He had played unlimited loo and drank unlimited “whiskyhot” at Hamilton; and was not ignorant of the charms of whist in a Ballarat railway carriage. But his knowledge of “fast” life stopped at the unsavoury casinos of Bourke-street; and the height of his dissipation had been an oyster supper after the theatre, with the concomitants of parting porters at early hotels.
He was not much better or much worse than others of his species; and, apart from a few youthful revels with his bush friends, knew little of the night side of humanity.
London with its parks, its clubs, its theatres, its dancing-rooms, and music-halls, seemed a paradise of delight, radiant and full of splendour. Fleet-street astonished him, and Holborn Hill was a marvel. He saw more pretty women and fine horses during one hour’s lounging “over the rails,” than he could have met with in a month of Victorian travel; while the multitude of picture galleries, exhibitions, libraries, and concerts, overwhelmed him.
He partook of the heat and hurry of pleasure seeking, and thrown, a young and wealthy Adam, into what seemed a new Eden, he was bent on exploring its beauties to the utmost. Tailors, jewellers, and job-masters marked him for a prey, and “Mr. Calverly’s bell” was ringing eternally.
Yet, with all his extravagance, he was not plucked so cleanly as many a pigeon who had been hatched in the sacred dovecote of the “little village.” His natural shrewdness stood him in good stead, and some solid foundation of sound principle and manly feeling saved his social house from falling beneath the blasts of evil example and evil communication.
He was not in such bad case as he appeared to be; and though the original three thousand pounds melted like snow before the fierce heat of London dissipation, were there not sheep and oxen at Ballara, and subservient “home agents” enough to minister to his needs?
He had begun, however, to feel the effects of his new mode of life. His pulse was not so regular. He no longer felt an inclination to rise at unearthly hours, and to astonish sleepy grooms and drowsy stable-boys by “clapping the saddle on his mare,” and taking constitutional gallops in the early dawn. He looked upon early rising with distate, and had begun to order brandies and sodas before breakfast.
Yet he could “see out” any of his friends at a supper or a “beating round;” and the young attachés and runners-up from Aldershot confessed with sighs of envy that he always looked fresher than they did after a night of such amusements.
Mr. Rupert Dacre had taken him under his wing, and, though careful not to compromise his own reputation by too late hours at unholy places, had nevertheless showed his protegé as much or more of “life” than he expected. Dacre assumed the paternal and blasé manner so frequent among men of his class, and would permit himself to be drawn into a “night’s fun” with the air of a man who sacrifices his personal comfort at the shrine of friendship. He deprecated all revelry with such grave philosophy, that the young men regarded it as a personal favour to themselves if “Dacre” accompanied them; and a youngster, red-eyed and pale from a desperate struggle with his constitution, would say with a careless air, but with evident pride, “Dacre and I were at the opera last night, and went over to Tom’s, or Dick’s, or Harry’s. Stopped up till three this morning, by Jove! Must have a B. and S.” While, to be admitted to the Eleusinian mysteries of a dinner in Brooke-street was considered an honour equal to the Golden Fleece, or the Order of the Garter.
The astute secretary to Lord Nantwich was fully alive to the social importance of acquaintances, and made a point of never admitting any but the “best men” to his intimacy.
“Rather slow, some of them, of course,” he would say to his cronies, “but then, you know, they are useful.”
“As for youngsters” (by which term the young man included all humanity below his own age, and some few above it), “they are simply nuisances. They can’t talk, they have no influence, they are always in scrapes, and always want to borrow money.”
He carefully, however, made two exceptions—Bob Calverly and Cyril. These two came under the category of cat’s paws, and he was only waiting till the chestnuts were nicely browned to make use of their friendship. He had known Cyril from boyhood, and though he never took much notice of him while a younger son, he was now a man to be cultivated. Bob Calverly, too, was a useful fellow. He had money and generosity; and his uncle kept a very fair house, and a reasonable pack of hounds. Casting up their virtues upon the credit side of their ledger, Mr. Dacre honoured them with his friendship.
On Friday afternoon, he came down to Limmer’s, and found Bob busily writing a letter to his father.
“Writing by the mail? Good boy. I just looked in to remind you that we dine at eight. I am afraid the party will be a little larger than I expected. I’ve asked old Quantox, of the ‘Isthmian,’ and Vanderbank, the artist. There will be nine or ten of us altogether.”
“Is that Quantox the manager?”
“Yes; a most amusing old fellow. He tells the most preposterous stories you ever heard in your life. By-the-way, how did you get home from Saltoun’s last night?”
“Came home with Welterwate in a hansom, and then went down to Cannon’s and played billiards.”
“‘I say, young Copperfield, you’re going it!’ You must take care, Master Bob.”
“Oh, I’m all right.”
“Glad to hear it. No, thank you, I won’t smoke. I’m just going for a stroll. I have accomplished my arduous duties for one day.”
“You’re a lucky fellow, Dacre,” says Bob.
