Court Royal/Chapter LIV
Charles Cheek went up to town next day, reached Paddington at six P.M., and in twenty minutes was at his father’s house. We regret the necessity, but it is unavoidable, for the fourth time we must introduce the reader to the elder Cheek at meals. In fact the man was invisible at other times, except about the business of the Monokeratic establishment. This time, however, we see him not eating, but about to eat.
Charles acted on the present occasion with want of tact; he began on the subject uppermost in his mind before his father had eaten, whilst he was hungry and cross. Charles had not dined, but he was young and independent of his meals, whereas an old man is not. Mr. Cheek’s business was one that occupied his mind actively all day, and his nervous system became irritable towards evening. Mr. Gladstone was his ideal at 6 p.m., Sir Charles Dilke at 6.15, Chamberlain was hardly rancorous enough at 6.30, and Labouchere was the man for him at 6.45. At five minutes to seven he was furious against the Constitution, the Church, the House of Lords, his soap, hair-brushes, his cook, and the Royal Family. The old man was in his drawing-room, a room as tasteless as the dining-room. It reeked of Tottenham Court Road.
‘It is all up,’ said Charles.
‘What is up? The glass or consols? Be explicit.’
‘My engagement with Lady Grace Eveleigh.’
‘Indeed—your engagement. Ugh! Thought they’d draw a score across that account. Who did it?’
‘I—I released her. They are not to blame, I have written to say I will not hold her to her word.’
‘You have, you—you Colorado beetle!’
‘Yes, I have. I could endure the bondage no longer. I must have my clothes made for my back, not my back shaped to my clothes. I dare say the life of these aristocrats is very fine, and their ideas superfine, but I like a broad life and unchastened ideas. I have tried how I could get on among them, and I am tired of the experiment.’
‘So that is settled?’
‘Yes, it is. The scheme was yours. I have done my best to accommodate myself to it, but it is impracticable.’
‘Impracticable. Do you know what you have done? You have danced about this young woman long enough to fool me into believing you were in earnest, and I have bought up several of their mortgages, which I would not have touched but for you.’
‘Deal generously with the family, father,’ said Charles. ‘It is not their fault that the engagement is broken off. It is entirely my own doing.’
‘That matters not,’ said Mr. Cheek, roughly. ‘I don’t care for them, but I do care for my own money. I shall foreclose at once while the depression lasts. When land is up again, sell. That’s business. I have a bill of sale on the contents of their houses. I’ll release that pretty quick too.’
‘Dinner is on the table, sir,’ said the servant, entering.
‘But, my dear father, I entreat you to consider that it is I who wrong them, and that some reparation is due to them for the disappointment.’
‘Do you hear?’ roared the old man. ‘Dinner is on the table!’
‘Yes, but stay a moment, I entreat you.’
‘What—let the fish get cold! Not for a score of Kingsbridges. Dinner is on the table. Go in!’
During dinner the old man scarcely spoke. He ate in a vindictive manner, as it he were hurting his son’s feelings by each bite, and knew it, and delighted in doing it. When he cut the mutton he cut as though he were stabbing the offender; when he helped himself to gravy it was as though spooning up his blood; when taking potatoes and rice he dabbed the spoon into the vegetables as though stirring up and torturing his Charles’s brain. When he drank he glowered over the rim of his glass at the young man. But he said nothing till the dessert was on the table and the servants withdrawn.
Then it was Charles who began.
‘Father, I have a proposal to make which will surprise you. It is seriously made. I want you to put me in the way of earning my living.’
Mr. Cheek set down a macaroon he was eating, and which was bitten in half, and stared at his son, then laughed insultingly.
‘I am quite in earnest,’ said the young man. ‘Give me an opportunity of working and earning as much as will support me. I ask of you nothing further. I desire henceforth to be beholden to no one, not even to you. I wish to be responsible for my actions to no one, to cut away the right of controlling and rebuking me which you have exercised so freely and so offensively. When I was living on an allowance from you, you then had some right over me; when I live on my own earnings, you will have none. I will allow none. When the money was given to me, I did not know its value; when I earn it by hard work, I shall know what it is worth. You have been rough of tongue with me, and I have felt it, without caring to amend my ways and deserve better; when I am free from it, I may find a motive for reform.’
