“Good morning, my dear sir—delighted to see you. I hope that I can be of some service to you.”
The cordiality of the reception was embarrassing, and Binns felt it to be so.
“I came here to speak to you in private, Mr. Dacre,” said he, and twisted his hat about in his hands.
“We are quite alone—as you see. Pray sit down.”
Binns felt his prepared speech deserting him. He waited for the other to speak.
“Is it anything in connection with political matters?”
Dacre took out a little pearl-handled penknife and began to pare his nails.
“It is rather—a—a delicate matter,” stammered Binns, who did not know exactly what to say.
Dacre guessed what it was at once. “The young fool has got suspicious of the Chatteris affair,” he thought. “Let us see how he begins.”
But poor Binns was in no hurry to begin.
The calm, smiling, self-possessed secretary, seated in state, and quietly paring his aristocratic nails, was a very different man from the midnight intriguer who could be seized under a gas-lamp and attacked at advantage. He shuffled about on his chair.
“I am going to speak to you about—about a very delicate matter,” said he.
“So you said before,” returned Dacre, without looking up. “Go on.”
“I am a friend—an old friend, of Mrs. Chatteris.”
Binns looked for a start or a blush at the mention of the name, but he saw none.
Dacre smiled sweetly.
“An old friend! Were you children together, then?”
Poor Binns detected the sneer, but he went on bravely.
“I should be very sorry if any harm happened to her, Mr. Dacre.”
“So should I indeed—for my friend Chatteris sake. Do you know of anything wrong then?”
Binns grew red. “I hope not—I only suspect.”
Dacre drew his chair closer, with sudden affected interest.
“Good God! what do you mean? She cannot be ill, for I saw her yesterday.”
This frank admission was a good thrust.
“She is well enough, I believe—I hope, but—but—”
“Well, speak out.”
“I am afraid that she is not happy.”
Dacre shrugged his shoulders.
“My dear sir, that is a matter that I fear we cannot remedy. But as far as I am able to judge, the young lady is perfectly happy.”
Secure in the consciousness of his ability to defeat his adversary, he did not care to suppress a smile at the thought of Carry’s “happiness.”
Binns saw it, and was aroused at once.
“Mr. Dacre, you know that is not true.”
Dacre got up. “Look here, Mr. Binns,” said he, very slowly; “you are very young and very hot-tempered, and, I think, a little ignorant of the rules of good society. Take care what you say. I will pardon your insolence this once, because I believe it arises from a desire to benefit a friend of yours. Now what is it that you want to say about Mrs. Chatteris?”
This had the effect of a cold bath upon Binns. He was quite prepared to quarrel, but he did not understand the cool, deliberative method of arguing upon questions of feeling, which was affected by men of Dacre’s stamp; and, moreover, his quasi refinement of intellect made him morbidly fearful of saying or doing vulgar things.
“I did not mean to insult you, sir,” he blurted out; “but I am afraid that Carr—that Mrs. Chatteris is left too much alone.”
“You should see her husband upon that point, my good boy,” said Dacre, with a sneer. “What do you come to me for?”
Binns flushed redder.
“Why, because I believe that you want to ruin her! There!” he burst forth, and rose to his feet, expectant of coming combat.
But Dacre threw himself back in his chair, and laughed hugely. By and bye he got himself gradually composed
“You’ll excuse my laughing, but, upon my word, the accusation is too absurd for me to be insulted at it. What put such an idea into your head?”
“I have seen you constantly at the house with her; and I saw you come out of the house last night.”
Dacre started. How fortunate matters had turned out as they had done!
“Oh, indeed! So you have been playing the spy upon my actions, have you, Mr. Binns? Creditable occupation, I must say! And upon such evidence as this you come here and insult me, insult my friend Mr. Chatteris, and endeavour to blacken the name of a young—”
“Oh, no, no!” cried Binns; “not that! God knows, I never—”
“Now, look here, my young friend; just listen to me a moment. I am afraid that you are either a very ungrateful boy, or a very silly one. I have been exerting myself for your benefit because I took a fancy to you, and you come up to my rooms with an accusation of this sort. With anybody else I should simply ring the bell, and have him shown downstairs; but as you are—you say—an old friend or acquaintance of my friend’s wife, I will reply to your very impertinent questions. I have been a great deal with Mrs. Chatteris, because I am the only one of her husband’s friends who knows of his marriage; and I went to the house last night to welcome him home. Are you satisfied?”
