SKINNER — called "young" because he had once had a father on the premises — was the mole-catcher. The feelings with which he had now for some months watched his master grubbing were curiously mingled. There was the grim sense of superiority every successful detective feels as he sees the watched one working away unconscious of the eye that is on him; but this was more than balanced by a long habit of obsequious reverence. When A. has been looking up to B. for thirty years, he cannot look down on him all of a sudden, merely because he catches him falsifying accounts. Why, Man is a cooking animal: bankrupt Man especially.
And then Richard Hardie overpowered Skinner's senses: he was Dignity in person: he was six feet two, and always wore a black surtout buttoned high, and a hat with a brim a little broader than his neighbours', yet not broad enough to be eccentric or slang. He moved down the street touching his hat — while other hats were lifted high to him — a walking volume of cash. And when he took off this ebon crown and sat in the bank parlour, he gained in appearance more than he lost; for then his whole head was seen, long, calm, majestic: that senatorial front and furrowed face overawed all comers. Even the little sharp-faced clerk would stand and peep at it, utterly puzzled between what he knew and what he eyed: nor could he look at that head and face without excusing them. What a lot of money they must have sunk before they came down to fabricating a balance-sheet!
And by-and-bye custom somewhat blunted his sense of the dishonesty, and he began to criticise the thing arithmetically instead of morally. That view once admitted, he was charmed with the ability and subtlety of his dignified sharper; and so the mole-catcher began gradually, but effectually, to be corrupted by the mole. He who watches a dishonest process and does not stop it, is half way towards conniving: who connives, is half way towards abetting.
The next thing was, Skinner felt mortified at his master not trusting him. Did he think old Bob Skinner's son would blow on Hardie after all these years?
This rankled a little, and set him to console himself by admiring his own cleverness in penetrating this great distrustful man. Now of all sentiments, Vanity is the most restless and the surest to peep out. Skinner was no sooner inflated than his demure obsequious manner underwent a certain change: slight and occasional only; but Hardie was a subtle man, and the perilous path he was treading made him wonderfully watchful, suspicious, and sagacious. He said to himself, "What has come to Skinner? I must know." So he quietly watched his watcher; and soon satisfied himself he suspected something amiss. From that hour Skinner was a doomed clerk.
It was two o'clock: Hardie had just arrived, and sat in the parlour, Cato-like, and cooking.
Skinner was in high spirits: it was owing to his presence of mind the bank had not been broken some hours ago by Maxley. So now, while concluding his work, he was enjoying by anticipation his employer's gratitude. "He can't hold aloof after this," said Skinner; "he must honour me with his confidence. And I will deserve it. I do deserve it."
A grave, calm, passionless voice invited him into the parlour.
He descended from his desk and went in, swelling with demure complacency.
He found Mr. Hardie seated garbling his accounts with surpassing dignity. The great man handed him an envelope, and cooked majestic on. A wave of that imperial hand, and Skinner had mingled with the past.
For know that the envelope contained three things: a cheque for a month's wages; a character; and a dismissal, very polite and equally peremptory.
Skinner stood paralysed: the complacency died out of his face, and rueful wonder came instead. It was some time before he could utter a word: at last he faltered, "Turn me away, sir? turn away Noah Skinner? Your father would never have said such a word to my father." Skinner uttered this his first remonstrance in a voice trembling with awe, but gathered courage when he found he had done it, yet lived.
Mr. Hardie evaded his expostulation by a very simple means: he made no reply, but continued his work, dignified as Brutus, inexorable as Fate, cool as Cucumber.
Skinner's anger began to rise, he watched Mr. Hardie in silence, and said to himself, "Curse you! you were born without a heart!"
He waited, however, for some sign of relenting, and, hoping for it the water came into his own eyes. But Hardie was impassive as ice.
Then the little clerk, mortified to the core as well as wounded, ground his teeth and drew a little nearer to this incarnate Arithmetic, and said with an excess of obsequiousness, "Will you condescend to give me a reason for turning me away all in a moment after five-and-thirty years' faithful services?"
