The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Ten

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The extension of the scheme of restoration which Lord Blandamer's liberality involved, made it necessary that Westray should more than once consult Sir George Farquhar in London. On coming back to Cullerne from one of these visits on a Saturday night, he found his meal laid in Mr Sharnall's room.

"I thought you would not mind our having supper together," Mr Sharnall said. "I don't know how it is, I always feel gloomy just when the winter begins, and the dark sets in so soon. It is all right later on; I rather enjoy the long evenings and a good fire, when I can afford a good one, but at first it is a little gloomy. So come and have supper with me. There is a good fire to-night, and a bit of driftwood that I got specially for your benefit."

They talked of indifferent subjects during the meal, though once or twice it seemed to Westray that the organist gave inconsequential replies, as though he were thinking of something else. This was no doubt the case, for, after they had settled before the fire, and the lambent blue flames of the driftwood had been properly admired, Mr Sharnall began with a hesitating cough:

"A rather curious thing happened this afternoon. When I got back here after evening-service, who should I find waiting in my room but that Blandamer fellow. There was no light and no fire, for I had thought if we lit the fire late we could afford a better one. He was sitting at one end of the window-seat, damn him!"—(the expletive was caused by Mr Sharnall remembering that this was Anastasia's favourite seat, and his desire to reprobate the use of it by anyone else)—"but got up, of course, as I came in, and made a vast lot of soft speeches. He must really apologise for such an intrusion. He had come to see Mr Westray, but found that Mr Westray had unfortunately been called away. He had taken the liberty of waiting a few minutes in Mr Sharnall's room. He was anxious to have a few moments' conversation with Mr Sharnall, and so on, and so on. You know how I hate palaver, and how I disliked—how I dislike" (he corrected himself)—"the man; but he took me at a disadvantage, you see, for here he was actually in my room, and one cannot be so rude in one's own room as one can in other people's. I felt responsible, too, to some extent for his having had to wait without fire or light, though why he shouldn't have lit the gas himself I'm sure I don't know. So I talked more civilly than I meant to, and then, just at the moment that I was hoping to get rid of him, Anastasia, who it seems was the only person at home, must needs come in to ask if I was ready for my tea. You may imagine my disgust, but there was nothing for it but to ask him if he would like a cup of tea. I never dreamt of his taking it, but he did; and so, behold! there we were hobnobbing over the tea-table as if we were cronies."

Westray was astonished. Mr Sharnall had rebuked him so short a time before for not having repulsed Lord Blandamer's advances that he could scarcely understand such a serious falling away from all the higher principles of hatred and malice as were implied in this tea-drinking. His experience of life had been as yet too limited to convince him that most enmities and antipathies, being theoretical rather than actual, are apt to become mitigated, or to disappear altogether on personal contact—that it is, in fact, exceedingly hard to keep hatred at concert-pitch, or to be consistently rude to a person face to face who has a pleasant manner and a desire to conciliate.

Perhaps Mr Sharnall read Westray's surprise in his face, for he went on with a still more apologetic manner:

"That is not the worst of it; he has put me in a most awkward position. I must admit that I found his conversation amusing enough. We spoke a good deal of music, and he showed a surprising knowledge of the subject, and a correct taste; I do not know where he has got it from."

"I found exactly the same thing with his architecture," Westray said. "We started to go round the minster as master and pupil, but before we finished I had an uncomfortable impression that he knew more about it than I did—at least, from the archaeologic point of view."

"Ah!" said the organist, with that indifference with which a person who wishes to recount his own experiences listens to those of someone else, however thrilling they may be. "Well, his taste was singularly refined. He showed a good acquaintance with the contrapuntists of the last century, and knew several of my own works. A very curious thing this. He said he had been in some cathedral—I forget which—heard the service, and been so struck with it that he went afterwards to look it up on the bill, and found it was Sharnall in D flat. He hadn't the least idea that it was mine till we began to talk. I haven't had that service by me for years; I wrote it at Oxford for the Gibbons' prize; it has a fugal movement in the Gloria, ending with a tonic pedal-point that you would like. I must look it up."

"Yes, I should like to hear it," Westray said, more to fill the interval while the speaker took breath than from any great interest in the matter.

