Court Royal/Chapter XXXIX

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Court Royal by Sabine Baring-Gould
Chapter XXXIX. Over a Snail
CHAPTER XXXIX.
OVER A SNAIL.

Well, Joe, flourishing?’

‘Middling, Charlie.’

Joanna was seated in the shop of the Golden Balls next day behind the counter, engaged on her needlework, when Charles Cheek came in, and swung the door behind him, so that it clashed and jarred the glass.

‘You must not be violent,’ said Joanna, ‘or the breakages will go down to your bill along with the silk gown and the necklace. Why have you not gone to your father as you promised?’

‘I am ashamed to appear before him,’ answered young Cheek. ‘If I tell him the truth he will kick me out of the house, and not pay my return ticket.’

‘Do you want a large sum?’

‘I lost my money in a way I daren’t confess. My governor is a man of a practical turn of mind, and will insist on particulars. I am bad at invention, and if I begin to tell lies he will find me out, and be down on me like the steam-hammer at the docks!’

‘Then tell him the truth. That always answers, for no one believes it.’

‘I cannot. The case is too gross. This did it.’ He drew a snail-shell from his pocket, and set it on the counter. ‘Will you deal with me for this article? It is a curiosity, and a costly one. It cost me a hundred pounds.’

Joanna took up the snail-shell, and turned it about, then put it down contemptuously. ‘There is nothing particular about this shell except its size.’

‘Yes, there is. She is a racer. I lost a hundred pounds on her. I cannot tell my father that. I was proud of my snail, too, and now she is either dead or sulky. She has not put out her head since I lost my money on her.’

‘How did you manage that?’

‘By racing, I tell you.’ Charles Cheek jumped on the counter and seated himself on it, close to Joanna.

‘Will you take a chair?’ she asked.

‘No, thank you. This is my only chance of getting you to look up to me. I am going to tell you about my snail.’ He thrust the shell before her. ‘Do look at this beast. She has lost me a hundred pounds.’

Joanna continued sewing, without looking off her work.

‘Joe,’ he said, ‘what do you think of that?’

‘I had rather be the snail than you.’

‘I will tell you how it was. Captain Finch and I have played a good deal together of late at billiards, and we have also raced our snails. His is a very good runner. His regiment is under orders for India; so we resolved to have a final trial between our snails for double or quits. Mine started right enough, but became lazy, and I touched her. When I did that, the snail, instead of running the faster, retreated within her shell. I was frightened, and applied the lighted end of my cigar to the shell. She ought to have rushed out, but, instead, went into sulks. She has not put out her horns since. Joe, you ought to sympathise with me and help me; I had christened my racer after you.’

‘My name is not Joe.’

‘My snail was called Joanna.’

‘Why did you name a snail after me? It was no compliment.’

‘I called her after the jolliest girl I knew. I had to give her a name, and I could think only of you at the time. I can’t tell my governor the story of the snail, can I? Invent me something to take its place.’

Joanna shook her head. ‘I cannot do that,’ she said gravely; ‘I never tell a lie to Lazarus. If ever I see my mother again, I will be true to her in every word I utter. You must be true to your father. Whom can we be true to except our own parents? As for the public’—her lips curled with scorn—‘there is no sin in lying to them. They love lies as rats love aniseed. Put your snail in water, and she’ll put out her head.’

‘I never thought of that. Give me a saucer and water, and we will try. I dare say she is as dry as a sermon.’

Joanna complied with his request. No customer came into the shop just then; had one come, he would have seen two young heads bowed over a saucer with a little water in it, watching a snail. The one head was fair, the other dark; the one face good-natured, feeble, the other full of character and intelligence. Both pleasant in appearance; the young man good-looking, the girl beautiful; he with almost boyish simplicity, she with womanly shrewdness.

‘She is stirring, by Jove!’ exclaimed Charlie Cheek.

‘I said she would. I am never mistaken.’

‘It was a case of double or quits,’ explained the young man; ‘that is how I came to lose so much. There was a matter of fifty pounds between us, so when Finch proposed double or quits on a snail race, I said “Done!”’

‘And done you are,’ said Joanna. ‘The snail was wiser than you. When burnt, she retired from the contest, and you persevered.’

‘There comes her head,’ exclaimed Cheek.

‘Yours is to come,’ said Joanna.

‘Don’t be hard on me, Joe; I shall get bad words enough from my father. He is a rough man, and lets his tongue play, and his tongue is a lash of iron. I confess to you—I would to no one else—I am ashamed of myself; I am too weak. I can’t say No to a fellow.’

‘You are like the jelly-fish, carried ashore by the tide; where the tide leaves them they lie, and dissolve away into nothing.’

‘You are hard on me.’

‘Is it not so? A man should have backbone or he is nothing. I was cast up by the tide, but I am solid.’

‘It is easy for you to talk. You have a head. I only wish you were my sister, to be always at my elbow.’

‘Last night you lamented that I was not your wife. Which do you mean?’

The young man coloured and fidgeted. He drew his head away; it had been in close proximity to hers, over the saucer.

‘Of course I am joking,’ he said.

‘What, now, or last night?’ She laughed, then said, ‘See! I have frightened you by pretending to take your words as earnest. Do not be alarmed. I do not desire responsibility for a man, in either capacity, who is unable to care for himself.’

‘But—Joanna! this shall be my last folly. I solemnly swear it. You are the only person I know who has spoken plainly to me—except my father, and he makes me mad, he hurts me. If ever I am disposed to give way when I ought to be firm, I’ll remember the jelly-fish.’

