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Chapter 1-4

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« on: September 18, 2023, 11:07:46 am »

CHAPTER FOUR

CLIMBING THE LADDER

THE SNOW had been cleared away from the drive and carriage sweep, but still lay in thick billowy masses upon the branches of the fir and pine trees and upon the banks of laurel and rhododendron below. At sunset the sky had cleared somewhat, and a scarlet glow touched the under side of the vast perspective of pale, folded cloud, and blazed on the upper south westward-facing windows of the Tower House as with a dazzle of fierce flame. Joseph Challoner, however, was unaware of these rather superb impressionist effects as, with his heavy, lunging step, he came out of the house on to the drive. The drawing-room had been hot, and he had gone through a somewhat emotional interview. A man at once hard and sentimental, just now sentiment was, so to speak, on the top. His upright face and head were decidedly flushed. He felt warm. He also felt excited, perceiving perspectives quite other than those presented by the folded clouds and the afterglow.

Usually Joseph Challoner affected a country-gentleman style of dress---tweeds of British manufacture, noted for their wear and wet-resisting qualities, symbolic of those sturdy, manly, no-nonsense sort of virtues, of which he reckoned himself so conspicuous an exponent, and which have, as we all know, gone to make England what she is. But to-day out of respect for his late client, Montagu Smyrthwaite, he had put on garments of ceremony, black braid-edged coat and waistcoat, pepper-and-salt-mixture overcoat with black-velvet collar, striped dove-gray and black trousers---which had served at a recent local wedding---and top hat. This costume tended to make an awkwardness of gait and action which belonged to him the more observable. Over six feet in height, he was commonly described by his admirers---mostly women---as “a splendid-looking man.” Others, doubtless envious of his success with the fair sex and of his inches, compared him, with his straight, thick, up-and-down figure, as broad across the loins as at the shoulders, his large paw-like hands and feet and flattened, slightly Mongolian caste of countenance, to a colossal infant. His opinion of his own appearance, concerning which he was in a chronic state of anxiety, fluctuated between these two extremes, with hopeful leanings toward the former. At the present moment, for private reasons, he hoped fervently that he was “a splendid-looking man.”

That he was a moist and hot one was undeniable. He took off his hat and passed his hand over his straight, shiny, reddish hair---carefully brushed across impending calvities---and sucked the ends of his rather ragged mustache nervously into the corners of his mouth.

He was touched, very much touched. He had not felt so upset for years. He admired his own sensibility. Yes, most distinctly he trusted that he was “a splendid-looking man”---and that she so regarded him. Then, coming along the drive toward him, between the snow-patched banks of evergreen, he caught sight of the short, well-bred, well-dressed, busy, not to say fussy little figure of that cherished institution of the best Stourmouth society, Colonel Rentoul Haig. This diverted his thoughts into another channel, or, to be perfectly accurate, set a second stream running alongside the first. Both, it may be added, tended in the direction of personal self-aggrandizement.

“Good-day to you, Challoner. Glad to meet you,” Colonel Haig said, a hint of patronage in his tone. “I heard the sad news from Woodward at the club at luncheon-time, and I took the tram up as far as the County Gates as soon as I could get away. We had a committee meeting at two-thirty. I felt it would be only proper to come and inquire.”

“Yes,” the other answered, in a suitably black-edged manner, “our poor friend passed away early this morning. I was sent for immediately.”

Having a keen sense of the value of phrases, Colonel Haig pricked up his ears, so to speak. His attitude of mind was far from democratic, and “our poor friend” from a local solicitor struck him as a trifle familiar. He looked up sharply at the speaker. He felt very much tempted to teach the man his place. But there was such a lot he wanted to hear which only this man could tell him. And so, the inquisitive nose and puckered, gossipy mouth getting the better of the commanding military eye, he decided to postpone the snubbing of Challoner to a more convenient season.

“I came round this afternoon chiefly to see Miss Margaret,” the latter continued. “She was terribly distressed and felt unequal to seeing me this morning. She is very sensitive, very sensitive and feminine. Her father’s death came as a great shock to her. And then owing to some mistake or neglect she was not present at the last. As she told me, she feels that very much indeed.” The speaker’s voice took a severe tone. He shifted his weight from one massive foot to the other, rather after the manner of a dancing bear. “Her grief was painful to witness. And I think you’ll agree with me, Colonel, it was just one of the neglects which ought not to have occurred.”