"So you shall—so you shall," went on the organist; "you will find the pedal-point adds immensely to the effect. Well, by degrees we came to talking of the organ. It so happens that we had spoken of it the very first day I met him in the church, though you know I never talk about my instrument, do I? At that time it didn't strike me that he was so well up in the matter, but now he seemed to know all about it, and so I gave him my ideas as to what ought to be done. Then, before I knew where I was, he cut in with, 'Mr Sharnall, what you say interests me immensely; you put things in such a lucid way that even an outsider like myself can understand them. It would be a thousand pities if neglect were permanently to injure this sweet-toned instrument that Father Smith made so long ago. It is no use restoring the church without the organ, so you must draw up a specification of the repairs and additions required, and understand that anything you suggest shall be done. In the meantime pray order at once the water-engine and new pedal-board of which you speak, and inform me as to the cost.' He took me quite aback, and was gone before I had time to say anything. It puts me in a very equivocal position; I have such an antipathy to the man. I shall refuse his offer point-blank. I will not put myself under any obligation to such a man. You would refuse in my position? You would write a strong letter of refusal at once, would you not?"

Westray was of a guileless disposition, and apt to assume that people meant what they said. It seemed to him a matter for much regret that Mr Sharnall's independence, however lofty, should stand in the way of so handsome a benefaction, and he was at pains to elaborate and press home all the arguments that he could muster to shake the organist's resolve. The offer was kindly-meant; he was sure that Mr Sharnall took a wrong view of Lord Blandamer's character—that Mr Sharnall was wrong in imputing motives to Lord Blandamer. What motives could he have except the best? and however much Mr Sharnall might personally refuse, how was a man to be stopped eventually from repairing an organ which stood so manifestly in need of repair?

Westray spoke earnestly, and was gratified to see the effect which his eloquence produced on Mr Sharnall. It is so rarely that argument prevails to change opinion that the young man was flattered to see that the considerations which he was able to marshal were strong enough, at any rate, to influence Mr Sharnall's determination.

Well, perhaps there was something in what Mr Westray said. Mr Sharnall would think it over. He would not write the letter of refusal that night; he could write to refuse the next day quite as well. In the meantime he would see to the new pedal-board, and order the water-engine. Ever since he had seen the water-engine at Carisbury, he had been convinced that sooner or later they must have one at Cullerne. It must be ordered; they could decide later on whether it should be paid for by Lord Blandamer, or should be charged to the general restoration fund.

This conclusion, however inconclusive, was certainly a triumph for Westray's persuasive oratory, but his satisfaction was chastened by some doubts as to how far he was justified in assailing the scrupulous independence which had originally prompted Mr Sharnall to refuse to have anything to do with Lord Blandamer's offer. If Mr Sharnall had scruples in the matter, ought not he, Westray, to have respected those scruples? Was it not tampering with rectitude to have overcome them by a too persuasive rhetoric?

His doubts were not allayed by the observation that Mr Sharnall himself had severely felt the strain of this mental quandary, for the organist said that he was upset by so difficult a question, and filled himself a bumper of whisky to steady his nerves. At the same time he took down from a shelf two or three notebooks and a mass of loose papers, which he spread open upon the table before him. Westray looked at them with a glance of unconscious inquiry.

"I must really get to work at these things again," said the organist; "I have been dreadfully negligent of late. They are a lot of papers and notes that Martin Joliffe left behind him. Poor Miss Euphemia never had the heart to go through them. She was going to burn them just as they were, but I said, 'Oh, you mustn't do that; turn them over to me. I will look into them, and see whether there is anything worth keeping.' So I took them, but haven't done nearly as much as I ought, what with one interruption and another. It's always sad going through a dead man's papers, but sadder when they're all that's left of a life's labour—lost labour, so far as Martin was concerned, for he was taken away just when he began to see daylight. 'We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we shall carry nothing out.' When that comes into my mind, I think rather of the little things than of gold or lands. Intimate letters that a man treasured more than money; little tokens of which the clue has died with him; the unfinished work to which he was coming back, and never came; even the unpaid bills that worried him; for death transfigures all, and makes the commonplace pathetic."

He stopped for a moment. Westray said nothing, being surprised at this momentary softening of the other's mood.

"Yes, it's sad enough," the organist resumed; "all these papers are nebuly coat—the sea-green and silver."

"He was quite mad, I suppose?" Westray said.

