Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Beginners Projects, Mary Meehan and the
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The Blotting Book
By E. F. BENSON
Mrs. Assheton's house in Sussex Square, Brighton, was appointed with that
finish of smooth stateliness which robs stateliness of its formality, and
conceals the amount of trouble and personal attention which has,
originally in any case, been spent on the production of the smoothness.
Everything moved with the regularity of the solar system, and, superior
to that wild rush of heavy bodies through infinite ether, there was never
the slightest fear of comets streaking their unconjectured way across the
sky, or meteorites falling on unsuspicious picnicers. In Mrs. Assheton's
house, supreme over climatic conditions, nobody ever felt that rooms
were either too hot or too cold, a pleasantly fresh yet comfortably warm
atmosphere pervaded the place, meals were always punctual and her
admirable Scotch cook never served up a dish which, whether plain or
ornate, was not, in its way, perfectly prepared. A couple of deft and
noiseless parlour-maids attended to and anticipated the wants of her
guests, from the moment they entered her hospitable doors till when, on
their leaving them, their coats were held for them in the most convenient
possible manner for the easy insertion of the human arm, and the tails of
their dinner-coats cunningly and unerringly tweaked from behind. In every
way in fact the house was an example of perfect comfort; the softest
carpets overlaid the floors, or, where the polished wood was left bare,
the parquetry shone with a moonlike radiance; the newest and most
entertaining books (ready cut) stood on the well-ordered shelves in the
sitting-room to beguile the leisure of the studiously minded; the
billiard table was always speckless of dust, no tip was ever missing from
any cue, and the cigarette boxes and match-stands were always kept
replenished. In the dining-room the silver was resplendent, until the
moment when before dessert the cloth was withdrawn, and showed a rosewood
table that might have served for a mirror to Narcissus.
Mrs. Assheton, until her only surviving son Morris had come to live with
her some three months ago on the completion of his four years at
Cambridge, had been alone, but even when she was alone this ceremony of
drawing the cloth and putting on the dessert and wine had never been
omitted, though since she never took either, it might seem to be a
wasted piece of routine on the part of the two noiseless parlourmaids.
But she did not in the least consider it so, for just as she always
dressed for dinner herself with the same care and finish, whether she was
going to dine alone or whether, as tonight, a guest or two was dining
with her, as an offering, so to speak, on the altar of her own
self-respect, so also she required self-respect and the formality that
indicated it on the part of those who ministered at her table, and
enjoyed such excellent wages. This pretty old-fashioned custom had always
been the rule in her own home, and her husband had always had it
practised during his life. And since then--his death had occurred some
twenty years ago--nothing that she knew of had happened to make it less
proper or desirable. Kind of heart and warm of soul though she was, she
saw no reason for letting these excellent qualities cover any slackness
or breach of observance in the social form of life to which she had been
accustomed. There was no cause, because one was kind and wise, to eat
with badly cleaned silver, unless the parlour-maid whose office it was to
clean it was unwell. In such a case, if the extra work entailed by her
illness would throw too much on the shoulders of the other servants, Mrs.
Assheton would willingly clean the silver herself, rather than that it
should appear dull and tarnished. Her formalism, such as it was, was
perfectly simple and sincere. She would, without any very poignant regret
or sense of martyrdom, had her very comfortable income been cut down to a
tenth of what it was, have gone to live in a four-roomed cottage with one
servant. But she would have left that four-roomed cottage at once for
even humbler surroundings had she found that her straitened circumstances
did not permit her to keep it as speckless and _soignee_ as was her
present house in Sussex Square.
This achievement of having lived for nearly sixty years so decorously may
perhaps be a somewhat finer performance than it sounds, but Mrs. Assheton
brought as her contribution to life in general a far finer offering than
that, for though she did not propose to change her ways and manner of
life herself, she was notoriously sympathetic with the changed life of
the younger generation, and in consequence had the confidence of young
folk generally. At this moment she was enjoying the fruits of her liberal
attitude in the volubility of her son Morris, who sat at the end of the
table opposite to her. His volubility was at present concerned with his
motor-car, in which he had arrived that afternoon.
"Darling mother," he was saying, "I really was frightened as to whether
you would mind. I couldn't help remembering how you received Mr.
Taynton's proposal that you should go for a drive in his car. Don't you
remember, Mr. Taynton? Mother's nose _did_ go in the air. It's no use
denying it. So I thought, perhaps, that she wouldn't like my having one.
But I wanted it so dreadfully, and so I bought it without telling her,
and drove down in it to-day, which is my birthday, so that she couldn't
be too severe."
Mr. Taynton, while Morris was speaking, had picked up the nutcrackers the
boy had been using, and was gravely exploding the shells of the nuts he
had helped himself to. So Morris cracked the next one with a loud bang
between his white even teeth.
"Dear Morris," said his mother, "how foolish of you. Give Mr. Morris
another nutcracker," she added to the parlour-maid.
"What's foolish?" asked he, cracking another.
"Oh Morris, your teeth," she said. "Do wait a moment. Yes, that's right.
And how can you say that my nose went in the air? I'm sure Mr. Taynton
will agree with me that that is really libellous. And as for your being
afraid to tell me you had bought a motor-car yourself, why, that is
sillier than cracking nuts with your teeth."
Mr. Taynton laughed a comfortable middle-aged laugh.
"Don't put the responsibility on me, Mrs. Assheton," he said. "As long as
Morris's bank doesn't tell us that his account is overdrawn, he can do
what he pleases. But if we are told that, then down comes the cartloads
"Oh, you are a brick all right, Mr. Taynton," said the boy. "I could
stand a cartload of you."
Mr. Taynton, like his laugh, was comfortable and middle-aged. Solicitors
are supposed to be sharp-faced and fox-like, but his face was
well-furnished and comely, and his rather bald head beamed with
benevolence and dinner.
"My dear boy," he said, "and it is your birthday--I cannot honour
either you or this wonderful port more properly than by drinking your
health in it."
He began and finished his glass to the health he had so neatly proposed,
and Morris laughed.
"Thank you very much," he said. "Mother, do send the port round. What an
Mrs. Assheton rose.
"I will leave you to be more hospitable than me, then, dear," she said.
"Shall we go, Madge? Indeed, I am afraid you must, if you are to catch
the train to Falmer."
Madge Templeton got up with her hostess, and the two men rose too. She
had been sitting next Morris, and the boy looked at her eagerly.
"It's too bad, your having to go," he said. "But do you think I may come
over to-morrow, in the afternoon some time, and see you and Lady
Madge paused a moment.
"I am so sorry," she said, "but we shall be away all day. We shan't be
back till quite late."
"Oh, what a bore," said he, "and I leave again on Friday. Do let me come
and see you off then."
But Mrs. Assheton interposed.
"No, dear," she said, "I am going to have five minutes' talk with Madge
before she goes and we don't want you. Look after Mr. Taynton. I know he
wants to talk to you and I want to talk to Madge."
Mr. Taynton, when the door had closed behind the ladies, sat down again
with a rather obvious air of proposing to enjoy himself. It was quite
true that he had a few pleasant things to say to Morris, it is also true
that he immensely appreciated the wonderful port which glowed, ruby-like,
in the nearly full decanter that lay to his hand. And, above all, he,
with his busy life, occupied for the most part in innumerable small
affairs, revelled in the sense of leisure and serene smoothness which
permeated Mrs. Assheton's house. He was still a year or two short of
sixty, and but for his very bald and shining head would have seemed
younger, so fresh was he in complexion, so active, despite a certain
reassuring corpulency, was he in his movements. But when he dined
quietly like this, at Mrs. Assheton's, he would willingly have sacrificed
the next five years of his life if he could have been assured on really
reliable authority--the authority for instance of the Recording
Angel--that in five years time he would be able to sit quiet and not work
any more. He wanted very much to be able to take a passive instead of an
active interest in life, and this a few hundreds of pounds a year in
addition to his savings would enable him to do. He saw, in fact, the goal
arrived at which he would be able to sit still and wait with serenity and
calmness for the event which would certainly relieve him of all further
material anxieties. His very active life, the activities of which were so
largely benevolent, had at the expiration of fifty-eight years a little
tired him. He coveted the leisure which was so nearly his.
Morris lit a cigarette for himself, having previously passed the wine to
"I hate port," he said, "but my mother tells me this is all right. It
was laid down the year I was born by the way. You don't mind my
smoking do you?"
This, to tell the truth, seemed almost sacrilegious to Mr. Taynton, for
the idea that tobacco, especially the frivolous cigarette, should burn in
a room where such port was being drunk was sheer crime against human and
divine laws. But he could scarcely indicate to his host that he should
not smoke in his own dining-room.
"No, my dear Morris," he said, "but really you almost shock me, when you
prefer tobacco to this nectar, I assure you nectar. And the car, now,
tell me more about the car."
"I'm so deeply thankful I haven't overdrawn," he said. "Oh, the car's a
clipper. We came down from Haywards Heath the most gorgeous pace. I saw
one policeman trying to take my number, but we raised such a dust, I
don't think he can have been able to see it. It's such rot only going
twenty miles an hour with a clear straight road ahead."
Mr. Taynton sighed, gently and not unhappily.
"Yes, yes, my dear boy, I so sympathise with you," he said. "Speed and
violence is the proper attitude of youth, just as strength with a more
measured pace is the proper gait for older folk. And that, I fancy is
just what Mrs. Assheton felt. She would feel it to be as unnatural in you
to care to drive with her in her very comfortable victoria as she would
feel it to be unnatural in herself to wish to go in your lightning speed
motor. And that reminds me. As your trustee--"
Coffee was brought in at this moment, carried, not by one of the discreet
parlour-maids, but by a young man-servant. Mr. Taynton, with the port
still by him, refused it, but looked rather curiously at the servant.
Morris however mixed himself a cup in which cream, sugar, and coffee were
about equally mingled.
"A new servant of your mother's?" he asked, when the man had left the
"Oh no. It's my man, Martin. Awfully handy chap. Cleans silver, boots and
the motor. Drives it, too, when I'll let him, which isn't very often.
Chauffeurs are such rotters, aren't they? Regular chauffeurs I mean. They
always make out that something is wrong with the car, just as dentists
always find some hole in your teeth, if you go to them."
Mr. Taynton did not reply to these critical generalities but went back
to what he had been saying when the entry of coffee interrupted him.
