The two young men acted very promptly upon that friendly warning conveyed in Mrs. Sleaford's farewell message. The maid-of-all-work went to the greengrocer's, and returned in company with a dirty-looking boy—who was "Mrs. Judkin's son, please, sir"—and a truck. Mrs. Judkin's son piled the trunks, portmanteau, and carpet-bag on the truck, and departed with his load, which was to be kept in the custody of the Judkin family until the next morning, when Sigismund was to take the luggage away in a cab. When this business had been arranged, Mr. Smith and his friend went out into the garden and talked of the surprise that had fallen upon them.
"I always knew they were thinking of leaving," Sigismund said, "but I never thought they'd go away like this. I feel quite cut up about it, George. I'd got to like them, you know, old boy, and to feel as if I was one of the family; and I shall never be able to partial-board with any body else."
George seemed to take the matter quite as seriously as his friend, though his acquaintance with the Sleafords was little more than four-and-twenty hours old.
"They must have known before to-day that they were going," he said. "People don't go to America at a few hours' notice."
Sigismund summoned the dirty maid-of-all-work, and the two young men subjected her to a very rigorous cross-examination; but she could tell them very little more than she had told them all in one breath in the first instance.
"Mr. Sleaford 'ad 'is breakfast at nigh upon one o'clock, leastways she put on the pertaturs for the boys' dinner before she biled 'is egg; and then he went out, and he come tarin' 'ome agen in one of these 'ansom cabs at three o'clock in the afternoon; and he told missus to pack up, and he told the 'ansom cabman to send a four-wheeler from the first stand he passed at six o'clock precise; and the best part of the luggage was sent round to the greengrocer's on a truck, and the rest was took on the roof of the cab, and Master 'Orace rode alongside the cabman, and would smoke one of them nasty penny pickwicks, which they always made 'im bilious; and Mr. Sleaford he didn't go in the cab, but walked off as cool as possible, swinging his stick, and 'olding his 'ead as 'igh as hever."
Sigismund asked the girl if she had heard the address given to the cabman who took the family away.
"No," the girl said. Mr. Sleaford had given no address. He directed the cabman to drive over Waterloo Bridge, and that was all the girl heard.
Mr. Smith's astonishment knew no bounds. He walked about the deserted house, and up and down the weedy pathways between the espaliers, until long after the summer moon was bright upon the lawn, and every trailing branch and tender leaflet threw its sharp separate, shadow on the shining ground.
"I never heard of such a thing in all my life," the young author cried; "it's like penny numbers. With the exception of their going away in a four-wheeler cab instead of through a sliding panel and subterranean passage, it's for all the world like penny numbers."
"But you'll be able to find out where they've gone, and why they went away so suddenly," suggested George Gilbert; "some of their friends will be able to tell you."
"Friends!" exclaimed Sigismund; "they never had any friends—at least not friends that they visited, or anything of that kind. Mr. Sleaford used to bring home some of his friends now and then of an evening, after dark generally, or on a Sunday afternoon. But we never saw much of them, for he used to take them up to his own room; and except for his wanting French brandy and cigars fetched, and chops and steaks cooked, and swearing at the girl over the balusters if the plates weren't hot enough, we shouldn't have known that there was company in the house. I suppose his chums were in the law, like himself," Mr. Smith added, musingly; "but they didn't look much like barristers, for they had straggling moustachios, and a kind of would-be military way; and if they hadn't been Sleaford's friends, I should have thought them raffish-looking."
Neither of the young men could think of anything or talk of anything that night except the Sleafords and their abrupt departure. They roamed about the garden, staring at the long grass and the neglected flower-beds; at the osier arbour, dark under the shadow of a trailing vine, that was half-smothered by the vulgar luxuriance of wild hops,—the osier arbour in which the spiders made their home, and where, upon the rotten bench, romantic Izzie had sat through the hot hours of drowsy summer days, reading her favourite novels, and dreaming of a life that was to be like the plot of a novel.