"Everyone except me will tell you so," replied the organist; "but I'm not so very sure after all that there wasn't a good deal more in it than madness. That's all that I can say just now, but those of us who live will see. There is a queer tradition hereabout. I don't know how long ago it started, but people say that there is some mystery about the Blandamer descent, and that those in possession have no right to what they hold. But there is something else. Many have tried to solve the riddle, and some, you may depend, have been very hot on the track. But just as they come to the touch, something takes them off; that's what happened to Martin. I saw him the very day he died. 'Sharnall,' he said to me, 'if I can last out forty-eight hours more, you may take off your hat to me, and say "My lord."'

"But the nebuly coat was too much for him; he had to die. So don't you be surprised if I pop off the hooks some of these fine days; if I don't, I'm going to get to the bottom, and you will see some changes here before so very long."

He sat down at the table, and made a show for a minute of looking at the papers.

"Poor Martin!" he said, and got up again, opened the cupboard, and took out the bottle. "You'll have a drop," he asked Westray, "won't you?"

"No, thanks, not I," Westray said, with something as near contempt as his thin voice was capable of expressing.

"Just a drop—do! I must have just a drop myself; I find it a great strain working at these papers; there may be more at stake in the reading than I care to think of."

He poured out half a tumbler of spirit. Westray hesitated for a moment, and then his conscience and an early puritan training forced him to speak.

"Sharnall," he said, "put it away. That bottle is your evil angel. Play the man, and put it away. You force me to speak. I cannot sit by with hands folded and see you going down the hill."

The organist gave him a quick glance; then he filled up the tumbler to the brim with neat spirit.

"Look you," he said: "I was going to drink half a glass; now I'm going to drink a whole one. That much for your advice! Going down the hill indeed! Go to the devil with your impertinence! If you can't keep a civil tongue in your head, you had better get your supper in someone else's room."

A momentary irritation dragged Westray down from the high podium of judicial reproof into the arena of retort.

"Don't worry yourself," he said sharply; "you may rely on my not troubling you with my company again." And he got up and opened the door. As he turned to go out, Anastasia Joliffe passed through the passage on her way to bed.

The glimpse of her as she went by seemed still further to aggravate Mr Sharnall. He signed to Westray to stay where he was, and to shut the door again.

"Damn you!" he said; "that's what I called you back to say. Damn you! Damn Blandamer! Damn everybody! Damn poverty! Damn wealth! I will not touch a farthing of his money for the organ. Now you can go."

Westray had been cleanly bred. He had been used neither to the vulgarity of ill-temper nor to the coarser insolence of personal abuse. He shrank by natural habit even from gross adjectives, from the "beastly" and the "filthy" which modern manners too often condone, and still more from the abomination of swearing. So Mr Sharnall's obloquy wounded him to the quick. He went to bed in a flutter of agitation, and lay awake half the night mourning over a friendship so irreparably broken, bitter with the resentment of an unjustified attack, yet reproaching himself lest through his unwittingness he might have brought it all upon himself.

The morning found him unrefreshed and dejected, but, whilst he sat at breakfast, the sun came out brightly, and he began to take a less despondent view of the situation. It was possible that Mr Sharnall's friendship might not after all be lost beyond repair; he would be sorry if it were, for he had grown fond of the old man, in spite of all his faults of life and manner. It was he, Westray, who had been entirely to blame. In another man's room he had lectured the other man. He, a young man, had lectured the other, who was an old man. It was true that he had done so with the best motives; he had only spoken from a painful sense of duty. But he had shown no tact, he had spoken much too strongly; he had imperilled his own good cause by the injudicious manner in which he had put it forward. At the risk of all rebuffs, he would express his regret; he would go down and apologise to Mr Sharnall, and offer, if need be, the other cheek to the smiter.

Good resolves, if formed with the earnest intention of carrying them into effect, seldom fail to restore a measure of peace to the troubled mind. It is only when a regular and ghastly see-saw of wrong-doing and repentance has been established, and when the mind can no longer deceive even itself as to the possibility of permanent uprightness of life, that good resolves cease to tranquillise. Such a see-saw must gradually lose its regularity; the set towards evil grows more and more preponderant; the return to virtue rarer and more brief. Despair of any continuity of godliness follows, and then it is that good resolves, becoming a mere reflex action of the mind, fail in their gracious influence, and cease to bring quiet. These conditions can scarcely occur before middle age, and Westray, being young and eminently conscientious, was feeling the full peacefulness of his high-minded intention steal over him, when the door opened, and the organist entered.