"As your mother said," he remarked, "I wanted to have a few words with
you. You are twenty-two, are you not, to-day? Well, when I was young we
considered anyone of twenty-two a boy still, but now I think young
fellows grow up more quickly, and at twenty-two, you are a man nowadays,
and I think it is time for you, since my trusteeship for you may end any
day now, to take a rather more active interest in the state of your
finances than you have hitherto done. I want you in fact, my dear fellow,
to listen to me for five minutes while I state your position to you."
Morris indicated the port again, and Mr. Taynton refilled his glass.
"I have had twenty years of stewardship for you," he went on, "and
before my stewardship comes to an end, which it will do anyhow in three
years from now, and may come to an end any day--"
"Why, how is that?" asked Morris.
"If you marry, my dear boy. By the terms of your father's will, your
marriage, provided it takes place with your mother's consent, and after
your twenty-second birthday, puts you in complete control and possession
of your fortune. Otherwise, as of course you know, you come of age,
legally speaking, on your twenty-fifth birthday."
Morris lit another cigarette rather impatiently.
"Yes, I knew I was a minor till I was twenty-five," he said, "and I
suppose I have known that if I married after the age of twenty-two, I
became a major, or whatever you call it. But what then? Do let us go and
play billiards, I'll give you twenty-five in a hundred, because I've
been playing a lot lately, and I'll bet half a crown."
Mr. Taynton's fist gently tapped the table.
"Done," he said, "and we will play in five minutes. But I have something
to say to you first. Your mother, as you know, enjoys the income of the
bulk of your father's property for her lifetime. Outside that, he left
this much smaller capital of which, as also of her money, my partner and
I are trustees. The sum he left you was thirty thousand pounds. It is now
rather over forty thousand pounds, since we have changed the investments
from time to time, and always, I am glad to say, with satisfactory
results. The value of her property has gone up also in a corresponding
degree. That, however, does not concern you. But since you are now
twenty-two, and your marriage would put the whole of this smaller sum
into your hands, would it not be well for you to look through our books,
to see for yourself the account we render of our stewardship?"
"But for what reason?" he asked. "You tell me that my portion has
increased in value by ten thousand pounds. I am delighted to hear it. And
I thank you very much. And as for--"
He broke off short, and Mr. Taynton let a perceptible pause follow before
"As for the possibility of your marrying?" he suggested.
Morris gave him a quick, eager, glance.
"Yes, I think there is that possibility," he said. "I hope--I hope it is
not far distant."
"My dear boy--" said the lawyer.
"Ah, not a word. I don't know--"
Morris pushed his chair back quickly, and stood up--his tall slim figure
outlined against the sober red of the dining-room wall. A plume of black
hair had escaped from his well-brushed head and hung over his forehead,
and his sun-tanned vivid face looked extraordinarily handsome. His
mother's clear-cut energetic features were there, with the glow and
buoyancy of youth kindling them. Violent vitality was his also; his was
the hot blood that could do any deed when the life-instinct commanded it.
He looked like one of those who could give their body to be burned in the
pursuit of an idea, or could as easily steal, or kill, provided only the
deed was vitally done in the heat of his blood. Violence was clearly his
mode of life: the motor had to go sixty miles an hour; he might be one of
those who bathed in the Serpentine in mid-winter; he would clearly dance
all night, and ride all day, and go on till he dropped in the pursuit of
what he cared for. Mr. Taynton, looking at him as he stood smiling there,
in his splendid health and vigour felt all this. He felt, too, that if
Morris intended to be married to-morrow morning, matrimony would probably
But Morris's pause, after he pushed his chair back and stood up, was only
"Good God, yes; I'm in love," he said. "And she probably thinks me a
stupid barbarian, who likes only to drive golfballs and motorcars.
She--oh, it's hopeless. She would have let me come over to see them
He paused again.
"And now I've given the whole show away," he said.
Mr. Taynton made a comfortable sort of noise. It was compounded of
laughter, sympathy, and comprehension.
"You gave it away long ago, my dear Morris," he said.
"You had guessed?" asked Morris, sitting down again with the same
quickness and violence of movement, and putting both his elbows on
"No, my dear boy, you had told me, as you have told everybody, without
mentioning it. And I most heartily congratulate you. I never saw a more
delightful girl. Professionally also, I feel bound to add that it seems
to me a most proper alliance--heirs should always marry heiresses.
It"--Mr. Taynton drank off the rest of his port--"it keeps properties
Hot blood again dictated to Morris: it seemed dreadful to him that any
thought of money or of property could be mentioned in the same breath as
that which he longed for. He rose again as abruptly and violently as he
had sat down.
"Well, let's play billiards," he said. "I--I don't think you understand a
bit. You can't, in fact."
Mr. Taynton stroked the tablecloth for a moment with a plump white
"Crabbed age and youth," he remarked. "But crabbed age makes an appeal to
youth, if youth will kindly call to mind what crabbed age referred to
some five minutes ago. In other words, will you, or will you not, Morris,
spend a very dry three hours at my office, looking into the account of my
stewardship? There was thirty thousand pounds, and there now is--or
should we say 'are'--forty. It will take you not less than two hours, and
not more than three. But since my stewardship may come to an end, as I
said, any day, I should, not for my own sake, but for yours, wish you to
see what we have done for you, and--I own this would be a certain private
gratification to me--to learn that you thought that the trust your dear
father reposed in us was not misplaced."
There was something about these simple words which touched Morris. For
the moment he became almost businesslike. Mr. Taynton had been, as he
knew, a friend of his father's, and, as he had said, he had been steward
of his own affairs for twenty years. But that reflection banished the
"Oh, but two hours is a fearful time," he said. "You have told me the
facts, and they entirely satisfy me. And I want to be out all day
to-morrow, as I am only here till the day after. But I shall be down
again next week. Let us go into it all then. Not that there is the
slightest use in going into anything. And when, Mr. Taynton, I become
steward of my own affairs, you may be quite certain that I shall beg you
to continue looking after them. Why you gained me ten thousand pounds in
these twenty years--I wonder what there would have been to my credit now
if I had looked after things myself. But since we are on the subject I
should like just this once to assure you of my great gratitude to you,
for all you have done. And I ask you, if you will, to look after my
affairs in the future with the same completeness as you have always done.
My father's will does not prevent that, does it?"
Mr. Taynton looked at the young fellow with affection.
"Dear Morris," he said gaily, "we lawyers and solicitors are always
supposed to be sharks, but personally I am not such a shark as that. Are
you aware that I am paid L200 a year for my stewardship, which you are
entitled to assume for yourself on your marriage, though of course its
continuance in my hands is not forbidden in your father's will? You are
quite competent to look after your affairs yourself; it is ridiculous for
you to continue to pay me this sum. But I thank you from the bottom of my
heart for your confidence in me."
A very close observer might have seen that behind Mr. Taynton's kind gay
eyes there was sitting a personality, so to speak, that, as his mouth
framed these words, was watching Morris rather narrowly and anxiously.
But the moment Morris spoke this silent secret watcher popped back again
out of sight.
"Well then I ask you as a personal favour," said he, "to continue being
my steward. Why, it's good business for me, isn't it? In twenty years you
make me ten thousand pounds, and I only pay you L200 a year for it.
Please be kind, Mr. Taynton, and continue making me rich. Oh, I'm a jolly
hard-headed chap really; I know that it is to my advantage."
Mr. Taynton considered this a moment, playing with his wine glass. Then
he looked up quickly.
"Yes, Morris, I will with pleasure do as you ask me," he said.
"Right oh. Thanks awfully. Do come and play billiards."
Morris was in amazing luck that night, and if, as he said, he had been
playing a lot lately, the advantage of his practice was seen chiefly in
the hideous certainty of his flukes, and the game (though he received
twenty-five) left Mr. Taynton half a crown the poorer. Then the winner
whirled his guest upstairs again to talk to his mother while he himself
went round to the stables to assure himself of the well-being of the
beloved motor. Martin had already valeted it, after its run, and was just
locking up when Morris arrived.
Morris gave his orders for next day after a quite unnecessary examination
into the internal economy of the beloved, and was just going back to the
house, when he paused, remembering something.
"Oh Martin," he said, "while I am here, I want you to help in the house,
you know at dinner and so on, just as you did to-night. And when there
are guests of mine here I want you to look after them. For instance, when
Mr. Taynton goes tonight you will be there to give him his hat and coat.
You'll have rather a lot to do, I'm afraid."
Morris finished his cigarette and went back to the drawing-room where Mr.
Taynton was already engaged in the staid excitements of backgammon with
his mother. That game over, Morris took his place, and before long the
lawyer rose to go.
"Now I absolutely refuse to let you interrupt your game," he said. "I
have found my way out of this house often enough, I should think. Good
night, Mrs. Assheton. Good night Morris; don't break your neck my dear
boy, in trying to break records."
Morris hardly attended to this, for the game was critical. He just rang
the bell, said good night, and had thrown again before the door had
closed behind Mr. Taynton. Below, in answer to the bell, was standing
Mr. Taynton looked at him again with some attention, and then glanced
round to see if the discreet parlour-maids were about.
"So you are called Martin now," he observed gently.
"I recognised you at once."
There was a short pause.
"Are you going to tell Mr. Morris, sir?" he asked.
"That I had to dismiss you two years ago for theft?" said Mr. Taynton
quietly. "No, not if you behave yourself."
Mr. Taynton looked at him again kindly and sighed.
"No, let bygones be bygones," he said. "You will find your secret is safe
enough. And, Martin, I hope you have really turned over a new leaf, and
are living honestly now. That is so, my lad? Thank God; thank God. My
umbrella? Thanks. Good night. No cab: I will walk."
