English Literature

Basil and Annette by Benjamin Leopold Farjeon

Basil and Annette by Benjamin Leopold Farjeon

CHAPTER I.

In the old world the reign of winter has commenced. The woods are snow-white, the hedges are frosted over, the pools are frozen, icicles hang from the branches of the trees. Wayfarers walk briskly, stamp their feet, and beat their hands to keep the circulation going; while other humans, whom business does not call from their houses, snuggle round the fireside, with doors and windows closed to keep out the nipping air. Winged immigrants that came in the sweet spring days have long since taken their departure to warmer climes, bearing with them memories of a bright youth, to be renewed when another spring smiles upon the land.

In the new world, at the same moment, it is nature’s holiday time. The air is scented with the fragrance of white lilies and jessamine; fringed violets carpet the woods; the wild passion fruit, with its gleaming scarlet flowers, illuminates the bushes; the palm-tree rears its graceful head above festoons of feathery leaves, in which clumps of red berries shine like clusters of stars; tall quandong-trees and wild plums shoot up straight as arrows, for the most part clear of vines and creepers, but not always successful in escaping the embrace of the stag’s horn fern, one of the handsomest of all Australia’s parasites; and the white-wooded umbrella-tree proudly asserts its claim to preeminence, with its darkly lustrous laurel-shaped leaves surmounted by long radiating spikes of crimson flowers, the brilliancy of which rivals the glowing sunset of the South. Through the grand forests, in which for unnumbered ages the dusky savage has roamed in freedom, never dreaming of the invasion of a higher civilisation, flit flocks of resplendent parrots, chief among them being the blue mountain, the rosella, and the crimson wing; black cockatoos, with their dazzling tails spread out, are lurking in the branches of the bloodwood trees, where they find both food and shelter; flycatchers, all green and gold, are cunningly watching the waterholes for prey; laughing jackasses, with their blue feathers and cold grey eyes, which are now twinkling with fun, are making merry over the absurd antics of native companions, whose conceited hoppings and twirlings are comic enough to inspire mirth in the dullest denizens of the woods; while the soft musical notes of the bellbirds, all green and purple, blue and golden, make harmonious the west wind which travels from the beeches, and fill the air with melody strange and sweet.

Within hail of these summer evidences of loveliness and grandeur stand two men, one young, the other not yet middle-aged. The younger man, whose name is Basil Whittingham, is the embodiment of careless, indolent grace, but just now he is evincing an unusual earnestness of manner, both in speaking and listening. His age is barely twenty-three, and he bears about him the unmistakable stamp of gentleman. This is not always the case with men who have honest claims to the title, but with some few it is a gift. It is so with Basil Whittingham. He has blue eyes, fair hair, a supple, graceful form, a laughing mouth, with teeth like pearl, delicate hands, and a long, light-brown moustache, which he evidently regards as a magnificent possession, and cherishes and nurses as a thing of beauty. Otherwise he has not much to be proud of in the shape of possessions, for his clothes would be anything but presentable in Mayfair, though here in the Australian woods they may serve well enough. His trousers, tucked into old knee boots, have conspicuously seen their best days; his shirt, of some light material, has rents in it, showing the fair skin of his arms embrowned by the sun where the sun could get at them; the sash round his waist is frayed and faded; his wide-awake hat, sound in front, is tattered at the back, where it flaps loosely over his flowing hair; and, moreover, he is smoking a short black cutty. Yet despite these drawbacks, if drawbacks they can be called in this land of freedom, freer indeed than any republic under the sun, even the most ordinary observer would be ready to acknowledge that the man was a gentleman. One, for instance, who would not do a dirty trick, who would not tell a lie to serve his own interests, who would not betray a friend, and who would be more likely to wrong himself than others. Tender, simple, brave; fearless, but not foolhardy; openhearted, confiding, and unsuspicious of sinister, motives in those with whom he has once shaken hands; with a sense of humour which lightens adversity; regretting not the past, though he has wilfully steered his boat into the Bay of Poverty, and dreading not the future; such is Basil Whittingham, a typical type of an honest, frank, manly English gentleman.