“A pity, a pity!” the other admitted. “But on such occasions people will lose their heads. It’s unavoidable. Look here, Challoner, I must go on and leave cards. But I sha’n’t be more than five minutes. I shall not ask to see either of the ladies to-day. So if you’ll wait I’ll walk as far as the County Gates with you, supposing you’re going in my direction.”

The Mongolian caste of countenance is conveniently non-committal, lending itself to no compromising play of expression. Challoner was more than willing to wait. He had certain things to say, a favour, indeed, to ask. And it always looked well, moreover---conferred a sort of patent of social solvency upon you---to be seen in public with Colonel Haig. He wished the weather had been less inclement so that more people might be about! But he betrayed no eagerness. Took out his watch, even, and noted the hour before answering.

“Yes, I think I may allow myself the pleasure,” he said. “I have been too much engaged here to get down to my office to-day, and there will be a mass of business waiting for me at home---no taking it easy in my profession if you’re to do your duty by your clients---but, yes, I shall be happy to wait for you.”

Then, left alone in the still, clear cold, he became absorbed in thought again.

When Joseph Challoner, the elder, settled at Stourmouth in the early sixties of the last century, that famous health-resort had consisted of a single street of small shops, stationed along a level space about half a mile up the fir and pine clad valley from the sea, plus some dozen unattractive lodging-houses perched on the top of the West Cliff. The beginnings of business had been meagre. Now Stourmouth and the outlying residential districts to which it acts as centre---among them the great stretch of pine-land known as the Baughurst Park Estate---covers the whole thirteen miles, in an almost unbroken series of shops, boarding-houses, hotels, villas, and places of amusement, from the ancient abbey-town of Marychurch at the junction of the rivers Wilmer and Arn, on the east, to Barryport, the old sea-faring town, formerly of somewhat sinister reputation, set beside a wide, shallow, island-dotted, land-locked harbour to the west. Along with the development of Stourmouth the elder Challoner’s fortunes developed. So that when, as an old man, he died in the last of the eighties, his son, the younger Joseph, succeeded to a by no means contemptible patrimony.

As business increased other members came into the firm, which now figured as that of Challoner, Greatrex & Pewsey. But, and that not in virtue of his senior partnership alone, Joseph Challoner’s interest remained the largely predominant one. He was indefatigable, quick to spot a good thing, and, so some said, more clever than scrupulous in his pursuit of it. He came to possess the reputation of a man who it is safer to have for your friend than your enemy. So much for the hard side of his character.

As to the sentimental side. When a youth of twenty he had fallen head over ears in love with the daughter of a local retail chemist, a pretty, delicate girl, with the marks of phthisis already upon her. She brought him a few hundred pounds. They married. And he was quite a good husband to her---as English husbands go. Still this marriage had been, he came to see, a mistake. The money, after all, was but a modest sum, while her ill-health proved decidedly costly. And then he had grown to know more of the world, grown harder and stronger, grown to perceive among other things that connection with a shop is a handicap. The smell of it sticks. There’s no ridding yourself of it. Joseph Challoner may be acquitted of being more addicted to peerage or money worship, to being a greater snob, in short, than the average self-respecting Anglo-Saxon; yet it would be idle to deny that when an all-wise and merciful providence permitted his poor, pretty young wife---after several unsuccessful attempts at the production of infant Challoners---to die of consumption, her husband felt there were compensations. He recognized her death as a call, socially speaking, to come up higher. He set himself to obey that call, but he did not hurry. For close upon thirteen years now, though of an amorous and domestic disposition, he had remained a widower. And this of set purpose, for he proposed that the last whiff of the shop should have time to evaporate. By the period immediately in question he had reason to believe it really had done so. Privately he expended a considerable sum in procuring his father-in-law a promising business near London. Stourmouth knew that retail chemist no more. And so it followed that the dead wife’s compromising origin was, practically, forgotten; only admiration of the constancy of the bereaved husband remained. To complete the divorce between past and present, Challoner, some few years previously, had let the “upper part” over the firm’s offices, at the corner where the Old Marychurch Road opens upon the public gardens and The Square in the centre of Stourmouth, to his junior partner, Mr. Pewsey, and removed to Heatherleigh, a fair-sized villa on the Baughurst Park Estate, which he bought at bargain price owing to the insolvency of its owner. Here, with a married couple at the head of his household, as butler and cook-housekeeper, he lived in solid British comfort---so-called---giving tea and tennis parties at intervals during the summer months, and somewhat heavy dinners during the winter ones, followed by bridge and billiards.

