SPRING that year drew summer quickly after it. The lilac had been early in flower, the days bright and hot. At nine o’clock on a July morning Callon’s servant drew up the blinds in his master’s room and let the sunlight in. Lionel Callon stretched himself in bed and asked for his letters and his tea. As he drank the tea he picked up the letters one by one, and the first at which he looked brought a smile of satisfaction to his face. The superscription told him that it was from Millie Stretton. That little device of a quarrel had proved successful, then. He tore open the envelope and read the letter. Millie wrote at no great length, but what was written satisfied Callon. She could not understand how the quarrel had arisen. She had been thinking over it many times since it happened, and she was still baffled. She had not had a thought of hurting him. How could she, since they were friends? She had been hoping to hear from him, but since some time had passed and no word had reached her, she must write and say that she thought it sad their friendship should have ended as it had.
It was a wistful little letter, and as Callon laid it down he said to himself, “Poor little girl”; but he said the words with a smile rather than with any contrition. She had been the first to write—that was the main point. Had he given in, had he been the one to make the advance, to save her the troubled speculations, the sorrow at this abrupt close to their friendship. Millie Stretton would have been glad, no doubt, but she would have thought him weak. Now he was the strong man. He had caused her suffering and abased her to seek a reconciliation. Therefore he was the strong man. Well, women would have it so, he thought, with a chuckle, and why should he complain?
He wrote a note to Millie Stretton, announcing that he would call that afternoon, and despatched the note by a messenger. Then he turned to his other letters, and amongst them he found one which drove all the satisfaction from his thoughts. It came from a firm of solicitors, and was couched in a style with which he was not altogether unfamiliar.
Sir,—Messrs. Deacon & Sons (Livery Stables, Montgomery Street) having placed their books in our hands for the collection of their outstanding debts, we must ask you to send us a cheque in settlement of your account by return of post, and thus save further proceedings.
We are, yours, &c.,
HUMPHREYS & NEILL.
Callon allowed the letter to slip from his fingers, and lay for a while very still, feeling rather helpless, rather afraid. It was not merely the amount of the bill which troubled him, although that was inconveniently large. But there were other reasons. His eyes wandered to a drawer in his dressing-table. He got out of bed and unlocked it. At the bottom of that drawer lay the other reasons, piled one upon the other—letters couched in just the same words as that which he had received this morning, and—still worse!—-signed by this same firm of Humphreys and Neill. Moreover, every one of those letters had reached him within the last ten days. It seemed that all his tradesmen had suddenly placed their books in the hands of Messrs. Humphreys and Neill.
Callon took the letters back to his bed. There were quite an astonishing number of them. Callon himself was surprised to see how deep he was in debt. They littered the bed—tailors’ bills; bills for expensive little presents of jewellery; bills run up at restaurants for dinners and suppers; bills for the hire of horses and carriages; bills of all kinds—and there were just Mr. Callon’s election expenses in Mr. Callon’s exchequer that morning. Even if he parted with them, they would not pay a third part of the sum claimed. Fear invaded him; he saw no way out of his troubles. Given time, he could borrow enough, no doubt, scrape enough money together one way or another to tide himself over the difficulty. His hand searched for Millie Stretton’s letter and found it, and rejected it. He needed time there; he must walk warily or he would spoil all. And looking at the letters he knew that he had not the time.
It was improbable, nay more than improbable, that all these bills were in the hands of one firm by mere chance. No; somewhere he had an enemy. A man—or it might be a woman—was striking at him out of the dark, striking with knowledge too. For the blow fell where he could least parry it. Mr. Mudge would have been quite satisfied could he have seen Callon as he lay that morning with the summer sunlight pouring into his bedroom. He looked more than his age, and his face was haggard. He felt that a hand was at his throat, a hand which gripped and gripped with an ever-increasing pressure.