"Men of business do not deal in reasons," was the cool reply: "it is enough for you that I give you an excellent character, and that we part good friends."
"That we do not," replied Skinner sharply: "if we stay together we are friends; but we part enemies, if we do part."
"As you please, Mr. Skinner. I will detain you no longer."
And Mr. Hardie waved him away so grandly that he started and almost ran to the door. When he felt the handle, it acted like a prop to his heart. He stood firm, and rage supplied the place of steady courage. He clung to the door, and whispered at his master — such a whisper: so loud, so cutting, so full of meaning and malice; it was like a serpent hissing at a man.
"But I'll give you a reason, a good reason, why you had better not insult me so cruel: and what is more, I'll give you two: and one is that but for me the bank must have closed this day at ten o'clock — ay, you may stare; it was I saved it, not you — and the other is that, if you make an enemy of me, you are done for. I know too much to be made an enemy of, sir — a great deal too much."
At this Mr. Hardie raised his head from his book and eyed his crouching venomous assailant full in the face, majestically, as one can fancy a lion rearing his ponderous head, and looking lazily and steadily at a snake that has just hissed in a corner. Each word of Skinner's was a barbed icicle to him, yet not a muscle of his close countenance betrayed his inward suffering.
One thing, however, even he could not master: his blood; it retired from that stoical cheek to the chilled and foreboding heart; and the sudden pallor of the resolute face told Skinner his shafts had gone home. "Come, sir," said he, affecting to mingle good fellowship with his defiance, "why bundle me off these premises, when you will be bundled off them yourself before the week is out?"
"You insolent scoundrel! Humph! Explain, Mr. Skinner."
"Ah! what, have I warmed your marble up a bit? Yes, I'll explain. The bank is rotten, and can't last forty-eight hours."
"Oh, indeed! blighted in a day — by the dismissal of Mr. Noah Skinner. Do not repeat that after you have been turned into the streets, or you will be indicted: at present we are confidential. Anything more before you quit the rotten bank?"
"Yes, sir, plenty. I'll tell you your own history, past, present, and to come. The road to riches is hard and rugged to the likes of me, but your good father made it smooth and easy to you, sir. You had only to take the money of a lot of fools that fancy they can't keep it themselves; invest it in Consols and Exchequer bills, live on half the profits, put by the rest, and roll in wealth. But this was too slow and too sure for you: you must be Rothschild in a day; so you went into blind speculation, and flung old Mr. Hardie's savings into a well. And now for the last eight months you have been doctoring the ledger — Hardie winced just perceptibly — "You have put down our gains in white, our losses in black, and so you keep feeding your pocket-book and empty our tills; the pear will soon be ripe, and then you will let it drop, and into the Bankruptcy Court we go. But, what you forget, fraudulent bankruptcy isn't the turnpike way of trade: it is a broad road, but a crooked one: skirts the prison wall, sir, and sights the herring-pond."
An agony went across Mr. Hardie's great face, and seemed to furrow as it ran.
"Not but what you are all right, sir," resumed his little cat-like tormentor, letting him go a little way, to nail him again by-and-bye: "You have cooked the books in time: and Cocker was a fool to you. 'Twill be all down in black and white. Great sacrifices: no reserve: creditors take everything; dividend fourpence in the pound, furniture of house and bank, Mrs. Hardie's portrait, and down to the coalscuttle. Bankrupt saves nothing but his honour, and — the six thousand pounds or so he has stitched into his old great-coat: hands his new one to the official assignees, like an honest man."
Hardie uttered something between a growl and a moan.
"Now comes the per contra: poor little despised Noah Skinner has kept genuine books while you have been preparing false ones. I took the real figures home every afternoon on loose leaves, and bound 'em: and very curious they will read in court alongside of yours. I did it for amusement o' nights: I'm so solitary, and so fond of figures. I must try and turn them to profit; for I'm out of place now in my old age. Dearee me! how curious that you should go and pick out me of all men to turn into the street — like a dog — like a dog — like a dog."