Granted the man and his natural tendencies, it was impossible that the thirteen years which had elapsed since the death of his wife should have been altogether free from sentimental complications. These had, in point of fact, been numerous. Upon several of them he could not look back with self-congratulation. Still the main thing was that he had escaped, always managing to sheer off in time to avoid being “had,” being run down and legally appropriated. The retreat may not have been graceful, might not, to a scrupulous conscience, even figure as strictly honourable, but it had been accomplished. And for that---standing here, now, to-day, on the snow-powdered carriage sweep of the Tower House---with a movement of unsuspected cynicism and profanity he gave thanks, sober, heartfelt, deliberate thanks to God his Maker. For his chance had come, the chance of a lifetime! He turned fiercely, grimly angry at the bare notion that any turn of events might have rendered him not free to embrace it. And his anger, as anger will, fixed itself vindictively upon a concrete object, upon a particular person.

But, at this point, his meditations were broken in upon by the sound of Colonel Haig’s slightly patronizing speech and the ring of his brisk returning footsteps over the hard gravel.

“Very obliging of you to wait for me, Challoner,” he said. “There are several things which I should be glad to hear, in confidence, about all this matter. Since their father’s death I feel a certain responsibility toward the Miss Smyrthwaites. They have only acquaintances here in the south of England---no old friends, no relatives. I really stand nearest to them, though we are but distantly connected.”

“I was not aware of even a distant connection,” Challoner returned.

“Probably not. I suppose hardly any one here is aware of it. In a watering-place like Stourmouth, a place that has come up like a mushroom in a night, as you may say, only a very small and exclusive circle do know who is who. That is one of the things one has to put up with, though I confess I find it annoying at times. Well, you see, my grandmother and poor Smyrthwaite’s mother were first cousins once removed---both Savages, the Yorkshire, not the Irish, branch of the family. I have reason to believe there was a good deal of opposition to Mrs. Smyrthwaite’s marriage. She was not a Roman Catholic, like most of her people. But they all were---and all are, I am thankful to say---people of very solid standing, landed gentry, soldiers, and so on. Naturally they objected to a marriage with a manufacturer and a Non-conformist. I am quite prepared to admit Unitarians have more breeding than most dissenters, but still it isn’t pleasant, it isn’t quite the thing, you know. Prejudice? Perhaps. But gentle-people are naturally prejudiced in favour of their own class. And, upon my word, I am inclined to believe it is very happy for the community at large they should be so.”

The two men reached the gate opening from the grounds of the Tower House on to the public road---a broad, straight avenue, the foot-paths on either side divided from the carriage-way by a double line of Scotch firs rising from an undergrowth of rhododendron and laurel. At intervals the roofs, gables, and turrets of other jealously secluded villas---in widely differing styles and no-styles of architecture---were visible. But these struck the eye as accidental. The sombre, far-stretching fir and pine woods were that which held the attention. They, and the great quiet of them; in which the cracking of a branch over-weighted with snow, the distant barking of a dog, or the twittering of a company of blue-tits foraging from tree-stem to tree-stem where the red scaling bark gave promise of insect provender, amounted to an arresting event.

After a moment of just perceptible hesitation Joseph Challoner pushed open the heavy gate for the elder man and let him pass out first. Several points in Colonel Haig’s discourse pleased him exceedingly little, but, in dealing with men as with affairs, he never permitted minor issues to obscure his judgment regarding major ones. If the old lad chose to be a bit impertinent and showy, never mind. Let him amuse himself that way if he wanted to. Challoner had a use for him just now, and could be patient till he had used him---used him right up, in fine, and no longer had any use left for him. It followed that as, side by side, the two turned northeastward up The Avenue he answered in a noticeably conciliatory tone: “I really am indebted to you, Colonel, for telling me this. I own my position looked awkward in some respects. I foresaw I might want to consult some one, unofficially, you understand, about the Miss Smyrthwaites’ affairs; and, as you truly say, they’ve nothing beyond acquaintances here. I recognized there really wasn’t a soul to whom I should feel at liberty to speak. But now that I know of your connection with and the interest you take in the family, I feel I have some one to turn to if I should need advice. It is a great relief.”