Binns did not know what to say. To speak truth, he was not satisfied, but the fact of Cyril’s presence disarmed suspicion. He felt bound to apologise.
“I am afraid that I have been too hasty,” he said.
“I am afraid that you have indeed,” returned Dacre, gravely.
“You are sure that Mr. Chatteris was there last night?”
Dacre got up to ring the bell.
Binns understood the motion, and Heart construed it into the result of insulted virtue. He began to think that he had done Mr. Rupert Dacre a gross injustice.
“Oh! sir, I did not mean that; but you can understand me. I did not know what to think.”
Dacre paused a moment with his hand on the bell. The thoughts that ran through his mind in that brief instant were something to the following effect:
“This young man is suspicious. He was in love with the young woman himself I believe once. He is impetuous. Just the sort of young donkey who would insist upon plunging to the bottom of the affair, and making everybody uncomfortable. Now if I can read the young gentleman’s character aright, he is warm-hearted and passionate. If I can convince him that he has done me an injustice, that I am in reality a kind, good, honourable man, whom he has cut to the soul by his suspicions, he will be ready to do anything to make amends; I will accept his apologies, mingle my tears with his, and then send him down to Kirkminster out of the way.”
It was an excellent device, and he determined to put it in practice. His face assumed a sad expression.
“Mr. Binns,” said he, “you have wounded me very deeply. The best of us are apt to have our actions misconstrued, and heaven knows that I am not so far removed from error as to be exempt from reproach, but I confess that in this instance I am very much hurt.”
Binns began to grow uneasy.
“Cyril Chatteris is a very dear friend of mine, and I have known his family for years. That I should be thought capable of such an iniquitous action as that of which you imagine me guilty, would give me sufficient pain at any time, but that you should think me capable of betraying the honour of my intimate friend, who had entrusted his wife to my care, I confess has somewhat surprised me,” and the tender-hearted fellow sank into a chair, and seemed to struggle with his emotion.
“My dear Mr. Dacre! Sir! I did not mean to wound your feelings, believe me, but the circumstances of the case, the lateness of the hour; all—”
“Ah, yes,” said Dacre. “Yes, perhaps you had reason; but you should not have been so hasty. However, now that matters are explained.—Well—well! There, we will say no more about it.”
The poetic soul of the young grocer’s assistant was touched; he put out his hand. “You will forgive me, Mr. Dacre?”
Rupert never hesitated at small sacrifices. He took the offered hand, and wrung it. “Say no more,” said he. Then, turning over a mass of papers on the table, he pretended to look for something. “I had something to say to you of importance, but this discussion put it out of my head. Where is the thing? Ah! here.” He drew out a letter from a bundle, labelled private correspondence.
“Mr. Binns, how would you like to go into Parliament?”
“To go into Parliament?”
“Well, not exactly at once, you know, that would be a little premature; but to put yourself in the way of doing so at some future date.”
Binns’ heart began to thump. What did this mean? Was he about to realise his hopes? “I do not understand you,” he said.
“Well, listen then. You are not rich, I believe; and you have not much political interest?” He laughed inwardly as he asked the question.
Binns saw nothing to laugh at. In his own mediocre mind, he thought that he had a good deal of political interest—that is in the working-man point of view. He replied, however, in the negative.
“Well then,” the other went on, “when a young man has no interest and no money—what must he do? Attach himself to those who have. You have read Vivian Grey?”
“Disraeli’s book? Yes.”
“How would you like to be a Vivian Grey? or, to speak more plainly, a Benjamin Disraeli?”
“You are laughing at me, Mr. Dacre.”
“Not I. ‘Adventures are to the adventurous.’ I see no reason why you should not sit in a House which owns John Bright and Benjamin Disraeli for members.”
“But they had money, and power.”
“Just so. Other people have money and power, which they don’t know how to use. It is reserved for you and me, Mr. Binns, to use it for them.”
Poor Binns swallowed all the flattery like a gudgeon.
