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- The Town Traveller - 30/41 -
hadn't been a good reason."
"Never mind. I won't interfere. I feel as if it had nothing to do with me. Will you go upstairs to him? He looks to me as if he hadn't very long to live, indeed he does. Listen, that's his cough! Oh, I am so upset. It came so sudden. And to think you'd seen him and never told me! Never mind, go up to him, if you will, and see what he wants with you."
Gammon did her bidding. He ascended lightly and tapped at the door Mrs. Clover indicated. A cough sounded from within; then a voice which the visitor recognized, saying," Come in." On the bed, but fully dressed, lay a tall, meagre man, with a woollen comforter about his neck. The room was in good order, and warmed by a fire, which the sufferer's condition seemed to make very necessary. He fixed his eyes on Gammon, as if trying to smile, but defeated in the effort by pain and misery.
"I'm here, you see," he said hoarsely. "There's no doubt about me now."
"Got a bad cold, eh?" replied the other, as cheerfully as he could.
"Yes, a cold. Always have a cold. Would you mind reaching me the kettle?"
He poured out some brandy from a bottle which stood on the floor, and mixed it with a little hot water. Gammon the while observed him with much curiosity. In five years or a little more he had become an old and feeble man; his thin hair was all but completely grey, his flesh had wasted and discoloured, his hand trembled, his breath came with difficulty. Present illness accounted perhaps for the latter symptoms; but, from that glimpse of him in Norton Folgate, Gammon had known that he was much aged and shaken. Hat, overcoat, and muffler had partly disguised what was now evident. He spoke with the accent of an educated man, and in the tone of one whom nature has endowed with amiable qualities. The bottle beside him seemed to explain certain peculiarities of his manner. When he had drunk thirstily he raised himself to a sitting posture, and nodded to his visitor an invitation to take a chair.
"I'm here, you see, Gammon. Here at last."
"Why did you come?"
"Why?--ah, why indeed!"
Having sighed out this ejaculation he seemed to grow absent, to forget that he was not alone. A violent cough shook him into wakefulness again; he stared at Gammon with red eyes full of pain and fear, and said thickly:
"Are you an honest man--you?
"Well, I hope so; try to be."
"What's his name? You know him, don't you?"
"Do you mean Greenacre?" asked Gammon, feeling very uncomfortable, for the man before him looked like one who struggles for his last breath.
"Greenacre, yes. What has he told you about me?"
Gammon answered with the simple truth; the situation alarmed him, and he would have nothing more to do with conspiracy in such a case. He could not feel sure that his explanations were followed and understood; now and then the bloodshot eyes turned blankly to him as if in a drunken dream; but in the end he saw a look of satisfaction.
"You're an honest man, aren't you? We used to know each other, you know when. My wife likes you, doesn't she?"
"We've always been friends, of course," Gammon replied.
"Would you mind giving me the kettle?" He mixed another glass of brandy, spilling a great deal in the process. "I don't offer you any, Greenacre, it's medicine; I take it as such. One doesn't offer one's friends a glass of medicine, you know, Greenacre."
"My name is Gammon."
"What am I thinking about! There was something I wanted to ask you. Yes, of course. Does she know?"
"You mean does your wife know who you really are?" said Gammon in a cautious voice.
"Haven't you told her?"
"Then I don't think anyone else has."
The man had fallen back upon the pillow. He began to cough, struggled to raise himself, and became seated on the edge of the bed.
"Well, it's time we were going."
"Where to?" asked Gammon.
The other stared at him in surprise and distress.
"Surely I haven't to tell you all over again! Weren't you listening? You're a man of business, are you not? Surely you ought to have a clear head the first thing in the morning."
"Just tell me again in a word or two. What can I do for you? Do you want to see anybody?"
"Yes, yes, I remember." He laid a hand on his companion's shoulder. "The matter stands thus, Greenacre I trust you implicitly, once more I assure you of that; but it is absolutely necessary for me to see a solicitor."
"All right. What's his name?"
"I'll tell you, Cuthbertson--Old Jewry Chambers. But first of all let us come to an understanding about that man Quodling. I called upon his brother--why, I told you all that before, didn't I?"
"You had just been there when I met you in Norton Folgate," said Gammon, who felt that before long his own wits would begin to wander.
"To be sure. And now we really must be going."
He stood up staggering, gained his balance, and walked to the window. The prospect thence seemed to recall him to a consciousness of the actual present, and he looked round appealingly, distressfully.
"I tell you what it is," said Gammon. "You ought to get into bed and have a doctor. Shall I help you?"
"No, no; I regret that I came here, Greenacre. I am not welcome; how could I expect to be? If I am going to be ill it mustn't be here."
"Then let me get a cab and take you to your own place, if your wife is willing."
"That would be best. The truth is I feel terribly queer, Greenacre. Suppose I--suppose I died here? Of course, I ought never to have come. Think of the talk there would be; and that's just what I wanted to spare them, the talk and the disgrace. It can all be managed by my solicitor. But I felt that come I must. After all, you see, it's home. You understand that? It's really my home. I've been here often at night, just to see the house. The wonder is that I didn't come in before. Of course, I knew I couldn't be welcome--but one's wife and child, Greenacre. The real wife, whether the other's alive or not."
"What did you say?" he asked in a whisper.
"Nothing--nothing. You are a good fellow, I am sure, and my wife likes you, that's quite enough. The point is this now, I must destroy that will, and get Cuthbertson to draw a deed of gift, all in order, you know, but nothing that could get wind and make a scandal. The will would be publicly known, I ought to have remembered that. I repeat, Greenacre, that what I have to do is to provide for them both without causing them any trouble or disgrace."
Catching the listener's eye he became silent and confused for a moment, then added quickly:
"I beg your pardon. I addressed you by the wrong name. Gammon, I meant to say. Gammon, my wife's friend, a thoroughly honest man. Have I made myself clear, Gammon? I--you see how the matter stands?"
Gammon was beginning to see that the matter stood in a perilous position, and that the sooner Mr. Cuthbertson--if such a person existed--could be brought on to the scene the better for every one concerned. He asked himself whether he ought to summon Mrs. Clover. His glance towards the door must have betrayed his thought, for the sick man spoke as though in reply to it.
"We will say nothing to her yet, if you please. I--I begin to feel a little better. Our long confidential talk has done me good. By the by, Greenacre--I beg your pardon, Gammon--you quite understand that it is all in the strictest confidence. I trust you implicitly as my dear wife's friend; it is all in her interests, as you see. I think now, if you would kindly get a cab--yes, I feel quite equal to it now--we will go to Lowndes Mansions."
The voice was thin, husky, senile; but his tone had more of rationality, and he appeared to have made up his mind to a course of action. Gammon presently went downstairs and told Mrs. Clover that her husband wished to go into town on business. She made no objection, but asked whether Gammon would take the responsibility of looking after him. This he promised. Whether the man would return hither or not was left uncertain.
"If he goes to his own house," said Gammon, "I'll see him safe there and let you know. He lives in the West End. Now don't upset yourself; if he doesn't come back you shall know where he is, and if you want to you shall go and see him. I promise you that. I know all about him, and so shall you; so just keep yourself quiet. He'll have
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