Johnny Ludlow is a Webnovel created by Mrs. Henry Wood.
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It was understood to be Mrs. Dene who advanced the money to Sam to set up with; it was certainly Mrs. Dene who bought a shutting-up bed (at old Ward’s), and a gridiron, and a tea-pot, and a three-legged table, and a chair or two, all for the back-room of the little office, that Sam might go into housekeeping on his own account, and live upon sixpence a-day, so to say, until business came in. To look at Sam’s hopeful face, he meant to do it, and to live down the scandal.
Looking at the thing impartially, one might perhaps see that Sam was not swayed by impudence in setting-up, so much as by obligation. For what else lay open to him?–no firm would engage him as clerk with that doubt sticking to his coat-tails. He paid some of his debts, and undertook to pay the rest before the year was out. A whisper arose that it was Mrs.
Dene who managed this. Sam’s adversaries knew better; the funds came out of the ebony box: that, as Charles c.o.c.kermuth demonstrated, was as sure as heaven.
But now there occurred one thing that I, Johnny Ludlow, could not understand, and never shall: why Worcester should have turned its back, like an angry drake, upon Maria Parslet. The school, where she was resident teacher, wrote her a cool, polite note, to say she need not trouble herself to return after the Easter recess. That example was followed. Pious individuals looked upon her as a possible story-teller, in danger of going to the bad in Sam’s defence, nearly as much as Sam had gone.
It was just a craze. Even Charles c.o.c.kermuth said there was no sense in blaming Maria: of course Sam had deceived her (when pretending to show the guinea as his own), just as he deceived other people. Next the town called her “bold” for standing up in the face and eyes of the Guildhall to give her evidence. But how could Maria help that? It was not her own choice: she’d rather have locked herself up in the cellar.
Lawyer Chance had burst in upon her that Sat.u.r.day morning (not ten minutes after we left the house), giving n.o.body warning, and carried her off imperatively, never saying “Will you, or Won’t you.” It was not his way.
Placid Miss Betty was indignant when the injustice came to her ears.
What did people mean by it? she wanted to know. She sent for Maria to spend the next Sunday in Foregate Street, and marched with her arm-in-arm to church (St. Nicholas’), morning and evening.
As the days and the weeks pa.s.sed, commotion gave place to a calm; Sam and his delinquencies were let alone. One cannot be on the grumble for ever. Sam’s lines were pretty hard; practice held itself aloof from him; and if he did not live upon the sixpence a-day, he looked at every halfpenny that he had to spend beyond it. His face grew thin, his blue eyes wistful, but he smiled hopefully.
“You keep up young Dene’s acquaintance, I perceive,” remarked Lawyer Chance to his son one evening as they were finishing dinner, for he had met the two young men together that day.
“Yes: why shouldn’t I?” returned Austin.
“Think that charge was a mistaken one, I suppose?”
“Well I do, father. He has affirmed it to me in terms so unmistakable that I can but believe him. Besides, I don’t think Dene, as I have always said, is the sort of fellow to turn rogue: I don’t, indeed.”
“Does he get any practice?”
“Very little, I’m afraid.”
Mr. Chance was a man with a conscience. On the whole, he felt inclined to think Sam had not helped himself to the guineas, but he was by no means sure of it: like Miss Betty c.o.c.kermuth, his opinion veered, now on this side, now on that, like a haunted weatherc.o.c.k. If Sam was not guilty, why, then, Fate had dealt hardly with the young fellow–and what would the end be? These thoughts were running through the lawyer’s mind as he talked to his son and sat playing with his bunch of seals, which hung down by a short, thick gold chain, in the old-fashioned manner.
“I should like to say a word to him if he’d come to me,” he suddenly cried. “You might go and bring him, Austin.”
“What–this evening?” exclaimed Austin.
“Ay; why not? One time’s as good as another.”
Austin Chance started off promptly for the new office, and found his friend presiding over his own tea-tray in the little back-room; the loaf and b.u.t.ter on the table, and a red herring on the gridiron.
“Hadn’t time to get any dinner to-day; too busy,” was Sam’s apology, given briefly with a flush of the face. “Mr. Chance wants me? Well, I’ll come. What is it for?”
“Don’t know,” replied Austin. And away they went.
The lawyer was standing at the window, his hands in the pockets of his pepper-and-salt trousers, tinkling the shillings and sixpences there.
Austin supposed he was not wanted, and shut them in.
