency for the sauce. He could act the part of a gentleman when he liked, so Conway said. I would introduce him as a distinguished Indian officer, and persuade him to carry out the deception. In all probability he had picked up enough Indian slang to carry it off, and would feel flattered at the notion.
The more I turned the idea over in my mind the better I liked it, and determining to strike while the notion was hot I mentioned it to my friends that evening.
"By-the-bye, I expect my uncle out by the next E. and A. mail," I said.
"Who is he—Lord Helpus?" said Staggers, who could be very low in his jokes when he liked.
"No," I replied loftily, "Colonel Amberly, of whom you would have heard before if you knew anything about India."
"Why, what did he do?" asked Snobleigh.
"Distinguished himself greatly at the Pass of Juggernhaut," I answered confidently. It was the first word I could think of, but it did for Snobleigh.
"What happened there?" he grunted.
"My uncle and a handful of his men captured a khitmugar full of wild elephants."
"What!" said Staggers, in a tone of surprise.
"A khitmugar full of wild elephants," I repeated undauntedly, "and let them loose upon the infuriated rebels. Yes! let them all loose upon the exasperated rebels."
My audience were deeply impressed.
"I remember the affair now," said Snobleigh, slowly, "a relation of mine was present at the engagement."
Now this was so evidently fiction, invented on the spot, that I determined to put it down at once.
"What was his name?" I asked.
"Oh—Johnstone," he replied.
"I heard my uncle speak of him," I said.
"Very likely; he distinguished himself greatly there."
"He did," I said, "he ran away."
This turned the laugh against Johnstone, and so far I was triumphant.
The next day I dined tete a tete with Conway, and confided to him my Indian-officer-plan. He seemed delighted at the idea, said it would be the greatest joke out, and promised to use all his influence to induce my uncle to consent.
"But he'll breakout sometimes you know," he remarked, "but we must manage so that it only occurs when we are alone."
* * * * *
"I hear you expect your uncle shortly," said Miss de Boys to me a few days after this.
"Yes, in a week or so," I replied.
"An old Indian officer, is he not?—a vieux moustache. I know I shall like him. Is he decore?"
I was slightly at fault for an answer; her questions were so warm.
"The interest you display is most flattering, Miss de Boys," I said evasively.
"Really now; but it is a selfish interest, for I find I can get on so much better with people who have lived in society at home."
"I wish I had lived in society at home then," I said pathetically.
"You have quite the air of it," returned Bessie, graciously; "quite the bel air."
Now was not this too bad, to be approved and passed by a girl who had worn shoes and stockings only since she was ten years old, and the family greatness dawned. Bessie might have known that I knew what the amount of her experience had been. But that was the worst of our little set: we all tried to impose upon one another so. Could I look into my own heart and say that I was guiltless.
"I trust he will resemble your poor father," said Mrs. Memphis. "I never," she went on, turning to Aurelia Sphinx, "knew anybody who combined graceful wit with an easy polished manner, so delightfully."
"Yes, aunt, I think I have heard you say that before."
"If you have, my dear Aurelia, it is because such talents are not so noticeable amongst the people of the present day. I trust we shall, however, find the same happy combination in your uncle, Mr. Smythers."
I could only bow, and hope so too, most fervently.
"We shall be glad to know your uncle," said Mrs. Vane.
"And from Mr. Conway's description I am quite prepared to fall in love with him," added Clara.
"Most Indian men dance well," said the Montcalm; "I hope he goes fast."
I politely reminded her that my uncle's dancing days were probably over.
"Never mind, I'll flirt with him; I like flirting with old men better than young ones—they are not so conceited."
"That is a very cruel remark, considering to whom it is addressed, Miss Montcalm."
Now this was all very encouraging; but how would it be if this decoree, this man who was to combine polished wit with an easy manner; with whom quiet Clara Vane was ready to fall in love; and Sophy Montcalm to get up a flirtation—if he should thrust handbills upon them setting forth the superlative merits of his Suffolk sauce.
I used to have terrible nightmares, in which I was about to be married to Mrs. Memphis, and when about to produce the ring would find a bottle of sauce in my hand; whereupon she would change into a wild elephant and chase me round the church.
However there was nothing for it but to await the fulness of time. I had set my all upon a cast, and had to stand the hazard of the die.
THE day big with my fate arrived, and found Conway and I on board of the Kate, steaming down to the Bay to meet the E. and A. steamer Singapore. Conway pointed out my uncle amongst the passengers, watching our approach, and I felt one weight off my mind: in appearance he was quite presentable. We went on board, and Conway introduced us.
My uncle perused my face earnestly, but seemed disappointed in what he found there.
"Too like his father," I overheard him say to Conway.
I could quite understand that he bore my father no good will, and did not feel hurt at his tracing a resemblance I was rather proud of. On our way up the river my uncle seemed anxious to draw me out, and, nothing loath, I dilated to him in glowing terms upon the good standing I had achieved in the best Brisbane circles—I who had come there a lonely stranger; and although he several times asked me most earnestly about my mother, I always managed to get back to my own affairs again. It did not strike me that even a manufacturer of Suffolk sauce may have loved his sister, and have been anxious to hear one word at least of affectionate remembrance from the lips of her only son. If that was his wish, it was not gratified. He seemed pained, and I thought Conway, who was sitting near, but not joining in the conversation, looked a trifle disgusted.
What astonished me, and also pleased me, was that my uncle, in manners and appearance, was such a contrast to what I had expected. Irongray moustache and whiskers, short cut hair, and a manly, bronzed face, with a noticeable scar on the cheek,—why he was, in effect, the very character I had selected for him. There was a slight twinkle in the eye that betokened a keen appreciation of humor, and a very set expression about the mouth that made me think that he would not be so easily led as I had fondly imagined. Still I hoped for the best; perhaps he would remain on his good behaviour of his own accord, he might have altered since Conway knew him.