Mr. Taynton lived in a square, comfortable house in Montpellier Road, and
thus, when he left Mrs. Assheton's there was some two miles of pavement
and sea front between him and home. But the night was of wonderful
beauty, a night of mid June, warm enough to make the most cautious secure
of chill, and at the same time just made crisp with a little breeze that
blew or rather whispered landward from over the full-tide of the sleeping
sea. High up in the heavens swung a glorious moon, which cast its path of
white enchanted light over the ripples, and seemed to draw the heart even
as it drew the eyes heavenward. Mr. Taynton certainly, as he stepped out
beneath the stars, with the sea lying below him, felt, in his delicate
and sensitive nature, the charm of the hour, and being a good if not a
brisk walker, he determined to go home on foot. And he stepped westward
The evening, it would appear, had much pleased him--for it was long
before his smile of retrospective pleasure faded from his pleasant mobile
face. Morris's trust and confidence in him had been extraordinarily
pleasant to him: and modest and unassuming as he was, he could not help a
secret gratification at the thought. What a handsome fellow Morris was
too, how gay, how attractive! He had his father's dark colouring, and
tall figure, but much of his mother's grace and charm had gone to the
modelling of that thin sensitive mouth and the long oval of his face. Yet
there was more of the father there, the father's intense, almost
violent, vitality was somehow more characteristic of the essential Morris
than face or feature.
What a happy thing it was too--here the smile of pleasure illuminated Mr.
Taynton's face again--that the boy whom he had dismissed two years before
for some petty pilfering in his own house, should have turned out such a
promising lad and should have found his way to so pleasant a berth as
that of factotum to Morris. Kindly and charitable all through and ever
eager to draw out the good in everybody and forgive the bad, Mr. Taynton
had often occasion to deplore the hardness and uncharity of a world which
remembers youthful errors and hangs them, like a mill-stone, round the
neck of the offender, and it warmed his heart and kindled his smile to
think of one case at any rate where a youthful misdemeanour was lived
down and forgotten. At the time he remembered being in doubt whether he
should not give the offender up to justice, for the pilfering, petty
though it had been, had been somewhat persistent, but he had taken the
more merciful course, and merely dismissed the boy. He had been in two
minds about it before, wondering whether it would not be better to let
Martin have a sharp lesson, but to-night he was thankful that he had not
done so. The mercy he had shown had come back to bless him also; he felt
a glow of thankfulness that the subject of his clemency had turned out so
well. Punishment often hardens the criminal, was one of his settled
convictions. But Morris--again his thoughts went back to Morris, who was
already standing on the verge of manhood, on the verge, too, he made no
doubt of married life and its joys and responsibilities. Mr. Taynton was
himself a bachelor, and the thought gave him not a moment of jealousy,
but a moment of void that ached a little at the thought of the common
human bliss which he had himself missed. How charming, too, was the girl
Madge Templeton, whom he had met, not for the first time, that evening.
He himself had guessed how things stood between the two before Morris had
confided in him, and it pleased him that his intuition was confirmed.
What a pity, however, that the two were not going to meet next day, that
she was out with her mother and would not get back till late. It would
have been a cooling thought in the hot office hours of to-morrow to
picture them sitting together in the garden at Falmer, or under one of
the cool deep-foliaged oaks in the park.
Then suddenly his face changed, the smile faded, but came back next
instant and broadened with a laugh. And the man who laughs when he is by
himself may certainly be supposed to have strong cause for amusement.
Mr. Taynton had come by this time to the West Pier, and a hundred yards
farther would bring him to Montpellier Road. But it was yet early, as he
saw (so bright was the moonlight) when he consulted his watch, and he
retraced his steps some fifty yards, and eventually rang at the door of a
big house of flats facing the sea, where his partner, who for the most
part, looked after the London branch of their business, had his
_pied-a-terre_. For the firm of Taynton and Mills was one of those
respectable and solid businesses that, beginning in the country, had
eventually been extended to town, and so far from its having its
headquarters in town and its branch in Brighton, had its headquarters
here and its branch in the metropolis. Mr. Godfrey Mills, so he learned
at the door had dined alone, and was in, and without further delay Mr.
Taynton was carried aloft in the gaudy bird-cage of the lift, feeling
sure that his partner would see him.
The flat into which he was ushered with a smile of welcome from the man
who opened the door was furnished with a sort of gross opulence that
never failed to jar on Mr. Taynton's exquisite taste and cultivated mind.
Pictures, chairs, sofas, the patterns of the carpet, and the heavy
gilding of the cornices were all sensuous, a sort of frangipanni to the
eye. The apparent contrast, however, between these things and their
owner, was as great as that between Mr. Taynton and his partner, for Mr.
Godfrey Mills was a thin, spare, dark little man, brisk in movement, with
a look in his eye that betokened a watchfulness and vigilance of the most
alert order. But useful as such a gift undoubtedly is, it was given to
Mr. Godfrey Mills perhaps a shade too obviously. It would be unlikely
that the stupidest or shallowest person would give himself away when
talking to him, for it was so clear that he was always on the watch for
admission or information that might be useful to him. He had, however,
the charm that a very active and vivid mind always possesses, and though
small and slight, he was a figure that would be noticed anywhere, so keen
and wide-awake was his face. Beside him Mr. Taynton looked like a
benevolent country clergyman, more distinguished for amiable qualities of
the heart, than intellectual qualities of the head. Yet those--there were
not many of them--who in dealings with the latter had tried to conduct
their business on these assumptions, had invariably found it necessary to
reconsider their first impression of him. His partner, however, was
always conscious of a little impatience in talking to him; Taynton, he
would have allowed, did not lack fine business qualities, but he was a
little wanting in quickness.
Mills's welcome of him was abrupt.
"Pleased to see you," he said. "Cigar, drink? Sit down, won't you?
What is it?"
"I dropped in for a chat on my way home," said Mr. Taynton. "I have been
dining with Mrs. Assheton. A most pleasant evening. What a fine delicate
face she has."
Mills bit off the end of a cigar.
"I take it that you did not come in merely to discuss the delicacy of
Mrs. Assheton's face," he said.
"No, no, dear fellow; you are right to recall me. I too take it--I take
it that you have found time to go over to Falmer yesterday. How did you
find Sir Richard?"
"I found him well. I had a long talk with him."
"And you managed to convey something of those very painful facts which
you felt it was your duty to bring to his notice?" asked Mr. Taynton.
Godfrey Mills laughed.
"I say, Taynton, is it really worth while keeping it up like this?" he
asked. "It really saves so much trouble to talk straight, as I propose
to do. I saw him, as I said, and I really managed remarkably well. I
had these admissions wrung from me, I assure you it is no less than
that, under promise of the most absolute secrecy. I told him young
Assheton was leading an idle, extravagant, and dissipated life. I said
I had seen him three nights ago in Piccadilly, not quite sober, in
company with the class of person to whom one does not refer in polite
society. Will that do?"
"Ah, I can easily imagine how painful you must have found--" began
But his partner interrupted.
"It was rather painful; you have spoken a true word in jest. I felt a
brute, I tell you. But, as I pointed out to you, something of the sort
Mr. Taynton suddenly dropped his slightly clerical manner.
"You have done excellently, my dear friend," he said. "And as you pointed
out to me, it was indeed necessary to do something of the sort. I think
by now, your revelations have already begun to take effect. Yes, I think
I will take a little brandy and soda. Thank you very much."
He got up with greater briskness than he had hitherto shown.
"And you are none too soon," he said. "Morris, poor Morris, such a
handsome fellow, confided to me this evening that he was in love with
Miss Templeton. He is very much in earnest."
"And why do you think my interview has met with some success?"
"Well, it is only a conjecture, but when Morris asked if he might call
any time to-morrow, Miss Templeton (who was also dining with Mrs.
Assheton) said that she and her mother would be out all day and not get
home till late. It does not strike me as being too fanciful to see in
that some little trace perhaps of your handiwork."
"Yes, that looks like me," said Mills shortly.
Mr. Taynton took a meditative sip at his brandy and soda.
"My evening also has not been altogether wasted," he said. "I played what
for me was a bold stroke, for as you know, my dear fellow, I prefer to
leave to your nimble and penetrating mind things that want dash and
boldness. But to-night, yes, I was warmed with that wonderful port and
"What did you do?" asked Mills.
"Well, I asked, I almost implored dear Morris to give me two or three
hours to-morrow and go through all the books, and satisfy himself
everything is in order, and his investments well looked after. I told him
also that the original L30,000 of his had, owing to judicious management,
become L40,000. You see, that is unfortunately a thing past praying for.
It is so indubitably clear from the earlier ledgers--"
"But the port must indeed have warmed you," said Mills quickly. "Why, it
was madness! What if he had consented?"
Mr. Taynton smiled.
"Ah, well, I in my slow synthetic manner had made up my mind that it was
really quite impossible that he should consent to go into the books and
vouchers. To begin with, he has a new motor car, and every hour spent
away from that car just now is to his mind an hour wasted. Also, I know
him well. I knew that he would never consent to spend several hours over
ledgers. Finally, even if he had, though I knew from what I know of him
not that he would not but that he _could_ not, I could have--I could have
managed something. You see, he knows nothing whatever about business or
Mills shook his head.
"But it was dangerous, anyhow," he said, "and I don't understand
what object could be served by it. It was running a risk with no
profit in view."
Then for the first time the inherent strength of the quietness of the one
man as opposed to the obvious quickness and comprehension of the other
came into play.
"I think that I disagree with you there, my dear fellow," said Mr.
Taynton slowly, "though when I have told you all, I shall be of course,
as always, delighted to recognise the superiority of your judgment,
should you disagree with me, and convince me of the correctness of your
view. It has happened, I know, a hundred times before that you with your
quick intuitive perceptions have been right."
But his partner interrupted him. He quite agreed with the sentiment, but
he wanted to learn without even the delay caused by these complimentary
remarks, the upshot of Taynton's rash proposal to Morris.
"What did young Assheton say?" he asked.
"Well, my dear fellow," said Taynton, "though I have really no doubt that
in principle I did a rash thing, in actual practice my step was
justified, because Morris absolutely refused to look at the books. Of
course I know the young fellow well: it argues no perspicuity on my part
to have foreseen that. And, I am glad to say, something in my way of
putting it, some sincerity of manner I suppose, gave rise to a fresh mark
of confidence in us on his part."
Mr. Taynton cleared his throat; his quietness and complete absence of
hurry was so to speak, rapidly overhauling the quick, nimble mind of
"He asked me in fact to continue being steward of his affairs in any
event. Should he marry to-morrow I feel no doubt that he would not spend
a couple of minutes over his financial affairs, unless, _unless_, as you
foresaw might happen, he had need of a large lump sum. In that case, my
dear Mills, you and I would--would find it impossible to live elsewhere
than in the Argentine Republic, were we so fortunate as to get there.
