English Literature

The Simpkins Plot by George A. Birmingham

The Simpkins Plot by George A. Birmingham.jpg

CHAPTER I.

The platform at Euston was crowded, and the porters’ barrows piled high with luggage. During the last week in July the Irish mail carries a heavy load of passengers, and for the twenty minutes before its departure people are busy endeavouring to secure their own comfort and the safety of their belongings. There are schoolboys, with portmanteaux, play-boxes, and hand-bags, escaping home for the summer holidays. There are sportsmen, eager members of the Stock Exchange or keen lawyers, on their way to Donegal or Clare for fishing. There are tourists, the holders of tickets which promise them a round of visits to famous beauty spots. There are members of the House of Lords, who have accomplished their labours as legislators—and their wives, peeresses, who have done their duty by the London season—on their way back to stately mansions in the land from which they draw their incomes. Great people these in drawing-rooms or clubs; greater still in the remote Irish villages which their names still dominate; but not particularly great on the Euston platform, for there is little respect of persons there as the time of the train’s departure draws near. A porter pushed his barrow, heavy with trunks and crowned with gun-cases, against the legs of an earl, who swore. A burly man, red faced and broad shouldered, elbowed a marchioness who, not knowing how to swear effectively, tried to wither him with a glance. She failed. The man who had jostled her had small reverence for rank or title. He was, besides, in a hurry, and had no time to spend in apologising to great ladies.

Sir Gilbert Hawkesby was one of his Majesty’s judges. He had won his position by sheer hard work and commanding ability. He had not stopped in his career to soothe the outraged dignity of those whom he pushed aside; and he had no intention now of delaying his progress along the railway platform to explain to a marchioness why he had jostled her. It was only by a vigorous use of his elbows that he could make his way; and it ought to have been evident, even to a peeress, that he meant to go from one end of the train to the other. His eyes glanced sharply right and left as he pushed on. He peered through the windows of the carriages. He scanned each figure in the crowd. At last he caught sight of a lady standing beside the bookstall. She wore a long grey cloak and a dark travelling-hat. She stooped over the books and papers on the stall before her; and her face, in profile as Sir Gilbert saw it, was lit by the flaring gas above her head. Having caught sight of her, the judge pushed on even more vigorously than before.

“Here I am, Milly,” he said. “I said I’d be in time to see you off, and I am; but owing to—”

The lady at the bookstall turned and looked at him. She flushed suddenly, and then as suddenly grew pale. She raised her hand hurriedly and pulled her veil over her face. Sir Gilbert stared at her in amazement. Then his face, too, changed colour.

“I—I beg your pardon,” he said; “I mistook you for my niece. It’s quite inconceivable to me how I—a most remarkable likeness. I’m astonished that I didn’t notice it before. The fact is—under the circumstances—”

Sir Gilbert was acutely uncomfortable. Never in the course of a long career at the bar had he felt so hopelessly embarrassed. On no occasion in his life, so far as he could remember, had he been reduced to stammering incoherences. It had not occurred to him to apologise to the jostled marchioness a few minutes before. He was now anxious to abase himself before the lady at the bookstall.

“I sincerely beg your pardon,” he said. “I should not have dreamed for a moment of intruding myself on you if I had known. I ought to have recognised you. I can’t understand—”

The lady laid down the book she held in her hand, and turned her back on Sir Gilbert. She crossed the platform, and entered a carriage without looking back. Sir Gilbert stood stiff and awkward beside the bookstall.

“It’s a most extraordinary likeness,” he muttered. “I can’t understand why I didn’t notice it before. I can’t have ever really looked at her.”

Then, avoiding the carriage which the lady had entered, he walked further along the platform. He was much less self-assertive in his progress. He threaded his way instead of elbowing it through the crowd. The most fragile peeress might have jostled him, and he would not have resented it.

“Uncle Gilbert! Is that you? I was afraid you were going to be late.”

The judge turned quickly. A lady, another lady, leaned out of the window of a first-class compartment and greeted him. He stared at her. The likeness was less striking now when he looked at his niece’s full face; but it was there, quite unmistakable; a sufficient excuse for the blunder he had made.