Hardie turned his head away; and in that moment of humiliation and abject fear, drank all the bitterness of moral death.
His manhood urged him to defy Skinner and return to the straight path, cost what it might. But how could he? His own books were all falsified. He could place a true total before his creditors by simply adding the contents of his secret hoard to the assets of the Bank; but with this true arithmetical result he could not square his books, except by conjectural and fabricated details, which would be detected, and send him to prison; for who would believe he was lying in figures only to get back to the truth? No, he had entangled himself in his own fraud, and was at the mercy of his servant. He took his line. "Skinner, it was your interest to leave me whilst the bank stood; then you would have got a place directly; but since you take umbrage at my dismissing you for your own good, I must punish you — by keeping you."
"I am quite ready to stay and serve you, sir," replied Skinner hastily "and as for my angry words, think no more of them! It went to my heart to be turned away at the very time you need me most."
("Hypocritical rogue!" thought Hardie.) "That is true, Skinner," said he; "I do indeed need a faithful and sympathising servant, to advise, support, and aid me. Ask yourself whether any man in England needs a confidant more than I. It was bitter at first to be discovered even by you: but now I am glad you know all; for I see I have undervalued your ability as well as your zeal."
Thus Mr. Hardie bowed his pride to flatter Skinner, and soon saw by the little fellow's heightened colour that this was the way to make him a clerk of wax.
The banker and his clerk were reconciled. Then the latter was invited to commit himself by carrying on the culinary process in his own hand. He trembled a little, but complied, and so became an accomplice. On this his master took him into his confidence, and told him everything it was impossible to hide from him.
"And now, sir," said Skinner, "let me tell you what I did for you this morning. Then perhaps you won't wonder at my being so peppery. Maxley suspects: he came here and drew out every shilling. I was all in a perspiration what to do. But I put a good face on, and — — "
Skinner then confided to his principal how he had evaded Maxley and saved the Bank; and the stratagem seemed so incredible and droll, that they both laughed over it long and loud. And in fact it turned out a first-rate practical jest: cost two lives.
While they were laughing, the young clerk looked in and said, "Captain Dodd, to speak with you, sir!"
"Captain Dodd!!!" And all Mr. Hardie's forced merriment died away, and his face betrayed his vexation for once. "Did you go and tell him I was here?"
"Yes, sir: I had no orders; and he said you would be sure to see him."
"Unfortunate! Well, you may show him in when I ring your bell."
The youngster being gone, Mr. Hardie explained to his new ally in a few hurried words the danger that threatened him from Miss Julia Dodd. "And now," said he, "the women have sent her father to soften his. I shall be told his girl will die if she can't have my boy, etc. As if I care who lives or dies."
On this Skinner got up all in a hurry and offered to go into the office.
"On no account," said Mr. Hardie sharply. "I shall make my business with you the excuse for cutting this love-nonsense mighty short. Take your book to the desk, and seem buried in it."
He then touched the bell, and both confederates fell into an attitude: never were a pair so bent over their little accounts — lies, like themselves.
Instead of the heart-broken father their comedy awaited, in came the gallant sailor with a brown cheek reddened by triumph and excitement and almost shouted in a genial jocund voice, "How d'ye do sir? It is a long time since I came across your hawse." And with this he held out his hand cordially. Hardie gave his mechanically, and remained on his guard, but somewhat puzzled. Dodd shook his cold hand heartily. "Well, sir, here I am, just come ashore, and visiting you before my very wife; what d'ye think of that?"
"I am highly honoured, sir," said Hardie: then, rather stiffly and incredulously, "and to what may I owe this extraordinary preference? Will you be good enough to state the purport of this visit — briefly — as Mr. Skinner and I are much occupied?"
"The purport? Why, what does one come to a banker about? I have got a lot of money I want to get rid of."