As we neared Brisbane, my uncle took Conway's arm,—for whom he seemed to have a great affection,—and they commenced to walk the deck together After a few turns, I saw my uncle's face change, and a look of deep wrath cross it; I could see before that he could look black when he liked; something that Conway said, however, immediately altered the expression into one of mirth, and for the rest of their walk he seemed scarcely able to suppress his merriment. Conway had taken a room for my uncle in the same hotel where he was stopping, and we sat down to dinner in the private room where I had first met Conway.
The moment we were seated I noticed a change in my uncle's manner—even in his face.
Conway had whispered to me: "I never saw him keep straight so long before," therefore I was partly prepared for it.
The first thing my uncle did was to throw off his coat and waistcoat, and, sinking down in a chair, to wipe his perspiring forehead with a table napkin "Pheugh!" he said, "why don't you have punkahs here?"
I admitted that it would be an improvement. Conway sat down opposite to me, having thrown off his coat, and nodded to me to do the same. However, I would not. I thought that I could impress my uncle more by strictly adhering to the rules of society, than by meekly imitating his whims. Conway, I now saw, was a mere toady.
"Well, boys," said my uncle, "it's nice to get together, where a man can enjoy himself, free and easy like, same as I've always been accustomed to."
"Have you any Suffolk sauce?" he demanded of the waiter, before commencing to eat his soup.
"Yes, sir," said the man, handing him the cruet-stand. This was the first time that I had heard the dreaded word from his lips, and it made me shudder.
My uncle selected the bottle indicated, removed the stopper, and smelt it suspiciously. He put it back without using any, and sternly told the waiter to bring him the real Suffolk sauce.
"That's Suffolk sauce, sir," said the waiter.
"It's not!" said my uncle, so savagely, that the poor man jumped again. "Send out directly, and buy a bottle. None genuine unless signed 'R. Amberly.' That's my name, d'ye see; and if a man isn't to know his own sauce, I'm a Dutchman. Now look sharp."
The man left the room, and in a much shorter time than I had expected, returned with a newly purchased bottle in a paper wrapper. I had gone on steadily eating my soup. Conway leaned back in his chair, silent, and staring at the gas. My uncle unbuttoned his shirt collar, and fanned himself with a napkin. He signified his approval of the fresh bottle; he and Conway put some in their soup, and they commenced their dinner.
As the waiter was removing the plate, my uncle carefully unfolded the printed wrapper around the bottle of sauce, and handed it to Conway.
"Read it out to me, Fred," he said, drawing another chair up to rest one leg on; "seems long since I've heard it."
Conway commenced; and fancy what I had to suffer, knowing the waiter was grinning behind me, as he told how it was patronised by the nobility and gentry of England, sought after by foreign cooks, and used by missionaries to propitiate the heathen, and teach them to appreciate civilisation.
My uncle would grunt approval, and repeat what were evidently his pet passages after the reader. "Imparting a truly delicate and delicious flavor to everything," he said, as Conway ceased; and with a satisfied sigh he returned to his dinner.
"He's rather worse than usual," Conway whispered to me after dinner, "he's been cramped on board the mail steamer, and now he's giving full fling. But don't look so disgusted. He says you're stuck up; don't let him think that."
"Have you said anything about the Indian officer scheme?" I asked.
"I just mentioned it, and he seemed to like the idea. I'll sound him again to-night."
I left about ten o'clock, although my uncle wanted me to take a room at the hotel during his stay in Brisbane; but for several reasons I declined this arrangement. As I emerged into the street I heard their voices in conversation on the balcony above, where they were smoking, and heard Conway say, "Yes, but don't overdo it." I therefore concluded that he was explaining to my uncle our proposed line of conduct.
I had promised to dine with my uncle every day during his stay in Brisbane; and used to go to the hotel immediately after office hours, for I was determined that if I had to put up with his vulgar ways, I would at least endeavor to get a substantial recognition of our relationship from him in return, and not leave it altogether to Conway to entertain him. One day, as I entered the sitting room (in, I confess, a rather unceremonious manner), I found a gentleman there whom I knew by sight, and whose acquaintance I had often coveted,—Major Milton.
He was just taking his leave of Conway as I entered; my uncle was not there. As I apologised to Conway, Major Milton said, in his off-hand manner, "This is Amberly's nephew, I suppose?" and shook hands with me. "Of course he's a dancing man; and Mrs. Milton will want to get up a dance after dinner; so I hope you are not engaged for to-morrow," he went on addressing me, and nodding to both of us, he left the room.
"You know Major Milton?" I said to Conway, carelessly.
"Never saw him before," said Conway; "but he and my father were brother officers."
"We must try and keep my uncle within bounds then," I said; "for Major Milton was a long time in India, so a mistake would be fatal, besides, they are the best people on the Point."
"Yes," said Conway, indifferently, "but here comes your uncle."
I told my uncle, as he entered, of the invitation to dinner at Major Milton's, and how necessary caution would be; for his assumption of the part of an Indian officer had now become openly recognised amongst us.
"All right, Neddy," (I hated this name), he said, "I'm fly. We'll put our company manners on, Fred."
The next day I was very nervous. Staggers and Johnstone told me that they were invited to a carpet dance in the evening, and I crowed over them at having a dinner invitation. This was a slight source of satisfaction.
When we arrived at the Major's we found only Mrs. Vane and her daughter there, and Bessie de Boys, who had come under Mrs. Vane's chaperonage. Conway, to my disgust, took Clara in to dinner; I followed with Bessie, and I could scarcely help looking nervously behind me to see if my uncle was thrusting hand-bills into Mrs. Milton's hand as they brought up the rear. But his manner was simply perfection, and I could scarcely believe him to be the same man. What with watching him, and casting furtive glances at Clara Vane and Conway, I am afraid Bessie found me a not very brilliant dinner-companion. So long as the ladies remained at table, India was not mentioned, but as soon as they left I could see that Major Milton was eager for the fray.
