"THE receipt? Oh, is that all? You have got that," said Skinner very coolly.
"What makes you think so?" inquired the other keenly. He instantly suspected Skinner of having it.
"Why, sir, I saw it in his hand."
"Then it has got to Albion Villa, and we are ruined."
"No, no, sir; you won't hear me: I am sure I saw it fall out of his hand when he was taken ill; and I think, but I won't be sure, he fell on it. Anyway, there was nothing in his hands when I delivered him at Albion Villa; so it must be here. I daresay you have thrown it into a drawer or somewhere, promiscuously."
"No, no, Skinner," said Mr. Hardie, with increasing alarm: "it is useless for us to deceive ourselves. I was not three minutes in the room, and thought of nothing but getting to town and cashing the bills."
He rang the bell sharply, and on Betty coming in, asked her what she had done with that paper that was on the floor.
"Took it up and put it on the table, sir. This was it, I think." And she had her finger upon a paper.
"No! no!" said Mr. Hardie. "The one I mean was much smaller than that."
"What" said she, with that astonishing memory for trifles people have who never read, "was it a little crumpled up paper lying by the basket?"
"Yes! yes! that sounds like it."
"Oh, I put that into the basket."
Mr. Hardie's eye fell directly on the basket, but it was empty. She caught his glance, and told him she had emptied it in the dust-hole as usual. Mr. Hardie uttered an angry exclamation. Betty, an old servant of his wife's, resented it with due dignity by tossing her head as she retired.
"There is no help for it," said Mr. Hardie bitterly; "we must go and grub in the dust-hole now."
"Why, sir, your name is not on it, after all."
"What does that matter? A man is bound by the act of his agent; besides, it is my form, and my initials on the back. Come, let us put a good face on the thing." And he led the way to the kitchen, and got up a little laugh, and asked the scullery-maid if she could show Mr. Skinner and him the dust-hole. She stared, but obeyed, and the pair followed her, making merry.
The dust-hole was empty.
The girl explained: "It is the dustman's day: he came at eleven o'clock in the morning and carried all the dust away: and grumbled at the paper and the bones, he did. So I told him beggars musn't be choosers: just like his impudence! when he gets it for nothing, and sells it for a mint outside the town." The unwonted visitors left her in dead silence almost before she had finished her sentence.
Mr. Hardie sat down in his parlour thoroughly discomposed; Skinner watched him furtively.
At last the former broke out: "This is the devil's doing: the devil in person. No intelligence nor ability can resist such luck. I almost wish we had never meddled with it: we shall never feel safe, never be safe."
Skinner made light of the matter, treated the receipt as thrown into the sea. "Why, sir," said he, "by this time it will have found its way to that monstrous heap of ashes on the London Road; and who will ever look for it there, or notice it if they find it?" Hardie shook his head: "That monstrous heap is all sold every year to the farmers. That receipt, worth L. 14,000 to me, will be strewed on the soil for manure; then some farmer's man, or some farmer's boy that goes to the Sunday-school, will read it, see Captain Dodd's name, and bring it to Albion Villa, in hopes of a sixpence: a sixpence! Heaven help the man who does a doubtful act and leaves damnatory evidence on paper kicking about the world."
From that hour the cash Hardie carried in his bosom, without a right to it, began to blister.
He thought of telling the dustman he had lost a paper, and setting him to examine the mountain of ashes on the London Road; but here caution stepped in: how could he describe the paper without awakening curiosity and defeating his own end? He gave that up. It was better to let the sleeping dog lie.
Finally, he resolved to buy security in a world where after all one has to buy everything: so he employed an adroit agent, and quietly purchased that mountain, the refuse of all Barkington. But he felt so ill-used, he paid for it in his own notes: by this means the treaty reverted to the primitive form of barter* — ashes for rags.
* Or exchange of commodities without the aid of money: see Homer, and Welsh Villages, passim.
This transaction he concealed from his confederate.
When he had completed it he was not yet secure; for another day had passed and Captain Dodd alive still. Men often recover from apoplexy, especially when they survive the first twenty-four hours. Should he live, he would not now come into any friendly arrangement with the man who had so nearly caused his death. So then good-bye to the matrimonial combination Hardie had at first relied on to patch his debt to Alfred and his broken fortunes. Then as to keeping the money and defying Dodd, that would be very difficult and dangerous. Mercantile bills are traceable things, and criminal prosecutions awkward ones. He found himself in a situation he could not see his way through by any mental effort; there were so many objections to every course, and so many to its opposite. "He walked among fires," as the Latins say. But the more he pondered on the course to be taken should Dodd live, the plainer did this dilemma stare him in the fade: either he must refund or fly the country with another man's money, and leave behind him the name of a thief. Parental love and the remains of self-respect writhed at this thought; and with these combined a sentiment less genuine, but by no means feeble: the love of reputation. So it was with a reluctant and sick heart he went to the shipping office, and peered at the posters to see when the next ship sailed for the United States. Still, he did go.
