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Chapter X A Proud Moment

WHEN Heans reached his attic that night, he found Mrs. Quaid waiting, wild and tragical, among the classic furniture. She handed him a letter which she said had been left two hours previous by what she described as “a garringson gentleman in a cloak.” “Bad news or good,” she said, “I would not let him past the door, especially as he seemed undecided in his purposes. He spoke amiable however. Presently he asked if he might sit a bit ‘in Sir William's room,’ and I showed him into Mr. Boxley's sitting-room, where I left him staring at the ancient Almanacs. At last he summoned me and said he was afraid he could not wait, but left a message that he would be in the Private Secketry's Office at Government House on Monday morning, if Sir William Heans would be pleased to call.”

Heans approached the hooded windows with the letter. Mrs. Quaid removed her doubting old face through the doorway. The gusts were huddling past the dormers, and an old prisoner in grey hobbled across the street below, with his head bowed to meet them. A dull evening was closing in. There was a remote noise of hoofs, and a stout man in a caped overcoat, with a singularly rough, sly face and a small chimney-pot on his head, rode down the street, slopping forward in his saddle, and staring about him at the houses with wide, short-sighted eyes. Sir William, as he opened the letter in his hand, saw this fellow twitch his heavy horse about and come slowly back up the street.

The letter was headed Government House, May 4th, 1840. It said kindly that “Lady Franklin, hearing from Mrs. Hyde-Shaxton that he was a relation of old Miss Gairdener, whom she knew for a famous old blue, wished to know whether Sir William Heans were interested sufficiently in poetry and literature to aid them in the noble task of forming a Circulating Library for the industrial classes. Our humble friends,” she went on, “have so little chance of reading the nobler forms of literature, and so few suitable places in which to gratify the pastime, that several gentlemen and ladies have banded together to erect a reading room, and have already prevailed on mutual friends in the Old Country to provide suitable volumes. Half the funds for the building and sixty books are already at our disposal. Lady

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Franklin would be glad to know whether Sir William Heans, if proposed and elected, would accept the position of Secretary to the project and Treasurer of the funds. She wishes to be informed at an early date.”

A somewhat satirical look passed over Heans' pale face, and, as he stood by the attic window, he let the letter flutter from his hand to the floor. He saw the rough fellow stop in the drab street beneath him and dismount, with his capes flapping about his head. Heans snatched away his eyes. Far down through a vista of roofs the grey water slopped about a black pier.

He dropped an eyeglass from a pallid eye.

Then lifting the pale blue letter, with its lavender writing, from the boards, with his first and middle finger, he seated himself at the chest of drawers which did him for an escritoire, and ‘nibbing’ a quill, began to flourish off an epistle with the graceful elaboration of the beautiful hand of the day.

“Sir William Heans with his duty to Lady Franklin, and begs to reply that he will be pleased to offer his services for the position of Secretary if Her Excellency wishes it and those interested elect him. He thanks Lady Franklin for her kindness, and is prepared to further the project with such address and energy as he possesses.” (Gently swinging his eyeglass by its gold chain, Sir William looked away. His fire ducked under a gust and puffed smoke into the room. The fastenings of the blistered windows smacked taut and held. The rafters rattled above his head. His face slowly fell to a deep despair.) “Sir William Heans,” he suddenly flourished on, “will be very pleased to wait upon the Society.”

Again he stopped, and slowly erased a sentence. He rose, and there was a look in his white, tired eyes almost of panic. His fine face seemed to have crumbled. He drew a deep breath and put his eyeglass carefully back in his eye. Perhaps he thought he was growing too servile under the Hobarton weather—too eager in his attic—too hopeless in his great hope. Or was he possibly lying too well for his erection of a gentleman——?

Hurrying steps creaked on the stairs outside his door, and Mrs. Quaid knocked and put her head in. Her eyes were grim and dark. “A bearded gentleman,” she said, “is asking for you, sir. I can't make him out. He says he can offer Sir William Heans a service, if he will see him. But there's something about his face, sir, that I remember seeing. Do you know, sir, I don't think he's——”

“What is this?” said Sir William, with his face but half turned to the stairway.

“Why, sir, I've seen the man in uglier clothes than black—I'm certain about that.”

“Is this—tut—tut—is the man a prison-incorrigible?”

“No, sir. But the airs of the person. He's dressed up like a long-coater, but gives himself too many airs.”

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“Is it one of the policemen——?”

“No, sir, I've seen him once in a prison uniform.”

“You've seen him in the prison uniform! Aren't you mistaken?”

“No, sir. It's his short-sight I go by and his legs: a dangerous sort of man.”

“That would be some time back?”

“Fifteen years—perhaps. He must have made money. Oho dear!”

“He doesn't know you?”

“No,” she said, and cracked out wanly: “he doesn't know me no longer!”

“You had better show him up,” said Sir William. “Say ‘Sir William Heans will see you.’” (He returned and took his seat with a certain ceremonious abstraction at the chest of drawers, lifting and reperusing the letter of debate.) “This is highly extraordinary,” he muttered.