"You know Dick Featherstone—hard-riding Dick?" he asked of my uncle. "Did you hear what had become of him as you came out this time?"
"Yes; he's married."
"Married, is he? Whom did he marry?"
"You knew Bowker?" said my uncle; and I stared at him, lost in amazement at his cool audacity. How I longed to repeat Conway's caution—"Don't overdo it."
"Know Bowker? Of course I did. Why, didn't Mrs. Bowker get out a daughter regularly every year? and Dick christened them 'the annuals.' You don't mean to say he married an 'annual?'" and he went off into a fit of laughter, in which my uncle joined.
"That's the best thing I've heard for a long time," said Major Milton. "Why, when the supply of daughters ran out, she used to get out nieces! Dick married a niece, I suppose?"
"Yes," said my uncle
"Fancy hard-riding Dick married to an 'annual!' He used to get up sweeps, write down 'Julia,' 'Maude,' 'Alice,' &c., on slips of paper, and when the expected one arrived, whoever had drawn her name took the rupees. Dick doesn't ride steeple-chases now, I'll be bound," said Major Milton. "But," he went on, turning to Conway and me, "I expect there's metal more attractive for you youngsters in the drawing room, so don't let us keep you here, listening to our old Indian yarns; we've got a lot of old battles to fight over yet."
Conway nodded, and, laughing pleasantly, rose and left the room. I kept my seat, anxious to see how far my uncle's assurance would carry him.
"Did you hear what had become of Tom Frost? What a hand he had for a devil's sauce!'
"Yes," returned my uncle; "and speaking of sauce, I will tell you how I once got the better of a Jew."
Here was a collapse. I could not see it out. Hastily swallowing my wine, I rose and followed Conway.
In the drawing room, Mesdames Milton and Vane were deep in some matron's talk. Clara Vane and Conway were inspecting a photographic album together, and Bessie de Boys, looking very lonely, by herself, with a book in her lap.
Bessie seemed unfeignedly glad to see me, and made room for me beside her on the ottoman with alacrity.
"What a delightful man your uncle is!" she said. "Just what I expected, quite one of the old regime."
What Bessie knew of the old 'regeem,' as she called it, I don't know, but as I thought of the disclosures being made at that moment in the dining room by a member of that body I groaned in spirit.
"How triste you are," said she, giving me a playful tap with her fan; "quite distrait. What is the matter with you?"
I borrowed the fan—for I was in that nervous state when it is a relief for a man to have something to trifle with—and tried to rouse myself.
"It is excusable in me, Miss de Boys; for you know what Shakespeare says about lovers."
"No, what does he say? Oh! I know; something about being 'sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything;' and certainly it would apply to you very well just now."
"Pardon me, but I don't think you exactly remembered the quotation I meant."
"No! But never mind; tell me who you are in love with," she said, confidentially.
"Well—with myself, I think," I replied evasively. Bessie was such a girl for home questions.
"I certainly think you are," she said, rather pettishly.
At this moment a servant entered, and spoke to Mrs. Milton, who then left the room. What had happened? Was my uncle to be forcibly ejected as an impostor? and was I to follow? I looked towards Conway, but he seemed quite engrossed with Miss Vane, and had no eyes for me.
"There you are—looking at Miss Vane and Mr. Conway again! I declare you have been watching her ever since you came in," said Bessie.
Just then, Mrs. Memphis, Aurelia, and the Montcalm made their appearance, and a diversion was caused. Immediately following them, Mrs. Milton re-entered, and came directly towards me.
Without stopping to consider the wild absurdity of her mentioning the fact, then and there, even if my uncle had "served by indenture to the common hangman," I awaited her approach with trepidation. What a relief it was when she said:
"Your uncle and Major Milton are so deep in old Indian recollections that they are going to have their coffee on the verandah, and we need not expect to see them here. Now will you and Mr. Conway help to move the tables back, to make room to dance, and I'll play for you."
"All hands clear decks!" said Miss Montcalm, who had been to a dance on board of a man-of-war once, and Conway and I set about our appointed task, assisted by Staggers and Johnstone, who came in. I spent a very pleasant evening. Miss Vane danced twice with me for the first time in our acquaintance; and in other quarters I did what England is popularly supposed to expect every man to do.
As my uncle did not come into the drawing-room, I had not an opportunity of presenting him to Mrs. Memphis. Major Milton walked down with him and Conway to the ferry before the last dance; and I had the inexpressible pleasure of being sole escort to Mrs. Vane and her daughter for the short distance that separated their home from the Miltons' residence.
It was a day or two after the dinner at Major Milton's that I was strolling up from the ferry, on my way home, when I saw three ladies walking ahead of me. There was no mistaking the graceful figure of the one who was my then object of adoration—Clara Vane. Equally recognisable to my acute eyes were the other two—Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia Sphinx. They had doubtless been shopping on the north side, and were on their way home. Carefully avoiding all appearance of haste, I yet managed to quicken my steps so as to overtake them. I was well received, and graciously allowed to accompany them. As we turned the corner two figures appeared approaching us, coming down the main street; my uncle and Conway. The first-named had his hat in one hand and his handkerchief in the other, and ever and anon fanned himself with the first-named article of attire. He had broken out again, I could see at a glance, an affecation of feeling the heat very much being a sure sign. I trembled. The meeting could not be avoided; it was inevitable. On they came.
"Is not that Mr. Conway?" said Mrs. Memphis. "Who can that be with him?"
She would know too soon. They met us directly, in front. I thought I saw a look of suppressed fun on Clara's face as she acknowledged Conway's salutation, but certainly did not feel very happy myself.
My uncle stopped short, managing somehow to check us as well, and, with a smile of bland benevolence beaming all over his face, said:
"Well, Neddy, boy; enjoying yourself! Trotting some swell girls out for a walk?"
Mrs. Memphis looked—but words adequate to express herself fail me—a petrified personification of outraged gentility. Aurelia regarded my uncle with a stare as stony as her namesake's; and Miss Vane fairly laughed out. My uncle turned to her.
