Page:Once a Week Volume 7.djvu/276

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[Aug. 30, 1862.

motives: unsatisfied curiosity. Could Deerham have gratified this to the full, it had been content to subside into quietness.

Whether it was true, or whether it was false, there was no denying that it had happened at an unfortunate moment for Dr. West. A man always in debt—and what he did with his money Deerham could not make out, for his practice was a lucrative one—he had latterly become actually embarrassed. Deerham was goodnatured enough to say that a handsome sum had found its way to Chalk Cottage, in the shape of silence money, or something of the sort; but Deerham did not know. Dr. West was at his wits’ end where to turn to for a shilling—had been so, for some weeks past; so that he had no particular need of anything worse coming down upon him. Perhaps, what gave a greater colour to the scandal than anything else, was the fact, that, simultaneously with its rise, Dr. West’s visits to Chalk Cottage had suddenly ceased.

Only one had been bold enough to speak upon the subject personally to Dr. West. And that was the proud old baronet, Sir Rufus Hautley. He rode down to the doctor’s house one day; and, leaving his horse with his groom, had a private interview with the doctor. That Dr. West must have contrived to satisfy him in some way, was undoubted. Rigidly servere and honourable, Sir Rufus would no more have countenanced wrong doing, than he would have admitted Dr. West again to his house, whether as doctor or as anything else, had he been guilty of it. But when Sir Rufus went away, Dr. West attended him to the door, and they parted cordially, Sir Rufus saying something to the effect that he was glad his visit had dispelled the doubt arising from these unpleasing rumours, and he would recommend Dr. West to inquire into their source, with a view of bringing their authors to punishment. Dr. West replied that he should make it his business to do so. Dr. West, however, did nothing of the sort: or if he did do it, it was in strict privacy.

Jan sat one day astride on the counter in his frequent abiding place, the surgery. Jan had got a brass vessel before him, and was mixing certain powders in it, preparatory to some experiment in chemistry, Master Cheese performing the part of looker-on, his elbows, as usual, on the counter.

“I say, we had such a start here this morning,” began young Cheese, as if the recollection had suddenly occurred to him. “It was while you had gone your round.”

“What start was that?” asked Jan.

“Some fellow came here, and—I say, Jan,” broke off young Cheese, “did you ever know that room had got a second entrance to it?”

He pointed to the door of the back room: a room which was used exclusively by Dr. West. He had been known to see patients there on rare occasions, but neither Jan nor young Cheese was ever admitted into it. It opened with a latch-key only.

“There is another door leading into it from the garden,” replied Jan. “It’s never opened. It has got all those lean-to boards piled against it.”

“Is it never opened, then?” retorted Master Cheese. “You just hear. A fellow came poking his nose into the premises this morning, staring up at the house, staring round about him, and at last he walks in here. A queer looking fellow he was, with a beard, and appeared as if he had come a thousand miles, or two, on foot. ‘Is Dr. West at home?’ he asked. I told him the doctor was not at home: for, you see, Jan, it wasn’t ten minutes since the doctor had gone out. So he said he’d wait. And he went peering about and handling the bottles, and once he took the scales up, as if he’d like to test their weight. I kept my eye on him: I thought a queer fellow, like that, might be going to walk off with some physic, like Miss Amilly walks off the castor oil. Presently he comes to that door. ‘Where does this lead to?’ said he. ‘A private room,’ said I, ‘and please to keep your hands off it.’ Not he. He lays hold of the false knob, and shakes it, and turns it, and pushes the door, trying to open it. It was fast. Old West had come out of there before going out; and catch him ever leaving that door open! I say, Jan, one would think he kept skeletons there.”

“Is that all?” asked Jan, alluding to the story.

“Wait a bit. The fellow put his big fist upon the latch key-hole—I think he must have been a feller of trees, I do—and his knee to the door, and he burst it open. Burst it open, Jan! you never saw such strength.”

“I could burst any door open that I had a mind to,” was the response of Jan.

“He burst it open,” continued young Cheese, “and burst it against old West. You should have seen ’em stare! They both stared. I stared. I think the chap did not mean to do it; that he was only trying his strength for pastime. But now, Jan, the odd part of the business is, how did West get in? If there’s not another door, he must have got down the chimney.”

Jan went on with his compounding, and made no response.

“And if there is a door, he must have been mortal sly over it,” resumed the young gentleman. “He must have gone right out from here, and in at the side gate of the garden, and got in that way. I wonder what he did it for?”

“It isn’t any business of ours,” said Jan.

“Then I think it is,” retorted Master Cheese. “I’d like to know how many times he has been in there, listening to us, when we thought him a mile off. It’s a shame!”

“It’s nothing to me who listens,” said Jan, equably. “I don’t say things behind people’s backs, that I’d not say before their faces.”

“I do,” acknowledged young Cheese. “Wasn’t there a row! Didn’t he and the man go on at each other! They shut themselves up in that room, and had it out.”

“What did the man want?” asked Jan.

“I’d like to know. He and old West had it out together, I say, but they didn’t admit me to the conference. Goodness knows where he had come from. West seemed to know him. Jan, I heard something about him and the Chalk Cottage folks yesterday.”

“You had better take yourself to a safe distance,” advised Jan. “If this goes off with a bang, your face will come in for the benefit.”