But, as far as this goes I only say that the step of mine which you felt
to be dangerous has turned out most auspiciously. He begged me, in fact,
to continue even after he came of age, acting for him at my present rate
Mr. Mills was listening to this with some attention. Here he
"That is capital, then," he said. "You were right and I was wrong. God,
Taynton, it's your manner you know, there's something of the country
parson about you that is wonderfully convincing. You seem sincere without
being sanctimonious. Why, if I was to ask young Assheton to look into his
affairs for himself, he would instantly think there was something wrong,
and that I was trying bluff. But when you do the same thing, that simple
and perfectly correct explanation never occurs to him."
"No, dear Morris trusts me very completely," said Taynton. "But, then,
if I may continue my little review of the situation, as it now stands,
you and your talk with Sir Richard have vastly decreased the danger of
his marrying. For, to be frank, I should not feel at all secure if that
happened. Miss Templeton is an heiress herself, and Morris might easily
take it into his head to spend ten or fifteen thousand pounds in building
a house or buying an estate, and though I think I have guarded against
his requiring an account of our stewardship, I can't prevent his wishing
to draw a large sum of money. But your brilliant manoeuvre may, we hope,
effectually put a stop to the danger of his marrying Miss Templeton,
and since I am convinced he is in love with her, why"--Mr. Taynton put
his plump finger-tips together and raised his kind eyes to the
ceiling--"why, the chance of his wanting to marry anybody else is
postponed anyhow, till, till he has got over this unfortunate attachment.
In fact, my dear fellow, there is no longer anything immediate to fear,
and I feel sure that before many weeks are up, the misfortunes and ill
luck which for the last two years have dogged us with such incredible
persistency will be repaired."
Mills said nothing for the moment but splashed himself out a liberal
allowance of brandy into his glass, and mixed it with a somewhat more
carefully measured ration of soda. He was essentially a sober man, but
that was partly due to the fact that his head was as impervious to
alcohol as teak is to water, and it was his habit to indulge in two, and
those rather stiff, brandies and sodas of an evening. He found that they
assisted and clarified thought.
"I wish to heaven you hadn't found it necessary to let young Assheton
know that his L30,000 had increased to L40,000," he said. "That's L10,000
more to get back."
"Ah, it was just that which gave him, so he thought, such good cause for
reposing complete confidence in me," remarked Mr. Taynton. "But as you
say, it is L10,000 more to get back, and I should not have told him, were
not certain ledgers of earlier years so extremely, extremely unmistakable
on the subject."
"But if he is not going to look at ledgers at all--" began Mills.
"Ah, the concealment of that sort of thing is one of the risks which it
is not worth while to take," said the other, dropping for a moment the
Mills was silent again. Then:
"Have you bought that option in Boston Coppers," he asked.
"Yes; I bought to-day."
Mills glanced at the clock as Mr. Taynton rose to go.
"Still only a quarter to twelve," he said. "If you have time, you might
give me a detailed statement. I hardly know what you have done. It won't
take a couple of minutes."
Mr. Taynton glanced at the clock likewise, and then put down his
"I can just spare the time," he said, "but I must get home by twelve; I
have unfortunately come out without my latchkey, and I do not like
keeping the servants up."
He pressed his fingers over his eyes a moment and then spoke.
* * * * *
Ten minutes later he was in the bird-cage of the lift again, and by
twelve he had been admitted into his own house, apologising most amiably
to his servant for having kept him up. There were a few letters for him
and he opened and read those, then lit his bed-candle and went upstairs,
but instead of undressing, sat for a full quarter of an hour in his
armchair thinking. Then he spoke softly to himself.
"I think dear Mills means mischief in some way," he said. "But really for
the moment it puzzles me to know what. However, I shall see tomorrow. Ah,
I wonder if I guess!"
Then he went to bed, but contrary to custom did not get to sleep for a
long time. But when he did there was a smile on his lips; a patient
Mr. Taynton's statement to his partner, which had taken him so few
minutes to give, was of course concerned only with the latest financial
operation which he had just embarked in, but for the sake of the reader
it will be necessary to go a little further back, and give quite shortly
the main features of the situation in which he and his partner found
Briefly then, just two years ago, at the time peace was declared in South
Africa, the two partners of Taynton and Mills had sold out L30,000 of
Morris Assheton's securities, which owing to their excellent management
was then worth L40,000, and seeing a quite unrivalled opportunity of
making their fortunes, had become heavy purchasers of South African
mines, for they reasoned that with peace once declared it was absolutely
certain that prices would go up. But, as is sometimes the way with
absolute certainties, the opposite had happened and they had gone down.
They cut their loss, however, and proceeded to buy American rails. In six
months they had entirely repaired the damage, and seeing further
unrivalled opportunities from time to time, in buying motorcar shares, in
running a theatre and other schemes, had managed a month ago to lose all
that was left of the L30,000. Being, therefore, already so deeply
committed, it was mere prudence, the mere instinct of self-preservation
that had led them to sell out the remaining L10,000, and to-day Mr.
Taynton had bought an option in Boston copper with it. The manner of an
option is as follows:
Boston Copper to-day was quoted at L5 10S 6d, and by paying a premium of
twelve shillings and sixpence per share, they were entitled to buy Boston
Copper shares any time within the next three months at a price of L6 3s.
Supposing therefore (as Mr. Taynton on very good authority had supposed)
that Boston Copper, a rapidly improving company, rose a couple of points
within the next three months, and so stood at L7 10S 6d; he had the right
of exercising his option and buying them at L6 3S thus making L1 7S 6d
per share. But a higher rise than this was confidently expected, and
Taynton, though not really of an over sanguine disposition, certainly
hoped to make good the greater part if not all of their somewhat large
defalcations. He had bought an option of 20,000 shares, the option of
which cost (or would cost at the end of those months) rather over
L10,000. In other words, the moment that the shares rose to a price
higher than L6 3s, all further appreciation was pure gain. If they did
not rise so high, he would of course not exercise the option, and
sacrifice the money.
That was certainly a very unpleasant thing to contemplate, but it had
been more unpleasant when, so far as he knew, Morris was on the verge of
matrimony, and would then step into the management of his own affairs.
But bad though it all was, the situation had certainly been immensely
ameliorated this evening, since on the one hand his partner had, it was
not unreasonable to hope, said to Madge's father things about Morris that
made his marriage with Madge exceedingly unlikely, while on the other
hand, even if it happened, his affairs, according to his own wish, would
remain in Mr. Taynton's hands with the same completeness as heretofore.
It would, of course, be necessary to pay him his income, and though this
would be a great strain on the finances of the two partners, it was
manageable. Besides (Mr. Taynton sincerely hoped that this would not be
necessary) the money which was Mrs. Assheton's for her lifetime was in
his hands also, so if the worst came to the worst--
Now the composition and nature of the extraordinary animal called man is
so unexpected and unlikely that any analysis of Mr. Taynton's character
may seem almost grotesque. It is a fact nevertheless that his was a
nature capable of great things, it is also a fact that he had long ago
been deeply and bitterly contrite for the original dishonesty of using
the money of his client. But by aid of those strange perversities of
nature, he had by this time honestly and sincerely got to regard all
their subsequent employments of it merely as efforts on his part to make
right an original wrong. He wanted to repair his fault, and it seemed to
him that to commit it again was the only means at his disposal for doing
so. A strain, too, of Puritan piety was bound up in the constitution of
his soul, and in private life he exercised high morality, and was also
kind and charitable. He belonged to guilds and societies that had as
their object the improvement and moral advancement of young men. He was a
liberal patron of educational schemes, he sang a fervent and fruity tenor
in the choir of St. Agnes, he was a regular communicant, his nature
looked toward good, and turned its eyes away from evil. To do him justice
he was not a hypocrite, though, if all about him were known, and a
plebiscite taken, it is probable that he would be unanimously condemned.
Yet the universal opinion would be wrong: he was no hypocrite, but only
had the bump of self-preservation enormously developed. He had cheated
and swindled, but he was genuinely opposed to cheating and swindling. He
was cheating and swindling now, in buying the option of Boston Copper.
But he did not know that: he wanted to repair the original wrong, to hand
back to Morris his fortune unimpaired, and also to save himself. But of
these two wants, the second, it must be confessed, was infinitely the
stronger. To save himself there was perhaps nothing that he would stick
at. However, it was his constant wish and prayer that he might not be led
into temptation. He knew well what his particular temptation was, namely
this instinct of self-preservation, and constantly thought and meditated
about it. He knew that he was hardly himself when the stress of it came
on him; it was like a possession.
Mills, though an excellent partner and a man of most industrious habits,
had, so Mr. Taynton would have admitted, one little weak spot. He never
was at the office till rather late in the morning. True, when he came, he
soon made up for lost time, for he was possessed, as we have seen, of a
notable quickness and agility of mind, but sometimes Taynton found that
he was himself forced to be idle till Mills turned up, if his signature
or what not was required for papers before work could be further
proceeded with. This, in fact, was the case next morning, and from half
past eleven Mr. Taynton had to sit idly in his office, as far as the work
of the firm was concerned until his partner arrived. It was a little
tiresome that this should happen to-day, because there was nothing else
that need detain him, except those deeds for the execution of which his
partner's signature was necessary, and he could, if only Mills had been
punctual, have gone out to Rottingdean before lunch, and inspected the
Church school there in the erection of which he had taken so energetic an
interest. Timmins, however, the gray-haired old head clerk, was in the
office with him, and Mr. Taynton always liked a chat with Timmins.
"And the grandson just come home, has he Mr. Timmins?" he was saying. "I
must come and see him. Why he'll be six years old, won't he, by now?"
"Yes, sir, turned six."
"Dear me, how time goes on! The morning is going on, too, and still Mr.
Mills isn't here."
He took a quill pen and drew a half sheet of paper toward him, poised
his pen a moment and then wrote quickly.
"What a pity I can't sign for him," he said, passing his paper over to
the clerk. "Look at that; now even you, Timmins, though you have seen Mr.
Mills's handwriting ten thousand times, would be ready to swear that the
signature was his, would you not?"
Timmins looked scrutinisingly at it.
"Well, I'm sure, sir! What a forger you would have made!" he said
admiringly. "I would have sworn that was Mr. Mills's own hand of write.
It's wonderful, sir."
Mr. Taynton sighed, and took the paper again.