His companion, by name Anthony Bidaud, was born and bred in Switzerland, but is of French extraction. He speaks, English fluently, so well indeed that those who serve him will not believe he is a foreigner. He has not yet reached middle age, but he looks sixty at least, and on his worn, anxious face dwells the expression of a man who is waiting for a mortal stroke. He is well dressed, after the free bush fashion, and is no less a gentleman than Basil Whittingham. It is the mutual recognition of social equality that keeps Basil penniless and poorly clad, for he is a guest, not a dependent, on the plantation of which Anthony Bidaud is master. This state of things suits the careless nature of the younger gentleman, who, welcomed and received by Anthony Bidaud as an equal, takes a pride in holding himself free from the touch of servitude. Perhaps Annette, of whom you shall presently hear, serves as a factor in the attitude he has chosen.

Being the hero of our story, it is needful that something should be related of his career in the home country.

His parents were Devonshire people, and he their only child. It was supposed that his father was a man of fortune; he lived as one, kept hounds and horses, and maintained a costly establishment. Needless to say that Basil was the idol of his parents; he was also the idol of a wealthy uncle, to whom he paid a visit once in every year, and who, being childless, had announced his intention of making Basil his heir. Thus, all seemed smooth and pleasant-sailing before the young fellow. But misfortunes came; at the age of fourteen he lost his mother. The memory of the solemn moments he spent by her bedside before she closed her eyes upon the world, abided ever with Basil, whose passionate adoration for the dear mother was a good testimony of his affectionate disposition. But there was something deeper than affection in the feelings he entertained for her. She had been to him more than a loving mother; she had been his truest counsellor and friend. Upon her had devolved the father’s duty of inculcating in their child those strict principles of honour and right-doing which set the seal of true manhood upon him who follows them out in his course through life. Basil’s father was of an easy, genial nature, and it was from him that Basil inherited a cheerfulness of temper and a sense of humour which lessened evils instead of magnifying them. The higher qualities of his character came from his mother. Lying on her death-bed she impressed upon him the beauty of honesty and uprightness, and the lad’s heart responded to her teaching.

“Never look to consequences, my dear child,” she said. “Do always what is right; and when you are a man counsel and guide your dear father.”

He promised to obey her, but it was not until many years had passed that he knew what she meant when she told him to counsel and guide his father. It was she who had steered her husband’s boat when it had got into troubled waters, and steered it always into a safe harbour. No one knew it, no one suspected it; not even her husband, who believed that it was due to himself alone that he escaped dangers which threatened him from time to time; but this ignorance was due to her wisdom, and partly, also, to her love; rather than wound his feelings, she preferred to suffer herself. It is not to be inferred from this remark that she had not led a happy life; she had, and her home was happy in the truest sense; but she sighed to think of her husband, left alone to grapple with difficulties which his easy nature prevented him from seeing.

She had a private fortune of her own, and with her husband’s consent she made a will devising it all to her son, with the exception of some small legacies to humble friends. The money was to be invested, and to accumulate till Basil was twenty-one years of age, when he was to come into possession of it; so that, even without his uncle, he was comfortably provided for. A short time after his mother’s death, his father announced his intention of giving up his establishment in the country and settling in London. The home in which he had passed so many happy years with his wife was desolate and sad now that she was gone from it; he wandered through the rooms with a weight on his heart which memory made heavier instead of lighter.

“Yes Basil,” he said to his son, “it is the best thing I can do. If I remain here I shall lose my reason; I must find some distraction from grief.”

Basil was too young to question this decision; what his father resolved upon must be right. The old home was sold up, and father and son removed to London. Then came the question of Basil’s education. His uncle considered removal to London a step in the wrong direction, and he wrote to that effect; he also expressed his opinion that London was an unsuitable place in which to conduct a young gentleman’s education. “Give the lad a tutor,” he said, “and let him travel.” This was done, and before he was fifteen years of age Basil was living on the Continent, picking up knowledge and picking up pleasure in not quite equal quantities, the latter predominating. It was an agreeable life, and Basil did not harm by it. Every year he came to England, and spent a month with his father in London and a week with his uncle in the country. On one occasion he and his uncle spent this week together in the great city, living at Morley’s Hotel, Charing Cross, and seeing the sights, and this visit was destined to be pregnant with strange results in years to come. Except upon all other occasions the uncle received Basil in the country. The old gentleman was full of quips and cranks and imaginary ills. He fancied himself an invalid, and coddled himself up absurdly; and Basil, when he visited him, seldom left the house. The forced seclusion did not trouble the young fellow; he could make himself happy anywhere. Certainly there were few dull moments in his uncle’s house when Basil was in it, and the old gentleman, while not objecting to a display of animal spirits, improved the opportunity by endeavouring to drive into his nephew’s head a special kind of worldly wisdom. As, for instance: All men are rogues (ourselves excepted). Never open your heart to a friend (except to an uncle who is going to leave you all his money). Keep your secrets. Spend your money on your own pleasures and your own ambitions. Never make yourself responsible for another man’s debts. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This kind of counsel was showered upon Basil, and produced no effect upon him whatever; he was spared the trouble of arguing upon these matters, even if he were in the humour for it–which he was not; he had a knack of avoiding disagreeable topics by his uncle’s everlasting assertion that the counsel he gave was absolutely indisputable, and was to be received as such.