"I think I know you, Missey," he said, taking her extended hand, and shaking it as if it were election time, and she a candidate.
"Well, Fred," he went on, "as we've nothing better to do, suppose we see Neddy through."
What could I do? I—who prided myself on always introducing the right people at the right time—had now to present my uncle to Mrs. Memphis, in the middle of the street. There was no help for it.
My uncle insinuated himself between Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia Sphinx. Conway and I followed, as supporters to Miss Vane; and in this order we resumed our interrupted way.
I could hear every word of the conversation going on in front, for in our trio reigned a deathly silence.
"You see, marm," said my uncle, addressing Mrs. Memphis, "when people arrive at our time of life," (I could fancy the Memphian visage at this remark, although I could not see it) "it's only right and proper we should indulge the young ones a little. Don't you think so, Miss?" turning to Aurelia.
"I do not understand you," she replied, in a voice like a file.
"No! Now what I mean is this: A man like me, who has had to work his own way,—why it does me good to see young folks enjoying themselves in a way I never got the chance of."
"Indeed!" said Mrs. Memphis.
"Yes, marm; you wouldn't think it, to see me now, selling my sauce in every part of the world, by the ton, I may say; but I began life with nothing but my pay."
Mrs. Memphis snorted; I can use no other expression for the sound she emitted.
"Yes; I've made a tidy little fortune, and Neddy's my only nephew; so I like to see him kicking up his heels amongst the nobs a bit."
The voice of Mrs. Memphis seemed to take a softer intonation as she said:
"I presume that your's is a lucrative profession, Mr. Amberly?"
"Yes, ma'm, a money making business, and I always push it; that's my motto. Now, a lady like you ain't above saving a few shillings; and why should you be? say I. Then why don't you buy your sauce direct?—that's what I say. Give me an order direct, and I'll make a reduction."
"Really, Mr. Amberly, I do not use it in sufficient quantities to warrant me in doing so."
"Never mind the quantity; say a dozen only. I'm not above booking an order for a dozen."
"What a fortunate thing it is," said Mrs. Memphis, evading the order question, "for Mr. Smythers to have an uncle of your wealth; not all young men enjoy that advantage."
"Yes, it's lucky for Neddy, and he'll do me credit; he's had the advantage of good society;" and my uncle bowed so as to point the compliment.
"Indeed, Mr. Amberly," she returned, with quite an agreeable smile, "I have always taken a great interest in your nephew. I knew his father."
"And so did I," and my uncle's voice seemed to alter as he said it.
"A delightful man," went on Mrs. Memphis, who, to my wonder and complete amazement seemed emerging from a frigid into almost a torrid zone; "and Mr. Smythers inherits many of his qualities."
"He does," said my uncle in the same altered voice.
"And will, I suppose, have the additional advantage of inheriting something more from other quarters," she said in a gushing manner, put on doubtless to cover the left-sidedness of her remark, for my inheritance would necessarily be contingent on my uncle's decease.
"Yes, ma'm," returned my uncle in his former manner, "money made from sauce is as good as any other money, and every penny that I've made from the sale of sauce Neddy shall get, take my word for it."
"But your essay in trade is only an affair of late years. I understood that you had served—"
"So I did, for many a long year, and got but very little wages."
"Served her Magesty, I mean, Mr. Amberly."
"O yes—I was special constable at the time of the Chartist riots."
At this moment we arrived at the Memphian abode, and my uncle's unlucky reminiscences were fortunately cut short. Both Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia bade him farewell in a most effusive manner; and I was fairly puzzled. My uncle walked off with Miss Vane, and Conway and I strolled leisurely back to the ferry, my uncle saying he would overtake us as soon as he had seen his fair charge safely home.
Conway and I said but little as we walked along. I was wondering what had caused Mrs. Memphis to thaw in so remarkable a manner. Could it be the worship of the golden calf, and if so, what did it matter to her whether my uncle were rich or poor?
* * * * *
"Quite original, but charming for that very originality," said Mrs. Memphis the next day, for I found a pretext for calling in order to hear her opinion of my relative.
"Yes," said Aurelia, regarding me with dangerous fondness; "there is something fresh and striking about these self-made men that, although perhaps not so agreeable at first sight as a more polished manner, has still its fascination.
"Be sure you do not allow him or Mr. Conway to engage themselves anywhere to-morrow night," said Mrs. Memphis.
There was to be a small dance at the Memphian establishment. "My limited income," Mrs. Memphis would say, "does not allow me to give entertainments on the scale I once did;" so her dances were small, but select, O very select.
My uncle came, and was on his best behavior. The sauce affair had somehow leaked out, and Staggers and Johnstone had already commenced some sly chaff; but as yet they were not sure of their ground, and my uncle's appearance at Mrs. Memphis' rather awed them.
"Fine-looking old boy," I heard Johnstone say. The night was wearing on. I had just handed Miss Vane to a seat when Conway appeared.
"I believe I am to have the pleasure of your hand for the next dance, Miss Vane?"
"Not so fast, Fred," said my uncle's voice behind me; "I am going to induce Miss Vane to dance with me instead of you."
"I did not know you danced, Mr. Amberly," said she.
"I have not danced for—really I don't know how long; and upon my word I think the last time was with you, when you were about as high as the back of the chair upon which you are sitting. But to-night, for once, I am going to break through my resolution in your favor; and if you don't consent I shall do something desperate."
"Well, Mr. Amberly, to avert such a catastrophe I will break my word as you have broken yours, and Mr. Conway will excuse me."
"I excuse you, Miss Vane. I shall follow the example of the individual who hung his harp off a willow tree."
"And what did he do?" asked Clara, as she handed him her bouquet and fan.
"He said, or sung—
I will hide in my heart every selfish care;
I will flush my pale cheek with wine:—
"Let me finish the quotation," said my uncle.