Colonel Haig’s self-importance was agreeably tickled.

“I am very happy to have the opportunity of being of service to you, Challoner,” he said, graciously, “particularly in connection with my cousin’s affairs.” Then he became eminently businesslike. “The disposition of the property is intricate?” he asked.

“No, not exactly. The provisions of the will---I drew it---are simple enough---in a way. But there is such a large amount of property to deal with.”

“Yes, yes, Smyrthwaite was very close, of course, very reticent. Still I have always supposed there was a good deal of money. Now, about what is the amount, approximately, I mean---if you are free to tell me?”

“Under the circumstances I see no reason why I should not tell you---in strict confidence, of course.”

“That is understood, my dear Challoner. Whatever you may feel it advisable, in the interests of these ladies, to say to me goes no farther, absolutely no farther.”

This from one whose face was irradiated with the joy of prospective gossipings struck his hearer as a trifle simple-minded. Never mind. The said hearer had the game well in hand.

“I take that for granted, Colonel,” he answered. “Professional instinct made me allude to it. One gets so much into the habit of insisting on silence regarding confidential communications that one insists when, as in the present case, there’s not the slightest necessity for doing so. A form of words---nothing more. With you I know I’m safe. Well, the estate stands at about two hundred thousand, rather more than less, with a considerable yearly income from the mills at Leeds in addition.”

Haig stopped short. He went very red in the face.

“Yes, it makes a very tidy heiress of each of the ladies,” Challoner said, parenthetically.

“It all goes to them?”

“Practically all of it.”

“I doubt if women should be left so much money,” Colonel Haig exclaimed, explosively. Remembrance of his own eight or nine hundred a year disgusted him. What a miserable pittance! He moved forward again, still red from mingled surprise and disgust, his neat, frizzly, grey moustache positively bristling. “Yes, I doubt, I very much doubt,” he repeated, “whether it is doing any woman a kindness, an unmarried woman, in particular, to leave her so much money. It opens the door to all sorts of risks. Women have no idea of money. It’s not in them. The position of an heiress is a most unfortunate one, in my opinion. It places her at the mercy of every description of rascally, unscrupulous fortune hunter.”

“You’re perfectly right, Colonel---I agree,” Challoner said. “It does.”

His face was unmoved, but his voice shook, gurgling in his throat like that of a man on the edge of a boisterous horse-laugh. For a few steps the two walked in silence, then he added: “And that is why I am so relieved at having you to turn to, Colonel. Unscrupulous fortune hunters are just the sort of dirty gentry we shall have to protect the two ladies against.”

“You may be sure of me, Challoner,” Colonel Haig said, with much seriousness. “We must work together.”

“Yes, we must work together, Colonel---in a good cause---that’s it.” And again his voice shook.

“Are you executor?” the other inquired, after a pause.

“No, and, between ourselves, I am glad of it. I shall be able to safeguard the Miss Smyrthwaites’ interests better since I am not dealing directly with the property. Miss Joanna and a distant relative are the executors. I think the second appointment a bad one, and ventured to say as much to Mr. Smyrthwaite when I drew this new will for him about two years ago.”

“A new will?”

“Yes; a name occurred in the earlier one which he wished to have cut out.”

The speaker paused, and the other man rose, metaphorically speaking, as a fish at a neatly cast fly.

“Ah! his son’s, I suppose. Poor Bibby’s---William, I mean, William Smyrthwaite. Everybody knew him as Bibby.”

“Yes,” Challoner said, “his son, William Smyrthwaite. Of course I am aware something went wrong there, but, to tell you the truth, Colonel, I have never got fairly at the story.”