They went into the house, and called for candles, and wandered from room to room, looking blankly at the chairs and tables, the open drawers, the disordered furniture, as if from those inanimate objects they might obtain some clue to the little domestic mystery that bewildered them. The house was pervaded by torn scraps of paper, fragments of rag and string, morsels of crumpled lace and muslin, bald hair-brushes lying in the corners of the bedrooms, wisps of hay and straw, tin-tacks, and old kid-gloves. Everywhere there were traces of disorder and hurry, except in Mr. Sleaford's room. That sanctuary was wide open now, and Mr. Smith and his friend went into it and examined it. To Sigismund a newly-excavated chamber in a long-buried city could scarcely have been more interesting. Here there was no evidence of reckless haste. There was not a single fragment of waste paper in any one of the half-dozen open drawers on either side of the desk. There was not so much as an old envelope upon the floor. A great heap of grey ashes upon the cold hearthstone revealed the fact that Mr. Sleaford had employed himself in destroying papers before his hasty departure. The candlestick that Isabel had given him upon the previous night stood upon his desk, with the candle burnt down to the socket. George remembered having heard his host's heavy footsteps pacing up and down the room; and the occasional opening and shutting of drawers, and slamming of the lids of boxes, which had mixed with his dreams all through that brief summer's night. It was all explained now. Mr Sleaford had of course been making his preparations for leaving Camberwell—for leaving England; if it was really true that the family were going to America.
Early the next morning there came a very irate gentleman from the Albany Road. This was the proprietor of the neglected mansion, who had just heard of the Sleaford hegira, and who was in a towering passion because of those three quarter's rent which he was never likely to behold. He walked about the house with his hands in his pockets, kicking the doors open, and denouncing his late tenants in very unpleasant language. He stalked into the back parlour, where George and Sigismumd were taking spongy French rolls and doubtful French eggs, and glared ferociously at them, and muttered something to the effect that it was like their impudence to be making themselves so "jolly comfortable" in his house when he'd been swindled by that disreputable gang of theirs. He used other adjectives besides that word "disreputable" when he spoke of the Sleafords; but Sigismund got up from before the dirty table-cloth, and protested, with his mouth full, that he believed in the honesty of the Sleafords; and that, although temporarily under a cloud, Mr. Sleaford would no doubt make a point of looking up the three quarter's rent, and would forward post-office orders for the amount at the earliest opportunity. To this the landlord merely replied, that he hoped his—Sigismund's—head would not ache till Mr. Sleaford did send the rent; which friendly aspiration was about the only civil thing the proprietor of the mansion said to either of the young men. He prowled about the rooms, poking the furniture with his stick, and punching his fist into the beds to see if any of the feathers had been extracted therefrom. He groaned over the rents in the carpets, the notches and scratches upon the mahogany, the entire absence of handles and knobs wherever it was possible for handles or knobs to be wanting; and every time he found out any new dilapidation in the room where the two young men were taking their breakfast, he made as if he would have come down upon them for the cost of the damage.
"Is that the best teapot you're a-having your teas out of? Where's the Britannia metal as I gave thirteen-and-six for seven year ago? Where did that twopenny-halfpenny blown-glass sugar-basin come from? It ain't mine; mine was di'mond-cut. Why, they've done me two hundred pound mischief. I could afford to forgive 'em the rent. The rent's the least part of the damage they've done me."
And then the landlord became too forcible to be recorded in these pages, and then he went groaning about the garden; whereupon George and Sigismund collected their toilet-apparatus, and such trifling paraphernalia as they had retained for the night's use, and hustled them into a carpet-bag, and fled hastily and fearfully, after giving the servant-maid a couple of half-crowns, and a solemn injunction to write to Sigismund at his address in the Temple if she should hear any tidings whatever of the Sleafords.
So, in the bright summer morning, George Gilbert saw the last of the old house which for nearly seven years had sheltered Mr. Sleaford and his wife and children, the weedy garden in which Isabel had idled away so many hours of her early girlhood; the straggling vines under which she had dreamed bright sentimental dreams over the open leaves of her novels.
The young men hired a cab at the nearest cab-stand, and drove to the establishment of the friendly greengrocer who had given shelter to their goods. It was well for them, perhaps, that the trunks and portmanteau had been conveyed to that humble sanctuary; for the landlord was in no humour to hesitate at trifles, and would have very cheerfully impounded Sigismund's simple wardrobe, and the bran-new linen shirts which George Gilbert had brought to London.
They bestowed a small gratuity upon Mrs. Judkin, and then drove to Sigismund's chambers, where they encamped, and contrived to make themselves tolerably comfortable, in a rough gipsy kind of way.
"You shall have Morgan's room," Sigismund said to his friend, "and I can make up a bed in the sitting-room; there's plenty of mattresses and blankets."