“Ah, Milly,” he said; “you really are Milly, aren’t you? I’ve just had a most extraordinary encounter with your double. It’s a most remarkable coincidence; quite the thing for one of your novels. By the way, how’s the new one getting on?”

“Which one? I’m just correcting a set of proofs, and I’m deep in the plot of another. That’s what’s taking me over to Ireland. I thought I’d told you.”

“Yes, yes; local colour you said in your letter. Studying the wild Hibernian on his native soil; but really, Milly, when you’ve heard my story you won’t want to go to Ireland for wild improbabilities. But I can’t tell you now. There isn’t time. We’ll meet in Bally-what-do-you-call-it next week.”

“And you’ll stay with me, Uncle Gilbert, won’t you? The house I’ve taken appears to be a perfect barrack. According to the agent, there are any amount of spare bedrooms.”

“No,” said the judge; “I’ve taken rooms at the hotel. The fact is, Milly, when I’m fishing I like to rough it a bit. Besides, I should only be in your way. You’ll be working tremendously hard.”

Neither excuse expressed Sir Gilbert’s real reason for refusing his niece’s invitation. He did not like roughing it, and he did not think it the least likely that his presence in the house would interfere with her work. On the contrary, her work was likely to interfere with his comfort. He was fond of his niece, but he disliked her habit of reading passages from her MSS. aloud in the evenings. She was very much absorbed in her novel-writing, and took her work with a seriousness which struck the judge as ridiculous.

“I’ll dine with you occasionally,” he said, “but I shall put up at the hotel. By the way, Milly, am I your tenant or are you mine? I left all the arrangements in your hands.”

“I took the house and the fishing,” she said. “The agent man wouldn’t let one without the other; but you have to pay most of the rent. The salmon are the really valuable part of the property, it appears.”

“All right,” said Sir Gilbert; “so long as the fishing is good I won’t quarrel with you over my share of the rent. The house would only have been a nuisance to me. I should have had to bring over servants, and that would have worried your aunt. Ah! Your time’s up, I see. Good-bye, Milly, good-bye. Take care of yourself, and don’t get mixed up with shady people in your search for originality. I’ll start this day week as soon as ever I get your aunt settled down at Bournemouth.”

Millicent King, Sir Gilbert Hawkesby’s niece, was a young woman of some little importance in the world. The patrons of the circulating libraries knew her as Ena Dunkeld, and shook their heads over her. The gentlemen who add to the meagre salaries they earn in Government offices by writing reviews knew her under both her names, for no literary secrets are hid from them. They praised her novels publicly, and in private yawned over her morality. Many people, her aunt Lady Hawkesby among them, very strongly disapproved of her novels. Certain problems, so these ladies maintained, ought to be discussed only in scientific books, labelled “poison” for the safety of the public, and ought never to be discussed at all by young women. Millicent King, rendered obstinate by these criticisms, plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of mire which, after a time, she began to dislike very much. She had in reality simple tastes of a domestic kind, and might have been very happy sewing baby clothes if she had married a peaceable man and kept out of literary society. Fortunately, or unfortunately—the choice of the adverb depends upon the views taken of the value of detailed analysis of marriage problems—Miss King had not come across any man of a suitable kind who wanted to marry her. She had, on the other hand, met a large number of people who praised, and a few who abused her. She liked the flattery, and was pleased to be pointed out as a person of importance. She regarded the abuse as a tribute to the value of her work, knowing that all true prophets suffer under the evil speaking of a censorious world. Latterly she had begun to consider whether she might not secure the praise, without incurring the blame, by writing novels of a different kind. With a view to perfecting a new story of adventure and perfectly respectable love, she determined to isolate herself for a couple of months. As certain Irishmen played a part in her story, she fixed upon Connacht as the place of her retirement, intending to study the romantic Celt on his native soil. A house advertised in the columns of The Field seemed to offer her the opportunity she desired. She took it and the fishing attached to it; having bargained with her uncle, Sir Gilbert Hawkesby, that she was to be relieved of the duty of catching salmon, and that he should pay a considerable part of the heavy rent demanded by the local agent.

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