A Girl of The Commune by G. A. Henty

A Girl of The Commune by G. A. Henty.jpg

CHAPTER I.

Jeremiah Brander was one of the most prominent personages in the Cathedral town of Abchester. He inhabited an old-fashioned, red brick house near the end of the High Street. On either side was a high wall facing the street, and from this a garden, enclosing the house, stretched away to a little stream some two hundred yards in the rear; so that the house combined the advantage of a business residence in front, with those of seclusion, an excellent garden, and an uninterrupted view behind.

Jeremiah Brander enjoyed, in a very large degree, the confidence and respect of his fellow-townsmen. His father and his grandfather had been, like himself, solicitors, and he numbered among his clients most of the county families round. Smaller business he left to the three younger men who divided between them the minor legal business of the place. He in no way regarded them as rivals, and always spoke of them benevolently as worthy men to whom all such business as the collection of debts, criminal prosecutions, and such matters as the buying and selling of houses in the town, could be safely entrusted. As for himself he preferred to attend only to business in his own line, and he seldom accepted fresh clients, never, indeed, until a new-comer had taken his place among the accepted society of the county.

In the public business of the city, however, he played a very important part. He was Town Clerk, treasurer of several so[Pg 6]cieties, solicitor to the Abchester County and City Bank, legal adviser of the Cathedral Authorities, deacon of the principal Church, City Alderman, president of the Musical Society, treasurer of the Hospital, a director of the Gas Company, and was in fact ready at all times to take a prominent part in any movement in the place.

He was a man of some fifty years of age, inclined to be stout, somewhat florid in complexion, and always dressed with scrupulous care. There was nothing about him to indicate that he belonged to the legal profession. His talk as a rule was genial and almost cheery, but his manner varied according to the circumstances. In his capacity as treasurer he was concise and business-like; in matters connected with the Church he was a little given to be dogmatic, which, considering the liberality of his subscriptions to all the Church objects and charities was but natural.

As president of the Musical Society he was full of tact, and acted the part of general conciliator in all the numerous squabbles, jealousies, and heart-burnings incidental to such associations. In every one of the numerous offices he filled he gave unbounded satisfaction, and the only regret among his fellow-townsmen was that he had on three occasions refused to accept the honor of the Mayoralty, alleging, and with a fair show of reason, that although ready at all times to aid to the utmost in any movement set afoot for the advantage of the city, it was impossible for him to spare the time required to perform properly the duties of Mayor.

Jeremiah Brander had married the daughter of a gentleman of an old county family which had fallen somewhat in circumstances. It was rumored at the time that he had lent some assistance to the head of the family, and that the match was scarcely a willing one on the lady’s part. However that might be, no whisper had ever been heard that the marriage was an unhappy one. It was regarded as rather a come-down for her, but if so she never showed that she felt it as a fall. The marriage had certainly improved his standing in the county. His wife formed a sort of link between him and his clients, and he[Pg 7] occupied a considerably better position among them than his father had done, being generally accepted as a friend as well as a legal adviser.

It is not to be supposed that so successful a man had no detractors. One of his legal brethren had been heard to speak of him contemptuously as a humbug. A medical practitioner who had failed to obtain the post of House Surgeon at the Hospital, owing to the support the President had given to another competitor for the post, had alluded to him bitterly as a blatant ass; and a leading publican who had been fined before the magistrates for diluting his spirits, was in the habit of darkly uttering his opinion that Jerry Brander was a deep card and up to no good.

But as every great man has his enemies, the opinion of a few malcontents went for nothing in the general consensus of admiration for one who was generally regarded as among the pillars of Abchester society, and an honor to the city.

“It is high time you did something, Jerry,” his wife said to him one morning after their three daughters had left the breakfast-table.

“In what way, Eliza?” Mr. Brander said, looking up from his newspaper; “it seems to me I do a good deal.”

“You know what I mean,” she said, sharply. “You know you promised me a hundred times that you would give up all this miserable business and settle down in the county. The girls are growing up, Mary has just left Girton and is of an age to go into society.”