"Yes, it is like, isn't it?" he said, "and it's so easy to do. Luckily
forgers don't know the way to forge properly."
"And what might that be, sir?" asked Timmins.
"Why, to throw yourself mentally into the nature of the man whose
handwriting you wish to forge. Of course one has to know the handwriting
thoroughly well, but if one does that one just has to visualise it, and
then, as I said, project oneself into the other, not laboriously copy the
handwriting. Let's try another. Ah, who is that letter from? Mrs.
Assheton isn't it. Let me look at the signature just once again."
Mr. Taynton closed his eyes a moment after looking at it. Then he took
his quill, and wrote quickly.
"You would swear to that, too, would you not, Timmins?" he asked.
"Why, God bless me yes, sir," said he. "Swear to it on the book."
The door opened and as Godfrey Mills came in, Mr. Taynton tweaked the
paper out of Timmins's hand, and tore it up. It might perhaps seem
strange to dear Mills that his partner had been forging his signature,
though only in jest.
"'Fraid I'm rather late," said Mills.
"Not at all, my dear fellow," said Taynton without the slightest touch of
ill-humour. "How are you? There's very little to do; I want your
signature to this and this, and your careful perusal of that. Mrs.
Assheton's letter? No, that only concerns me; I have dealt with it."
A quarter of an hour was sufficient, and at the end Timmins carried the
papers away leaving the two partners together. Then, as soon as the door
closed, Mills spoke.
"I've been thinking over our conversation of last night," he said, "and
there are some points I don't think you have quite appreciated, which I
should like to put before you."
Something inside Mr. Taynton's brain, the same watcher perhaps who looked
at Morris so closely the evening before, said to him. "He is going to try
it on." But it was not the watcher but his normal self that answered. He
beamed gently on his partner.
"My dear fellow, I might have been sure that your quick mind would have
seen new aspects, new combinations," he said.
Mills leaned forward over the table.
"Yes, I have seen new aspects, to adopt your words," he said, "and I will
put them before you. These financial operations, shall we call them, have
been going on for two years now, have they not? You began by losing a
large sum in South Africans--"
"We began," corrected Mr. Taynton, gently. He was looking at the other
quite calmly; his face expressed no surprise at all; if there was
anything in his expression beyond that of quiet kindness, it was
"I said 'you,'" said Mills in a hectoring tone, "and I will soon explain
why. You lost a large sum in South Africans, but won it back again in
Americans. You then again, and again contrary to my advice, embarked in
perfect wild-cat affairs, which ended in our--I say 'our' here--getting
severely scratched and mauled. Altogether you have frittered away
L30,000, and have placed the remaining ten in a venture which to my mind
is as wild as all the rest of your unfortunate ventures. These
speculations have, almost without exception, been choices of your own,
not mine. That was _one_ of the reasons why I said 'you,' not 'we.'"
He paused a moment.
"Another reason is," he said, "because without any exception the
transactions have taken place on your advice and in your name, not in
That was a sufficiently meaning statement, but Mills did not wish his
partner to be under any misapprehension as to what he implied.
"In other words," he said, "I can deny absolutely all knowledge of the
whole of those operations."
Mr. Taynton gave a sudden start, as if the significance of this had only
this moment dawned on him, as if he had not understood the first
statement. Then he seemed to collect himself.
"You can hardly do that," he said, "as I hold letters of yours which
imply such knowledge."
Mills smiled rather evilly.
"Ah, it is not worth while bluffing," he said. "I have never written such
a letter to you. You know it. Is it likely I should?"
Mr. Taynton apparently had no reply to this. But he had a question to
"Why are you taking up this hostile and threatening attitude?"
"I have not meant to be hostile, and I have certainly not threatened,"
replied Mills. "I have put before you, quite dispassionately I hope,
certain facts. Indeed I should say it was you who had threatened in the
matter of those letters, which, unhappily, have never existed at all. I
"Now what has been my part in this affair? I have observed you lost
money in speculations of which I disapproved, but you always knew best.
I have advanced money to you before now to tide over embarrassments that
would otherwise have been disastrous. By the exercise of diplomacy--or
lying--yesterday, I averted a very grave danger. I point out to you also
that there is nothing to implicate me in these--these fraudulent
employments of a client's money. So I ask, where I come in? What do I
get by it?"
Mr. Taynton's hands were trembling as he fumbled at some papers on his
"You know quite well that we are to share all profits?" he said.
"Yes, but at present there have not been any. I have been, to put it
plainly, pulling you out of holes. And I think--I think my trouble ought
to be remunerated. I sincerely hope you will take that view also. Or
shall I remind you again that there is nothing in the world to connect me
with these, well, frauds?"
Mr. Taynton got up from his chair, strolled across to the window where he
drew down the blind a little, so as to shut out the splash of sunlight
that fell on his table.
"You have been betting again, I suppose," he asked quietly.
"Yes, and have been unfortunate. Pray do not trouble to tell me again how
foolish it is to gamble like that. You may be right. I have no doubt you
are right. But I think one has as much right to gamble with one's own
money as to do so with the money of other people."
This apparently seemed unanswerable; anyhow Mr. Taynton made no reply.
Then, having excluded the splash of sunlight he sat down again.
"You have not threatened, you tell me," he said, "but you have pointed
out to me that there is no evidence that you have had a hand in certain
transactions. You say that I know you have helped me in these
transactions; you say you require remuneration for your services. Does
not that, I ask, imply a threat? Does it not mean that you are
blackmailing me? Else why should you bring these facts--I do not dispute
them--to my notice? Supposing I refuse you remuneration?"
Mills had noted the signs of agitation and anxiety. He felt that he was
on safe ground. The blackmailer lives entirely on the want of courage in
"You will not, I hope, refuse me remuneration," he said. "I have not
threatened you yet, because I feel sure you will be wise. I might, of
course, subsequently threaten you."
Again there was silence. Mr. Taynton had picked up a quill pen, the same
with which he had been writing before, for the nib was not yet dry.
"The law is rather severe on blackmailers," he remarked.
"It is. Are you going to bring an action against me for blackmail? Will
not that imply the re-opening of--of certain ledgers, which we agreed
last night had better remain shut?"
Again there was silence. There was a completeness in this reasoning which
rendered comment superfluous.
"How much do you want?" asked Mr. Taynton.
Mills was not so foolish as to "breathe a sigh of relief." But he
noted with satisfaction that there was no sign of fight in his
adversary and partner.
"I want two thousand pounds," he said, "at once."
"That is a large sum."
"It is. If it were a small sum I should not trouble you."
Mr. Taynton again got up and strayed aimlessly about the room.
"I can't give it you to-day," he said. "I shall have to sell out
"I am not unreasonable about a reasonable delay," said Mills.
"You are going to town this afternoon?"
"Yes, I must. There is a good deal of work to be done. It will take me
"And you will be back the day after to-morrow?"
"Yes, I shall be back here that night, that is to say, I shall not get
away from town till the afternoon. I should like your definite answer
then, if it is not inconvenient. I could come and see you that night, the
day after to-morrow--if you wished."
Mr. Taynton thought over this with his habitual deliberation.
"You will readily understand that all friendly relations between us are
quite over," he said. "You have done a cruel and wicked thing, but I
don't see how I can resist it. I should like, however, to have a little
further talk about it, for which I have not time now."
"By all means," he said. "I do not suppose I shall be back here till nine
in the evening. I have had no exercise lately, and I think very likely I
shall get out of the train at Falmer, and walk over the downs."
Mr. Taynton's habitual courtesy came to his aid. He would have been
polite to a thief or a murderer, if he met him socially.
"Those cool airs of the downs are very invigorating." he said. "I will
not expect you therefore till half past nine that night. I shall dine at
home, and be alone."
"Thanks. I must be going. I shall only just catch my train to town."
Mills nodded a curt gesture of farewell, and left the room, and when he
had gone Mr. Taynton sat down again in the chair by the table, and
remained there some half hour. He knew well the soundness of his
partner's reasoning; all he had said was fatally and abominably true.
There was no way out of it. Yet to pay money to a blackmailer was, to the
legal mind, a confession of guilt. Innocent people, unless they were
abject fools, did not pay blackmail. They prosecuted the blackmailer. Yet
here, too, Mills's simple reasoning held good. He could not prosecute the
blackmailer, since he was not in the fortunate position of being
innocent. But if you paid a blackmailer once, you were for ever in his
power. Having once yielded, it was necessary to yield again. He must get
some assurance that no further levy would take place. He must satisfy
himself that he would be quit of all future danger from this quarter. Yet
from whence was such assurance to come? He might have it a hundred times
over in Godfrey Mills's handwriting, but he could never produce that as
evidence, since again the charge of fraudulent employment of clients'
money would be in the air. No doubt, of course, the blackmailer would be
sentenced, but the cause of blackmail would necessarily be public. No,
there was no way out.
Two thousand pounds, though! Frugally and simply as he lived, that was to
him a dreadful sum, and represented the savings of at least eighteen
months. This meant that there was for him another eighteen months of
work, just when he hoped to see his retirement coming close to him. Mills
demanded that he should work an extra year and a half, and out of those
few years that in all human probability still remained to him in this
pleasant world. Yet there was no way out!
Half an hour's meditation convinced him of this, and, as was his sensible
plan, when a thing was inevitable, he never either fought against it nor
wasted energy in regretting it. And he went slowly out of the office into
which he had come so briskly an hour or two before. But his face
expressed no sign of disquieting emotion; he nodded kindly to Timmins,
and endorsed his desire to be allowed to come and see the grandson. If
anything was on his mind, or if he was revolving some policy for the
future, it did not seem to touch or sour that kindly, pleasant face.
Mr. Taynton did not let these very unpleasant occurrences interfere with
the usual and beneficent course of his life, but faced the crisis with
that true bravery that not only meets a thing without flinching, but
meets it with the higher courage of cheerfulness, serenity and ordinary
behaviour. He spent the rest of the day in fact in his usual manner,
enjoying his bathe before lunch, his hour of the paper and the quiet
cigar afterward, his stroll over the springy turf of the downs, and he
enjoyed also the couple of hours of work that brought him to dinner time.