Dacre opened the letter he held.
“This was received three days ago from Kirkminster. You know the place?”
“Wheales’s borough? Yes.”
“Well, Wheales’s colleague is dead. We are going to contest Wheales’s borough, and we want a man well acquainted with the working classes, with the organization of trades unions, and the machinery of working men’s associations, to help us to defeat the selfish policy of this blatant knave.”
“Mr. Dacre—I am not a spy.”
“Impetuous again! No, no, I suppose not. I did not ask you to become one. I want you to assist me though, in the task of putting the working classes upon their true level. I told you before, the aim of the New Party is to reconcile the conflicting masses, to bring together the disjecta membra of society. It is essentially the Party of Mediation. Now, before we can proceed to attack the enemy we must reconnoitre his position, and this is a service that requires a man of peculiar talent, of peculiar experience. You have been working with myself for the interest of the working man; you know his ways, his temper, his idiosyncracies. Will you go down for us to Kirkminster?”
Binns did not exactly know what to say. He did not comprehend what was required of him, but he did not like to confess his ignorance; he was afraid of acting dishonourably towards the party to which in his own ideas he had pledged himself, but he did not want to disoblige Dacre.
“What will be my duties?”
“Well, that is a question that I scarcely know how to answer. One thing I can readily say—that you will have to do nothing dishonourable in any way.”
Binns considered again. Even if he found that his position was a false one, he could return.
“I will go, Mr. Dacre, if you say that.”
Dacre drew the blotting pad closer to him.
“I am glad to hear you say so.”
And he began to write.
“But about money?” Binns hazarded. “I can leave the sh—the place where I am now, if I like; but I could not afford to go there for nothing.”
“Of course not,” he said. “We will take care of that. If you will take that note”—and he handed a sealed envelope across the table—“to that address, to-morrow, you will be put in the way at once.” He looked at the face of the stolid clock on the black-marble mantelshelf. “Now I must say good morning.”
“I am very much obliged to you for your kindness,” said he.
“No kindness at all, my dear sir. I am anxious to do what I can to advance your interests, despite your bad opinion of me.” And he laughed pleasantly, as if he had quite dismissed from his mind all unpleasant remembrance. “If you should not like to go, you know, let me hear from you to-morrow. But I think that you will find that your interests will be advanced by joining us. Now, good morning once more; and, remember, the part I have taken in this matter is entirely between ourselves. If it was known that the private secretary of a Minister affected the ‘working classes,’ it would never do.”
“Good morning, sir,” said Binns. “This conversation shall be strictly private.”
As soon as he got outside the door, he looked at the superscription on the letter which he held in his hand.
“JONAS HUSKINSON, ESQ., 5 NEW-SQUARE, LINCOLN’S INN.”
“Parliamentary agent, I suppose,” thought he, and began to whistle.
His fortune was made! He was accredited to the Court of Politics! He had entered the ranks of the chosen. How he longed for the morrow! What a bright world it was! How he had misjudged Mr. Dacre! What a suspicious fool he had been and how nobly the “aristocrat” had behaved!
In the meantime, Rupert Dacre was washing his white hands carefully, and drying them tenderly upon the softest of Turkey towels, and laughing softly at the recent interview.
“Of all the utter fools I know, that boy is the worst! Poor devil! To think that he—an uneducated grocer or tallow-chandler, or something of that kind—can revolutionise Society! Well, he will serve our purpose, I dare say, and will be kept out of the way.”
He looked at himself in the glass, and brushed his beard lovingly.
“You have done a good day’s work, my boy,” he said. “What an honest, pure-minded fellow you look! How the accusations of the wicked annoy you! You deserve some reward after all your sufferings, and you shall have it. I will take you down to take a quiet cup of tea with Mr. and Mrs. Chatteris. Poor little Binns! A Benjamin Disraeli, eh?” And the idea so tickled him, that little Fitz-fethertop, the fourth clerk, who was in the act of conveying his rickety little person into a Hansom cab, after the fatigues of the day, said to one of his intimates that evening, that he was sure that there was something up with the Governor, for he saw Dacre going home, and the said Dacre “was grinning like a Cheshire cat, beged, sir.”