One Christmas Morn by Fabian Bell - HTML preview
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.
e was a fortunate man. Everybody said so, and what everybody says must be true. Young, handsome, rich; with no clogs to his wealth in the shape of awkward relations, poor or otherwise. No person very near to him in blood, to torture or to bless. No father, mother, sister, brother. He was emphatically his own master. Nor had he any of the heavy responsibilities which landed property in the Old Country always brings with it. He had no tenants to look after, no model cottages to plan, or model farms to work, on strictly approved principles. Nor was he haunted with any of those morbid fancies concerning the riches of the few and the poverty of the many which have made men willing to ‘sell all.' No, thank God! In these Colonies poverty, though real enough, is not yet so grinding as to make ease and plenty, by their mere contrast, an insult.
Cyril Horne was a fortunate man. Everyone said so, and for himself he never doubted it. Very easily, very lightly, very pleasantly had he passed through life up to the present time.
Nothing on which he had set his heart had ever been denied to him. Was it a friend's horse that he admired, a stiff price purchased the animal; a dog, a gun, ‘favour, observance, troops of friends' — all were his. And when, to crown all these, he wanted a woman's love — the love of the one woman on earth for whom his soul longed — it was surely not strange if he felt somewhat over-confident, and doubted not that this good thing also would be his for the asking.
But Nellie Francillon was not to be so easily won. Her voice shook and her heart beat cruelly when she said ‘No.' But the word was spoken with decision, and was no mere conventional excuse.
Cyril was annoyed.
‘Nellie, you are chaffing me — you don't mean it?'
‘I do, Cyril; please believe me. I like you very much as a friend, but — l cannot marry you.'
‘I cannot. Is not that enough?’
‘Certainly not. Look here, Nellie, I love you, and I'm pretty certain you return my love. Can you deny it?'
'That has nothing to do with the question.'
‘I beg your pardon; it has everything to do with it. I love you; you return my affection. I ask you to marry; you hesitate for a while in a becoming and lady-like manner. I press you; you consent. We marry, and live happily ever afterwards. Is not that the correct thing?’
'No, Cyril, no; I cannot, I will not marry you.'
‘Miss Francillon, you are rude.'
‘I do not intend to be so. Please take my answer, and go.'
‘What! Without a reason. I am at least entitled to know why I am so abruptly, so strangely refused. Give me your reason.'
‘I dare not.'
‘What absurd nonsense is this? What mad freak have you taken into your head? If you have a reason, give it; if not — but, as you can have no reason, you are merely tormenting me, and trying how far your power extends.’
‘Cyril, you do me an injustice. I wish you would accept my answer. Let us be friends, and no more.’ He waved his hand impatiently. ‘It is painful to me to give you my reasons, but if you insist —'
‘I do insist.’
And his handsome face clouded over, and a certain dogged expression drew down the corners of his mouth into very unamiable curves.
Nellie rose from her seat, with the restless movement of mental suffering, went to the window, and looked out, though without seeing any of the objects on which her eyes seemed bent, and then, passing her hand across her brow with a sudden swift movement returned to her seat, and with hands tightly clasped and face averted, said:
‘Cyril, you know that I am an orphan. Did you ever hear how my father died?'
‘He committed suicide — shot himself in a gambling-house.'
‘Oh, Nellie, my poor, dear girl! I had no idea of anything of the sort. If you knew how sorry I am. But that need make no difference between us, I assure you.'
‘Hush! You don't understand. Let me tell you all. My father was a rich man..He inherited a fine fortune from his mother, and he also inherited from his father a love of play. He was reckless, extravagant, and, above all, a gambler. He soon dissipated his mother's fortune, and then his godmother left him an ample competence, and that went in the same way. When I first remember him, he was a noble, soldierly-looking man — one whom any girl would have been proud to call father, any woman to point to as her husband; but, young as
I was, I remember well how he changed and deteriorated — how he lost his upright carriage, and began to slouch along like one who dares not face the world — how his eye grew wild and restless, and his lips and hands burned with constant fever. I remember, too, how we left our beautiful home and took a smaller house, and then one smaller and smaller still, until at last we found ourselves in a bare lodging. Worst of all, do I remember my mother's sufferings, and how she faded day by day. At last the crisis came.
‘For weeks my father had been steadily losing. He did not come home (we learned these particulars afterwards). He staked all that he had — the few coins in his pocket, his watch, and all his trinkets. Suddenly he bethought him of his wife's wedding-ring, which he had just caused to be altered, her finger having grown too slender to retain it. He risked that, and lost.
‘”There is nothing left for me now to stake except my life," he cried, wildly. "I stake that!"’
‘His opponent laughed, and accepted the bet. They played, and again my father lost. He took up a pistol lying near, put the muzzle to his forehead, and blew out his brains.
