The Witch's Head/Book III/Chapter VIII
Mr. de Talor owed his great wealth not to his own talents, but to a lucky secret in the manufacture of the grease used on railways discovered by his father. Talor père had been a railway-guard till his discovery brought him wealth. He was a shrewd man, however, and on his sudden accession of fortune did his best to make a gentleman of his only son, at that date a lad of fifteen. But it was too late; the associations and habits of childhood are not easily overcome, and no earthly power or education could accomplish the desired object. When his son was twenty years of age, old Jack Talor died, and his son succeeded to his large fortune and a railway-grease business which supplied the principal markets of the world.
His son had inherited a good deal of his father's shrewdness, and set himself to make the best of his advantages. First he placed a “de" before his name, and assumed a canting crest. Next he bought the Ceswick Ness estates, and bloomed into a country gentleman. It was shortly after this latter event that he made a mistake, and fell in love with the beauty of the neighbourhood, Mary Atterleigh. But Mary Atterleigh would have none of him, being at the time secretly engaged to Mr. Cardus. In vain did he resort to every possible means to shake her resolution, even going so far as to try to bribe her father to put pressure upon her; but at this time Atterleigh, “Hard-riding Atterleigh,” as he was called, was well off, and resisted his advances. Thereupon De Talor, in a fit of pique, married another woman, who was only too glad to put up with his vulgarity in consideration of his wealth and position as a county magnate.
Shortly afterwards three events occurred almost simultaneously. “Hard-riding Atterleigh” got into money difficulties through over-gratification of his passion for hounds and horses; Mr. Cardus was taken abroad for the best part of a year in connection with a business matter; and a man named Jones, a friend of Mr. de Talor's staying in his house at the time, fell in love with Mary Atterleigh. Herein De Talor saw an opportunity of revenge upon his rival, Mr. Cardus. He urged upon Jones that his real road to the possession of the lady lay through the pocket of her father, and even went so far as to advance him the necessary funds to bribe Atterleigh; for though Jones was well off, he could not at such short notice lay hands upon a sufficient sum in cash to serve his ends.
The plot succeeded. Atterleigh's scruples were overcome as easily as the scruples of men in his position without principle to back them generally are, and pressure of a most outrageous sort was brought to bear upon the gentle-minded Mary, with the result that when Mr. Cardus returned from abroad he found his affianced bride the wife of another man, who became in due course the father of Jeremy and Dolly.
This cruel and most unexpected bereavement drove Mr. Cardus partially mad, and when he came to himself there arose in his mind a monomania for revenge on all concerned in bringing it about. It became the passion and object of his life. Directing all his remarkable intelligence and energy to the matter, he early discovered the heinous part that De Talor had played in the plot, and swore to devote his life to the unholy purpose of vengeance. For years he pursued his enemy, trying plan after plan to achieve his ruin, and as one failed fell back upon another. But to ruin a man of De Talor's wealth was no easy matter, especially when, as in the present instance, the avenger was obliged to work like a mole in the dark, never allowing his enemy to suspect that he was other than a friend. How he ultimately achieved his purpose the reader shall now learn.
Ernest and Dorothy had been married about three weeks, and the latter was just beginning to get accustomed to hearing herself called Lady Kershaw, when one morning a dog-cart drove up to the door and out of it emerged Mr. de Talor.
“Dear me, how Mr. de Talor has changed of late!” said Dorothy, who was looking out of the window.
“How? Has he grown less like a butcher?” asked Ernest.
“No,” she answered; “but he looks like a used-up butcher about to go through the Bankruptcy Court.'
“Butchers never go bankrupt,” said Ernest; and at that moment Mr. de Talor came in.
Dorothy was right; the man was much changed. The fat cheeks were flabby and fallen, the insolent air was gone, and he was so shrunken that he looked not more than half his former size.
“How do you do, Lady Kershaw? I saw Cardus 'ad got some one with him, so I drove round to pay my respects and congratulate the bride. Why, bless me, Sir Ernest, you 'ave grown since I saw you last. Ah, we used to be great friends then. You remember how you used to come and shoot up at the Ness” (he had once or twice given the two lads a day's rabbit-shooting). “But, bless me, I hear that you have become quite a fire-eater since then, and been knocking the niggers right and left—eh?”
He paused for breath, and Ernest said a few words, not many, for he disliked the man's flattery as much as in past years he used to dislike his insolence.
“Ah,” went on De Talor, looking up and pointing to the case containing the witch's head, “I see you've still got that beastly thing your brother once showed me; I thought it was a clock, and he pretty well frightened me out of my wits. Now I think of it, I've never 'ad any luck since I saw that thing.”
At this moment the housekeeper Grice came to say that Mr. Cardus was ready to see Mr. de Talor if he would step into the office. Dorothy thought that their visitor turned paler at this news, and it evidently occupied his mind sufficiently to cause him to hurry from the room without bidding them good-bye.
When Mr. de Talor entered the office he found the lawyer pacing up and down.
“How do you do, Cardus?” he said jauntily.
“How do you do, Mr. de Talor?” was the cold reply.