They dined rather late in the evening at a celebrated tavern in the near neighbourhood of those sacred precincts where law and justice have their head-quarters, and after dinner Sigismund borrowed the "Law List."
"We may find out something about Mr. Sleaford in that," he said.
But the "Law List" told nothing of Mr. Sleaford. In vain Sigismund and George took it in turn to explore the long catalogue of legal practitioners whose names began with the letter S. There were St. Johns and Simpsons, St. Evremonds and Smitherses, Standishes and Sykeses. There was almost every variety of appellation, aristocratic and plebeian; but the name of Sleaford was not in the list: and the young men returned the document to the waiter, and went home wondering how it was that Mr. Sleaford's name had no place among the names of his brotherhood.
I have very little to tell concerning the remaining days which the conditions of George Gilbert's excursion ticket left him free to enjoy in London. He went to the theatres with his friend, and sat in stifling upper boxes, in which there was a considerable sprinkling of the "order" element, during these sunshiny summer evenings. Sigismund also took him to divers al fresco entertainments, where there were fireworks, and "polking," and bottled stout; and in the daytime George was fain to wander about the streets by himself, staring at the shop-windows, and hustled and frowned at for walking on the wrong side of the pavement; or else to loll on the window-seat in Sigismund's apartment, looking down into the court below, or watching his friend's scratching pen scud across the paper. Sacred as the rites of hospitality may be, they must yet give way before the exigencies of the penny press; and Sigismund was rather a dull companion for a young man from the country who was bent upon a week's enjoyment of London life.
For very lack of employment, George grew to take an interest in his friend's labour, and asked him questions about the story that poured so rapidly from his hurrying pen.
"What's it all about, Sigismund?" he demanded. "Is it funny?"
"Funny!" cried Mr. Smith, with a look of horror; "I should think not, indeed. Who ever heard of penny numbers being funny? What the penny public want is plot, and plenty of it; surprises, and plenty of 'em; mystery, as thick as a November fog. Don't you know the sort of thing? 'The clock of St. Paul's had just sounded eleven hours;'—it's generally a translation, you know, and St. Paul's stands for Notre Dame;—'a man came to appear upon the quay which extends itself all the length between the bridges of Waterloo and London.' There isn't any quay, you know; but you're obliged to have it so, on account of the plot. 'This man—who had a true head of vulture, the nose pointed, sharp, terrible; all that there is of the most ferocious; the eyes cavernous, and full of a sombre fire—carried a bag upon his back. Presently he stops himself. He regards with all his eyes the quay, nearly desert; the water, black and shiny, which stretches itself at his feet. He listens, but there is nothing. He bends himself upon the border of the quay. He puts aside the bag from his shoulders, and something of dull, heavy, slides slowly downwards and falls into the water. At the instant that the heavy burthen sinks with a dull noise to the bottom of the river, there is a voice, loud and piercing, which seems to elevate itself out of the darkness: 'Philip Launay, what dost thou do there with the corpse of thy victim?'—That's the sort of thing for the penny public," said Mr. Smith; "or else a good strong combination story."
"What do you call a combination story?" Mr. Gilbert asked, innocently.
"Why, you see, when you're doing four great stories a week for a public that must have a continuous flow of incident, you can't be quite as original as a strict sense of honour might prompt you to be; and the next best thing you can do, if you haven't got ideas of your own, is to steal other people's ideas in an impartial manner. Don't empty one man's pocket, but take a little bit all round. The combination novel enables a young author to present his public with all the brightest flowers of fiction neatly arranged into every variety of garland. I'm doing a combination novel now—the 'Heart of Midlothian' and the 'Wandering Jew.' You've no idea how admirably the two stories blend. In the first place, I throw my period back into the Middle Ages—there's nothing like the Middle Ages for getting over the difficulties of a story. Good gracious me! why, what is there that isn't possible if you go back to the time of the Plantagenets? I make Jeannie Deans a dumb girl,—there's twice the interest in her if you make her dumb,—and I give her a goat and a tambourine, because, you see, the artist likes that sort of thing for his illustrations. I think you'd admit that I've very much improved upon Sir Walter Scott—a delightful writer, I allow, but decidedly a failure in penny numbers—if you were to run your eye over the story, George; there's only seventy-eight numbers out yet, but you'll be able to judge of the plot. Of course I don't make Aureola,—I call my Jeannie 'Aureola;' rather a fine name, isn't it? and entirely my own invention,—of course I don't make Aureola walk from Edinburgh to London. What would be the good of that? why, anybody could walk it if they only took long enough about it. I make her walk from London to ROME, to get a Papal Bull for the release of her sister from the Tower of London. That's something like a walk, I flatter myself; over the Alps—which admits of Aureola's getting buried in the snow, and dug out again by a Mount St. Bernard's dog; and then walled up alive by the monks because they suspect her of being friendly to the Lollards; and dug out again by C�sar Borgia, who happens to be travelling that way, and asks a night's lodging, and heard Aureola's tambourine behind the stone wall in his bedroom, and digs her out and falls in love with her; and she escapes from his persecution out of a window, and lets herself down the side of the mountain by means of her gauze scarf, and dances her way to Rome, and obtains an audience of the Pope, and gets mixed up with the Jesuits:—and that's where I work into the 'Wandering Jew,'" concluded Mr. Smith.