Hardie stared, but was as much on his guard as ever; only more and more puzzled.
Then David winked at him with simple cunning, took out his knife, undid his shirt, and began to cut the threads which bound the Cash to his flannel.
At this Skinner wheeled round on his stool to look, and both he and Mr. Hardie inspected the unusual pantomime with demure curiosity.
Dodd next removed the oilskin cover, and showed the pocket-book, brought it down with a triumphant smack on the hollow of his hand, and, in the pride of his heart, the joy of his bosom and the fever of his blood — for there were two red spots on his cheek all the time — told the cold pair Its adventures in a few glowing words: the Calcutta firm — the two pirates — the hurricane — the wreck — the land-sharks — he had saved it from. "And here It is, safe in spite of them all. But I won't carry It on me any more: it is unlucky; so you must be so good as to take charge of It for me, sir."
"Very well, Captain Dodd. You wish it placed to Mrs. Dodd's account, I suppose?"
"No! no! I have nothing to do with that: this is between you and me."
"As you please."
"Ye see it is a good lump, sir."
"Oh, indeed!" said Hardie a little sneeringly.
"I call it a thundering lot o' money. But I suppose it is not much to a rich banker like you." Then he lowered his voice, and said with a certain awe: "It's — fourteen — thousand pounds."
"Fourteen thousand pounds!!!" cried Hardie. Then with sudden and consummate coolness, "Why, certainly an established bank like this deals with more considerable deposits than that. Skinner, why don't you give the Captain a chair?"
"No! no!" said Dodd. "I'll heave-to till I get this off my mind, but I won't anchor anywhere but at home." He then opened the pocket-book and spread the contents out before Mr. Hardie, who ran over the notes and bills, and said the amount was L. 14,010, 12s. 6d.
Dodd asked for a receipt.
"Why, it is not usual when there is an account."
Dodd's countenance fell: "Oh, I should not like to part with it unless I had a receipt."
"You mistake me," said Hardie with a smile. "An entry in your banker's book is a receipt. However, you can have one in another form." He then unlocked a desk, took out a banker's receipt; and told Skinner to fill it in. This done, he seemed to be absorbed in some more important matter.
Skinner counted the notes and left them with Mr. Hardie; the bills he took to his desk to note them on the back of the receipt. Whilst he was writing this with his usual slowness and precision, poor Dodd's heart overflowed. "It is my children's fortune, ye see: I don't look on a sixpence of it as mine: that it is what made me so particular. It belongs to my little Julia, bless her: — she is a rosebud if ever there was one; and oh! such a heart; and so fond of her poor father; but not fonder than he is of her — and to my dear boy Edward; he is the honestest young chap you ever saw: what he says, you may swear to with your eyes shut. But how could they miss either good looks or good hearts, and her children? the best wife and the best mother in England. She has been a true consort to me this many a year, and I to her, in deep water and shoal, let the wind blow high or low. Here is a Simple Simon vaunting his own flesh and blood! No wonder that little gentleman there is grinning at me. Well, grin away, lad! perhaps you haven't got any children. But you have, sir: and you know how it is with us fathers; our hearts are so full of the little darlings, out it must come. You can understand how joyful I feel at saving their fortune from land-sharks and sea-sharks, and landing it safe in an honest man's hands like you and your father before you."
Skinner handed him the receipt.
He cast his eye over it. "All right, little gentleman. Now my heart is relieved of such a weight: I feel to have just cleared out a cargo of bricks. Good-bye: shake hands. I wish you were as happy as I am. I wish all the world was happy. God bless you! God bless you both!"
And with this burst he was out of the room and making ardently for Albion Villa.
The banker and his clerk turned round on their seats and eyed one another a long time in silence and amazement. Was this thing a dream? their faces seemed to ask. Then Mr. Hardie rested his senatorial head on his hand and pondered deeply. Skinner too reflected on this strange freak of Fortune: and the result was that he burst in on his principal's reverie with a joyful shout: "The bank is saved! Hardie's is good for another hundred years.