Then afterward he spent his evening, as was his weekly custom, at the
club for young men which he had founded, where instead of being exposed
to the evening lures of the sea-front and the public house, they could
spend (on payment of a really nominal subscription) a quieter and more
innocent hour over chess, bagatelle and the illustrated papers, or if
more energetically disposed, in the airy gymnasium adjoining the
reading-room, where they could indulge in friendly rivalry with boxing
gloves or single-stick, or feed the appetites of their growing muscles
with dumb-bells and elastic contrivances. Mr. Taynton had spent a couple
of hours there, losing a game of chess to one youthful adversary, but
getting back his laurels over bagatelle, and before he left, had arranged
for a geological expedition to visit, on the Whitsuntide bank holiday
next week, the curious raised beach which protruded so remarkably from
the range of chalk downs some ten miles away.
On returning home, it is true he had deviated a little from his usual
habits, for instead of devoting the half-hour before bed-time to the
leisurely perusal of the evening paper, he had merely given it one
glance, observing that copper was strong and that Boston Copper in
particular had risen half a point, and had then sat till bed-time doing
nothing whatever, a habit to which he was not generally addicted.
He was seated in his office next morning and was in fact on the point of
leaving for his bathe, for this hot genial June was marching on its sunny
way uninterrupted by winds or rain, when Mr. Timmins, after discreetly
tapping, entered, and closed the door behind him.
"Mr. Morris Assheton, sir, to see you," he said. "I said I would find
out if you were disengaged, and could hardly restrain him from coming in
with me. The young gentleman seems very excited and agitated. Hardly
"Indeed, show him in," said Mr. Taynton.
A moment afterward the door burst open and banged to again behind Morris.
High colour flamed in his face, his black eyes sparkled with vivid
dangerous light, and he had no salutation for his old friend.
"I've come on a very unpleasant business," he said, his voice not
Mr. Taynton got up. He had only had one moment of preparation and he
thought, at any rate, that he knew for certain what this unpleasant
business must be. Evidently Mills had given him away. For what reason he
had done so he could not guess; after his experience of yesterday it
might have been from pure devilry, or again he might have feared that in
desperation, Taynton would take that extreme step of prosecuting him for
blackmail. But, for that moment Taynton believed that Morris's agitation
must be caused by this, and it says much for the iron of his nerve that
he did not betray himself by a tremor.
"My dear Morris," he said, "I must ask you to pull yourself together. You
are out of your own control. Sit down, please, and be silent for a
minute. Then tell me calmly what is the matter."
Morris sat down as he was told, but the calmness was not conspicuous.
"Calm?" he said. "Would you be calm in my circumstances, do you think?"
"You have not yet told me what they are," said Mr. Taynton.
"I've just seen Madge Templeton," he said. "I met her privately by
appointment. And she told me--she told me--"
Master of himself though he was, Mr. Taynton had one moment of
physical giddiness, so complete and sudden was the revulsion and
reaction that took place in his brain. A moment before he had known,
he thought, for certain that his own utter ruin was imminent. Now he
knew that it was not that, and though he had made one wrong conjecture
as to what the unpleasant business was, he did not think that his
second guess was far astray.
"Take your time, Morris," he said. "And, my dear boy, try to calm
yourself. You say I should not be calm in your circumstances. Perhaps I
should not, but I should make an effort. Tell me everything slowly,
This speech, combined with the authoritative personality of Mr. Taynton,
had an extraordinary effect on Morris. He sat quiet a moment or two,
"Yes, you are quite right," he said, "and after all I have only
conjecture to go on yet, and I have been behaving as if it was proved
truth. God! if it is proved to be true, though, I'll expose him,
I'll--I'll horsewhip him, I'll murder him!"
Mr. Taynton slapped the table with his open hand.
"Now, Morris, none of these wild words," he said. "I will not listen to
you for a moment, if you do not control yourself."
Once again, and this time more permanently the man's authority
asserted itself. Morris again sat silent for a time, then spoke evenly
"Two nights ago you were dining with us," he said, "and Madge was there.
Do you remember my asking her if I might come to see them, and she said
she and her mother would be out all day?"
"Yes; I remember perfectly," said Mr. Taynton.
"Well, yesterday afternoon I was motoring by the park, and I saw Madge
sitting on the lawn. I stopped the motor and watched. She sat there for
nearly an hour, and then Sir Richard came out of the house and they
walked up and down the lawn together."
"Ah, you must have been mistaken," said Mr. Taynton. "I know the spot you
mean on the road, where you can see the lawn, but it's half a mile off.
It must have been some friend of hers perhaps staying in the house."
Morris shook his head.
"I was not mistaken," he said. "For yesterday evening I got a note from
her, saying she had posted it secretly, but that she must see me, though
she was forbidden to do so, or to hold any communication with me."
"Forbidden?" ejaculated Mr. Taynton.
"Yes, forbidden. Well, this morning I went to the place she named,
outside on the downs beyond the park gate and saw her. Somebody has been
telling vile lies about me to her father. I think I know who it is."
Mr. Taynton held up his hand.
"Stop," he said, "let us have your conjecture afterward. Tell me first
not what you guess, but what happened. Arrange it all in your mind, tell
it me as connectedly as you can."
Morris paused a moment.
"Well, I met Madge as I told you, and this was her story. Three days ago
she and her father and mother were at lunch, and they had been talking in
the most friendly way about me, and it was arranged to ask me to spend
all yesterday with them. Madge, as you know, the next night was dining
with us, and it was agreed that she should ask me verbally. After lunch
she and her father went out riding, and when they returned they found
that your partner Mills, had come to call. He stayed for tea, and after
tea had a talk alone with Sir Richard, while she and her mother sat out
on the lawn. Soon after he had gone, Sir Richard sent for Lady Templeton,
and it was nearly dressing-time when she left him again. She noticed at
dinner that both her father and mother seemed very grave, and when Madge
went up to bed, her mother said that perhaps they had better not ask me
over, as there was some thought of their being away all day. Also if I
suggested coming over, when Madge dined with us, she was to give that
excuse. That was all she was told for the time being."
Morris paused again.
"You are telling this very clearly and well, my dear boy," said the
lawyer, very gravely and kindly.
"It is so simple," said he with a biting emphasis. "Then next morning
after breakfast her father sent for her. He told her that they had
learned certain things about me which made them think it better not to
see any more of me. What they were, she was not told, but, I was not, it
appeared, the sort of person with whom they chose to associate. Now,
before God, those things that they were told, whatever they were, were
lies. I lead a straight and sober life."
Mr. Taynton was attending very closely.
"Thank God, Madge did not believe a word of it," said Morris, his face
suddenly flushing, "and like a brick, and a true friend she wrote at once
to me, as I said, in order to tell me all this. We talked over, too, who
it could have been who had said these vile things to her father. There
was only one person who could. She had ridden with her father till
tea-time. Then came your partner. Sir Richard saw nobody else; nobody
else called that afternoon; no post came in."
Mr. Taynton had sprung up and was walking up and down the room in great
"I can't believe that," he said. "There must be some other explanation.
Godfrey Mills say those things about you! It is incredible. My dear boy,
until it is proved, you really must not let yourself believe that to be
possible. You can't believe such wickedness against a man, one, too, whom
I have known and trusted for years, on no evidence. There is no direct
evidence yet. Let us leave that alone for the moment. What are you going
to do now?"
"I came here to see him," said Morris. "But I am told he is away. So I
thought it better to tell you."
"Yes, quite right. And what else?"
"I have written to Sir Richard, demanding, in common justice, that he
should see me, should tell me what he has heard against me, and who told
him. I don't think he will refuse. I don't see how he can refuse. I have
asked him to see me to-morrow afternoon."
Mr. Taynton mentally examined this in all its bearings. Apparently it
"You have acted wisely and providently," he said. "But I want to beg you,
until you have definite information, to forbear from thinking that my
dear Mills could conceivably have been the originator of these scandalous
tales, tales which I know from my knowledge of you are impossible to be
true. From what I know of him, however, it is impossible he could have
said such things. I cannot believe him capable of a mean or deceitful
action, and that he should be guilty of such unfathomable iniquity is
simply out of the question. You must assume him innocent till his guilt
"But who else could it have been?" cried Morris, his voice rising again.
"It could not have been he," said Taynton firmly.
There was a long silence; then Morris rose.
"There is one thing more," he said, "which is the most important of all.
This foul scandal about me, of course, I know will be cleared up, and I
shall be competent to deal with the offender. But--but Madge and I said
other things to each other. I told her what I told you, that I loved her.
And she loves me."
The sternness, the trouble, the anxiety all melted from Mr.
"Ah, my dear fellow, my dear fellow," he said with outstretched hands.
"Thank you for telling me. I am delighted, overjoyed, and indeed, as you
say, that is far more important than anything else. My dear Morris, and
is not your mother charmed?"
Morris shook his head.
"I have not told her yet, and I shall not till this is cleared up. It is
her birthday the day after to-morrow; perhaps I shall be able to tell
"I must go," he said. "And I will do all I can to keep my mind off
accusing him, until I know. But when I think of it, I see red."
Mr. Taynton patted his shoulder affectionately.
"I should have thought that you had got something to think about, which
would make it easy for you to prevent your thoughts straying
elsewhere," he said.
"I shall need all the distractions I can get," said Morris rather grimly.
* * * * *
Morris walked quickly back along the sea front toward Sussex Square, and
remembered as he went that he had not yet bought any gift for his mother
on her birthday. There was something, too, which she had casually said a
day or two ago that she wanted, what was it? Ah, yes, a new blotting-book
for her writing-table in the drawing-room. The shop she habitually dealt
at for such things, a branch of Asprey's, was only a few yards farther
on, and he turned in to make inquiries as to whether she had ordered it.
It appeared that she had been in that very morning, but the parcel had
not been sent yet. So Morris, taking the responsibility on himself,
counterordered the plain red morocco book she had chosen, and chose
another, with fine silver scrollwork at the corners. He ordered, too,
that a silver lettered inscription should be put on it. "H.A. from M.A."
with the date, two days ahead, "June 24th, l905." This he gave
instructions should be sent to the house on the morning of June 24th, the
day after to-morrow. He wished it to be sent so as to arrive with the
early post on that morning.
* * * * *
The promise which Morris had made his old friend not to let his thoughts
dwell on suspicion and conjecture as yet uncertain of foundation was one
of those promises which are made in absolute good faith, but which in
their very nature cannot be kept. The thought of the hideous treachery,
the gratuitous falsehood, of which, in his mind, he felt convinced
Godfrey Mills had been guilty was like blood soaking through a bandage.