“She may be of age,” Mr. Brander said, with an irritability unusual to him, “but it strikes me that society is the last thing she is thinking of. We made a mistake altogether in giving way to her and letting her go to that place; she has got her head full of all sorts of absurd ideas about woman’s mission and woman’s duties, and nonsense of that sort, and has got out of hand altogether. You have not a shadow of influence over her, and I can’t say that I have much more. Thank goodness her sisters don’t take after her in any way.”

“Well, that is all true,” Mrs. Brander said, “and you know[Pg 8] we have agreed on that subject for a long time, but it is no answer to my question. I have been content to live all these years in this miserable dull place, because I was fool enough to believe your promise that you would in time give up all this work and take a position in the county.”

“To some extent I kept my promise,” he said. “There is not a week that we don’t drive half-a-dozen miles, and sometimes a dozen, to take part in a dull dinner.”

“That is all very well so far as it goes, but we simply go to these dinners because you are the family lawyer and I am your wife.”

“Well, well, you know, Eliza, that I was in treaty for the Haywood’s Estate when that confounded mine that I had invested in went wrong, and fifteen thousand were lost at a blow—a nice kettle of fish we made between us of that.”

“We,” she repeated, scornfully.

“Yes, we. You know perfectly well that before I went into it I consulted you. The mine was paying well then, and at the rate I bought in would have paid twenty per cent on the investment. I told you that there was a certain risk always with these mines, and that it was either a big addition to our income or a total loss.”

“Yes, but you said that coal mines were not like other mines.”

“And as a rule they are not,” he said, “but there was first that great strike, then a fall in the price of coal, and then just when things began to look better again we came upon that fault that nobody had dreamt of being there, and then the whole thing went to smash. You must not be impatient. I am as anxious as you are, Eliza, to have done with all this, and I hope by the time Clara and Julia are ready to come out, I may be able to carry out the plans we have always had—I as much as you. Tancred takes a great deal of the work off my hands now, and I can see that he has the confidence of most of my people. In another couple of years I shall have no fear of the business falling off if I hand it over to him entirely. You know he has only a fifth share, and I have no doubt he will be[Pg 9] glad to arrange to pay me half or perhaps three-fifths when I retire. Now I must be going across to the office.”

The office was situated in a smaller house standing opposite the lawyer’s residence. In his father’s time a portion of the ground floor of the house was devoted to business purposes, but after his marriage Jeremiah Brander had taken the house opposite and made it his place of business.

About twelve o’clock a gig drew up at the door; a moment later a young clerk came in.

“Doctor Edwards wishes to speak to you, Mr. Brander.”

“Show him in.”

“Well, doctor,” he said, as his visitor entered, “it is seldom that I see you here, though we meet often enough elsewhere. Come you to buy or to sell, or do you want a will prepared or a patient sued? If so you know that’s altogether out of my line.”

“I quite understand that, Brander,” the other said, as he took the armchair the lawyer pointed out to him. “No, I have come to tell you something you will be very sorry to hear. I have just come in from Fairclose. I had a note from Hartington last night asking me to go over first thing this morning.”

“He does not look like a man who would require professional services, doctor; he is sixty, I suppose, but he could tire out most of the younger men either across country or after the partridges.”

“Yes, he looks as hard as iron and sound as a roach, but appearances are deceptive. I should have said as you do yesterday if anyone had asked me. I have come to tell you to-day in confidence that he has not many months, perhaps not many weeks to live.”

The lawyer uttered an exclamation of surprise and regret.

“Yes, it is a bad business,” the doctor went on, “he told me that when he came back from hunting yesterday he went upstairs to change when suddenly the room seemed to go round. Fortunately he had just sat down on a couch and taken off his top boots, and he fell sideways on to it. He says he was insensible for about half an hour; the first thing he was conscious of was the servant knocking at the door, to say that dinner[Pg 10] was ready; he told the man that he did not feel well and should not go down; he got off his things and lay down for an hour and then felt well enough to write the note to me. Of course I made a thorough examination of him, and found that, as I feared, it was a bad case of heart disease, probably latent for a long time, but now I should say making rapid progress. Of course I told him something of the truth.

“‘Is it as bad as that?’ he said. ‘I have felt a lot of palpitation lately after a hard run with the hounds, and fancied something must be wrong. Well, say nothing about it, doctor; when it comes it must come, but I don’t want my affairs to be discussed or to know that every man I meet is saying to himself ‘poor old buffer, we shan’t have him long among us.’