He tried to guess who his enemy might be. But there were so many who might be glad to do him an ill-turn. Name after name occurred to him, but amongst those names was not the name of Mr. Mudge. That shy and inoffensive man was the last whom he would have suspected to be meddling with his life.
Callon sprang out of bed. He must go down to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and interview Messrs. Humphreys and Neill. Summonses would never do with a general election so near. He dressed quickly, and soon after ten was in the office of that firm. He was received by a bald and smiling gentleman in spectacles.
“Mr. Callon?” said the smiling gentleman, who announced himself as Humphreys. “Oh yes. You have come in reference to the letters which our clients have desired us to send you?”
“Yes,” replied Callon. “There are a good number of letters.”
The smiling gentleman laughed genially.
“A man of fashion, Mr. Callon, has of course many expenses which we humdrum business people are spared. Let me see. The total amount due is——” And Mr. Humphreys made a calculation with his pen.
“I came to ask for an extension of time,” Callon blurted out; and the smiling gentleman ceased to smile. He gazed through his spectacles with a look of the utmost astonishment. “You see, Mr. Humphreys, all these bills, each one accompanied with a peremptory demand for payment, have been presented together, almost as it were by the same post.”
“They are all, however, to account rendered,” said Mr. Humphreys, as he removed and breathed upon his spectacles.
“It would, I frankly confess, seriously embarrass me to settle them all at once.”
“Dear, dear!” said Mr. Humphreys, in a voice of regret. “I am very sorry. These duties are very painful to me, Mr. Callon. But I have the strictest instructions.” And he rose from his chair to conclude the interview.
“One moment,” said Callon. “I want to ask you how it is that all my bills have come into your hands? Who is it who has brought them up?”
“Really, really, Mr. Callon,” the lawyer protested. “I cannot listen to such suggestions.” And then the smile came back to his face. “Why not pay them in full?” His eyes beamed through his spectacles. He had an air of making a perfectly original and delightful suggestion. “Sit down in this comfortable chair now, and write me out a little cheque for—let me see——” And he went back to his table.
“I must have some time,” said Callon.
Mr. Humphreys was gradually persuaded that the concession of a little time was reasonable.
“A day, then,” he said. “We will say a day, Mr. Callon. This is Wednesday. Some time to-morrow we shall hear from you.” And he bowed Callon from his office. Then he wrote a little note and despatched it by a messenger into the City. The message was received by Mr. Mudge, who read it, took up his hat, and jumping into a hansom cab, drove westward with all speed.
Lionel Callon, on the contrary, walked back to his rooms. He had been in tight places before, but never in one quite so tight. Before, it was really the money which had been needed. Now, what was needed was his ruin. To make matters worse, he had no idea of the particular person who wished to ruin him. He walked gloomily back to his club and lunched in solitude. A day remained to him, but what could he do in a day, unless——? There was a certain letter in the breast-pocket of Callon’s coat to which, more than once as he lunched, his fingers strayed. He took it out and read it again. It was too soon to borrow in that quarter, but his back was against the wall. He saw no other chance of escape. He drove to Millie Stretton’s house in Berkeley Square at the appointed time that afternoon.
But Mr. Mudge had foreseen. When he jumped into his hansom cab he had driven straight to the house in Audley Square, where Pamela Mardale was staying with some friends.
“Are you lunching anywhere?” he asked. “No? Then lunch with Lady Stretton, please! And don’t go away too soon! See as much as you can of her during the next two days.”
As a consequence, when Lionel Callon was shown into the drawing-room, he found Pamela Mardale in her most talkative mood, and Millie Stretton sitting before the tea-table silent and helpless. Callon stayed late; Pamela stayed later. Callon returned to his club, having said not a single word upon the momentous subject of his debts.