“All right, uncle,” said Basil; “now let us talk of something else.”

And he would fly off into accounts of such of his Continental adventures as he knew would please the old fellow. He had a capital gift of description, and the old man would sit huddled up in his arm-chair, cracking his sides at his nephew’s wit. Basil never bade his uncle good-bye without a cheque for a substantial sum in his pocket. He was liberally provided for by his father, but he did not despise his uncle’s gifts. Seeing that his stories of his travels amused his uncle, he said that he would one day write a book.

“And when you write it,” his uncle Said, “burn it. Write a book indeed! Put your time out at better interest, Basil. Make money, money, money. Then people will bow down to you. I’m not a nice object to look at, am I? But I’ve got money, and people bow down to me! How much more will they be likely to do so to a handsome fellow like you? Make money, my boy, make money, and stick to it.”

Which worldly advice went as usual in at one ear and out at the other. After all, the old gentleman’s remarks had only a general application; had there been any special interest at stake Basil would have argued it stoutly enough, and thereby got himself into hot water.

So things went on till Basil was twenty-one years of age, when he was to come into possession of his mother’s fortune. On his birthday he wrote to his father, saying he would be home in a fortnight, and full of kind messages–messages which did not reach the sense of the man for whom they were intended: on the day the letter was delivered at the London address his father was lying in delirium on a bed from which he was never to rise. A week before he intended to start for home Basil received a letter informing him of the sad news. “Come back immediately,” the writer said, “if you wish to see your father alive.” Basil did not lose a moment. Travelling as quickly as possible he arrived at his father’s house–too late. It was a terrible blow to him, more terrible than the loss of his mother, for which he had been in a measure prepared. Death came more slowly in her case, and she had instilled into her son a spirit of resignation which softened the bereavement. Even before she drew her last breath Basil had thought of her as an angel in heaven. But with his father it was so sudden; there had been no preparation for the parting, no indication of it. It was true that his father had been ailing for months, but he had been careful not to alarm his son. He may have believed, as most men do, that the worst would not happen; we are chary in applying to ourselves the rules we are so ready to apply to others. Only in his last hour of consciousness, before he fell into the delirium from which it was fated he should not recover, had he asked for his desk, and taking from it a sheet of paper wrote a few words to his son, which he desired should be delivered in the event of anything serious happening to him. He did not believe it even then; had he been a religious man he would have weighed the matter more deeply, but he was one who, living as fairly good and moral a life as the average church-goer, seldom went to the Divine fount for comfort and counsel. It might have been better for Basil if he had, for a warning might have come to him to check the mad desire which had taken possession of him.

Between him and Basil there had never been a harsh word. Each bore for the other the truest affection. Never a cross, never an ill-tempered look; unvarying sweetness had marked their intercourse. So sudden a separation could have been nothing less than terrible to the living. It was long before Basil recovered from it. With the exception of his crotchety old uncle he was absolutely without kith or kin. Letters had passed between them with reference to the sad event. “I cannot come to London to attend the funeral,” his uncle wrote; “I am too infirm and feeble. When you have settled your father’s affairs I shall be glad to see you to talk things over. It is time you made a serious start in life. You have your mother’s fortune, and your father’s, which I should say is a handsome one; you will have mine, though I intend to keep you out of it as long as I can. You are a lucky dog; you ought to die a millionaire.” A mortal ending the absolute desirability of which may well be doubted. Basil replied, hoping his uncle would live to a good old age, and promising to visit him as soon as affairs were settled. In his father’s desk he found the scrawl which the dying man had written. It was very short.

“My dear Basil,–The honour of my name is in your hands. Your loving father.”

He had not strength to attach his name.

It was not until the day after the funeral that the significance of these words impressed itself on Basil. “The honour of my name is in your hands.” They were his father’s last words to him. What meaning did they bear? He had heard from his father’s lawyers, informing him that they had the will in their possession, and that they were at his service. He wrote to them, to the effect that he would call upon them early the following morning.