“Then he said more seriously, ‘I would rather it should be so than that I should outgrow my strength and become a confirmed invalid. I have enjoyed my life and have done my best to do my duty as a landlord and as a magistrate. I am as prepared to die now as I should be twenty years on. I have been rather a lonely man since I lost my wife. Cuthbert’s ways are not my ways, for he likes life in London, cares nothing for field sports. But we can’t all be cast in one groove, you know, and I have never tried to persuade him to give up his life for mine, why should I? However, though I wish you to tell no one else, I should be glad if you will call on Brander and ask him to drive over. I made my will years ago, but there are a few matters I should like to talk over with him.'”

“This is sad, indeed,” the lawyer said, sympathetically. “The Squire—everyone about here calls him the Squire, you know, though there are men with broader acres than his in the neighborhood—will be terribly missed. Dear, dear, it will make a sad gap indeed: how long do you think he is likely to last?”

“He might go at any moment, Brander; but as he has rallied from this shock it may be some little time before he has another. I should give him perhaps a couple of months. By the way, I think his son ought to be informed of it.”

“I will ask him about it,” the lawyer said. “Of course[Pg 11] Cuthbert ought to know, but may be the Squire will keep it entirely to himself. I should say there is nothing that would upset him more than the thought of being fretted over, and I am not sure that he is not right. Of course I shall drive over there this afternoon.”

After Dr. Edwards had left, Jeremiah Brander sat for a long time in deep thought. Once the clerk came in to ask for instructions about a deed that he was drawing up, but he waved him away impatiently. “Put it aside,” he said, “I cannot see to it just now, I am busy, and not to be disturbed for the next hour, whoever comes.”

It was evidently a difficult problem Jeremiah Brander had to solve. He took out his bank-book and went through his payments for a long while back and then went through some bundles of old checks. One of these he took off the file; it was for the sum of fifteen thousand pounds, made payable to self.

“It is lucky now,” he muttered, “that I drew it, as I didn’t want it known even in the bank what I was putting the money into,” then from a strongbox with the name “J. W. Hartington,” he took out a bundle of documents, many of which were receipts for money signed by the Squire, carefully examined the dates and amounts, and put them down on a piece of paper.

“There would be no difficulty about the signature,” he said; “none whatever; a child could imitate it.”

Laying one of the sheets before him he wrote on a sheet of foolscap “J. W. Hartington” a score of times, imitating the somewhat crabbed handwriting so accurately that even an expert would have had some difficulty in detecting the difference; he then tore the sheet into small pieces, put them into the heart of the fire, and watched them shrivel up to nothing.

“I think it could be done without the slightest risk,” he said to himself, “if one managed the details carefully.” Then he sat down and remained for half an hour without stirring. “It can be done,” he said at last, “it is well worth trying; the property ought to be worth seventy thousand, but at a forced sale it might go for fifty-five or sixty. I reckoned last week that I could sell out my stocks for twenty-six thousand, which, with[Pg 12] the fifteen thousand, would bring it over forty, and I could raise the balance on the estate without difficulty; then with the rents and what I shall draw for this business, I shall be in clover.” He locked up the papers carefully, put on his hat, and went across the road to lunch.

There was no trace in his face or manner of the grave matters that had occupied his thoughts for the last two hours. He was cheerful and even gay over the meal. He joked Mary about the advancement of women, told the other girls that he intended that they should take lessons in riding, gave them an amusing account of the meeting of the Musical Society he had attended the evening before, and told his wife that she must dress specially well at the dinner they were going to that evening, as he had heard that most of the county big-wigs would be there.

Mr. Brander was always pleasant in the bosom of his family, occasionally sharp words might pass when he and his wife were alone, but when the girls were present he was always the genial father. There is no better advertisement for a man than his children’s talk. They are unconsciously his best trumpeters, and when Mr. Brander’s name was mentioned and his many services to his townsmen talked over, the fact that he was one of the best and kindest of men in his family circle, and that his girls positively worshipped him, was sure to be adduced as final and clinching evidence of the goodness of his character.