“Well you may take it from me the story is a disgraceful one. I am a man of the world, Challoner, and not squeamish. I can make excuses, but, you may take it from me, young Smyrthwaite was a hopelessly bad lot. A low, vicious, ill-conditioned young fellow---degenerate, that is the only word, I am sorry to say. He was several years younger than his sisters. I heard all about it at the time through friends. There were nasty rumours about him at Rugby, and he was expelled---quite properly. His father put him into the business. Then things happened at Leeds---gambling, chorus girls, drink. I need not go into particulars. There was some question, too, of embezzlement, and young Smyrthwaite had to disappear. It was a terrible blow to his father. He decided to leave Leeds. He came south, bought the Tower House and settled here. I think he was quite right. The position was a very humiliating one, especially for his wife and daughters.”

Joseph Challoner listened carefully.

“And what became of the boy?”

“Oh, dead---fortunately for everybody concerned, dead.”

“Dead? Very fortunate. But a proven case of death or only an accepted one?”

“Oh, proven, I take it. Yes, unquestionably proven. I never heard there was the slightest doubt about that.”

“What a chattering fool the old bird is!” Challoner said to himself irreverently, adding, aloud: “Apparently, then, we may leave Master Bibby out of our count. That’s a good thing, anyhow. I am extremely obliged to you for giving me such a clear account of the whole matter, Colonel. It explains a great deal. Really I can’t be sufficiently glad that I happened to run across you this afternoon. I may call it providential. But now to go back to another young gentleman, Miss Joanna’s coexecutor, who is not in the very least dead.”

“Yes?” Haig inquired, with avidity. “Speak without reserve, Challoner. Ask me anything you are in any difficulty about.”

“I don’t want to abuse your good nature. And I don’t forget you have seen a lot more of the world than I have. Your point of view may be different. I shall be only too glad if you can reassure me. For I tell you, Colonel, it makes me uneasy. England’s good enough for me, England and Englishmen. I may be narrow-minded and insular, but I can do without the foreigner.”

“Yes, and I’m not sure you are not right in that,” the other said, rising at another clever cast. “Yes?”

“I am glad you agree. Well, this coexecutor whom we have to look after is, to all intents and purposes, a foreigner, that is to say, born abroad---a Parisian and a journalist. Ah, exactly! I am not sorry to see it strikes you as it did me, Colonel, when poor Mr. Smyrthwaite first broached the subject. Doesn’t sound very substantial, does it? And when you remember the amount of money that will pass through his hands! Still you may be able to reassure me. By the way, I suppose he must be a relative of yours. His name is Adrian Savage.”

“Never heard of him in my life,” Haig exclaimed, irritably. Then, afraid he had altogether too roundly given away his ignorance, he went on: “But wait a moment, wait! Yes, now I come to think, I do recollect that one of the Savages, a younger son, went into the medical profession. I never saw anything of him. There was a strong feeling in the family about it. Like marriage with a dissenter, they felt doctoring wasn’t exactly the thing for a Savage. So he was advised, if he must follow the medical profession, to follow it at a distance. I remember I heard he settled in Paris and married there. This journalist fellow may be a son of his.” The speaker cleared his throat. He was put about, uncertain what line it would be best to take. “At one time I used to be over there often. As a young man I knew my Paris well enough----”

“I’ll be bound you did, Colonel,” Challoner put in, with a flattering suggestiveness. “Silly old goat!” he said to himself.

“Yes, I do not deny I have amused myself there a little in the past,” the other acknowledged. “But somehow I never looked Doctor Savage up. It was unfriendly, perhaps, but---well---in point of fact I never did.”

“Had neater and sweeter things to look up, eh, Colonel?” Challoner put in again. “I believe you. Wish I’d ever had your luck.”

Here resisted laughter got the better of him, jarring the quiet of the woods with a coarseness of quality startling even to his own ears. Nothing betrays lack of breeding more than a laugh. He knew this, and it galled him. He felt angry, and hastened in so far as he might to recover himself.