He ordered a stiff brandy and soda. Somehow he must manage to see Millie Stretton alone. He thought, for a moment, of writing; he indeed actually began to write. But the proposal looked too crude when written down. Callon knew the tactics of his game. There must, in a word, be an offer from Millie, not a request from him. He tore up his letter, and while he was tearing it up, Mr. Mudge entered the smoking-room. Mudge nodded carelessly to Callon, and then seemed to be struck by an idea. He came across to the writing-table and said—
“Do I interrupt you? I wonder whether you could help me. You know so many people that you might be able to lay your finger at once on the kind of man I want.”
Callon looked up carelessly at Mudge.
“No. You are not interrupting me. What kind of man do you want?”
“I want a man to superintend an important undertaking which I have in hand.”
Callon swung round in his chair. All his carelessness had gone. He looked at Mr. Mudge, who stood drumming with his fingers on the writing-table.
“Oh,” said Callon. “Tell me about it.”
He walked over to a corner of the room which was unoccupied and sat down. Mudge sat beside him and lighted a cigar.
“I want a man to supervise, you understand. I don’t want an expert. For I have engineers and technical men enough on the spot. And I don’t want any one out of my office. I need some one, on whom I can rely, to keep me in touch with what is going on—some one quite outside my business and its associations.”
“I see,” said Callon. “The appointment would be—for how long?”
“And the salary would be good?”
Callon leaned back on the lounge as he put the question and he put it without any show of eagerness. Two years would be all the time he needed wherein to set himself straight; and it seemed the work would not be arduous.
“I think so,” replied Mudge. “You shall judge for yourself. It would be two thousand a year.”
Callon did not answer for a little while, simply because he could not trust himself to speak. His heart was beating fast. Two thousand a year for two years, plus the sum for his election expenses! He would be able to laugh at that unknown enemy who was striking at him from the dark.
“Should I do?” he asked at length, and even then his voice shook. Mr. Mudge appeared, however, not to notice his agitation. He was looking down at the carpet, and tracing the pattern with the ferrule of his walking-stick.
“Of course,” he said, with a smile, as though Callon had been merely uttering a joke. He did not even lift his eyes to Callon’s face. “Of course. I only wish you were serious.”
“But I am,” cried Callon.
Mr. Mudge looked at his companion now, and with surprise.
“Are you? But you wouldn’t have the time to spare. You are standing for a constituency.”
Callon shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh, I am not so very keen about Parliament. And there are reasons why I would welcome the work.”
Mr. Mudge answered with alacrity.
“Then we will consider it settled. Dine with me tonight at my house, and we will talk the details over.”
Callon accepted the invitation, and Mudge rose from his seat. Callon, however, detained him.
“There’s one difficulty in the way,” and Mr. Mudge’s face became clouded with anxiety. “The truth is, I am rather embarrassed at the present moment. I owe a good deal of money, and I am threatened with proceedings unless it is immediately paid.”
Mudge’s face cleared at once.
“Oh, is that all?” he exclaimed cheerily. “How much do you owe?”
“More than my first year’s salary.”
“Well, I will advance you half at once. Offer them a thousand on account, and they will stay proceedings.”
“I don’t know that they will,” replied Callon.
“You can try them, at all events. If they won’t accept half, send them to me, and we will make some other arrangement. But they are sure to. They are pressing for immediate payment because they are afraid they will get nothing at all by any other way. But offer them a thousand down, and see the pleasant faces with which they will greet you.” Mr. Mudge was quite gay now that he understood how small was the obstacle which hindered him from gaining Lionel Callon’s invaluable help. “I will write you a cheque,” he said; and sitting down at a writing-table he filled out a cheque and brought it back. He stood in front of Callon with the cheque in his hand. He did not give it to Callon at once. He had not blotted it, and he held it by a corner and gently waved it to and fro, so that the ink might dry. It followed that those tantalising “noughts,” three of them, one behind the other, and preceded by a one, like a file of soldiers with a sergeant at the head, and that excellent signature “John Mudge” were constantly before Callon’s eyes, now approaching him like some shy maiden in a flutter of agitation, now coyly receding. But to no shy maiden had Lionel Callon ever said “I love you,” with so glowing an ardour as he felt for that most tantalising cheque.