The banker started, for Skinner's voice sounded like a pistol-shot in his ear, so high strung was he with thought.
"Hush! hush!" he said, and pondered again in silence. At last he turned to Skinner. "You think our course is plain? I tell you it is so dark and complicated it would puzzle Solomon to know what is best to be done."
"Save the bank, sir, whatever you do."
"How can I save the bank with a few thousand pounds, which I must refund when called on? You look keenly into what is under your eye, Skinner, but you cannot see a yard beyond your nose. Let me think."
After a while he took a sheet of paper, and jotted down "the materials," as he called them, and read them out to his accomplice: —
"1. A bank too far gone to be redeemed. If I throw this money into it, I shall ruin Captain Dodd, and do myself no good, but only my creditors.
"2. Miss Julia Dodd, virtual proprietor of this L. 14,000, or of the greater part, if I choose. The child that marries first usually jockeys the other.
"3. Alfred Hardie, my son, and my creditor, deep in love with No. 2, and at present somewhat alienated from me by my thwarting a silly love affair; which bids fair to improve into a sound negotiation.
"4. The L. 14,000 paid to me personally after banking hours, and not entered on the banking books, nor known but to you and me,
"Now suppose I treat this advance as a personal trust? The bank breaks: the money disappears. Consternation of the Dodds, who, until enlightened by the public settlement, will think it has gone into the well.
"In that interval I talk Alfred over, and promise to produce the L. 14,000 intact, with my paternal blessing on him and Miss Dodd, provided he will release me from my debt to him, and give me a life interest in half the money settled on him by my wife's father, to my most unjust and insolent exclusion. Their passion will soon bring the young people to reason, and then they will soon melt the old ones."
Skinner was struck with this masterly little sketch. But he detected one fatal flaw: "You don't say what is to become of me."
"Oh, I haven't thought of that yet."
"But do think of it, sir, that I may have the pleasure of co-operating. It would never do for you and me to be pulling two ways, you know."
"I will not forget you," said Hardie, wincing under the chain this little wretch held him with, and had jerked him by way of reminder.
"But surely, Skinner, you agree with me it would be a sin and a shame to rob this honest captain of his money — for my creditors — curse them! Ah! you are not a father. How quickly he found that out! Well, I am, and he touched me to the quick. I love my little Jane as dearly as he loves his Julia, every bit: and I feel for him. And then he put me in mind of my own father, poor man. That seems strange, doesn't it? a sailor and a banker. Ah! it was because they were both honest men. Yes, it was like a wholesome flower coming into a close room, and then out again and heaving a whiff behind was that sailor. He left the savour of Probity and Simplicity behind, though he took the things themselves away again. Why, why couldn't he leave us what is more wanted here than even his money? His integrity: the pearl of price, that my father, whom I used to sneer at, carried to his grave; and died simple, but wise; honest, but rich — rich in money, in credit, in honour, and eternal hopes. Oh, Skinner! Skinner! I wish I had never been born."
Skinner was surprised: he was not aware that intelligent men who sin are subject to fits of remorse. Nay, more, he was frightened; for the emotion of this iron man, so hard to move, was overpowering when it came: it did not soften, it convulsed him.
"Don't talk so, sir," said the little clerk. "Keep up your heart! Have a drop of something."
"You are right," said Mr. Hardie gloomily; "it is idle to talk: we are all the slaves of circumstances."
With this, he unlocked a safe that stood against the wall, chucked the L. 14,000 in, and shammed the iron door sharply; and, as it closed upon the Cash with a clang, the parlour door burst open as if by concert, and David Dodd stood on the threshold, looking terrible. His ruddy colour was all gone, and he seemed black and white with anger and anxiety; and out of this blanched yet lowering face his eyes glowed like coals, and roved keenly to and fro between the banker and the clerk.
A thunder-cloud of a man.