George Gilbert ventured to suggest that in the days when the Plantagenet ruled our happy isle, Ignatius Loyola had not yet founded his wonderful brotherhood; but Mr. Smith acknowledged this prosaic suggestion with a smile of supreme contempt.
"Oh, if you tie me down to facts," he said, "I can't write at all."
"But you like writing?"
"For the penny public? Oh, yes; I like writing for them. There's only one objection to the style—it's apt to give an author a tendency towards bodies."
Mr. Gilbert was compelled to confess that this last remark was incomprehensible to him.
"Why, you see, the penny public require excitement," said Mr. Smith; "and in order to get the excitement up to a strong point, you're obliged to have recourse to bodies. Say your hero murders his father, and buries him in the coal-cellar in No. 1. What's the consequence? There's an undercurrent of the body in the coal-cellar running through every chapter, like the subject in a fugue or a symphony. You drop it in the treble, you catch it up in the bass; and then it goes sliding up into the treble again, and then drops down with a melodious groan into the bass; and so on to the end of the story. And when you've once had recourse to the stimulant of bodies, you're like a man who's accustomed to strong liquors, and to whose vitiated palate simple drinks seem flat and wishy-washy. I think there ought to be a literary temperance pledge by which the votaries of the ghastly and melodramatic school might bind themselves to the renunciation of the bowl and dagger, the midnight rendezvous, the secret grave dug by lantern-light under a black grove of cypress, the white-robed figure gliding in the grey gloaming athwart a lonely churchyard, and all the alcoholic elements of fiction. But, you see, George, it isn't so easy to turn teetotaller," added Mr. Smith, doubtfully; "and I scarcely know that it is so very wise to make the experiment. Are not reformed drunkards the dullest and most miserable of mankind? Isn't it better for a man to do his best in the style that is natural to him than to do badly in another man's line of business? 'Box and Cox' is not a great work when criticised upon sternly �sthetic principles; but I would rather be the author of 'Box and Cox,' and hear my audience screaming with laughter from the rise of the curtain to the fall thereof, than write a dull five-act tragedy, in the unities of which Aristotle himself could find no flaw, but from whose performance panic-stricken spectators should slink away or ere the second act came to its dreary close. I think I should like to have been Guilbert de Pix�r�court, the father and prince of melodrama, the man whose dramas were acted thirty thousand times in France before he died (and how many times in England?); the man who reigned supreme over the playgoers of his time, and has not yet ceased to reign. Who ever quotes any passage from the works of Guilbert de Pix�r�court, or remembers his name? But to this day his dramas are acted in every country theatre; his persecuted heroines weep and tremble; his murderous scoundrels run their two hours' career of villany, to be dragged off scowling to subterranean dungeons, or to die impenitent and groaning at the feet of triumphant virtue. Before nine o'clock to-night there will be honest country-folks trembling for the fate of Theresa, the Orphan of Geneva, and simple matrons weeping over the peril of the Wandering Boys. But Guilbert de Pix�r�court was never a great man; he was only popular. If a man can't have a niche in the Walhalla, isn't it something to have his name in big letters in the play-bills on the boulevard? and I wonder how long my friend Guilbert would have held the stage, if he had emulated Racine or Corneille. He did what it was in him to do, honestly; and he had his reward. Who would not wish to be great? Do you think I wouldn't rather be the author of the 'Vicar of Wakefield' than of 'Colonel Montefiasco?' I could write the 'Vicar of Wakefield,' too, but—"
George stared aghast at his excited friend.