All that he could do was to continue putting on fresh bandages--that was
all of his promise that he was able to fulfill, and in spite of the
bandages the blood stained and soaked its way through. In the afternoon
he took out the motor, but his joy in it for the time was dead, and it
was only because in the sense of pace and swift movement he hoped to find
a narcotic to thought, that he went out at all. But there was no narcotic
there, nor even in the thought of this huge joy of love that had dawned
on him was there forgetfulness for all else, joy and sorrow and love,
were for the present separated from him by these hideous and libellous
things that had been said about him. Until they were removed, until they
passed into non-existence again, nothing had any significance for him.
Everything was coloured with them; bitterness as of blood tinged
everything. Hours, too, must pass before they could be removed; this long
midsummer day had to draw to its end, night had to pass; the hour of
early dawn, the long morning had to be numbered with the past before he
could even learn who was responsible for this poisoned tale.
And when he learned, or rather when his conjecture was confirmed as to
who it was (for his supposition was conjecture in the sense that it only
wanted the actual seal of reality on it) what should he do next? Or
rather what must he do next? He felt that when he knew absolutely for
certain who had said this about him, a force of indignation and hatred,
which at present he kept chained up, must infallibly break its chain, and
become merely a wild beast let loose. He felt he would be no longer
responsible for what he did, something had to happen; something more than
mere apology or retraction of words. To lie and slander like that was a
crime, an insult against human and divine justice. It would be nothing
for the criminal to say he was sorry; he had to be punished. A man who
did that was not fit to live; he was a man no longer, he was a biting,
poisonous reptile, who for the sake of the community must be expunged.
Yet human justice which hanged people for violent crimes committed under
great provocation, dealt more lightly with this far more devilish thing,
a crime committed coldly and calculatingly, that had planned not the mere
death of his body, but the disgrace and death of his character. Godfrey
Mills--he checked the word and added to himself "if it was he"--had
morally tried to kill him.
Morris, after his interview that morning with Mr. Taynton, had lunched
alone in Sussex Square, his mother having gone that day up to London for
two nights. His plan had been to go up with her, but he had excused
himself on the plea of business with his trustees, and she had gone
alone. Directly after lunch he had taken the motor out, and had whirled
along the coast road, past Rottingdean through Newhaven and Seaford, and
ten miles farther until the suburbs of Eastbourne had begun. There he
turned, his thoughts still running a mill-race in his head, and retracing
his road had by now come back to within a mile of Brighton again. The sun
gilded the smooth channel, the winds were still, the hot midsummer
afternoon lay heavy on the land. Then he stopped the motor and got out,
telling Martin to wait there.
He walked over the strip of velvety down grass to the edge of the white
cliffs, and there sat down. The sea below him whispered and crawled,
above the sun was the sole tenant of the sky, and east and west the down
was empty of passengers. He, like his soul, was alone, and alone he had
to think these things out.
Yes, this liar and slanderer, whoever he was, had tried to kill him. The
attempt had been well-planned too, for the chances had been a thousand to
one in favour of the murderer. But the one chance had turned up, Madge
had loved him, and she had been brave, setting at defiance the order of
her father, and had seen him secretly, and told him all the circumstances
of this attack on him. But supposing she had been just a shade less
brave, supposing her filial obedience had weighed an ounce heavier? Then
he would never have known anything about it. The result would simply have
been, as it was meant to be, that the Templetons were out when he called.
There would have been a change of subject in their rooms when his name
was mentioned, other people would have vaguely gathered that Mr. Morris
Assheton's name was not productive of animated conversation; their
gatherings would have spread further, while he himself, ignorant of all
cause, would have encountered cold shoulders.
Morris's hands clutched at the short down grass, tearing it up and
scattering it. He was helpless, too, unless he took the law into his own
hands. It would do no good, young as he was, he knew that, to bring any
action for defamation of character, since the world only says, if a man
justifies himself by the only legal means in his power, "There must have
been something in it, since it was said!" No legal remedy, no fines or,
even imprisonment, far less apology and retraction satisfied justice.
There were only two courses open: one to regard the slander as a splash
of mud thrown by some vile thing that sat in the gutter, and simply
ignore it; the other to do something himself, to strike, to hit, with his
bodily hands, whatever the result of his violence was.
He felt his shoulder-muscles rise and brace themselves at the thought,
all the strength and violence of his young manhood, with its firm sinews
and supple joints, told him that it was his willing and active servant
and would do his pleasure. He wanted to smash the jaw bone that had
formed these lies, and he wanted the world to know he had done so. Yet
that was not enough, he wanted to throttle the throat from which the
words had come; the man ought to be killed; it was right to kill him just
as it was right to kill a poisonous snake that somehow disguised itself
as a man, and was received into the houses of men.
Indeed, should Morris be told, as he felt sure he would be, who his
slanderer and defamer was, that gentleman would be wise to keep out of
his way with him in such a mood. There was danger and death abroad on
this calm hot summer afternoon.
It was about four o'clock on the afternoon of the following day, and Mr.
Taynton was prolonging his hour of quietude after lunch, and encroaching
thereby into the time he daily dedicated to exercise. It was but seldom
that he broke into the routine of habits so long formed, and indeed the
most violent rain or snow of winter, the most cutting easterly blasts of
March, never, unless he had some definite bodily ailment, kept him
indoors or deprived him of his brisk health-giving trudge over the downs
or along the sea front. But occasionally when the weather was unusually
hot, he granted himself the indulgence of sitting still instead of
walking, and certainly to-day the least lenient judge might say that
there were strong extenuating circumstances in his favour. For the heat
of the past week had been piling itself up, like the heaped waters of
flood and this afternoon was intense in its heat, its stillness and
sultriness. It had been sunless all day, and all day the blanket of
clouds that beset the sky had been gathering themselves into blacker and
more ill-omened density. There would certainly be a thunderstorm before
morning, and the approach of it made Mr. Taynton feel that he really had
not the energy to walk. By and by perhaps he might be tempted to go in
quest of coolness along the sea front, or perhaps later in the evening he
might, as he sometimes did, take a carriage up on to the downs, and come
gently home to a late supper. He would have time for that to-day, for
according to arrangement his partner was to drop in about half past nine
that evening. If he got back at nine, supposing he went at all, he would
have time to have some food before receiving him.
He sat in a pleasant parquetted room looking out into the small square
garden at the back of his house in Montpellier Road. Big awnings
stretched from the window over the broad gravel path outside, and in
spite of the excessive heat the room was full of dim coolness. There was
but little furniture in it, and it presented the strongest possible
contrast to the appointments of his partner's flat with its heavy
decorations, its somewhat gross luxury. A few water-colours hung on the
white walls, a few Persian rugs strewed the floor, a big bookcase with
china on the top filled one end of the room, his writing-table, a half
dozen of Chippendale chairs, and the chintz-covered sofa where he now lay
practically completed the inventory of the room. Three or four bronzes, a
Narcissus, a fifteenth-century Italian St. Francis, and a couple of
Greek reproductions stood on the chimney-piece, but the whole room
breathed an atmosphere of aesthetic asceticism.
Since lunch Mr. Taynton had glanced at the paper, and also looked up the
trains from Lewes in order to assure himself that he need not expect his
partner till half past nine, and since then, though his hands and his
eyes had been idle, his mind had been very busy. Yet for all its
business, he had not arrived at much. Morris, Godfrey Mills, and himself;
he had placed these three figures in all sorts of positions in his mind,
and yet every combination of them was somehow terrible and menacing. Try
as he would he could not construct a peaceful or secure arrangement of
them. In whatever way he grouped them there was danger.
The kitchen passage ran out at right angles to the room in which he sat,
and formed one side of the garden. The windows in it were high up, so
that it did not overlook the flowerbeds, and on this torrid afternoon
they were all fully open. Suddenly from just inside came the fierce
clanging peal of a bell, which made him start from his recumbent
position. It was the front-door bell, as he knew, and as it continued
ringing as if a maniac's grip was on the handle, he heard the steps of
his servant running along the stone floor of the passage to see what
imperative summons this was. Then, as the front door was opened, the bell
ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and the moment afterward he heard
Morris's voice shrill and commanding.
"But he has got to see me," he cried, "What's the use of you going to ask
if he will?"
Mr. Taynton went to the door of his room which opened into the hall.
"Come in, Morris," he said.
Though it had been Morris's hand which had raised so uncontrolled a
clamour, and his voice that just now had been so uncontrolled, there was
no sign, when the door of Mr. Taynton's room had closed behind them, that
there was any excitement of any sort raging within him. He sat down at
once in a chair opposite the window, and Mr. Taynton saw that in spite of
the heat of the day and the violence of that storm which he knew was
yelling and screaming through his brain, his face was absolutely white.
He sat with his hands on the arms of the Chippendale chair, and they too
were quite still.
"I have seen Sir Richard," said he, "and I came back at once to see you.
He has told me everything. Godfrey Mills has been lying about me and
Mr. Taynton sat down heavily on the sofa.
"No, no; don't say it, don't say it," he murmured. "It can't be true, I
can't believe it."
"But it is true, and you have got to believe it. He suggested that you
should go and talk it over with him. I will drive you up in the car, if
Mr. Taynton waved his hand with a negative gesture.
"No, no, not at once," he cried. "I must think it over. I must get used
to this dreadful, this appalling shock. I am utterly distraught."
Morris turned to him, and across his face for one moment there shot,
swift as a lightning-flash, a quiver of rage so rabid that he looked
scarcely human, but like some Greek presentment of the Furies or Revenge.
Never, so thought his old friend, had he seen such glorious youthful
beauty so instinct and inspired with hate. It was the demoniacal force of
that which lent such splendour to it. But it passed in a second, and
Morris still very pale, very quiet spoke to him.
"Where is he?" he asked. "I must see him at once. It won't keep."
Then he sprang up, his rage again mastering him.
"What shall I do it with?" he said. "What shall I do it with?"
For the moment Mr. Taynton forgot himself and his anxieties.
"Morris, you don't know what you are saying," he cried. "Thank God nobody
but me heard you say that!"
Morris seemed not to be attending.
"Where is he?" he said again, "are you concealing him here? I have
already been to your office, and he wasn't there, and to his flat, and he
"Thank God," ejaculated the lawyer.
