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- Stella Fregelius - 5/56 -
But "in vain is the net spread," etc. As Morris passed the door of the library on his way to the old chapel of the Abbey, which now served him as a laboratory, he had seen his father bending over the desk and guessed his occupation. Knowing, therefore, what he must expect at lunch, Morris determined to dispense with that meal, and went out, much to the Colonel's disappointment and indignation. "I hate," he explained to his brother-in-law Porson afterwards, "yes, I hate a fellow who won't face disagreeables and shirks his responsibilities."
Between Monksland and the town of Northwold lay some four miles of cliff, most of which had been portioned off in building lots, for Northwold was what is called a "rising watering-place." About half-way between the Abbey and this town stood Mr. Porson's mansion. In fact, it was nothing but a dwelling like those about it, presenting the familiar seaside gabled roofs of red tiles, and stucco walls decorated with sham woodwork, with the difference that the house was exceedingly well built and about four times as large as the average villa.
"Great heavens! what a place!" said the Colonel to himself as he halted at the private gateway which opened on to the cliff and surveyed it affronting sea and sky in all its naked horror. "Show me the house and I will show you the man," he went on to himself; "but, after all, one mustn't judge him too hardly. Poor Porson, he did not arrange his own up-bringing or his ancestors. Hello! there he is.
"John, John, John!" he shouted at a stout little person clad in a black alpaca coat, a straw hat, and a pair of spectacles, who was engaged in sad contemplation of a bed of dying evergreens.
At the sound of that well-known voice the little man jumped as though he had trodden on a pin, and turned round slowly, muttering to himself,
"Gracious! It's him!" an ungrammatical sentence which indicated sufficiently how wide a niche in the temple of his mind was filled with the image of his brother-in-law, Colonel Monk.
John Porson was a man of about six or eight and fifty, round-faced, bald, with large blue eyes not unlike those of a china doll, and clean-shaven except for a pair of sandy-coloured mutton-chop whiskers. In expression he was gentle, even timid, and in figure short and stout. At this very moment behind a hundred counters stand a hundred replicas of that good-hearted man and worthy citizen, John Porson. Can he be described better or more briefly?
"How are you Colonel?" he said, hurrying forward. He had never yet dared to call his brother-in-law "Monk," and much less by his Christian name, so he compromised on "Colonel."
"Pretty well, thank you, considering my years and botherations. And how are you, John?"
"Not very grand, not very grand," said the little man; "my heart has been troubling me, and it was so dreadfully hot in London."
"Then why didn't you come away?"
"Really I don't know. I understood that it had something to do with a party, but I think the fact is that Mary was too lazy to look after the servants while they packed up."
"Perhaps she had some attraction there," suggested the Colonel, with an anxiety which might have been obvious to a more skilled observer.
"Attraction! What do you mean?" asked Porson.
"Mean, you old goose? Why, what should I mean? A young man, of course."
"Oh! I see. No, I am sure it was nothing of that sort. Mary won't be bothered with young men. She is too lazy; she just looks over their heads till they get tired and go away. I am sure it was the packing, or, perhaps, the party. But what are you staring at, Colonel? Is there anything wrong?"
"No, no; only that wonderful window of yours--the one filled with bottle-glass--which always reminds me of a bull's-eye lantern standing on a preserved-beef tin, or the top of a toy lighthouse."
Porson peered at the offending window through his spectacles.
"Certainly, now you mention it, it does look a little odd from here," he said; "naked, rather. You said so before, you remember, and I told them to plant the shrubs; but while I was away they let every one of the poor things die. I will ask my architect, Jenkins, if he can't do anything; it might be pulled down, perhaps."
"Better leave it alone," said the Colonel, with a sniff. "If I know anything of Jenkins he'd only put up something worse. I tell you, John, that where bricks and mortar are concerned that man's a moral monster."
"I know you don't like his style," murmured Porson; "but won't you come in, it is so hot out here in the sun?"
"Thank you, yes, but let us go to that place you call your den, not to the drawing-room. If you can spare it, I want half-an-hour with you. That's why I came over in the afternoon, before dinner."