‘My mother never survived the sight of his mutilated body. She died in less than a month. I was only twelve years old when these events happened, but I can never forget them or my mother's dying words:
‘”Nellie, you are a child now, but you will be a woman someday. Never marry a gambler, or you will curse the day that you were born."
‘I promised her, and my words are binding as an oath. Besides, I dare not face a life of such misery as she endured. I am not a saint, as she was. I should go mad, curse God, and die!'
Overcome by her emotion, Nellie burst into a passionate fit of weeping.
Cyril stood beside her, strangely pale and disturbed.
‘Nellie, dear girl, why this emotion? You should not have told me this painful story. Why —‘
‘Oh, Cyril, do you think I have not watched you? Do you think I do not know that you, too, have this terrible taint — that you, too, are a gambler?'
'I deny it. I am fond of games of chance, and often stake a few pounds on the issue, but I am not a gambler.'
‘Not yet, perhaps; but the taint is in your nature, and if you do not struggle against it, you will certainly succumb to it. I have heard it said that your father was an inveterate gambler; that most of your present wealth is the result of successful speculation; and that, had he lived only a little longer, you might have been poor instead of rich. You, too, are notoriously fond of all games of chance. Cyril, I remember my mother's fate — l dare not marry you.'
‘Not if I promise never again to bet on any game of chance?'
‘Will you so promise?'
‘I would do more than that to please and win you, and indeed it will not cost me as much as you think. I have betted from mere idleness, and, because other fellows did so; I have no real love of play.'
So declared Cyril Horne; but he deceived himself, as so many of us do, not knowing how deeply rooted in his nature was the fatal inheritance, far more tenacious and abiding than that other inheritance for which all men envied him. And Nellie believed with that half-belief with which so many women reason against the instinct which warns them of danger, trying to silence by argument the warning voice that will be heard, and which is sure to revenge itself someday.
They were engaged; in due time the wedding-day was fixed.
For months Cyril had not played with cards or dice. If he went to a race, he was accompanied by Nellie and her friends, and he carefully eschewed the betting-ring.
‘You see, Nellie, I am not really a gambler.'
And Nellie flushed triumphant.
Why is it that all women — all the best of them at least — find such pleasure in the exercise of having power, and are never so well content as when employed in the task of reforming some recreant lover, so that, like the angels in heaven, ‘they rejoice more over one sinner that repenteth, than over the ninety-and-nine just persons that need no repentance’?
A month before the day fixed for his marriage Cyril joined a party of bachelor friends. The play ran high. For some time he refused to join, and then, imperceptibly at first, he was drawn into the vortex, declaring, however, that he would not play longer than a certain time, and risk more than a certain sum. Fortune favoured him, and the man who could have lost hundreds without feeling embarrassed began to win, and won steadily. His opponents were, with one exception, men of moderate means, who could afford to lose some pounds. The exception was a young man, a 'new chum,' who had not long come out from Home, and had only just obtained a situation in one of the banks. He was poor — how poor none but himself and his young wife knew, as none but themselves knew how often they had gone dinnerless and supperless to bed. The game was loo, and on the whole the luck was fluctuating; but Cyril Home won steadily, while Maurice Grey lost as perseveringly. One and another of the party urged Grey to leave off, 'he was so down on his luck,' but he would not; the terrible gambling fever had got into his blood. At every fresh deal illusive hopes lured him on; it was impossible but that 'the luck would change some time.' He had lost so much — he dared not think how much; but the luck must turn soon, and when he had retrieved his losses then he would stop — not before. And so he played on, until his boyish face was distorted with the eager, craving, restless greed and terror which is the portion of every gambler. To do him
justice, Cyril was willing to leave off, and proposed to do so once or twice; but, being the chief winner, he could not refuse to give Grey his 'revenge.' So they played on until the fair pure light of dawn shone through the closed blinds upon the haggard faces and bloodshot eyes of the young men, and some of those who had business to attend to declared that they must break up the party, and Maurice Grey, awaking from his short trance of madness, knew himself to be disgraced and ruined, Cyril held a bundle of I O U's in his hand, and carelessly mentioned the sum total. Had the amount been ten-fold greater it could not have been more unattainable. The loser changed colour, but brought a desperate kind of courage to his aid.
‘I have not so large a sum about me,' he said, quietly. 'I will pay it you tomorrow, when perhaps you will give me my revenge.'
Cyril consented unwillingly, for already his conscience reproached him for his broken promise, and he did not care to play again, but a false notion of honour compelled him.
On the second night Maurice Grey's losses were heavy, and again Cyril was the chief winner. The young clerk paid his debts of honour without flinching, but had there been one creature present who had cared to watch him, that man's heart would have ached to see the despairing expression of his bloodless face and anguish-drawn lips; but none noted these things at the time — afterwards they remembered them, and were grieved, but it was then too late.
Three days later Cyril Home read in the Daily Times that Maurice Grey was in prison, on a charge of embezzlement.
‘Someone wants to see you, Miss.’
‘To see me, Anne? Who is it?'
'I don't know, Miss; but she seems in trouble.'
This was an appeal to which Nellie Francillon never refused to respond. Young as she was, she had known mere than one severe trial, and the sympathy of fellow-feeling touched her quickly and keenly. She rose at once, and went into the hall.
'Did you want me? Please come in,'
A young woman, with pretty, delicate features — marred, however, by the signs of great weakness in the loose flexile mouth and pale eyes — stood timidly on the very edge of the mat.
‘Did you want me? Please come in,’ said Nellie, opening the door of a little morning-room.
The stranger followed, and again paused just within the door-way. She seemed in no hurry to speak, but twisted and untwisted her slender fingers in a restless, undecided way, and as Nellie looked she saw the great tears rise in her eyes and glide slowly down her cheeks. The sight moved the girl to great pity.
‘I see you are in trouble,' she said, gently. 'Can I do anything for you?'
'Oh yes, Miss, if you would; but I scarcely like to ask you. But indeed it was not his fault; he was led into it. He's not a bad man, my Maurice; but he's fond of company, and easily led. And indeed it's not wonderful when you think. He's quite the gentleman, and in the Old Country he mixed with knights and nobles and the very highest in the land. And of course out here it's different. He can't bear to associate with the other clerks, and so he goes with the gentlemen, and they tempt him on to play, and he can't afford it, and so and so.'
She paused. Nellie, with gentle patience, tried to lead her on to explain the object of her visit, and strove to extract a kernel of sense from the mazes of her rambling talk.
At last a name was mentioned — the name of Cyril Horne.
Nellie started and coloured.
‘Do you know Mr Horne?’
‘It is he who has ruined my husband.’
‘You must be mistaken. Mr Horne is far more likely to make the fortune of another man than to ruin him. He is rich, and —'
‘I know he is rich — that makes it so hard that he should have tempted a poor man like my husband. What was a little money — a few pounds, or a few hundred pounds — to him? But the loss of it was ruin to Maurice. He said it was a debt of honour — oh God! What honour is there in such debts? — and must be paid. And so he took the money from his employers, hoping to pay it back in a few days, but they found it out before he had time to repay the money. They would not listen to a word he had to say, and this morning they took him from me, and now he is in prison, and they won't let me see him — and perhaps he is in a dark cell, with handcuffs on. My poor Maurice — we were so happy together. We have been poor — very, very poor — sometimes we did not have enough to eat; but he had just got this good billet, and we were beginning to get things comfortable round us, and I thought he had quite given up his love of play, and indeed he would never have done it, but Mr Horne and the others asked him to join, and he did not like to tell them how poor he was.'
While Mrs Grey rambled on thus, sudden and ghastly change took place in her hostess' face. The soft bright colour entirely faded from Nellie's cheeks, the shadow under her eyes deepened, her very lips took a livid tint; but she did not lose her self-control. Like others, she had read and heard of Maurice Grey's supposed crime, but not until that moment had she imagined that it could touch her in any way. Now, in an instant, she understood why the woman had come, and what was expected from her.
‘And you are sure that Mr Horne was present when your husband lost the money?'
‘Sure! It was he who won it. I have his receipt here; it dropped out of Maurice's pocket, and I thought I'd keep it and show it to you. Here it is.’
She held it out. Nellie saw the well known name, and, shuddering, pushed it back.
'Won't you take it?' said the little woman, pouting like a vexed child. ‘Then you won't help me?'
'Yes, I will. I will write to Mr Horne, and tell him that having got your husband into this difficulty; he is bound to do the best he can to get him out.’
'Will you do that? Will you really do that? How very, very good you are!’ It is the very thing I wanted, but I did not like to ask you. I thank you a thousand times.'
'Do not thank me. He may not be able to do much, but what he can, he must do for his own sake — yes, for his own sake.'
She sat down to a table, and drew writing materials towards her. For a moment she hesitated. Alice Grey watched her nervously. What if, after all, her courage should fail! But Nellie was no coward. She dipped her pen in the ink, and wrote steadily — even the bitter parting words which cost her so much.
‘Dear Cyril, —
'Mrs M. Grey has been with me, and told me the story that you know. I think you will agree with me that it is your duty to do the best you can for the unfortunate man whom you have helped to ruin. No sacrifice of time or money can be too great to purchase his escape from the consequences of his foolish crime. Of course the engagement between us is at an end — you will understand that, and will, I trust, spare me all entreaties and remonstrances. You know my feeling on this subject — my solemn vow, and your broken promise. I do not reproach you — it would be useless; but I beg you to believe that my resolution is irrevocable, and if you have ever loved me you will respect my wishes.