De Talor walked to the glass door and looked at the glowing mass of blooming orchids.
“Pretty flowers, Cardus, those, very. Orchids, ain't they? Must have cost you a pot of money.”
“They have not cost me much, Mr. de Talor; I have reared most of them.”
“Then you are lucky; the bill my man gives me for his orchids is something awful.”
“You did not come to speak to me about orchids, Mr. de Talor.”
“No, Cardus, I didn't; business first, pleasure afterwards—eh?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Cardus, in his soft jerky way. “Business first, pleasure afterwards.”
Mr. de Talor fidgeted his legs about.
“Well, Cardus, about that mortgage. You are going to give me a little more time, I hope?”
“On the contrary, Mr. de Talor, the interest being now eight months overdue, I have given my London agents orders to foreclose, for I don't conduct such business myself.”
De Talor turned pale. “Foreclose! Good God, Cardus! It is not possible—on such an old friend too!”
“Excuse me, it is not only possible, but a fact. Business is business, even where old friends are concerned.”
“But if you foreclose, what is to become of me, Cardus?”
“That, I imagine, is a matter for your exclusive consideration.”
His visitor gasped, and looked like an unfortunate fish suddenly pulled out of the water.
“Let us recapitulate the facts. I have at different periods within the last several years lent you sums of money secured on your landed estates at Ceswick's Ness and the neighbourhood, amounting in all”—referring to a paper—“to one hundred and seventy-six thousand five hundred and thirty-eight pounds ten shillings and fourpence; or, reckoning in the overdue interest, to one hundred and seventy-nine thousand and fifty-two pounds eight shillings. That is so, I think.”
“Yes, I suppose so, Cardus.”
“There is no supposition about it. The documents prove it.”
“Well, Mr. de Talor; and now, as you cannot pay, I have instructed my London agents to commence an action in Chancery for the sale of the lands, and to buy in the property. It is a most desirable property.”
“O Cardus, don't be rough on me! I am an old man now, and you led me into this speculation.”
“Mr. de Talor, I also am an old man; if not very old in years, at least as old as Methuselah in heart.”
“I don't understand it all, Cardus.”
“It will give me the greatest pleasure to explain. But to do so I must go back a little. Some ten or twelve years ago, you may remember,” he began, sitting down with his back to the light, which struck full on the wretched De Talor's face, “that a firm named Rastrick and Codley took out a patent for a new railway-grease, and set up an establishment in Manchester not far from the famous De Talor house, which was established by your father.”
“Yes, curse them!” groaned De Talor.
Mr. Cardus smiled.
“By all means curse them. But what did this enterprising firm do, Mr. de Talor? They set to work and sold a grease superior to the article manufactured by your house, at about eighteen per cent. cheaper. But the De Talor house had the ear of the markets, and the contracts with all the leading lines and Continental firms, and for awhile it seemed as though the new house must go to the wall; and if they had not had considerable capital at command, they must have gone to the wall.”
“Ah, and where did they get it from? That's the mystery,” said De Talor.
“Precisely; that was the mystery. I shall clear it up a little presently. To return. After awhile the buyers began to find that Rastrick and Codley's grease was a better grease and a cheaper grease, and as the contracts lapsed, the companies renewed them, not with the De Talor house, but with the house of Rastrick and Codley. Doubtless you remember.”
Mr. de Talor groaned in acquiescence, and the lawyer continued: “In time this state of affairs produced its natural results—De Talor's house was ruined, and the bulk of the trade fell into the hands of the new firm.”
“Ah, I should just like to know who they really were—the low sneaks!”
“Would you? I will tell you. The firm of Rastrick and Codley were—Reginald Cardus, solicitor, of Dum's Ness.”
Mr. de Talor struggled out of his chair, looked wildly at the lawyer, and sank down again.
“You look ill; may I offer you a glass of wine?”
The wretched man shook his head.
“Very good. Doubtless you are curious to know how I, a lawyer, and not otherwise connected with Manchester, obtained the monopoly of the grease trade, which is, by the way, at this moment paying very well. I will satisfy your curiosity. I have always had a mania for taking up inventions, quite quietly, and in the names of others. Sometimes I have made money over them, sometimes I have lost; on the whole, I have made largely. But whether I have made or lost, the inventors, as a rule, have never known who was backing them. One day, one lucky day, this railway grease patent was brought to my notice. I took it up and invested fifty thousand in it straight off the reel. Then I invested another fifty thousand. Still your firm cut my throat. I made an effort and invested another fifty thousand. Had I failed, I should then have been a ruined man; I had strained my credit to the utmost. But fortune favours the brave, Mr. de Talor, and I succeeded. It was your firm that failed. I have paid all my debts, and I reckon that the railway-grease concern is worth, after paying liabilities, some two hundred thousand pounds. If you should care to go in for it, Messrs. Rastrick and Codley will, I have no doubt, be most happy to treat with you. It has served its purpose, and is now in the market.”
De Talor looked at him with amazement. He was too upset to speak.