"No, Mr. Amberly, I will excuse you," said Clara, hastily.
But he was not to be baulked—
"And when smiles await on the bridal pair,
I will hasten to give them mine.
And Miss Vane went off with a very pretty bloom upon her round cheek.
Did I really catch a hesitating, timid glance in my direction as she tried to stop my uncle, or was it only fancy? No, not fancy, I felt sure of it, and was proportionately elated; so much so that I condescendingly offered to relieve Conway of Miss Vane's bouquet, but he said—"Never mind, my dear fellow, I don't want to dance; and there's Miss de Boys looking at you as though she expected you to ask her."
Poor Bessie, I really had flirted with her a good deal, and perhaps the little girl thought I meant something; so in the kindly disposition I was then in, I went and asked her to dance—a favor she kindly granted.
As I composed myself to sleep that morning, I could not help thinking what a clever fellow I was. I felt sure that Miss Vane had what Bessie would call a penchant for me. I had heard my uncle say that every penny of the sauce money should be mine. Nobody seems to have remembered that I had announced my uncle as an Indian officer who had served with distinction, and he had announced himself as a sauce-maker.
Doubtless my agreeable company was too highly valued for people to risk losing it by touching on the subject. My last thought was that Mervington Smythers was as talented an individual as one could find in Queensland, and, so thinking, I slept.
MY elation had not cooled when I awoke. My course ahead seemed fair and clear. At the office I experienced some slight annoyance. Staggers and Johnstone conversed over my head on the merits of the celebrated Suffolk sauce; Staggers had procured an advertisement of it, and read it aloud at intervals during the day, Johnstone and the others making critical remarks during the process. I stood the chaff pretty well, but found it very annoying. I mentioned it to Conway that evening, and he gave me a piece of advice; he said:—
"If they try it on again, just state that the first man who says anything about Suffolk sauce in your hearing, intentionally to annoy you, had better accompany you into the handiest back-yard and there repeat it."
I tried it the next morning; Johnstone had bought a bottle of sauce, and produced it in an ostentatious manner on arrival. I immediately invited him to try the ordeal by battle, as proposed by Conway, and to my great relief he declined. We shook hands all round, and concluded to drop the subject.
"You know I would have fought you in a minute, old fellow," said Johnstone, "but I'm engaged for a picnic next week, and I was afraid of getting a black eye."
"Suppose you have it out afterwards," said Staggers. "I don't mind picking one of you up."
But we said "No;" the matter was done with, it was absurd to start it again.
I went with my uncle to call on Mrs. Memphis a day or two after this. Aurelia in her sportive manner told me to come and help her to get some flowers, and with no great delight I obeyed her. While engaged in the floral occupation, Aurelia had some mysterious message brought to her by a servant—something about a dressmaker I thought I heard.
"I know I can dispense with ceremony with you, Mervington, we are such old friends," she said; "so make up the flowers nicely, and I will be back directly." She skipped away in an airy manner, and fervently wishing that her return might be delayed till the crack of doom, I bundled the flowers together and went back to the house.
My uncle and Mrs. Memphis were sitting at the open window, talking. I could hear their voices although I could not see them, and hearing my own name, instinctively halted. I suppose I ought not to confess what I did, but the story would be incomplete without it, so, in fact, I stopped and listened. "Quite an affair of the heart," said Mrs. Memphis; "Mervington will be so much steadier, and in Aurelia, he will find everything he could hope for in a wife."
"She seems a most amiable girl," said my uncle.
"She is amiability itself; during the years she has grown up under my eye, such sweet unselfishness as she displays has been my wonder and admiration!"
"It will be a trial to part with her."
"Indeed it will; no shadow of a quarrel has ever marred our intercourse." (they used to fight like two cats before me sometimes).
"And you think Mervington will propose to her soon?"
"He worships her; but the timidity of true love is so great that he hesitates to speak. Now, if you hinted to him that such a union would be most agreeable to you it would give him courage; he would gain sufficient courage to test his fate."
"He has my best wishes, and if a word of encouragement is needed he shall have that too."
"Then my dear Mr. Amberly we can look upon it as a settled thing, for a dutiful nephew like Mervington will be only too eager to hasten to please a generous uncle."
"I think it a suitable match in every respect provided that the young people," (Aurelia young!) "come to an understanding before I leave the colony."
"O, Mr. Amberly, although not given to match-making, in fact holding it in contempt, still standing as I do in a mother's place towards Aurelia, I can take upon myself to say that an opportunity shall be afforded for the needful explanations between them. Perhaps it is even now taking place," and she laughed girlishly, or as girlishly as a woman of sixty could.
I had heard enough; too much. I stole a few paces away, and then came back humming a tune. As we took our leave Mrs. Memphis gave my uncle a meaning glance that made me turn cold, and rendered me moody and silent until I was alone.
Now, what shall I do, I mused. Marry Aurelia, and take my uncle's money? Yes, as a last resource; but if I can avoid it—no. Could I give up the idea of Miss Vane so readily? Ah! a bright idea! My uncle had evidently a great liking for Clara; quite a paternal fondness. Would he not be as much, or more, pleased if I married her than if I married Aurelia? Of course he would. What did he mean by saying that his smiles would await on the bridal pair, unless he meant me to, what is popularly known as, "go in and win." But I would consult Conway; he knew my uncle well, and could tell me what would be my best course: only the more I thought of Aurelia's faded fascinations, and compared them with Miss Vane's blooming freshness, the more did I feel averse to sacrificing myself, unless for a good consideration.
I invited Conway to a stroll and a cigar after dinner; we sauntered along a lonely street, and I explained what had passed, and asked his advice.
"My advice is that you tell your uncle that you have no more idea of marrying Miss Sphinx than you have of flying."
"But my uncle seemed to like the idea of the match; and he told Mrs. Memphis that every penny he had made by the sale of sauce should be mine. He might change his mind if I refused to marry Miss Sphinx."