"By all means if you like. But I've got to see him, you know.
Where is he?"
"He is away in town," said Mr. Taynton, "but he will be back to-night.
Now attend. Of course you must see him, I quite understand that. But you
mustn't see him alone, while you are like this."
"No, I don't want to," said Morris. "I should like other people to see
what I've got to--to say to him--that, that partner of yours."
"He has from this moment ceased to be my partner," said Mr. Taynton
brokenly. "I could never again sign what he has signed, or work with
him, or--or--except once--see him again. He is coming here by
appointment at half-past nine. Suppose that we all meet here. We have
both got to see him."
Morris nodded and went toward the door. A sudden spasm of anxiety seemed
to seize Mr. Taynton.
"What are you going to do now?" he asked.
"I don't know. Drive to Falmer Park perhaps, and tell Sir Richard you
cannot see him immediately. Will you see him to-morrow?"
"Yes, I will call to-morrow morning. Morris, promise me you will do
nothing rash, nothing that will bring sorrow on all those who love you."
"I shall bring a little sorrow on a man who hates me," said he.
He went out, and Mr. Taynton sat down again, his mouth compressed into
hard lines, his forehead heavily frowning. He could not permanently
prevent Morris from meeting Godfrey Mills, besides, it was his right to
do so, yet how fraught with awful risks to himself that meeting would be!
Morris might easily make a violent, even a murderous, assault on the man,
but Mills was an expert boxer and wrestler, science would probably get
the upper hand of blind rage. But how deadly a weapon Mills had in store
against himself; he would certainly tell Morris that if one partner had
slandered him the other, whom he so trusted and revered, had robbed him;
he would say, too, that Taynton had been cognizant of, and had approved,
his slanders. There was no end to the ruin that would certainly be
brought about his head if they met. Mills's train, too, would have left
London by now; there was no chance of stopping him. Then there was
another danger he had not foreseen, and it was too late to stop that now.
Morris was going again to Falmer Park, had indeed started, and that
afternoon Godfrey Mills would get out of the train, as he had planned, at
the station just below, and walk back over the downs to Brighton. What if
they met there, alone?
For an hour perhaps Mr. Taynton delved at these problems, and at the end
even it did not seem as if he had solved them satisfactorily, for when
he went out of his house, as he did at the end of this time to get a
little breeze if such was obtainable, his face was still shadowed and
overclouded. Overclouded too was the sky, and as he stepped out into the
street from his garden-room the hot air struck him like a buffet; and in
his troubled and apprehensive mood it felt as if some hot hand warned him
by a blow not to venture out of his house. But the house, somehow, in the
last hour had become terrible to him, any movement or action, even on a
day like this, when only madmen and the English go abroad, was better
than the nervous waiting in his darkened room. Dreadful forces, forces of
ruin and murder and disgrace, were abroad in the world of men; the menace
of the low black clouds and stifling heat was more bearable. He wanted to
get away from his house, which was permeated and soaked in association
with the other two actors, who in company with himself, had surely some
tragedy for which the curtain was already rung up. Some dreadful scene
was already prepared for them; the setting and stage were ready, the
prompter, and who was he? was in the box ready to tell them the next line
if any of them faltered. The prompter, surely he was destiny, fate, the
irresistible course of events, with which no man can struggle, any more
than the actor can struggle with or alter the lines that are set down for
him. He may mumble them, he may act dispiritedly and tamely, but he has
undertaken a certain part; he has to go through with it.
Though it was a populous hour of the day, there were but few people
abroad when Mr. Taynton came out to the sea front; a few cabs stood by
the railings that bounded the broad asphalt path which faced the sea, but
the drivers of these, despairing of fares, were for the most part dozing
on the boxes, or with a more set purpose were frankly slumbering in the
interior. The dismal little wooden shelters that punctuated the parade
were deserted, the pier stretched an untenanted length of boards over the
still, lead-coloured sea, and it seemed as if nature herself was waiting
for some elemental catastrophe.
And though the afternoon was of such hideous and sultry heat, Mr.
Taynton, though he walked somewhat more briskly than his wont, was
conscious of no genial heat that produced perspiration, and the natural
reaction and cooling of the skin. Some internal excitement and fever of
the brain cut off all external things; the loneliness, the want of
correspondence that fever brings between external and internal
conditions, was on him. At one moment, in spite of the heat, he
shivered, at another he felt that an apoplexy must strike him.
For some half hour he walked to and fro along the sea-wall, between the
blackness of the sky and the lead-coloured water, and then his thoughts
turned to the downs above this stricken place, where, even in the
sultriest days some breath of wind was always moving. Just opposite him,
on the other side of the road, was the street that led steeply upward to
the station. He went up it.
* * * * *
It was about half-past seven o'clock that evening that the storm burst. A
few huge drops of rain fell on the hot pavements, then the rain ceased
again, and the big splashes dried, as if the stones had been blotting
paper that sucked the moisture in. Then without other warning a streamer
of fire split the steeple of St. Agnes's Church, just opposite Mr.
Taynton's house, and the crash of thunder answered it more quickly than
his servant had run to open the door to Morris's furious ringing of the
bell. At that the sluices of heaven were opened, and heaven's artillery
thundered its salvoes to the flare of the reckless storm. In the next
half-hour a dozen houses in Brighton were struck, while the choked
gutters overflowing on to the streets made ravines and waterways down the
roadways. Then the thunder and lightning ceased, but the rain still
poured down relentlessly and windlessly, a flood of perpendicular water.
Mr. Taynton had gone out without umbrella, and when he let himself in by
his latch-key at his own house-door about half-past eight, it was no
wonder that he wrung out his coat and trousers so that he should not soak
his Persian rugs. But from him, as from the charged skies, some tension
had passed; this tempest which had so cooled the air and restored the
equilibrium of its forces had smoothed the frowning creases of his brow,
and when the servant hurried up at the sound of the banged front-door, he
found his master soaked indeed, but serene.
"Yes, I got caught by the storm, Williams," he said, "and I am drenched.
The lightning was terrific, was it not? I will just change, and have a
little supper; some cold meat, anything that there is. Yes, you might
take my coat at once."
He divested himself of this.
"And I expect Mr. Morris this evening," he said. "He will probably have
dined, but if not I am sure Mrs. Otter will toss up a hot dish for him.
Oh, yes, and Mr. Mills will be here at half-past nine, or even sooner, as
I cannot think he will have walked from Falmer as he intended. But
whenever he comes, I will see him. He has not been here already?"
"No, sir," said Williams, "Will you have a hot bath, sir?"
"No, I will just change. How battered the poor garden will look tomorrow
after this deluge."
* * * * *
Mr. Taynton changed his wet clothes and half an hour afterwards he sat
down to his simple and excellent supper. Mrs. Otter had provided an
admirable vegetable soup for him, and some cold lamb with asparagus and
endive salad. A macedoine of strawberries followed and a scoop of cheese.
Simple as his fare was, it just suited Mr. Taynton's tastes, and he was
indulging himself with the rather rare luxury of a third glass of port
when Williams entered again.
"Mr. Assheton," he said, and held the door open.
Morris came in; he was dressed in evening clothes with a dinner jacket,
and gave no salutation to his host.
"He's not come yet?" he asked.
But his host sprang up.
"Dear boy," he said, "what a relief it is to see you. Ever since you left
this afternoon I have had you on my mind. You will have a glass of port?"
Morris laughed, a curious jangling laugh.
"Oh yes, to drink his health," he said.
He sat down with a jerk, and leaned his elbows on the table.
"He'll want a lot of health to carry him through this, won't he?" he
He drank his glass of port like water, and Mr. Taynton instantly filled
it up again for him.
"Ah, I remember you don't like port," he said. "What else can I
"Oh, this will do very well," said Morris. "I am so thirsty."
"You have dined?" asked his host quietly.
"No; I don't think I did. I wasn't hungry."
The Cromwellian clock chimed a remnant half hour.
"Half-past," said Morris, filling his glass again. "You expect him then,
"Mills is not always very punctual," said Mr. Taynton.
For the next quarter of an hour the two sat with hardly the interchange
of a word. From outside came the swift steady hiss of the rain on to
the shrubs in the garden, and again the clock chimed. Morris who at
first had sat very quiet had begun to fidget and stir in his chair;
occasionally when he happened to notice it, he drank off the port with
which Mr. Taynton hospitably kept his glass supplied. Sometimes he
relit a cigarette only to let it go out again. But when the clock
struck he got up.
"I wonder what has happened," he said. "Can he have missed his train?
What time ought he to have got in?"
"He was to have got to Falmer," said Mr. Taynton with a little
emphasis on the last word, "at a quarter to seven. He spoke of walking
Morris looked at him with a furtive sidelong glance.
"Why, I--I might have met him there," he said. "I went up there again
after I left you to tell Sir Richard you would call to-morrow."
"You saw nothing of him?" asked the lawyer.
"No, of course not. Otherwise--There was scarcely a soul on the road; the
storm was coming up. But he would go by the downs, would he not?"
"The path over the downs doesn't branch off for a quarter of a mile below
Falmer station," said Mr. Taynton.
The minutes ticked on till ten. Then Morris went to the door.
"I shall go round to his rooms to see if he is there," he said.
"There is no need," said his host, "I will telephone."
The instrument hung in a corner of the room, and with very little delay,
Mills's servant was rung up. His master had not yet returned, but he had
said that he should very likely be late.
"And he made an appointment with you for half-past nine?" asked
"Yes. I cannot think what has happened to detain him."
Morris went quickly to the door again.
"I believe it is all a trick," he said, "and you don't want me to meet
him. I believe he is in his rooms the whole time. I shall go and see."
Before Mr. Taynton could stop him he had opened the front-door and banged
it behind him, and was off hatless and coatless through the pouring
Mr. Taynton ran to the door, as if to stop him, but Morris was already
halfway down the street, and he went upstairs to the drawing-room. Morris
was altogether unlike himself; this discovery of Mills's treachery seemed
to have changed his nature. Violent and quick he always was, but to-night
he was suspicious, he seemed to distrust Mr. Taynton himself. And, a
thing which his host had never known him do before, he had drunk in that
half hour when they sat waiting, close on a bottle of port.
The evening paper lay ready cut for him in its accustomed place, but for