“Seriously, though, joking apart, I very much wish, as things turn out, you had kept in touch with the doctor,” he said. “Then you would have been in a position to give me your views on this son of his. Mr. Smyrthwaite seems to have taken an awful fancy to him. But I don’t attach much importance to that. He was ill and crotchety, just in the state of health to take unreasoning likes and dislikes. And I can’t help being anxious, I tell you, Colonel. It does not affect my pocket in any way---I’m not thinking of myself. And I am no sentimentalist. My line of business leaves neither time nor room for that. Still I tell you candidly it goes tremendously against the grain with me to think of some irresponsible, long-haired, foreign, Bohemian chap being mixed up with the affairs of two refined English gentlewomen like the Miss Smyrthwaites. Of course he may turn out a less shadowy individual than I anticipate. Nothing would please me better than that he should. But, in any case, I mean to keep my eye upon him. He’s not going to play hanky-panky with the ladies’ money if Joseph Challoner can prevent it. I hold myself responsible to you, as well as to them and to my own conscience, Colonel, to keep things straight.”

“I am confident you will do your best,” the other replied, graciously. “And I trust you to consult me whenever you think fit. Don’t hesitate to make use of me.”

“I won’t, Colonel. Make yourself easy on that point. I am greatly indebted to you. I won’t.”

The end of the long avenue had come into sight, where, between high stone gate-posts—surmounted by just-lighted gas-lamps—it opens upon the main road and tram-line running from Stourmouth to Barryport. After the silence and solitude of the woods the street appeared full of movement. A row of shop-fronts, across the roadway, threw a yellow glare over the pavement and on to the snow-heaps piled in the gutter. The overhead wires hummed in the frosty air. A gang of boys snowballed one another in the middle of the street, scattering before some passing cart, and rushed back, shouting, to renew the fight. Groups of home-going workmen tramped along the pavement, their breath and the smoke of their pipes making a mist about their heads in the cold winter dusk.

Challoner held out a paw-like hand.

“You’ll excuse me if I leave you, Colonel?” he said. “I have outstayed my time already. I am afraid I must be getting home---a lot of work waiting for me. Good-night.”

He turned away. Then, just inside the gates, a sudden thought apparently striking him, he hesitated and came back.

“By the way,” he said, “I had been meaning to write a line to you to-day, but this sad business at the Tower House put it clean out of my head. I may just as well ask you by word of mouth. It’ll save you the bother of a note. Woodford has nominated me for election at the club. Your name, as one of the oldest and most influential members, of course, carries much weight. If you second me you’ll do me a great kindness.”

Here the towering, well-lighted tram from Barryport sailed majestically up, with a long-drawn growl, ending in a heavy clang and thin shriek as the powerful brakes gripped, bringing it to a stop.

“All right. I may take it for settled, then. I have your promise. Really I am awfully obliged to you. Don’t let me make you miss your tram, though. Hi! conductor, steady a minute. Colonel Haig’s going with you.---Thanks, Colonel, good-night,” Challoner cried, all in a breath, without giving the hustled, harried, almost apoplectic ex-warrior time to utter a syllable good or bad.

“Had him neatly,” he said to himself, as he turned once more into the stillness and twilight of the woods. “He can’t back out---daren’t back out. Their swagger, aristocratic, d---- your impudence Stourmouth Club taken by assault!”

And again he laughed, but this time the coarse quality of the sound failed to jar him. On the contrary, he rather relished its stridency. He was winning all along the line, so he could afford---for a little while here alone under the snow-laden fir-trees in the deepening dusk---to be himself.

In the hall at Heatherleigh his man-servant---a thin, yellowish, gentle, anxious-looking person, who played the part of shuttlecock to the battledores of his strong master and of a commanding wife, ten years his senior---met him.

“Mr. Pewsey is waiting for you in the smoke-room, sir,” he said, while helping Challoner off with the pepper-and-salt-mixture overcoat. “And Mrs. Spencer, sir, called to leave this note. She said there was no answer, but I was to be sure and give it to you directly you came in.”

Challoner took the note, and stopped for a minute under the hanging, colored-glass gas-lantern to read it. It was written in a large, showy, yet tentative hand, on highly scented mauve paper with a white border to it, and ran thus: “B. gone to Mary church to dine and sleep. Alone. Come round if you can after dinner. Want you. Quite safe. Love. GWYNNIE.”

Challoner rolled the small scented sheet into a ball and tossed it viciously on to the fire, watching till the flame licked it up.

“No, there’s no answer. Quite true, Mrs. Gwynnie---even less answer than you suppose or will in the least bit like,” he said, between his teeth.

Then he opened the door and passed into the smoking-room to join his junior partner, with a quite expressionless face.

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