"Everybody asks advice, but nobody takes it. I have given you mine, and I know your uncle well. Go straight to him, and tell him that there is nothing between you and Miss Sphinx. Don't listen to conversations not intended for you again; and take my word for it, every penny of the sauce money will still be yours."
Perhaps Conway was right, but I could not make up my mind to follow his counsel. I preferred acting with more caution. I would sound my uncle on the subject. I fancied myself rather skilful at diplomacy, and never doubted but what I could find out what I wanted without committing myself. I did not reckon on the wiles of women.
Next morning a dainty note from Aurelia Sphinx informed me that her aunt had told her to write to me, and tell me that she (her aunt) had something important to say to me, if I would call that afternoon. Knowing what I knew, I looked upon the letter as an invitation from the spider to the fly; but mentally feeling that they had a very knowing fly to deal with, I went.
Mrs. Memphis was alone. Aurelia was not visible. My esteemed friend was made up for the part of an invalid. She was carefully arranged on the sofa, with shawls, smelling salts, and all other paraphernalia. She told me to bring my chair close, as she could not speak loud.
"My dear Mervington, as an old friend of your father's I can speak to you as freely as I would to my own son. Do not excite me by expressing emotion at what I am going to tell you, but for my sake be calm. You know the wretched state of health I have been in for the last few years. My troubles will soon be over. Last night Dr. Killall informed me that a crisis was approaching that would almost certainly prove fatal."
I expressed the tendered sympathy, in a way compatible with not exciting an invalid in such a dangerous state.
"But it is not for myself I feel sad," she resumed, in a tone of plaintive melancholy; "I hail with joy the prospect of release from mundane sorrows. It is for others that I grieve; for one other, I might say," (here her voice was broken by sobs), "who, unfitted to buffet with the world—with the cold, unfeeling world—will, on my death, find herself once more an orphan."
I tried to assure Mrs. Memphis that there was still room for much hope; it was, no good anticipating death; she might—I trusted would—live many years yet. But she shook her head sadly.
"No, Mervington, the inward voice that never lies tells me otherwise. You and Aurelia are the only two beings left for me to love; and you, I thank Heaven, have now no cause to dread the future. Secure in your uncle's favor, you can anticipate at no distant date becoming a very wealthy man: but my poor Aurelia! Promise me, Mervington," she cried, raising herself on one arm, as though inspired with new strength for the occasion, "promise me that you will not let me die in such painful uncertainty; that you will," [hysterical gasps and sobs] "watch over her," [sob] "shield her," [gasp], "and protect her—as—as—," (I made sure she was going to say sister, and in my eagerness to recognise such a safe relationship, and end the scene, cried out, "I understand—I will!")—"your wife!" shrieked Mrs. Memphis, sinking back, exhausted and fainting.
"Wife!" echoed Aurelia, appearing with the suddenness of a harlequin, and falling on my neck with a shock that staggered me.
"O Mervington," she murmured, "you have saved aunt's life, and made your poor Aurelia so happy."
"Leave me now, dear children," said Mrs. Memphis, faintly. "Put my bible near me, and after I have read a little, perhaps I may be able to sleep."
We left her. I left the house in the most awful state of semi-lunacy I have ever experienced. I locked myself in my room, and pondered on my future course. Mrs. Memphis would tell my uncle that all was happily settled; he would express satisfaction, and I would have to go up a willing victim. If I showed any repugnance to the match, my uncle would be justly offended at my want of stability of purpose. He would never learn how I had been fooled. And Clara Vane was lost to me for ever! As this fact became patent to me, I for the first time felt that I loved her for herself. Had I but followed Conway's advice, all would have been well; and as I thought that, a glimmer of hope came to me that he might still be able to show me a way out of my difficulty. I would seek him and see. I had eaten no dinner, having been lying sulkily on my bed, thinking of all that had passed, but my appetite was gone, and without stopping to take anything, I hurried down to the ferry to go over to North Brisbane to look up Conway. As I stepped on the landing stage, Conway himself appeared leaving the boat.
"Where are you going to?" I asked.
He looked a little surprised at my abrupt question, but answered that he was going to spend the evening at Mrs. Vane's.
"Can you spare me half-an-hour?" I asked.
"Yes, if it is very important," he replied.
I hurried him away, and told him what had happened since last I consulted him.
"And have you not yet seen," said my companion, "that your uncle is no more a manufacturer of Suffolk sauce than I am?"
"Not the sole proprietor of the celebrated Suffolk sauce!" I exclaimed, in my astonishment, quoting from the too-familiar advertisement. "Who, then, is he?"
"You gave him brevet rank when you announced him to your friends as Colonel Amberly, for he was only Captain Amberly when he left the army; but at present he is a simple country gentleman, and owner by inheritance of a fine estate in the south of England."
Although my strong sense of family pride was agreeably tickled by this announcement, still the blow to my discriminating talents was great.
"Then," I said, rather stiffly, "what is the meaning of the farce that has been carried out in order to deceive me?"
"You deceived yourself. If you remember, you were the originator of the idea. It so amused me—the imaginary picture you had conjured up of your relative—that I could not resist drawing a fancy portrait on your foundation. I persuaded your uncle to continue the deception, and he, in his strong love of a joke (his only failing, if it be one), consented. I owe you an apology for my share in it, which I now make. As for your uncle, when you remember the way in which you were prepared to condescendingly patronise a man whose purse has supported you since your birth, you must admit that the revenge he took was slight."
"He could well promise me all the money he had made by the sale of sauce," I said bitterly.
My companion turned on me quite fiercely. "A characteristic remark from your father's son," he said. "Shall I tell you why your uncle and I are so intimate?"
"Yes, if you like," I answered, ungraciously.
"It will teach you to appreciate him better, perhaps."