"But not Oliver Goldsmith's 'Vicar of Wakefield,'" Sigismund explained.
He had thrown down his pen now, and was walking up and down the room with his hands thrust deep down in his pockets, and his face scarlet with fierce excitement.
"I should do the Vicar in the detective pre-Raphaelite style. Moses knows a secret of his father's—forged accommodation-bills, or something of that kind; sets out to go to the fair on a drowsy summer morning, not a leaf stirring in the vicarage garden. You hear the humming of the bees as they bounce against the vicarage-windows; you see the faint light trembling about Olivia's head, as she comes to watch her brother riding along the road; you see him ride away, and the girl watching him, and feel the hot sleepy atmosphere, and hear the swoop of the sickle in the corn-fields on the other side of the road; and the low white gate swings-to with a little click, and Miss Primrose walks slowly back to the house, and says, 'Papa, it's very warm;' and you know there's something going to happen.
"Then the second chapter comes, and Mr. Primrose has his dinner, and goes out to visit his poor; and the two girls walk about the garden with Mr. Burchell, watching for Moses, who NEVER COMES BACK. And then the serious business of the story begins, and Burchell keeps his eye upon the Vicar. Nobody else suspects good Mr. Primrose; but Burchell's eye is never off him; and one night, when the curtains are drawn, and the girls are sitting at their work, and dear Mrs. Primrose is cutting out comfortable flannels for the poor, the Vicar opens his desk, and begins to write a letter. You hear the faint sound of the light ashes falling on the hearth, the slow ticking of an eight-day clock in the hall outside the drawing-room door, the sharp snap of Mrs. Primrose's scissors as they close upon the flannel. Sophia asks Burchell to fetch a volume from the bookcase behind the Vicar's chair. He is a long time choosing the book, and his eye looks over the Vicar's shoulder. He takes a mental inventory of the contents of the open desk, and he sees amongst the neatly-docketed papers, the receipted bills, and packets of envelopes—what? a glove, a green kid-glove sewn with white, which he distinctly remembers to have seen worn by Moses when he started on that pleasant journey from which he never returned. Can't you see the Vicar's face, as he looks round at Burchell, and knows that his secret is discovered? I can. Can't you fancy the awful silent duel between the two men, the furtive glances, the hidden allusions to that dreadful mystery, lurking in every word that Burchell utters?
"That's how I should do the 'Vicar of Wakefield,'" said Sigismund Smith, triumphantly. "There wouldn't be much in it, you know; but the story would be pervaded by Moses's body lying murdered in a ditch half a mile from the vicarage, and Burchell's ubiquitous eye. I dare say some people would cry out upon it, and declare that it was wicked and immoral, and that the young man who could write about a murder would be ready to commit the deed at the earliest convenient opportunity. But I don't suppose the clergy would take to murdering their sons by reason of my fiction, in which the rules of poetical justice would be sternly adhered to, and Nemesis, in the shape of Burchell, perpetually before the reader."
Poor George Gilbert listened very patiently to his friend's talk, which was not particularly interesting to him. Sigismund preached "shop" to whomsoever would listen to him, or suffer him to talk; which was pretty much the same to this young man. I am afraid there were times when his enthusiastic devotion to his profession rendered Mr. Smith a terrible nuisance to his friends and acquaintance. He would visit a pleasant country-house, and receive hospitable entertainment, and enjoy himself; and then, when all that was morbid in his imagination had been stimulated by sparkling burgundy and pale hochheimer, this wretched young traitor would steal out into some peaceful garden, where dew-laden flowers flung their odours on the still evening air, and sauntering in the shadowy groves where the nightingale's faint "jug-jug" was beginning to sound, would plan a diabolical murder, to be carried out in seventy-five penny numbers. Sometimes he was honourable enough to ask permission of the proprietor of the country mansion; and when, on one occasion, after admiring the trim flower-gardens and ivied walls, the low turreted towers and grassy moats, of a dear old place that had once been a grange, he ventured to remark that the spot was so peaceful it reminded him of slow poisoning, and demanded whether there would be any objection to his making the quiet grange the scene of his next fiction,—the cordial cheery host cried out, in a big voice that resounded high up among the trees where the rooks were cawing, "People it with fiends, my dear boy! You're welcome to people the place with fiends, as far as I'm concerned."