After lunch he went down to the bank and had a private interview with the manager.

“By the bye,” he said, after a short talk, “I have a client who wants to buy fifty shares.”

The manager glanced sharply at him.

“They stand at a premium,” Mr. Brander went on, as if not noticing the glance; “though they have fallen thirty shillings lately. It is not an investment I should myself recommend, but at the same time, for various reasons, I did not care to endeavor to dissuade him; it would scarcely do for it to be reported that I had said anything to the disadvantage of this institution, standing as I do in the position of its solicitor. I[Pg 13] think you mentioned the other day that you held rather more shares than you cared for, perhaps you could let me have some?”

The other nodded. “I could part with fifty,” he said, dryly.

“Let me think, when was the last board meeting?”

“This day fortnight.”

“I have rather neglected the matter in the pressure of business,” Mr. Brander said, quietly, “and my client thinks the matter is already concluded, so perhaps it would be as well to date the transfer on the day after the board meeting, and I will date my check accordingly.”

“It will be all the same to me,” the manager said, “shall I draw out the transfer at once?”

“Do so. The shares stand at six pounds ten, I think, so I will draw you out a check for three hundred and twenty-five pounds. That will be right, I think,” and he wrote a check and handed it across to the manager.

“What name shall I put in as the purchaser, Mr. Brander?”

“James William Hartington.”

The manager lifted his brows and hesitated for a moment, but then, without a remark, filled in the transfer, dating it as requested.

“I must get two of the clerks to witness my signature,” he said.

The lawyer nodded.

Two young clerks were fetched up by the messenger.

“I only want you to witness my signature,” the manager said, as he signed his name. “Please to sign here, Mr. Karford; now Mr. Levison, you sign underneath.” He held his finger to the spot where they were to sign in such a way that they could not even if they wished read the name inserted in the body of the document.

“I will take it away with me and obtain Hartington’s signature,” Mr. Brander said, after they had left the room, “I am going over to see him now. I will send it in to you before the next board meeting, and by the way it would be as well when you get it stamped to pass it in with several others. I know[Pg 14] how these things are done, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the directors don’t even glance at the names on the transfers. Of course they are nothing to them, they have other things to think about, but there might possibly be some remark at your transferring some of your shares just at the present moment. By the way,” he said, carelessly, “I don’t think if I were you I would make any further advances to Mildrake. Of course, he has a big business, and no doubt he is all right, but I have learned privately that they are not doing as well as they seem to be, and I know the bank is pretty deep there already.”

The manager turned somewhat paler, but said, though with manifest effort—

“They are perfectly safe, Mr. Brander, as safe as a bank.”

“No doubt, no doubt, Mr. Cumming, but you know all banks are not perfectly safe. Well, I dare say you can manage that for me.”

“Certainly, there can be no difficulty whatever about it. I have ten or twelve other transfers, and there will doubtless be some more before next board meeting. The affixing the stamp is a purely mechanical business.”

After the lawyer had left Mr. Cumming sat for some time passing his hand nervously over his chin.

“Brander evidently has an idea that all is not right,” he thought to himself. “Of course he cannot know how things really stand or he would never have let Hartington take shares. It is a curious transaction altogether, and I cannot make head nor tail of it. However, that is no business of mine. I will cash the check at once and send the money to town with the rest; if Mildrake can hold on we may tide matters over for the present; if not there will be a crash. However, he promised to send me forty-eight hours’ notice, and that will be enough for me to arrange matters and get off.”

Returning to his office the lawyer found his gig waiting at the door, and at once drove over to Fairclose, Mr. Hartington’s place.

“I am grieved, indeed, to hear the news Edwards brought me[Pg 15] this morning,” he said, as he entered the room where the Squire was sitting.

“Yes, it is rather sudden, Brander, but a little sooner or a little later does not make much difference after all. Edwards told you, of course, that I want nothing said about it.”

“That is so.”

“Nothing would annoy me more than to have any fuss. I shall just go on as I have before, except that I shall give up hunting; it is just the end of the season, and there will be but two or three more meets. I shall drive to them and have a chat with my friends and see the hounds throw off. I shall give out that I strained myself a bit the last time I was out, and must give up riding for a time. Have you brought my will over with you?”