An outbreak of temper and a night of hard drinking had left their tokens on Mr Sharnall's face. He looked haggard, and the rings that a weak heart had drawn under his eyes were darker and more puffed. He came in awkwardly, and walked quickly to the architect, holding out his hand.

"Forgive me, Westray," he said; "I behaved last night like a fool and a cad. You were quite right to speak to me as you did; I honour you for it. I wish to God there had been someone to speak to me like that years ago."

His outstretched hand was not so white as it should have been, the nails were not so well trimmed as a more fastidious mood might have demanded; but Westray did not notice these things. He took the shaky old hand, and gripped it warmly, not saying anything, because he could not speak.

"We must be friends," the organist went on, after a moment's pause; "we must be friends, because I can't afford to lose you. I haven't known you long, but you are the only friend I have in the world. Is it not an awful thing to confess?" he said, with a tremulous little laugh. "I have no other friend in the world. Say those things you said last night whenever you like; the oftener you say them the better."

He sat down, and, the situation being too strained to remain longer at so high a pitch, the conversation drifted, however awkwardly, to less personal topics.

"There is a thing I wanted to speak about last night," the organist said. "Poor old Miss Joliffe is very hard up. She hasn't said a word to me about it—she never would to anyone—but I happen to know it for a fact: she is hard up. She is in a chronic state of hard-up-ishness always, and that we all are; but this is an acute attack—she has her back against the wall. It is the fag-end of Martin's debts that bother her; these blood-sucking tradesmen are dunning her, and she hasn't the pluck to tell them go hang, though they know well enough she isn't responsible for a farthing. She has got it into her head that she hasn't a right to keep that flower-and-caterpillar picture so long as Martin's debts are unpaid, because she could raise money on it. You remember those people, Baunton and Lutterworth, offered her fifty pounds for it."

"Yes, I remember," Westray said; "more fools they."

"More fools, by all means," rejoined the organist; "but still they offer it, and I believe our poor old landlady will come to selling it. 'All the better for her,' you will say, and anyone with an ounce of common-sense would have sold it long ago for fifty pounds or fifty pence. But, then, she has no common-sense, and I do believe it would break her pride and worry her into a fever to part with it. Well, I have been at the pains to find out what sum of money would pull her through, and I fancy something like twenty pounds would tide over the crisis."

He paused a moment, as if he half expected Westray to speak; but the architect making no suggestion, he went on.

"I didn't know," he said timidly; "I wasn't quite sure whether you had been here long enough to take much interest in the matter. I had an idea of buying the picture myself, so that we could still keep it here. It would be no good offering Miss Euphemia money as a gift; she wouldn't accept it on any condition. I know her quite well enough to be sure of that. But if I was to offer her twenty pounds for it, and tell her it must always stop here, and that she could buy it back from me when she was able, I think she would feel such an offer to be a godsend, and accept it readily."

"Yes," Westray said dubitatively; "I suppose it couldn't be construed into attempting to outwit her, could it? It seems rather funny at first sight to get her to sell a picture for twenty pounds for which others have offered fifty pounds."

"No, I don't think so," replied the organist. "It wouldn't be a real sale at all, you know, but only just a colour for helping her."

"Well, as you have been kind enough to ask my advice, I see no further objection, and think it very good of you to show such thoughtfulness for poor Miss Joliffe."

"Thank you," said the organist hesitatingly—"thank you; I had hoped you would take that view of the matter. There is a further little difficulty: I am as poor as a church mouse. I live like an old screw, and never spend a penny, but, then, I haven't got a penny to spend, and so can't save."

Westray had already wondered how Mr Sharnall could command so large a sum as twenty pounds, but thought it more prudent to make no comments.

Then the organist took the bull by the horns.

"I didn't know," he said, "whether you would feel inclined to join me in the purchase. I have got ten pounds in the savings' bank; if you could find the other ten pounds, we could go shares in the picture; and, after all, that wouldn't much matter, for Miss Euphemia is quite sure to buy it back from us before very long."