Intent on his own schemes, and expecting every day to be struck in front, he did not observe that a man in a rusty velveteen coat followed him, and observed this act, and indeed all his visible acts.
Another perplexity was, when he should break? There were objections to doing it immediately, and objections to putting it off.
With all this the man was in a ferment: by day he sat waiting and fearing, by night he lay sleepless and thinking; and, though his stoical countenance retained its composure, the furrows deepened in it, and the iron nerves began to twitch at times, from strain of mind and want of sleep, and that rack, suspense. Not a night that he did not awaken a dozen times from his brief dozes with a start, and a dread of exposure by some mysterious, unforeseen means.
It is remarkable how truths sometimes flash on men at night in hours of nervous excitement; it was in one of these nightly reveries David Dodd's pocket-book flashed back upon Mr. Hardie. He saw it before his eyes quite plain, and on the inside of the leather cover a slip of paper pasted, and written on in pencil or pale ink, he could not recall which.
What was that writing? It might be the numbers of the notes, the description of the bills. Why had he not taken it out of the dying man's pocket? "Fool! fool!" he groaned, "to do anything by halves."
Another night he got a far severer shock. Lying in his bed dozing and muttering as usual, he was suddenly startled out of that uneasy slumber by three tremendous knocks at the street door.
He sprang out of bed, and in his confusion made sure the officers of justice were come for him: he began to huddle on his clothes with a vague notion of flight.
He had got on his trousers and slippers, and was looking under his pillow for the fatal Cash, when he heard himself called loudly and repeatedly by name; but this time the sound came from the garden into which his bedroom looked. He opened it very softly, in trepidation and wonder, which were speedily doubled by what met his eyes; for there, right in front of his window, stood an unearthly figure, corresponding in every particular to that notion of a ghost in which we are reared, and which, when our nerves are healthy, we can ridicule as it deserves; but somehow it is never cleaned out of our imagination so thoroughly as it is out of our judgment.
The figure was white as a sheet and seemed supernaturally tall; and it cried out in a voice like a wounded lion's, "You villain! you Hardie! give me back my money: my fourteen thousand pounds. Give me my children's money, or may your children die before your eyes: give me my darlings' money, or may the eternal curse of God light on you and yours, you scoundrel!"
And the figure kneeled on the grass, and repeated the terrible imprecation almost in the same words, with such energy that Hardie shrank back, and, resolute as he was, cowered, with superstitious awe.
But this sentiment soon gave way to vulgar fears; the man would alarm the town. And in fact Mr. Hardie, in the midst of his agitation, was dimly conscious of hearing a window open softly not very far from him. But it was a dark night. He put his head out in great agitation, and whispered, "Hush! hush! I'll bring it you down directly."
Internally cursing his hard fate, he got the fatal Cash, put on his coat, hunted for the key of the bank parlour, and, having found it, went softly down the stairs, unlocked the door, and went to open the shutters.
At this moment his ear caught a murmur, a low buzzing of voices in the garden.
He naturally thought that Captain Dodd was exposing him to some of the townspeople. He was puzzled what to do, and, like a cautious man as he was, remained passive but on the watch.
Presently the voices were quiet, and he heard footsteps come very slowly towards the window at which he stood, and then make for the little gate. On this he slipped into the kitchen, which faced the street and got to a window there, and listened. His only idea was to catch their intentions if possible, and meet them accordingly. He dared not open the window; for about him on the pavement he saw a female figure half standing, half crouching: but soon that figure rushed wildly out of his sight to meet the footsteps, and then he ventured to open the window, and listening, heard cries of despair, and a young heart-broken voice say her father was dead.
"Ah!! that is all right," muttered Hardie.
Still, even this profound egotist was not yet so hardened but that he felt one chill of horror at himself for the thought — a passing chill.
He listened and listened, and by-and-bye he heard the slow feet recommence their journey, amidst sobs and sights; and those sorrowful feet, and the sobs and sighs of his causing, got fainter, and fainter, retreated, and left him in quiet possession of the L. 14,000 he had brought down to give it up: two minutes ago it was not worth as many pence to him.
He drew a long breath of relief. "It is mine; I am to keep it. It is the will of Heaven."
He went to his bed again, and by a resolute effort composed himself and determined to sheep. And in fact he was just dropping off, when suddenly he started wide awake again: for it recurred to him vividly that a window in his house had opened while David was cursing him and demanding his children's money.
Half-a-dozen people and more slept on that side of the house.
Whose window could it be?
He walked among fires.