"Certainly, certainly," murmured Porson again, as he led the way to the "den," but to himself he added: "It's those mortgages, I'll bet. Oh dear! oh dear! when shall I see the last of them?"
Presently they were established in the den, the Colonel very cool and comfortable in Mr. Porson's armchair, and Porson himself perched upon the edge of a new-looking leather sofa in an attitude of pained expectancy.
"Now I am at your service, Colonel," he said.
"Oh! yes; well, it is just this. I want you, if you will, to look through these figures for me," and he produced and handed to him a portentous document headed "List of Obligations."
Mr. Porson glanced at it, and instantly his round, simple face became clever and alert. Here he was on his own ground. In five minutes he had mastered the thing.
"Yes," he said, in a quick voice, "this is quite clear, but there is some mistake in the addition making a difference of 87 pounds 3s. 10d. in your favour. Well, where is the schedule of assets?"
"The schedule of assets, my dear John? I wish I knew. I have my pension, and there are the Abbey and estates, which, as things are, seem to be mortgaged to their full value. That's about all, I think. Unless--unless"--and he laughed, "we throw in Morris's patent electrical machine, which won't work."
"It ought to be reckoned, perhaps," replied Mr. Porson gravely; adding in a kind of burst, with an air of complete conviction: "I believe in Morris's machine, or, at least, I believe in Morris. He has the makings of a great man--no, of a great inventor about him."
"Do you really?" replied the Colonel, much interested. "That is curious--and encouraging; for, my dear John, where business matters are concerned, I trust your judgment."
"But I doubt whether he will make any money out of it," went on Porson. "One day the world will benefit; probably he will not benefit."
The Colonel's interest faded. "Possibly, John; but, if so, perhaps for present purposes we may leave this mysterious discovery out of the question."
"I think so, I think so; but what is the point?"
"The point is that I seem to be about at the end of my tether, although, as yet, I am glad to say, nobody has actually pressed me, and I have come to you, as a friend and a relative, for advice. What is to be done? I have sold you all the valuable land, and I am glad to think that you have made a very good thing of it. Some years ago, also, you took over the two heaviest mortgages on the Abbey estate, and I am sorry to say that the interest is considerably in arrear. There remain the floating debts and other charges, amounting in all to about 7,000 pounds, which I have no means of meeting, and meanwhile, of course, the place must be kept up. Under these circumstances, John, I ask you as a business man, what is to be done?"
"And, as a business man, I say I'm hanged if I know," said Porson, with unwonted energy. "All debts, no assets--the position is impossible. Unless, indeed, something happens."
"Quite so. That's it. My only comfort is--that something might happen," and he paused.
Porson fidgeted about on the edge of the leather sofa and turned red. In his heart he was wondering whether he dared offer to pay off the debts. This he was quite able to do; more, he was willing to do, since to him, good simple man, the welfare of the ancient house of Monk, of which his only sister had married the head, was a far more important thing than parting with a certain number of thousands of pounds. For birth and station, in his plebeian humility, John Porson had a reverence which was almost superstitious. Moreover, he had loved his dead sister dearly, and, in his way, he loved her son also. Also he revered his brother-in-law, the polished and splendid-looking Colonel, although it was true that sometimes he writhed beneath his military and aristocratic heel. Particularly, indeed, did he resent, in his secret heart, those continual sarcasms about his taste in architecture.
Now, although the monetary transactions between them had been many, as luck would have it--entirely without his own design--they chanced in the main to have turned to his, Porson's, advantage. Thus, owing chiefly to his intelligent development of its possibilities, the land which he bought from the Monk estate had increased enormously in value; so much so, indeed, that, even if he lost all the other sums advanced upon mortgage, he would still be considerably to the good. Therefore, as it happened, the Colonel was really under no obligations to him. In these circumstances, Mr. Porson did not quite know how a cold-blooded offer of an advance of cash without security--in practice a gift--would be received.
"Have you anything definite in your mind?" he hesitated, timidly.
The Colonel reflected. On his part he was wondering how Porson would receive the suggestion of a substantial loan. It seemed too much to risk. He was proud, and did not like to lay himself open to the possibility of rebuff.
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