We had reached the side of the river, and Conway stopped, and, leaning against a post of an abandoned landing stage, spoke as follows:—
"My father and your uncle were friends at school—fast friends. Your grandfather was a country rector; his only children your uncle and mother. My father and your uncle entered the army together. Both had scarcely anything but their pay. Their friendship was close and constant, until an event happened which happens to most men—they fell in love. Unhappily, they were rivals. My father was the successful one, and your uncle went to India. As you may guess, the old tie of friendship was broken, although they never quarrelled. It was whilst your uncle was in India that your father and mother were married. While he was still out there your grandfather and his elder brother died within a short time of each other, and your uncle became possessor of the estate he still enjoys. On receipt of the news he started for England, intending to leave the army. He hardly reached Calcutta when the mutiny blazed out; and of course he turned back. My father was on his way out at the time, and at Delhi they met again. I will tell you how.
"It was one of the unsuccessful attacks made during the siege, and a small party of our men had been nearly cut to pieces. Your uncle came up with a handful of fresh men to cover the retreat, which was a very leisurely one, in spite of their loss.
"'By Jove! there's one of our fellows out off!' said one of the officers to your uncle, directing his attention to a figure hemmed in by a swarm of Sepoys.
"'Who is it?' he asked, as they stopped.
"The other glanced around. 'It must be Conway,' he said.
"Your uncle was off back, the officer who had spoken and two or three others following.
"They would have all been sacrificed, but a lucky panic got amongst the rebels, and they ran for their guns again. As it was, the English got out sound, bringing my father with them. They carried him back to the lines, but it was hopeless; he was bleeding to death from a frightful tulwar wound, in addition to a shot through the lungs. They laid him on the ground, and your uncle knelt beside him. 'I saw you coming, old fellow,' he said, as he gazed at your uncle, with the old look of friendship. Then he motioned him to bend down a little. 'Take care of Annie and little Fred,' he managed to say; and so, with his head resting on your uncle's arm, and their hands clasped once more, he died."
* * * * *
I could not help being impressed by the story, told in the still, calm night, with the silent river flowing past, and the lights gleaming on its surface here and there; only the quiet voice of my companion, telling of his father's death, breaking the stillness. For a few moments I forgot my own troubles.
"How well he has carried out the trust reposed in him that day I can testify," said Conway, after a pause.
"And why were my uncle and my father at variance always?" I asked.
"He will tell you himself; I prefer that he should," returned Conway, and turned to walk back.
The spell was broken, and I got back to my own affairs again.
"But what is the best thing for me to do now?" I asked.
"Hang yourself," I thought my companion muttered, but was not sure.
"You see," I said, "it's worse than ever. I am my uncle's heir, I presume, so they'll never let me off."
"Your uncle has the disposal of his estate by will; so don't reckon on that."
"I didn't mean that; I mean this marriage with Miss Sphinx. They'll reckon on it—the estate, I mean."
"Tell them it's not so."
"They won't believe me."
"Then marry somebody else."
"A glorious idea! Somebody my uncle approves of!"
"Don't forget that main chance."
"No; I'll ask Miss Vane."
"You'll do what!" said my companion, in a savage tone that almost made me jump.
"Propose to Miss Vane," I repeated.
"Do you suppose she'll accept you, then?"
"I presume I have a perfect right to ask the question?" I said, haughtily.
"Of course you have," he said, sulkily.
"And if she accepts me," I went on working out the idea, "my uncle likes her very much, so I am safe."
"If!—remember the if," said Conway.
"And if she refuses me?"
"Va victis! or try somebody else," and Conway hurried on and left me.
I knew he had a weakness for Miss Vane, so was not surprised at the temper he had displayed. I had too good an opinion of myself to fear his rivalry very much.
I went over to North Brisbane in search of my uncle, determined, now explanations were the order of the day, to have full and clear ones. I found him disengaged.
"Conway has told you of the deception practised on you," said my uncle, in reply to my questions. "It was a poor joke, but perhaps it has done you good; and if what I have got to tell you now is hard on your pride, I am sorry, but you had better hear it." He was silent for a few moments, and then resumed:
"My father was a quiet country rector, thinking of little but parish and his books; and my sister was a country girl, with as much knowledge of the world as a baby. I was in India. Your father was a man who, without the slightest claim to be considered a gentleman—I can't help saying it—could, when it suited him, assume a cloak of good manners that would deceive unsuspicious people like my father and sister. He came down to our neighborhood for the shooting season, and was staying at the house of an eccentric kind of man who invited anybody who amused him. He met your father at a racecourse, or some other public place, I presume. Your father, as you pride yourself on remembering, had good social talents, especially adapting him for amusing for a time. How my father met him I never heard, but he invited him to his house, and the result was that my sister married him. To do your father justice, I believe he did love her at first; no one could have helped it. I came home after the mutiny, met your father, and saw the state of affairs at a glance. If I loved anything on earth it was my sister, and when I saw how she was neglected by her husband, I hated your father at once. You see I am speaking quite plainly, as I would to a stranger. Your father was anxious to cultivate my friendship, for I was rich, and he had squandered everything he had. I offered him a liberal income if he would leave the country, and consent to a separation. He agreed at once; but your mother, with all a woman's fidelity to one who ill-treated her, refused to comply. I happened to go to see her once, after he had been urging her to consent, and saw a mark on her face that made me think he had struck her. She denied it, of course, and unfortunately he came in just then. I am a passionate man by nature, and you can infer what followed. I never saw either your father or mother again. The income I regularly allowed her, your father, I presume, as regularly spent, with the disgrace of the personal chastisement I had inflicted on him not wiped out. Since his death I have made you an annual allowance, for my sister's sake; but since I have been here you have never given me reason to suppose that you cared for her, or felt grateful to me for it."
There was a dead silence when he had finished. I felt that I hated him for the way he had spoken to me; but he was my uncle, and rich!
"Who was my father?" I asked at last, in as clear a voice as I could command.
"The only son of a rich pawnbroker, who spent the fortune his father left him in striving to gain an entrance into society."