“So much, Mr. de Talor, for my share in the grease episode. The failure of your firm, or rather its stoppage from loss of trade, left you still a rich man, but only half as rich as you had been. And this, you may remember, made you furious. You could not bear the idea of losing money; you would rather have lost blood from your veins than sovereigns from your purse. When you thought of the grease which had melted in the fire of competition, you could have wept tears of rage. In this plight you came to me to ask advice.”
“Yes; and you told me to speculate.”
“Not quite accurate, Mr. de Talor. I said—I remember the words well—'You are an able man, and understand the money market; why don't you take advantage of these fluctuating times, and recoup yourself for all you have lost?' The prospect of gain tempted you, Mr. de Talor, and you jumped at the idea. You asked me to introduce you to a reliable firm, and I introduced you to Messrs. Campsey and Ash, one of the best in the City.”
“Confound them for a set of rogues!” answered De Talor.
“Rogues! I am sorry you think so, for I have an interest in their business.”
“Good heavens! what next?” groaned De Talor.
“Well, notwithstanding the best efforts of Messrs. Campsey and Ash on your behalf, in pursuance of written instructions as you from time to time communicated to them, and to which you can no doubt refer if you please, things went wrong with you, Mr. de Talor, and year by year, when your balance sheet was sent in, you found that you had lost more than you had gained. At last, one unlucky day, about three years ago, you made a plunge against the advice, you may remember, of Messrs. Campsey and Ash, and lost. It was after that, that I began to lend you money. The first loan was for fifty thousand; then came more losses, and more loans, till at length we had reached the present state of affairs.”
“O Cardus, you don't mean to sell me up, do you? What shall I do without money? And think of my daughters: 'ow will they manage without their comforts? Give me time. What makes you so rough on me?”
Mr. Cardus had been walking up and down the room rapidly. At De Talor's words he stopped, and going to a despatch-box, unlocked it, and drew from a bundle of documents a yellow piece of stamped paper. It was a cancelled bill for ten thousand pounds in the favour of Jonas de Talor, Esquire. This bill he came and held before his visitor's eyes.
“That, I believe, is your signature,” he said quietly, pointing to the receipt written across the bill.
De Talor turned almost livid with fear, and his lips and hands began to tremble.
“Where did you get that?” he asked.
Mr. Cardus regarded him, or rather all round him, with the melancholy black eyes that never looked straight at anything, and yet saw everything, and then answered:
“Among your friend Jones's papers. You scoundrel!” he went on, with a sudden change of manner, “now perhaps you begin to understand why I have hunted you down step by step: why for thirty years I have waited, and watched, and failed, and at last succeeded. It is for the sake of Mary Atterleigh. It was you who, infuriated because she would have none of such a coarse brute, set the man Jones on to her. It was you who lent him the money with which to buy her from old Atterleigh. There lies the proof before you. By the way, Jones need never have repaid you that ten thousand pounds, for it was marriage-brokerage, and therefore not recoverable at law. It was you, I say, who were the first cause of my life being laid waste, and who nearly drove me to the madhouse, ay, who did drive Mary, my betrothed wife, into the arms of that fellow, whence, God be praised! she soon passed to her rest.”
Mr. Cardus paused, breathing quick with suppressed rage and excitement; the large white eyebrows contracted till they nearly met, and, abandoning his usual habit, he looked straight into the eyes of the abject creature in the chair before him.
“It's a long while ago, Cardus; can't you forgive, and let bygones be bygones?”
“Forgive! Yes, for my own sake, I could forgive; but for her sake, whom you first dishonoured and then killed, I will never forgive. Where are your companions in guilt? Jones is dead; I ruined him. Atterleigh is there; I did not ruin him, because, after all, he was the author of Mary's life; but his ill-gotten gains did him no good; a higher power than mine took vengeance on his crime, and I saved him from the madhouse. And Jones's children, they are here, too, for once they lay beneath her breast. But do you think that I will spare you, you coarse, arrogant knave—you, who spawned the plot? No, not if it were to cost me my own life, would I forego one jot or tittle of my revenge!”
At that moment Mr. Cardus happened to look up, and saw through the glass part of the door of his office, of which the curtain was partially drawn, the wild-looking head of “Hard-riding Atterleigh.” He appeared to be looking through the door, for his eyes, in which there was a very peculiar look, were fixed intently upon Mr. Cardus's face. When he saw that he was observed, he vanished.
“Now go,” said the lawyer sternly to the prostrate De Talor; “and never let me see your face again!”
“But I haven't any money; where am I to go?” groaned De Talor.
“Wherever you like, Mr. de Talor—this is a free country; but, if I had control of your destination, it should be—to the devil!”
The wretched man staggered to his feet.
“All right, Cardus; I'll go, I'll go. You've got it all your own way now. You are damned hard, you are; but perhaps you'll get it taken out of you some day. I'm glad you never got hold of Mary; it must have been pleasant to you to see her marry Jones.”
In another second he was gone, and Mr. Cardus was left thinking, among other things, of that look in old Atterleigh's eyes, which he could not get out of his mind. Thus did he finally accomplish the revenge to which he had devoted his life.