Mrs. Quaid disappeared, and presently there was a sound of heavy breathing on the stairs. A small, stout man in oiled jack-boots and Benjamin overcoat, with a thin growth of black-brown beard about a broad chin, hobbled into the room, his legs bowed as with too much riding. He held a whip and a small chimneypot before him on his stomach (it was a large, ornate whip, covered with much silver), and looked about with sly, blindish eyes. Detecting Sir William near the escritoire, he stopped, and said in a shrill voice, “I've found you, have I? S'cat, what a world! Aha” (looking about him as he shook his coat from his arm)—“so this is where Sir William Heans—lives.”

“Thank you,” said Heans, looking up rather testily, “it is. I did not catch the name.”

“Oughtryn—Charles Oughtryn—d—n it, honour, can't I put my hat down?” He went searching about for a chair. He seemed half blind.

Heans came forward, took the curious article, and deposited it with ceremony upon the escritoire. The other unbuttoned his cloak, disclosing a fine, over-long frock-coat, many-buttoned and tight-sleeved. He sat down slowly and somewhat carefully on a dilapidated sofa.

“Gentlefolk—gentlefolk! in such conditions!” he shrilled. “Well—well! I remember when I would have thought this a penny heaven. But see what uprightness has brought me to. I can sneer at you, Sir William Heans.”

“Can you?” said Heans, nodding at his letter. “Well?”

“Well, honour—I know all about you—but you don't know about me. I say that with all the satisfaction of the vengeful devil I am. Ha, what a mess your blood has brought you to—I suppose you say it's your blood!”

Sir William stared at him for a while. “By Heaven,” he said,

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laughing a little, “you are a rude creature! Have you brought me some better news from the—Penitentiary?”

“Uh, the old scold told you that! A vulgar passionate person—I remember her in mutch and duffle. I see through her. I've a daughter now—but no wife. Look, honour” (with a shrill heave), “I've seen you at Fraser's, and on your pleasure-horse. I know all about you. You're ginned. You haven't got a chance. I've been waiting till you reached low enough for me to offer you a service.”

Sir William grunted just audibly. He was rather white and frowned a little.

“A singularly modest nature!” he said. “You're quite certain that it is—the moment?”

“If any one wants, he'd better move soon.”

“Even—the man known as Charles Oughtryn—you put it that way?”

“Yes—I want a gentleman for my business.”

“Devil take you, fellow!” burst out the other, breathlessly. “Get up! Take your gross figure from this room.”

The man rose from the box with a shrill cry.

“No, wait a moment,” he cried, stretching out a blind hand, “I'm before my time, perhaps. If you listen to me I'll be respectful. I have a farm at Bagdad, and a fine stone house in Macquarie Street. Money and sneers! I'm here about this child. She's a thin, young child, plain to look at, and it's my whim to see her brought up to ride and that in the company of a gentleman. She won't look at a horse yet, and is clumsy and blind. I want her made to take an interest. Now, need I explain to you, honour, any more what I came here to—to—offer you?”

There was a tense silence for a few moments while Sir William raised his despatch before him and continued to stare upon it. Presently he said with calmness, “No, you need not explain. I do not wish to hear anything further about you or your daughter.”

“Trust you!” said the man. “I know you gentlemen. You must have your feelings touched—the girl's as unpleasing as I am; it's no favour I'm asking. It's a sacrifice, dammee! Fancy a man asking that for his young child!”

Heans' face had softened a little. Before him was the letter to the Governor's lady, and he had taken up his pen and dipped it carefully in the ink, as if about to continue it. Indeed, his eye was half-consciously re-reading as the man spoke: “Sir William Heans with his duty to Lady Franklin——”

“They used to call me ‘Belial,’” said the convict, “so I call her ‘Abelia.’”

Heans began a kind of polite laughing.

“You make me very curious, Mr. Oughtryn,” with a sort of merciful irony, “as to the arrangements you may have formed

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for the acquiring of a luxury like myself. Forgive me for laughing.” (He suddenly bowed his head.) “I have so few jokes. I am at present in great demand. It is rather overwhelming. Let me initiate you into this letter on my desk here. I am asked by a lady, the wife of a high official, to become the organiser of a society charity. I am just now accepting this responsibility. This was gained for me by the efforts of an angelic soul, Mr. Oughtryn, a lady of great beauty and goodness. Had this not been done—and but for a private matter—I am not certain but that I would have accepted the care and instruction of your daughter.”

The man's beard trembled and he put up his hand and pulled at the yellow handkerchief which did duty for a neck-cloth. His eyes glared into Heans' face.

“Ah,” he cried, with an oath, “it's hopeless, is it? The child must go begging for her gentleman! I'll never get such another chance; you're ginned, for all your great ladies; and she—poor ignorant person—she'll remain the shrinkable chit she is.” He rose, and waddling forward to the escritoire, took the hat Sir William held towards him. The former rose kindly from his chair, with his quill in his fingers. The other turned and walked towards the door without saying anything. At the door he turned and looked back. “When the notables has done with you,” he said, in a small bitter voice, “and you go back to Fraser's, Charles Oughtryn will keep his sneering eyes to himself.”

The door banged upon him as if it would thrust him out, and his tread went heavily down. Again the sea-gusts huddled against the dormers. Sir William, with a somewhat ironical smile, returned to his escritoire. Even while the man was yet upon the stairs, he took up his letter of reply and slowly tore it into small pieces. He then began an answer in the negative. Presently Mrs. Quaid appeared, her anxious face lit by the soft beams of two home-made candles.