The head of the firm received him gravely and courteously, and gave orders that they were not to be disturbed.

The will had been drawn out years since, and no alteration had been made in it. Everything was left to Basil, unreservedly to him. There were affectionate allusions in it which drew tears from Basil’s eyes. When this emotion had subsided he observed that the lawyer was regarding him with an air of curiosity.

“May I ask,” said the lawyer, “if full confidence existed between you and your father?”

“The fullest,” replied Basil. “He had no secrets from me, nor I any from him.”

The lawyer seemed sensibly relieved. “You know of his speculations?”

“His speculations!” exclaimed Basil, in surprise. “I was not aware that he speculated.”

“Then full confidence did not exist between you. I warned him; I could do no more than that. In my experience, my dear sir, I have seen so many go the same way. There is but one end to it, and this has ended as the others have done.”

“I will listen to nothing against my father,” said Basil warmly.

“I have nothing to say against him,” responded the lawyer, “except that he was unwise. He had an intense craving to leave you a very large fortune, and this craving became a kind of disease in him, and led him on. I regret to tell you that all his speculations have ended disastrously.”

“That is to say, have resulted in a loss?”

“In great losses.”

“To what extent?”

“Claims are pouring in. If they are satisfied, the will in your hands is not worth more than waste paper. But some of the claims may be contested, and in my belief successfully. But that will be a matter for counsel’s opinion.”

“It has nothing to do with counsel,” said Basil; “it has to do with me. I am my dear father’s representative, and it is for me to determine what is to be done.”

“Undoubtedly. Instructions must come from you.”

“Claims are pouring in, you say. Can you tell me to what amount?”

“As far as we have received them; there are more to be presented you understand.”

“Yes.”

“Plainly, then,” said the lawyer, “the property your father has left will not be sufficient to meet his debts.”

“They must be paid, however.” The lawyer inclined his head.

“Yes,” said Basil, rising and pacing the room in his excitement, “they must be paid. No stigma must rest upon my father’s memory. Some of the claims may be contested, you say? In justice?”

“Legally,” replied the lawyer.

“I ask you again,” said Basil. “In justice?”

The lawyer, declining to commit himself, made no reply.

“At least,” said Basil, “you can answer me this question. My father owes the money?”

“Yes, my dear sir, he owes the money.”

“Then it must be paid. Do you not see that it must be paid? No man shall have the power of uttering one word against him.”

“But,” said the lawyer, eyeing the young man as he would have eyed a psychological puzzle, “if the estate left by your father is not sufficient to satisfy all these claims, what is to be done?”

“I have money of my own–my mother’s fortune–of which you have the particulars.”

“Yes, we can give you all the information you require, and it requires but your signature to a few documents, already prepared, my dear sir, to place you in possession of this very handsome inheritance.”

“You can probably tell me the amount of it.”

“Almost to a farthing. It is invested in the safest securities, realisable at an hour’s notice, and it amounts to,”–the lawyer took some papers from a japanned box and ran his eye over them–“it amounts to not less than twenty-three thousand pounds.”

“Will that,” asked Basil, “with my father’s estate, satisfy in full the claims which are pouring in?”

“But my dear sir,” expostulated the lawyer, with a look of astonishment.

Basil would not allow him to conclude. “I have to repeat some of my questions, it seems,” he said. “Will this fortune, which is realisable in an hour, satisfy in full the claims of my father’s creditors?”

The lawyer shrugged his shoulders, and replied briefly, “More than satisfy them.”

“Then the matter is settled,” said Basil. “I empower you to collect the whole of these claims to the uttermost farthing; to convert the securities which are mine into money; to prepare a complete balance sheet, and to pay my father’s creditors in full, with as little delay as possible.”

“I am to accept these instructions as definite and decisive?”

“As definite and decisive!”

“They shall be followed and carried out with as little delay as possible. I must trouble you to call here at three o’clock this afternoon to sign the necessary papers.”

“I will be punctual. Good morning; and I am greatly obliged to you.”

“Good morning, my dear sir,” said the lawyer, adding under his breath, “and I am greatly astonished at you.”

At three o’clock that afternoon Basil called again at the lawyer’s office, and signed “the necessary papers,” and went away with a light heart and a smiling face. Within a month the affair was concluded, his father’s estate was realised, and his father’s creditor’s paid in full. There remained to him then, out of his mother’s fortune, the sum of three thousand pounds.