He spoke in a tone of hurt pride and real distress. Joanna put forth her hand and grasped his, whilst her face shone with pleasure. ‘That is right,’ she said cheerily. ‘It does my heart good to hear you speak thus. If you want to give me the greatest of pleasures, it will be to let me know that you have kept your word, for, in spite of your weakness, I do like you. Moreover, to prove to you that I have confidence in you, I will help you now. You shall have the hundred pounds in a week.’

‘How will you get it?’ asked the young man. ‘Not from Lazarus, surely.’

‘No,’ she replied, looking grave, ‘I would not for the world apply to him to lend it to me.’

‘Whence is it to come? Not from your wages, saved?’

‘I receive no wages, I am a pawn.’

‘A hundred pounds! You will obtain that for me?’

’You shall know about it to-morrow. To-morrow you go to your father.’

‘I will go, certainly. How will you find the hundred pounds?’

‘Never mind. It shall be done to restore the credit of my name, as the snail bears it.’

‘I wish you would tell me how it is to be got.’

‘No, you will find out in time. I am not doing this for you, but for the sake of the snail that bears my name.’

‘Thank you, Joanna; you said something different when you made the offer. I must pay Captain Finch before he sails; a debt of honour is binding and must be paid, a debt to a tradesman may. If I had been unable to find the money, I think I should have destroyed myself.’

‘No,’ said the girl, shaking her head. ‘To do that demands a firmer character than you have got. How would you have done it, pray?’

‘I do not know. I dare say I should have jumped into the sea.’

‘That is bad,’ said Joanna; ‘I have tried it.’

‘What is good?’

‘There must be some easy way of slipping out of life when life becomes unendurable.’

‘Oh yes. The simplest of all is laudanum. That sends you to sleep, and you sleep away into the never-ending slumber.’

‘Repeat the name.’

‘What on earth can you want with laudanum? You are not tired of existence, I suppose?’

Joanna said nothing.

‘Oh, look at the snail!’ exclaimed the young man. ‘She is getting out of the saucer, she is lively again. I might race her again and win back my hundred pounds.’

‘No,’ said Joanna, ‘you have done with these follies. Life is serious, Mr. Cheek. It is a time for making money, not of throwing it away. I wish you had some of the monokeratic principle in you.’

The young man started from the counter, and coloured to the roots of his hair. ‘What do you know of that?’ he asked sharply. ‘I hate the sound, and now it issues from your lips.’

‘Why should you hate it? It has been the means of making a fortune.’

‘It is a trouble to me. I suppose the officers I associate with know about my father, or I suspect they do, and every allusion to a unicorn cuts into me as if the beast itself were driving its horn between my ribs. There it is, plastered on every hoarding, with the inscription “Try Cheek’s Monokeratic System.”’

‘I am sorry to have offended you. I do not see why you should dislike to hear of that which has made you.’

‘Wait, Joanna, till you are near the top of the tree, and then the words Golden Balls will drive you frantic.’

‘Maybe,’ said Joanna, ‘though I do not see why it should. But to return to what I was speaking about before you interrupted me. To my thinking you are leading an altogether unworthy life. Life is a time for making money.’

‘Only for those born without it,’ said the young man. ‘My father has amassed a large fortune. It will be mine some day, no doubt. It is hard that I should be limited to a beggarly four hundred per annum. You would not have me make more money. That would indeed be carrying coals to Newcastle.’

‘No, but life has other objects for which a man may strive. There is position. Push for that. Your father is not a gentleman, but you can be one.’

‘Well, I am working in that direction,’ said Charles. ‘I associate with officers, play billiards and cards, and ride and smoke and eat with them.’

‘And lose money to them on snails.’

‘Yes, all conduces to good fellowship. I am friends with those who would not meet my father. I have stepped from the counter to one of the shelves.’

‘I am glad your life is not aimless,’ said the girl. ‘If you are striving for position I can respect you; an aimless life is to me despicable.’

‘I cannot say that I have ever thought much about a purpose,’ said Charles Cheek, ‘still—I like to be with those who are my social superiors.’

‘And sometimes to have a chat with such as me—your social inferior.’

‘No doubt about that, Joe.’

‘Well, Mr. Cheek, form a purpose, and drive hard after it.’

‘Joe!’ The young man reseated himself on the counter, in a graver, more meditative mood than was common with him.

‘Joe, I should like to have a photograph taken of you. Have you been photographed at any time?’

She shook her head and laughed.

‘You are a girl to make a fellow think and try to do better. I should like to have your picture.’

‘I have had neither the time nor the money to waste on, one,’ she answered.

‘The money is nothing. Will you shut up shop for half an hour and come with me to the photographer? I will pay the damage.’

‘I can close. It is now noon, and no business will be done at dinner-time. But I will consent on one condition only.’

‘Any condition you like to make.’

‘Let us three be taken in a group.’

‘What three? You, Lazarus, and I?’

‘No, certainly not. You, I, and the snail.’

‘By all means. Immortalise my folly. I also will make a stipulation: will you grant it?’

‘What is it? I am not like you. I do not offer blank cheques.’

‘Let us be taken holding hands. Just now, when I promised to amend, you flashed out with such a smile, and took my hand and said, “That is right!” It sent a rush of blood to my heart, and I felt as if I had conquered the world. Let us be taken together, holding hands over the snail, and then I shall be nerved to keep my resolution. If disposed to break it, I shall look on the picture and blush.’

‘I consent. Promise me,’ said Joanna, looking down and speaking slowly, ‘that you will not be angry with me whatever you may hear to-morrow. If you are in trouble yourself, do not doubt but that I also shall have to go through humiliation before I can get the money.’

‘From whom will you get it?’

‘Never mind.’

‘But I do mind. You won’t do anything wrong, Joe, even for me?’

‘For the snail, you mean.’

‘I should never forgive myself if you got into trouble. I do respect you. There is not another girl in the world I think of or care for as you.’