“I am the hardest worked and the worst paid secretary in London. Ah, well! It’s destiny, I suppose. Oh, for an Australian sheep-station, with a London agent! You are the lucky fellow.”
“Stations are not what they used to be, my dear fellow.”
“Nothing is. Even creditors are worse than in the brave days when I was twenty-one.”
“You can’t be so very old now.”
“‘Young in years, but old in care.’ Capital sentiment for a modern melodrama, that! No one would know that it was a plagiarism from Byron.”
This remark was lost upon Bob, who laughed nevertheless, as men do when they don’t understand a joke.
“Well, you won’t come out? Then good-bye until dinner.”
Mr. Dacre was somewhat thoughtful as he walked slowly onwards. Perhaps it was business that worried him—the thoughts of that pile of unread letters addressed to “R.H. Lord Nantwich, Sec. Foreign Affairs,” which were so neatly stacked upon his writing-table; or perhaps he was wondering what the result of the appointment of the Hon. George Whitecross as Envoy-Extraordinary to the Court of Persia would effect. The cares of state would sit heavily on the elegant secretary. He affected the overworked official, and would smile languidly, and pass his hand wearily across his brow, when office matters were touched upon in general society.
But it was not the state of Europe, or the policy of the Government that gave Mr. Dacre cause for uneasiness; his thoughts were busy with his own private affairs. The righteous Rupert had “expenses.” He was not in debt, but he was spending every shilling of his income. The question of money had long been an obtrusive one with him.
“If I only had a few thousands a-year more,” he would say, “I should be the luckiest fellow alive. It is strange that men who know how to use money never get any, and fellows whose only notion of finance is to play ducks and drakes with sovereigns, always have plenty. I suppose my venerable godfather, the Bishop of Swillborough, would call it a special dispensation of Providence!”
He was meditating upon this important question with such intensity of study, that he trod on the skirt of a lady’s dress. His hat was off in an instant.
The lady turned round at his murmured apology, and Rupert recognised “Mrs. Chatteris.” They were in Oxford-street, and she was going westward.
“By Jove! the little girl that came to the Mercury after Cyril!—Mrs. Chatteris, eh?”
He stood gazing at the dainty figure for a few moments, and then slowly followed it.
At Holles-street he was close behind her, so close, indeed, that she turned to look at him.
There was no consciousness in her eyes. When at the Mercury office, she had been too much occupied with the fate of her husband to pay much attention to the appearance of the rapidly passing Dacre.
He looked at her meaningly.
She coloured and turned away her head.
“Um! I suppose I am mistaken. Yet she can’t be the cub’s wife. The thing is absurd.”
He fell back a little.
Carry turned down into Dym-street. As she knocked at the door of the Mantonian domicile, Dacre passed her again.
“No. 75. Looks like a lodging-house! Cyril said he lived in Audley-street. I suppose this girl is a governess or an actress—yet no, she can’t be the last. I know all the women this side of the water, and if she was ‘over the way’ she should be going out, not coming home. It’s past five now. The place is too far west for that. Perhaps she is ‘respectable, etc.,’ and the young donkey has honourable intentions. I must find out.”
A grocer’s shop was at the corner. A cheap grocer’s. A shop radiant with brilliant labels, and enticing scrolls, succulent with butter in kegs, and sticky with moist sugar in bags; oozing over with honey, and rich in various and wonderfully compounded “teas.” Dacre walked in.
A touzled-headed young man was writing in a sort of wooden cage in a corner, while another turned a coffee-mill wearily.
“Did you send up those things to No. 75?” asked Mr. Dacre.
“To Mrs. Manton’s?” asked the man at the wheel, stopping his turning delightedly.
The touzled-headed one in the cage was consulted, and upon hearing the name “Manton’s” left his writing and came forward, scowling at Lord Nantwich’s private secretary with much energy.
The easy demeanour of that gentleman, however, seemed to quiet him, for he said, civilly enough,
“There has been nothing sent to-day, sir.”
“Dear me, it is very strange.” (He drew his bow at a venture.) “Mr. Chatteris told me this morning that he had ordered some smoked tongues to be sent up.”
The touzled-headed youth crimsoned at the mentioned name.
“Mr. Chatteris never comes here,” said he roughly.
“Ah, some mistake; lower down the street. Excuse me,” and he was gone.
“Who’s that swell, Bob?” asked the man at the wheel, resuming his duties with greater weariness than before.
“I don’t know,” returned the other; “some of his friends, I suppose.”
“Rather a handsome cove, too,” returned the weary one; “regular ‘out and outer’ I should say.”
The “out and outer” smiled pleasantly as he walked briskly home.
“Mrs. Manton, eh? Manton—Manton. Any relation to the gunmaker I wonder? And Chatteris evidently is known in the neighbourhood—lives at the house I should say. I wonder if they have room for another lodger? He laughed pleasantly at the thought, and, upon reaching Brooke-street, was so affable and gay, that Harris, his servant, was quite put out of his humour, and imagined that all sorts of things had happened.