“I have been thinking of your case a good bit lately, Sam Dene,” began Mr. Chance, giving Sam a seat and sitting down himself; “and I should like to feel, if I can, more at a certainty about it, one way or the other.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Sam. And you must please to note that manners in those days had not degenerated to what they are in these. Young men, whether gentle or simple, addressed their elders with respect; young women also. “Yes, sir,” replied Sam. “But what do you mean about wishing to feel more at a certainty?”
“When I defended you before the magistrates, I did my best to convince them that you were not guilty: you had a.s.sured me you were not: and they discharged you. I believe my arguments and my pleadings went some way with them.”
“I have no doubt of it, sir, and I thanked you at the time with all my heart,” said Sam warmly. “Some of my enemies were bitter enough against me.”
“But you should not speak in that way–calling people your enemies!”
reproved the lawyer. “People were only at enmity with you on the score of the offence. Look here, Sam Dene–did you commit it, or did you not?”
Sam stared. Mr. Chance had dropped his voice to a solemn key, his head was pushed forward, gravity sat on his face.
“No, sir. No.”
The short answer did not satisfy the lawyer. “Did you filch that box of guineas out of c.o.c.kermuth’s room; or were you, and are you, as you a.s.sert, wholly innocent?” he resumed. “Tell me the truth as before Heaven. Whatever it be, I will shield you still.”
Sam rose. “On my sacred word, sir, and before Heaven, I have told nothing but the truth. I did not take or touch the box of guineas. I do not know what became of it.”
Mr. Chance regarded Sam in silence. He had known young men, when under a cloud, prevaricate in a most extraordinary and unblushing manner: to look at them and listen to them, one might have said they were fit to be canonized. But he thought truth lay with Sam now.
“Sit down, sit down, Dene,” he said. “I am glad to believe you. Where the deuce could the box have got to? It could not take flight through the ceiling up to the clouds, or down to the earth through the floor.
_Whose hands took it?_”
“The box went in one of two ways,” returned Sam. “If the captain did not fetch it out unconsciously, and lose it in the street, why, somebody must have entered the parlour after I left it and carried off the box.
Perhaps the individual who looked into the room when I was sitting there.”
“A pity but you had noticed who that was.”
“Yes, it is. Look here, Mr. Chance; a thought has more than once struck me–if that person did not come back and take the box, why has he not come forward openly and honestly to avow it was himself who looked in?”
The lawyer gave his head a dissenting shake. “It is a ticklish thing to be mixed up in, he may think, one that he had best keep out of–though he may be innocent as the day. How are you getting on?” he asked, pa.s.sing abruptly from the subject.
“Oh, middling,” replied Sam. “As well, perhaps, as I could expect to get on at first, with all the prejudice abroad against me.”
“Well, see here, Dene–and this is what I chiefly sent for you to say, if you could a.s.sure me on your conscience you deserved it–I may be able to put some little business in your hands. Petty matters are brought to us that we hardly care to waste time upon: I’ll send them to you in future. I dare say you’ll be able to rub on by dint of patience. Rome was not built in a day, you know.”
“Thank you, sir; I thank you very truly,” breathed Sam. “Mr. c.o.c.kermuth sent me a small matter the other day. If I can make a bare living of it at present, that’s all I ask. Fame and fortune are not rained down upon black sheep.”
Which was so true a remark as to need no contradiction.
May was nearing its close then, and the summer evenings were long and lovely. As Sam went forth from the interview, he thought he would take a walk by the river, instead of turning in to his solitary rooms. Since entering upon them he had been as steady as old Time: the accusation and its attendant shame seemed to have converted him from a heedless, youthful man into a wise old sage of age and care. Pa.s.sing down Broad Street towards the bridge, he turned to the left and sauntered along beside the Severn. The water glittered in the light of the setting sun; barges, some of them bearing men and women and children, pa.s.sed smoothly up and down on it; the opposite fields, towards St. John’s, were green as an emerald: all things seemed to wear an aspect of brightness.
All on a sudden things grew brighter–and Sam’s pulses gave a leap. He had pa.s.sed the grand old red-stoned wall that enclosed the Bishop’s palace, and was close upon the gates leading up to the Green, when a young lady turned out of them and came towards him with a light, quick step. It was Maria Parslet, in a pretty summer muslin, a straw hat shading her blushing face. For it did blush furiously at sight of Sam.
She began to say, hurriedly, that her mother had sent her with a message to the dressmaker on the Parade, and she had taken that way, as being the shortest–as if in apology for having met Sam.
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