"But," I said, "I could not help it; am I not a Mervington Smythers?"
My uncle laughed loudly; every serious wrinkle vanished from his face. It was the happiest remark I could have made under the circumstances.
"Mervington Smythers may be the name your godfathers and godmothers gave you, but if there are ancestral honors bound up in the name I am not acquainted with them. Your father's name by rights was simply Smith—as good a one as Smythers, I should have thought."
Then my vaunted arms and long pedigree were all a sham, and my paternal grandfather advanced shillings and pence on articles of dress, and made money by the sale of unredeemed pledges! I felt very bitter against my uncle for acquainting me with these facts, but deemed it prudent to hide the feeling.
"Now, having wounded your feelings enough, my boy, I must try and heal them. What is this that your friend Mrs. Memphis tells me about a tender feeling between you and her niece?"
It would never do to let him know how matters stood there. I must conceal that business, and keep Mrs. Memphis and my uncle apart, if possible.
"Mere absurdity, uncle," I said. "Mrs. Memphis, like a good many more people, sees just what she would like to see. There is no tender feeling between Miss Sphinx and me."
"Well, I am not sorry to hear it, for I must say neither aunt nor niece are much to my liking. That Miss de Boys is a pretty, good-natured little girl, and you seem rather devoted there."
"I like Miss de Boys very well, but to tell you the truth, uncle, there is somebody I like better; and you like her too."
"Who's the lady who is so highly favored by both of us?"
"Miss Vane! Fred will have to look out with such a formidable rival as you in the field."
"I know that Mr. Conway has hopes in that quarter; but I do not see that I should therefore withdraw."
"Certainly not: a fair field and no favor."
"Then, my dear uncle, I have your consent to my soliciting the hand of Miss Vane?"
"My consent is a trifle; it's Miss Vane's consent you want."
"But it meets with your approbation—my choice?"
"I suppose you have some grounds to go upon; and there's no accounting for a girl's fancy; but I think you will not steal a march upon Conway."
"With your permission I will try," I said; and soon afterwards said good night.
My feelings were very bitter that night. If Clara Vane would accept me, it would solve all difficulties; save me from Miss Sphinx and her aunt, for they would not say anything for their own sakes; cut out Conway, whom I cordially disliked; mortify my uncle, who evidently favored Conway; and show Mervington Smythers, (whom they had made a butt of) to be the cleverest man of the lot. 'Va victis,' Conway said; but it remained to see who would be the vanquished. The odds were against me, truly, but I did not despair.
The next day, thinking it best to lose no time I went to call on Mrs. Vane, determined to propose then and there, should opportunity offer. Everything seemed to favor me. Mrs. Vane left the room, and I was alone with Clara. Now or never.
"Miss Vane," I said, "if you will pardon the apparently abrupt manner in which I am forced to make my communication, but—but I have something important to tell you."
"Yes, Mr. Smythers," she said, with a beaming smile that encouraged me to proceed.
"It is on a topic that has always a charm for the young and fair," I said, rather poetically, as I fancied.
"I think I can guess what's coming," she replied.
Conway! Conway! Where are you now! I mentally exclaimed.
"That assists me greatly, Miss Vane, for a man may be forgiven for feeling nervous when his future fate hangs on a word from a woman's lips."
"But your fate is fortunately settled, Mr. Smythers. You need no longer be nervous."
Mervington Smythers! Mervington Smythers! You are a successful and a clever dog, was my mental exclamation this time.
"Yes, Miss Vane," (I was nearly saying Clara, but thought it premature), "thanks to your kind reception of what I was going to tell you. I see no more cause for nervousness."
"But when is the marriage to take place, Mr. Smythers? Really I am dying to know."
This was forcing the pace with a vengeance.
"As soon as possible. Do you think my anxiety is less than yours, dear Clara?"
Miss Vane laughed a clear, merry laugh. "I always heard that lovers were the most absent-minded of people, but never expected such an exemplification of it as that remark shows."
"And when shall I have an opportunity of speaking to Mrs. Vane?" I asked.
"O, mamma knows all about it."
"Does she? And she is favorably inclined, I trust."
"O yes—thinks it a capital match."
"And when did you first suspect the truth?" I asked tenderly, for Clara looked most coquettishly pretty, and I thought an accepted lover had a right to a sentimental scene at least.
"I had an idea of it for some time, but was not sure of it until she told us this afternoon."
"She told you?" I repeated in dumb horror.
"Yes, Mrs. Memphis; she was here about half-an-hour before you came—"
I heard no more. Such a counter-check had never entered into my calculations; henceforth I would be the willing slave of Mrs. Memphis. I respected that woman—to rise from a bed of sickness and call upon her friends in order to inform them of her niece's approaching marriage! Such energy was wonderful.
I have a dim notion of hearing Clara say—"Wasn't it fun, her taking Mr. Amberly for the maker of Amberly's sauce? It was too bad of him;" and tottered out, after shaking the servant girl's hand in mistake for Miss Vane's.
"And how did you prosper?" said my uncle when next I saw him. I did what I ought to have done at first—told him everything without reserve.
"I am to blame," he said; "but for that foolish job of mine they would never have thought you such a catch; but I think I can mend matters."
What he did I do not exactly know. I believe he told Mrs. Memphis in confidence that I had mortally offended him; that not only did he mean to cut me off with a shilling, but also to stop my allowance. The result was enough for me. Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia cut me dead, and Mrs. Memphis told everybody that my conduct was just what she might have expected from me.
My uncle did not go away as soon as he expected. When he did leave he had acted the part of father twice, and given away two very pretty brides.
Need I say that one was Clara Vane, who became Mrs. Conway; and the other was—well, I followed Conway's advice, and asked somebody else; and somebody else said, "Oui, Monsieur," so you can guess who that was.
It wasn't a bad idea, for my uncle took a great fancy to Bessie, and came down very handsomely, and she really is a good-natured little girl.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia