How little she would mind



Gervase Burton soon discovered that to get home in three months was quite beyond his powers. He had calculated without his West Indies. He did not know the ways of that much-delaying, far niente, tropical place. Half-a-dozen times, when he thought that he had completed all his arrangements, he discovered that he had to begin from the very beginning again. The three months grew into six. The height of the tropical summer was reached, but still he did{85} not get away. At the last moment he had to put off his departure for two different mails. At last he really did conclude all his business, and in a moderately successful way. The Burton plantation had continued to be one of the few successful ones; and its affairs were pulled out of confusion and established on a better footing, and everything wound up, before the young man could complete the sale which was the crown of his efforts. He did so successfully at last in the beginning of May, and, with the values which he had received in payment of the estate safely disposed of, part of them to be remitted to London, part carried with him, had the satisfaction of taking his place in the mail-steamer. His correspondence had been interrupted for some weeks previous to this,{86} successive delays having made it impossible for him to receive his letters regularly as at first; and it was accordingly with a double eagerness for home, as knowing very imperfectly what might be going on there, that he set out at last.

His chief correspondent during this period of exile, it is needless to say, had been Madeline. His father had written from time to time; but Mr Burton did not pretend to keep up anything beyond a business correspondence. His first communication had informed Gervase that he had taken his advice and made young Wickham a partner in the house, an intimation which had a curious effect upon the young man. By some extraordinary inconsistency he did not like it! It made his heart beat in his breast uneasily, with{87} a sensation almost of pain. He thought instinctively of what Madeline had said that the vacant place was not for the first comer, it was for himself and no other. He had rejected it, and he had advised that Wickham should have it; but when it was done according to his advice, he was not pleased. These contradictions of nature are ridiculous, but still they happen from time to time. After that he heard little from his father, and, with unfounded acrimony, set this down to Wickham’s influence,—Wickham, who had always been almost servile in devotion to him, and who, no doubt, was quite aware to whom he owed his elevation.

Madeline’s letters were always regular by every mail—always long, always sweet, full of tenderness and consolation and news,{88} and all the comforting details which a woman’s letters, but seldom a man’s, supply. He did not really require any other correspondent so long as he had Madeline to set everything before him. But for two or three mails even her letters had failed. She had thought him on his way to England while he was still delayed in Jamaica; and though he had let them know by telegraph of his detention, he could not get the letters which had not been written. He started, therefore, at least three weeks behind the current news of home.

Everything went well on the homeward voyage until after the steamer had made its last stop among the island ports, and had at last set out on the full Atlantic, with nothing between it and England save{89} the wastes of the ocean. The passengers had all provided themselves with the latest papers—chief among them those just arrived by the mail-steamer from home—when they made this last call on their homeward-bound voyage. Gervase had his handful of papers like all the rest, and was reading them with devotion—the politics, the discussions, the literature, the books, amid which he hoped to be in a few days more. There were other portions of the news upon which, perhaps, he did not look with so much interest, or hurried over with a glance.

“I say, Burton,” said a fellow-passenger, “is this any relation of yours?” looking up from the paper he was reading.

“Eh? What is it?” Gervase asked, half-hearing. The passenger cast a hur{90}ried glance down the page and then said hastily——

“Oh, I beg your pardon! I see it can’t be;” and presently hurried away, carrying his paper with him.

Gervase did not give much importance to this quickly stifled query; but when another gentleman on board whom he knew approached him a little later on, and asked, with an exceedingly grave face, when he had last heard from his father, a sudden alarm sprang up in his mind.

“I have heard nothing for some weeks,” he said. “I have had to put off sailing for mail after mail before I could get my business done.”

“Oh,” said the other, “then you have had no news?”

“What is wrong with my father?” cried{91} Gervase. “I see you know something. Is he ill?”

“I hope not; I hope not indeed. But I know absolutely nothing,” his old friend said.

These words made Gervase perfectly sure that something was known, something which he did not know; and it was then he remembered the careless exclamation of the other, “Can this be any relation of yours?” There must evidently be some record of trouble in the papers which nobody would venture to tell him. He hurried to the cabin and found a group there gathered round one who seemed expounding the matter to them. “I believe his son would not enter the office, so he was forced to take another partner—who seems to have brought him to ruin.{92}”

“Is it the languid young man who is here?” asked another.

“Hush! don’t let everybody hear,” said the first speaker. “I don’t believe he knows.”

Gervase did not ask any questions, but he possessed himself of the papers in silence. It was certain that there must be something there which concerned him deeply. He carried them off to his own cabin, where he could be alone; but it was some time before he could find the particulars he sought. At last he found them. “Great Panic in the City—Failure of the old-established firm of Burton, Baber, & Company.” Something suddenly lighted up in Gervase’s veins which he had never felt before—the fire of the commercial blood. The word “failure” seemed to strike him like a blow. He devoured{93} every word. All his old affectation of taking no interest in the business news, of avoiding the money article—what dismal affectation he felt it in this sudden blaze of enlightenment! Failure!—bankruptcy! Heaven above! what idiocy! what childish folly! And now what horror and shame! He turned from one paper to another, reading everything. Recent speculations, for which a new partner was supposed to be chiefly responsible, changing the character of the business, and the downfall of certain firms with which Messrs Burton, Baber, & Co. were connected, were given as the causes of the bankruptcy, which had taken everybody by surprise, and filled the City with dismay. So respectable a firm; a name so well known and honoured. The catastrophe{94} had sent a thrill through the whole mercantile community. And then there were calculations as to the firm’s power of meeting its engagements. Putting one thing with another, Mr Burton’s well-known wealth and the fact that the embarrassments were of very recent origin, one paper ventured to believe that the creditors would lose but little; while another stated even the possible amount of the composition—15s. in the pound at the least, for Mr Burton had declared his determination to give up everything. All this Gervase read like a man in a dream. To think that it should be his father, his house, his honour, which were thus being discussed, and he to know nothing! To think that such trouble should overcome his family and he be far away, unable to give any help!{95} And the horror of knowing nothing, of having received no warning, of being, as it were, left out altogether, affected Gervase as perhaps nothing else could have done. Those mails which he had been obliged to miss, one after another; the long interval which now separated him from all knowledge of his home; the apparent blank of silence which had fallen even between him and Madeline, and which it was almost impossible not to connect in some way with the misfortune that had befallen his family, seemed at once to paralyse and to madden. And he could not quicken the pace of the ship, which was exposed to all the exasperating delays of wind and tide; nor lessen the breadth of the pathless sea, which lay blank between him and those who needed him. In one only of the{96} newspapers was there any reference made to Mr Burton’s son, who was believed to be in the West Indies on the business of the firm, but who was not spoken of as likely to affect its fortunes, one way or other. He was left out of all the calculations—an individual of no practical importance. And Wickham, the man whom his father had taken in at his suggestion, the interloper put in his place, supplanting the son of the house (Gervase did not reflect by what astonishing breaches of all logic and unconscious perversions of fact he thus brought himself to describe Wickham)—it was he who had ruined and dishonoured the house that had bred him, sheltered him, raised him to the highest trust. And whose fault was it? that of Gervase, and no other; in all things it was he who was to blame.{97}

How to endure the long hours, the long days at sea, the succession of meals and promenades about the deck, and talks and foolish jestings and laughter! He could not shut himself up entirely from the intercourse which on shipboard it is so difficult to escape; but the crackling of thorns under the pot would not have been half so vain, as the foolish, vague conversation about nothing, the feeble pleasantries at which everybody laughed, seemed to Gervase. The flirtations and the love-making, in which he had taken a certain amused interest, seemed now to carry personal offence to him. He was interested in nothing but the record of the sailing—how many knots had been done each day, how many more days must elapse before their arrival. The progress over those blank{98} illimitable wastes is so difficult to realise, every day seeming like yesterday; no difference in the weltering waters, no new feature to show that there is any real advance, the turn of a wheel nearer home. To do him justice, it was of his father alone Gervase thought at first, with an aching anxiety to be with him, and a fever of alarm as to the effect that downfall, so unexpected, and, as his son was sure, undeserved, would have upon him. Would it kill him, either body or mind? break his heart, shatter his health, move him with some wild, horrible impulse of despair? Or would it undermine and break down the mind, and turn the clear-headed man of business into imbecility and mental ruin? It might have killed him, it might have driven him mad. Oh for the length{99} of the days and the slowness of any mortal voyage, whether by land or sea!

Afterwards, however, Gervase had some thoughts of himself and his loss breaking in. He thought of Madeline, who was silent, who in this moment of trouble could not stand by him, with at first an unreasonable sense of desertion, though he knew very well all the time that she had not deserted him; and then he thought of the consolation it would be only to get a sight of her, only to hear her voice, and that she would never forsake him; and then finally, with a leap of his heart, to meet a great exciting danger, of her father. What would his attitude be? Could he be expected for a moment to receive a man who was really penniless? No question now of an allowance, of comparative{100} poverty, but really poor, without a righteous sixpence in the world; and the son of a bankrupt! “No, no,” Gervase said to himself, “not that.” A man who was Madeline’s father could not descend so far as to say or to think that. Poor father, betrayed by his son! Unhappy son, who had abandoned his father! Thus the ring of thought went round again to its beginning, and once more the knell of his family reputation rang in Gervase’s ears. A bankrupt, his father! his father, who held commercial soundness so high, a bankrupt! And then the young man would spring to his feet, and rush up to the bridge, and face the wind blowing strong against the ship, and the weltering world of sea, and the monotonous lines of cloud. The vast space seemed never to lessen. One morn{101}ing broke after another, with the same hopeless breadth of unmeasured distance; and though the steamer throbbed on and on, and panted and struggled like his own heart, yet the wind was always in the face of the ship, always against him, in a conspiracy to keep him from home.

Poor father! poor father! that was the most persistent thought of all. Would any one be kind to him in his downfall? Would it be understood that it was his son’s fault, his only son, who, wretched coxcomb and fool, would not go into the business, would not lend his help to keep the vessel of their fortunes straight, but must needs recommend a false pilot, a traitor, for that post? He could not do justice to Wickham at this stage of his thoughts. He could only think of him as{102} a traitor, a man who had betrayed his benefactor, and turned all that he ought to have been into all that a man should not be.

And with these seas and billows of thought, now flinging him up, now flinging him down, the monotonous screw went on rumbling and working, and the engines throbbing, against a head wind; and the long horizon spread out, and the distance spread unmeasured, and day followed day, bringing him perceptibly no nearer home.

eCommerce Basis