He stopped and looked at Westray. The architect was taken aback. He was of a cautious and calculating disposition, and a natural inclination to save had been reinforced by the conviction that any unnecessary expenditure was in itself to be severely reprobated. As the Bible was to him the foundation of the world to come, so the keeping of meticulous accounts and the putting by of however trifling sums, were the foundation of the world that is. He had so carefully governed his life as to have been already able, out of a scanty salary, to invest more than a hundred pounds in Railway Debentures. He set much store by the half-yearly receipt of an exiguous interest cheque, and derived a certain dignity and feeling of commercial stability from envelopes headed the "Great Southern Railway," which brought him from time to time a proxy form or a notice of shareholders' meetings. A recent examination of his bankbook had filled him with the hope of being able ere long to invest a second hundred pounds, and he had been turning over in his mind for some days the question of the stocks to be selected; it seemed financially unsound to put so large a sum in any single security.

This suddenly presented proposal that he should make a serious inroad on his capital filled him with dismay; it was equivalent to granting a loan of ten pounds without any tangible security. No one in their senses could regard this miserable picture as a security; and the bulbous green caterpillar seemed to give a wriggle of derision as he looked at it across the breakfast-table. He had it on his tongue to refuse Mr Sharnall's request, with the sympathetic but judicial firmness with which all high-minded persons refuse to lend. There is a tone of sad resolution particularly applicable to such occasions, which should convey to the borrower that only motives of great moral altitude constrain us for the moment to override an earnest desire to part with our money. If it had not been for considerations of the public weal, we would most readily have given him ten times as much as was asked.

Westray was about to express sentiments of this nature when he glanced at the organist's face, and saw written in its folds and wrinkles so paramount and pathetic an anxiety that his resolution was shaken. He remembered the quarrel of the night before, and how Mr Sharnall, in coming to beg his pardon that morning, had humbled himself before a younger man. He remembered how they had made up their differences; surely an hour ago he would willingly have paid ten pounds to know that their differences could be made up. Perhaps, after all, he might agree to make this loan as a thank-offering for friendship restored. Perhaps, after all, the picture was a security: someone had offered fifty pounds for it.

The organist had not followed the change of Westray's mind; he retained only the first impression of reluctance, and was very anxious—curiously anxious, it might have seemed, if his only motive in the acquiring of the picture was to do a kindness to Miss Euphemia.

"It is a large sum, I know," he said in a low voice. "I am very sorry to ask you to do this. It is not for myself; I never asked a penny for myself in my life, and never will, till I go to the workhouse. Don't answer at once, if you don't see your way. Think it over. Take time to think it over; but do try, Westray, to help in the matter, if you can. It would be a sad pity to let the picture go out of the house just now."

The eagerness with which he spoke surprised Westray. Could it be that Mr Sharnall had motives other than mere kindness? Could it be that the picture was valuable after all? He walked across the room to look closer at the tawdry flowers and the caterpillar. No, it could not be that; the painting was absolutely worthless. Mr Sharnall had followed him, and they stood side by side looking out of the window. Westray was passing through a very brief interval of indecision. His emotional and perhaps better feelings told him that he ought to accede to Mr Sharnall's request; caution and the hoarding instinct reminded him that ten pounds was a large proportion of his whole available capital.

Bright sunshine had succeeded the rain. The puddles flashed on the pavements; the long rows of raindrops glistened on the ledges which overhung the shop-windows, and a warm steam rose from the sandy roadway as it dried in the sun. The front-door of Bellevue Lodge closed below them, and Anastasia, in a broad straw hat and a pink print dress, went lightly down the steps. On that bright morning she looked the brightest thing of all, as she walked briskly to the market with a basket on her arm, unconscious that two men were watching her from an upper window.

It was at that minute that thrift was finally elbowed by sentiment out of Westray's mind.

"Yes," he said, "by all means let us buy the picture. You negotiate the matter with Miss Joliffe, and I will give you two five-pound notes this evening."

"Thank you—thank you," said the organist, with much relief. "I will tell Miss Euphemia that she can buy it back from us whenever it suits her to do so; and if she should not buy it back before one of us dies, then it shall remain the sole property of the survivor."

So that very day the purchase of a rare work of art was concluded by private treaty between Miss Euphemia Joliffe of the one part, and Messrs. Nicholas Sharnall and Edward Westray of the other. The hammer never fell upon the showy flowers with the green caterpillar wriggling in the corner; and Messrs. Baunton and Lutterworth received a polite note from Miss Joliffe to say that the painting late in the possession of Martin Joliffe, Esquire, deceased, was not for sale.