“I ought to have told yon,” said Mr. Mudge, “that the undertaking is a railway abroad.”
Callon had been so blinded by the dazzle of the cheque that he had not dreamed of that possibility. Two years abroad, even at two thousand a year, did not at all fit in with his scheme of life.
“Abroad?” he repeated doubtfully. “Where?”
“Chili,” said Mr. Mudge; and he looked at the cheque to see that the ink was quite dry. Perhaps Mr. Mudge’s voice was a trifle too unconcerned. Perhaps there was something a little too suggestive in his examination of his cheque. Perhaps he kept his eyes too deliberately from Callon’s face. At all events, Callon became suddenly suspicious. There flashed into his mind by some trick of memory a picture—a picture of Mr. Mudge and Pamela Mardale talking earnestly together upon a couch in a drawing-room, and of himself sitting at a card-table, fixed there till the game was over, though he knew well that the earnest conversation was aimed against himself. He started, he looked at Mudge in perplexity.
“Well?” said Mudge.
“Wait a moment!”
Pamela Mardale was Millie Stretton’s friend. There was that incident in the hall—Millie Stretton coming down the stairs and Pamela in front of the mirror over the mantelpiece. Finally there was Pamela’s persistent presence at Millie Stretton’s house this afternoon. One by one the incidents gathered in his recollections and fitted themselves together and explained each other. Was this offer a pretext to get him out of the way? Callon, after all, was not a fool, and he asked himself why in the world Mr. Mudge should, just at this moment when he was in desperate straits, offer him 2000l. a year to superintend a railway in Chili?
“Well?” said Mudge again.
“I must have time to think over the proposition,” replied Callon. He meant that he must have time to obtain an interview with Millie Stretton. But Mudge was ready for him.
“Certainly,” said he. “That is only reasonable. It is seven o’clock now. You dine with me at eight. Give me your answer then.”
“I should like till to-morrow morning,” said Callon.
Mr. Mudge shook his head.
“That, I am afraid, is impossible. We shall need all tomorrow to make the necessary arrangements and to talk over your duties. For if you undertake the work you must leave England on the day after.”
Callon started up in protest. “On the day after!” he exclaimed.
“It gives very little time, I know,” said Mudge. Then he looked Callon quietly and deliberately in the eyes. “But, you see, I want to get you out of the country at once.”
Callon no longer doubted. He had thought, through Mr. Mudge’s help, to laugh at his enemy; and lo! the enemy was Mudge himself. It was Mudge who had bought up his debts, who now held him in so secure a grip that he did not think it worth while to practise any concealment. Callon was humiliated to the verge of endurance. Two years in Chili, pretending to supervise a railway! He understood the position which he would occupy; he was within an ace of flinging the offer back. But he dared not.
“Very well,” he said. “I will give you my answer at eight.”
“Thanks. Be punctual.” Mr. Mudge sauntered away. There could only be the one answer. Mr. Lionel Callon might twist and turn as he pleased, he would spend two years in Chili. It was five minutes past seven, besides. Callon could hardly call at the house in Berkeley Square with any chance of seeing Lady Stretton between now and eight. Mudge was contented with his afternoon.
At eight o’clock Callon gave in his submission and pocketed the cheque. At eleven he proposed to go, but Mudge, mindful of an evening visit which he had witnessed from a balcony, could not part from his new manager so soon. There was so little time for discussion even with every minute of Callon’s stay in England. He kept Callon with him until two o’clock in the morning; he made an appointment with him at ten, and there was a note of warning in his voice which bade Callon punctually keep it. By one shift and another he kept him busy all the next day, and in the evening Callon had to pack, to write his letters, and to make his arrangements for his departure. Moreover, Pamela Mardale dined quietly with Millie Stretton and stayed late. It thus happened that Callon left England without seeing Millie Stretton again. He could write, of course; but he could do no more.