He was perfectly happy and contented. Long before the business was finally settled he had realised what his father meant by his last few written words: “My dear Basil,–The honour of my name is in your hands. Your loving father.” To good hands indeed had the honour of a dead man’s name been entrusted. Basil had preserved it unsullied, unblemished.

He took no credit for it; he had fulfilled a sacred trust. It was simply a duty performed.

“Now,” he said to himself; “I will go and see my uncle.”

But while he was preparing to start he received a letter from that gentleman, which will explain why the visit was never paid.

“Nephew Basil” (the letter ran), “I have received news of your mad proceedings since your return home. No person in his sober senses would have acted as you have done. The greater portion of the claims made against your father’s estate could have been legally and successfully contested, and even in what remained a sharp lawyer could have obtained a substantial abatement. This view, as I understand, was presented to you by an able firm of solicitors, but you rejected it, and chose to play the fool. Now, I do not care to have dealings with a fool.

“I might have pardoned you for sacrificing your father’s estate to satisfy these claims, but I will not pardon you for sacrificing the fortune your mother left you. It proves to me that it is not safe to entrust money to you, and I have decided to put mine to better use than to leave it to you. Accept this intimation as my ultimatum. It is the last letter you will ever receive from me, and you will never see me again. Therefore you need not go to the trouble of coming my way. My house is not open to you. All the good counsel I have given you has been thrown away. You might have told me at the time and I should have saved my breath and my patience. Good-bye, foolish nephew.

“Bartholomew Whittingham.”

He was angry enough to add a postscript:

“As you are so fond of paying debts for which you are not responsible, what do you say to considering the money I have given you from time to time as one, and handing it back? You can do as you please about it. I can make no legal demand for it, but I gave it to you under the impression that you were not exactly an idiot. It amounts to quite fourteen hundred pounds. If I had it I would put it out at good interest.”

To state that Basil was not hurt by this letter would be to state what is not true. He had an affection for the old fellow, and he was greatly pained to think that all was over between them; but he was not in the least disturbed by the old man’s arguments. He had done what was right; of this he was sure. But the letter stung Basil as well as hurt him. There was a bitter twang in his uncle’s remark that he could make no legal demand for the money he had given his nephew. “He shall have it back,” said Basil, “every farthing of it.” Then he was seized with an expensive fit of humour. His uncle had spoken of interest. He would prove that he was not a whit less independent than the old fellow himself. He made some lame and ridiculous calculations of interest at five per cent, per annum, and arrived at the sum of two thousand pounds and a few pence. He got a draft for the amount, and inclosed it in the following note:–

“All right, my dear uncle. Here is your money back again, with interest added. If it is not enough interest, let me know, and I will send you more. Good-bye, and good luck to you.

“Your affectionate nephew,

Basil.”

This last debt paid, Basil had barely a thousand pounds left. He did not hear from his uncle again.

Now, what was he to do? He was without profession or trade, and did not feel equal for any kind of service he saw around, even if it was offered to him. “I think,” he said, “I will travel a little more.” He did so, and was prudent enough to travel in an economic spirit but his money went fast enough for all that. At the end of a year and a half he had in his purse exactly one hundred pounds. Was he dashed? Not a bit. But he knew that something must be done. “I will go to Australia,” he said. The project exalted him. He glowed, he rubbed his hands, he was in a whirl of pleasant excitement. He would be in a new land, in a land of adventure, in a land of romance. There he would be all right, of course. Not a doubt of it. As for his empty purse–and it waspretty well empty by the time he had paid for his passage and a few necessary odds and ends–he scarcely gave it a thought. Was he not going to Australia, the poor man’s El Dorado? So he set forth in a sailing vessel, and enjoyed the passage immensely, and landed in Sydney as happy as a king. The fairy harbour, the most beautiful in all the wide world, enchanted him; the ravishing scenery enchanted him; the quaint old city, so home-like in its appearance, enchanted him. Certainly he had come to the right place.

He was rather more melancholy a few weeks afterwards, but he never lost heart. Suitable employment did not present itself so readily as he had thought it would, and gold was not to be picked up in the streets. “I am making a mistake,” he said. “I must not remain in the city; I must go into the bush.” He soon made a start, and began tramping Queensland way, and after some weeks of wondering reached the tract of country which Anthony Bidaud had taken up.

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