“Yes, I thought you might want to add something to it.”

“That is right, there are two or three small legacies I have thought of; there is a list of them.”

Mr. Brander took out the will and added a codicil. The legacies were small ones of ten or twenty pounds to various old people in the village, and the work occupied but a few minutes. The housekeeper and one of the men were called up to witness the signature, and when they had retired Mr. Brander sat chatting for half an hour on general topics, Mr. Hartington avoiding any further allusion to the subject of his illness. Mr. Brander got back in time to dress comfortably for dinner.

“Really, Mary,” he said, when he went into the drawing-room where his wife and Mary were waiting ready for him, “I do think you might dress yourself a little more brightly when we are going to such a house as we are to-night. I don’t say that that black silk with the lace and those white flowers are not becoming, but I think something lighter and gayer would be more appropriate to a young girl.”

“I don’t like colors, father, and if it hadn’t been for mamma I should never have thought of getting these expensive flowers. I do think women lower themselves by dressing themselves as butterflies. No wonder men consider they think of nothing but dress and have no minds for higher matters.”[Pg 16]

“Pooh, pooh, my dear, the first duty of a young woman is to look as pretty as she can. According to my experience men don’t trouble themselves much about the mind, and a butterfly after all is a good deal more admired than a bee, though the bee is much more useful in the long run.”

“If a woman is contented to look like a butterfly, father, she must be content to be taken for one, but I must say I think it is degrading that men should look upon it in that light. They don’t dress themselves up in all sorts of colors, why should we.”

“I am sure I can’t tell you why, Mary, but I suppose it is a sort of instinct, and instincts are seldom wrong. If it had been intended that women should dress themselves as plainly and monotonously as we do, they would not have had the love of decorating themselves implanted almost universally among them. You are on the wrong track, child, on the wrong track altogether, and if you and those who think like you imagine that you are going to upset the laws of nature and to make women rivals of men in mind if not in manner, instead of being what they were meant to be, wives and mothers, you are althogether mistaken.”

“That is only another way of putting it, father, that because woman have for ages been treated as inferiors they ought always to remain so.”

“Well, well, my dear, we won’t argue over it. I think you are altogether wrong, but I have no objection to your going your own way and finding it out at last for yourself, but that does not alter my opinion that on an occasion of a set dinner-party in the county where everybody will be in their fullest fig, that dress, which is pretty and becoming enough in its way, I admit, can hardly be considered as appropriate.”

Mary did not answer, but gave an almost imperceptible shrug of her shoulders, expressing clearly her absolute indifference to other people’s tastes so long as she satisfied her own. Mary was indeed decided in most of her opinions. Although essentially feminine in most respects, she and the set to which she had belonged at Girton, had established it as a principle to their[Pg 17] own satisfaction, that feminine weaknesses were to be sternly discouraged as the main cause of the position held relatively to men. Thus they cultivated a certain brusqueness of speech, expressed their opinion uncompromisingly, and were distinguished by a certain plainness in the fashion of their gowns, and by the absence of trimmings, frillings, and similar adornments.

At heart she was as fond of pretty things as other girls of her age, and had, when she attired herself, been conscious that she felt a greater satisfaction at her appearance than she ought to have done, and doubted whether she had not made an undue concession to the vanities of society in the matter of her laces and flowers. She had, however, soothed her conscience by the consideration that she was at home but for a short time, and while there she might well fall in with her parents’ views, as she would be soon starting for Germany to enter upon earnest work. Her father’s remarks then were in a sense satisfactory to her, as they showed that, although she had made concessions, she had at least gone but half-way.

The dinner passed off well. Mary was fortunate in being taken down by a gentleman who had advanced views on the necessity of British agriculturists adopting scientific farming if they were to hold their own against foreign producers, and she surprised him by the interest she exhibited in his theories. So much so, that he always spoke of her afterwards as one of the most intelligent young women he had ever met.

Mr. Brander was in remarkably good spirits. On such occasions he entirely dropped his profession, and showed a keen interest in all matters connected with the land. No one would that evening have supposed that his mind was in the smallest degree preoccupied by grave matters of any kind.

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