It was a strange, abrupt letter. Nellie did not pause to re-read it, lest her courage might fail, but, hastily gumming the envelope, handed it to her companion.
‘You had better leave that at Mr Horne's lodging, to make sure that he gets it; but I should advise you not to see him personally. I am sure he will do his best to serve your husband, but do not count too confidently on his efforts: the richest and cleverest men fail sometimes. In the meanwhile, if you will allow me —'
She drew out her purse.
Alice Grey shrank back.
'Not that. Don't offer me money. If Maurice gets off, he can earn a living for us; if not, it matters not what becomes of me. I can be a servant, but I won't take your money. No, no, I could not. You have been very good to me, and I thank you. I should like to come and see you again, if I may.'
‘Certainly you may. I shall be pleased to see you at any time; and, remember, I claim the right to help you if you need help.'
Cyril received Nellie's letter, and read it self-convicted. As he read, a strange resolution formed itself in his mind. First of all, however, he went to the —— bank, and called upon the manager. What passed between them at that interview never exactly transpired. Cyril was a good customer; he was one whom it would not be wise to offend; the withdrawal of his account would prove awkward. Then, too, he offered to refund all, and more than all, that the
bank had lost. Under such circumstances it was surely well to temper mercy with justice, to give the erring man another chance, and not to blast his whole future life by a criminal prosecution. Cyril talked, argued, drew out a cheque, and left the office with a cynical smile upon his lips. ‘What was there in this world that money could not do?'
Then he took up Nellie's letter, and his mood changed. Here was one woman whom filthy lucre could not tempt. Never in his life had he respected and loved her so much as at that moment, when he knew that he had lost her. The strange resolution grew stronger, and began to gather form and shape.
On the following day Maurice Grey was brought before the magistrates on the charge of embezzlement, and was dismissed for lack of evidence. There had been some mistake. People looked at each other, and murmured strange doubts and questions. Some underhand influence had been at work, but they knew not whose or what.
Later in the day little Mrs Grey called on Nellie Francillon, and overwhelmed her with thanks and gratitude.
‘There is nothing to thank me for. Pray say no more. But, Mrs Grey, I think it would be wiser for you to leave this town. People are sure to talk, and —'
'That is just what Maurice says. I think we shall go to Australia in the boat which sails next week.'
'That is a wise resolution. I hope that you will get on there, and that your husband will profit by the lesson he has received. He has had a narrow escape.'
‘Oh, you need not fear that. Maurice has had a good fright. He will never touch another card so long as he lives — he swears it. And, Miss Francillon, will you thank Mr Horne for us? We called at his lodging, but he was not in.'
Nellie bent her head.
‘Mr Horne is already thanked,' she said.
And then she kissed the little woman, and bade her ‘God-speed,’ and the two parted, as they thought, for ever. But the world is narrow, and we move in circles which from time to time touch, but never blend.
Where was Cyril?
Not in his lodgings, not in any of his old haunts, not in country inns, or enjoying the hospitality of his friends.
He had disappeared.
Yes, that strange resolution had gathered form and shape, and was now an accomplished fact. He had disappeared, self-exiled, from all those advantages of wealth and position which he had hitherto prized so highly.
‘Farewell, dearest Nellie,' he wrote; ‘farewell, but not for ever. I shall return and claim your promise. You are right: I am not worthy of you.' My life has been too easy. I have stripped myself of all the false adjuncts of wealth. I am going to fight the world — to leave behind one inheritance, and conquer another. I may be worsted in the struggle; I may lose heart and courage, and return to my wallowing in the mire. But I think not. If I return at all, I shall return triumphant. So wait for me five years, for I know you love me. But if I do not then return to claim my promised bride, think of me as dead or worse than dead, and forget your true love,
And so he disappeared, leaving minute directions with banker and solicitor, and even to them giving no address.
Where had he gone? No one knew.
What had he taken with him? Only a cheap outfit of common, ready-made clothes, and a hundred pounds or so in cash.
‘What a strange fancy!' said his friends. ‘He will soon tire of it, and come back.'
But a year passed by, and then a second, and the third had nearly expired, and no word or sign had been received from the wanderer. Whether he were dead or living, ill or well, prosperous or the reverse, none knew — perhaps none cared. Only Nellie was Nellie Francillon still — often wooed, but never won. Was she waiting for Cyril? Who can tell? She herself hardly knew. But as the five years drew to an end she became restless and excited, as one who expects some crisis in her fate, some supreme moment to which the whole of her previous life has been tending, and for which it has been in some sort a preparation. She expected some strange thing to happen, and was ever on the watch for some word or sign from her absent lover. That he would return to her she doubted not, and his prolonged absence proved clearly to her mind that he had maintained his self-appointed probation, and that, whenever he did return, he would have mastered the vice which had once threatened to master him. In this hope, which was well nigh assurance, she watched and waited.