He spoke frankly; his pleasant handsome face bore in it an expression new to it, a look of dignity it had never worn before. His hair was light, almost white in the gaslight, his eyes were blue, and as he spoke moisture gathered in them. His hand was on the table, playing with a raisin stalk,—a white hand, well formed, that twitched and broke the stalk into many pieces, showing his nervous emotion.
Mr. Cheek said nothing, but stared open-eyed and open-mouthed.
‘You do not understond me,’ continued Charles, ‘I allow that I have been a sorry fool. I am resolved to be so no longer. I should be a fool if I continued my pretence to the hand of Lady Grace, and mated out of my sort. I had an ambition once to be a soldier, and that you contradicted. Afterwards had none. You provided me with money, and I spent it. I had no aim, no motive to do otherwise. You urged me to this grand connection, and I went along the path you pointed out, partly to please you, partly because myself dazzled. But my eyes have been opened in time. I see that it is not a way I can walk on. I will choose another, humbler; I will work for my livelihood, and then I can spend my life as my ambitions spring up and direct.’
‘You are in earnest?’
‘So much in earnest that I refuse the four hundred pounds you have allowed me hitherto.’
‘Refuse the allowance!’
‘Yes. I will not touch what I have not earned, and so deprive you of the right to rebuke, and outrage me.’
‘Outrage you!’ echoed the father.
‘Yes, outrage me,’ said the young man. ‘I have endured a great deal from you. I have borne it because you are my father; but every offensive word from you I have felt more keenly than you have supposed possible. It has not spurred me to do better, it has driven me to do worse. Now that is over. I will be my own master henceforth, responsible to no man, and enduring insult from none.’
Mr. Cheek was still too amazed to speak. A dim consciousness that he had wronged his son awoke in his mind, but his mind was too coarse in texture to understand fully his fault. He was a rough man, who when out of humour used rough words. He meant them at the time, but he did not mean them to inflict mortal wounds. Education teaches man to measure his words, and check them as they pass from his heart over his tongue. Old Cheek had never had the education which imposes this self-restraint on speech. Charles had inherited from his mother a more sensitive nature than his father’s; from boyhood he had been accustomed to hard words, and these had alienated him from the old man, who loved him whilst he abused him. Charles was naturally weak, and his father’s roughness had made him weaker. The old man had mortified his self-respect, till self-respect was almost dead within him. Now, suddenly, it had sprung to life and assorted itself.
Mr. Cheek stood up. He said nothing, and left the room. Charles saw no more of him that evening.
Next day, at breakfast (the fifth meal at which we have met him), he asked his son whether he still meant what he had said the night before, and when Charles insisted that he had spoken seriously, the father said, ‘Charles, I recognise something good in this. It gratifies me. Begin to work for yourself. Learn the value of every sixpence. I will put you with Messrs. Newcomen and Bowcher, ship-agents in Wapping. They will take you to oblige me. I will see them and arrange about salary.’
‘I ask nothing better.’
‘And—accept from me fifty pounds to begin life upon. You must live in lodgings. But we see no more of each other till you have grown into this new condition of life. If you go into lodgings you must have some money.’
‘I accept it, father,’ said Charles, ‘and,’ he added with faltering voice, ‘pardon me if I spoke too plain, and wounded you last night.’
‘Wounded me! Not a bit. Words break no bones.’
A month had passed. Charles had not been seen by his father, who had fulfilled his undertaking, and had placed him with shipping agents, in a subordinate place. The old man had arranged with Messrs. Newcomen and Bowcher, who were ready to oblige him. Charles was to have plenty of work, and was to receive two pounds per week, of which, no doubt—though he did not know it—his father found a portion.
After the lapse of the month, Mr. Cheek, senior, visited the agents and inquired into the conduct of their new clerk. Messrs. Newcomen and Bowcher were glad to testify that, as far as they could judge, he was steady and attentive to his