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Chapter VII

A further vision is vouchsafed to us by Providence. Mr Chrysostom Lorton and the sources of his wealth. The debt owed to me by Mr Septimus Lorton. Interview with Mr and Mrs Septimus Lorton. Mr Septimus Lorton's disgraceful attitude. My father is compelled to be frank with him. What I discovered in Greenwich Park.

Manifestly as it had been Providence that had thus revealed to us the general sphere of my future activities, it was no less clearly the same beneficent Agency that determined their actual channel; and it has always seemed to me peculiarly appropriate that the particular enterprise with which I was to be first connected should have been suggested to my father during the process of family prayers.

This took place, according to our usual custom, immediately after the conclusion of our evening meal, and consisted of the singing by my father and myself of two or three hymns or sacred choruses, followed by the reading on the part of my father of a chapter of Holy Scripture, the whole being concluded by one of those extemporary prayers in the composition of which my father was so skilled. For the purposes of the Scripture reading the volume generally used was a large Bible inherited by my father, but on the evening in question, owing to an accident with some stewed fruit, this was absent at a neighbouring bookbinder's. My father had therefore borrowed with my glad permission my copy of the Lorton Bible for Schools, and it was in opening this that he caught sight of the words `eighteenth edition' on the first page.

That something had perturbed him was instantly apparent both to my mother and myself, not only on account of the sudden tremor that became visible in his left hand, but of the extraordinary rapidity with which he read the appointed chapter, and the verbal errors that consequently ensued. His subsequent prayer. too, was so brief that we were scarcely upon our knees before he had leapt to his feet again, and my mother and myself, indeed, were still kneeling when he began to expound the idea that had been vouchsafed to him.

`I have it,' he cried. `It's just been sent to me. Chrysostom Lorton. That's the man. Eighteen editions - that's what his Bible's gone into, and none of the authors with any royalty rights!'

Nor was that all, for in addition, as I have said, to being the elder brother of Mr Septimus Lorton, he was not only the proprietor of the well-known Beulah, perhaps the most popular of weekly religious journals, but his Peeping Up Series for Children, devotional stories with coloured illustrations, were familiar objects upon the nursery bookshelves of every evangelical household. Moreover, he was the medium through which were issued to the world many millions of hortatory pamphlets, while the counters of his showroom in Paternoster Row were heaped with every kind of Protestant literature.

Such, then, was the man and such the undertaking, not only Xtian, but lucrative, that by a chance gesture, or so it might have seemed, now stood beckoning before us; and it was only necessary, as my father justly said, for his brother Septimus to do the rest. But would he? I was at first doubtful. A weak man, he was also inert. And it did not, of course, follow that because he used his brother's Bible he was on intimate or influential terms with him. This much was clear, however, that as the oldest pupil in his school, and in view of the treatment that I had received from his subordinates, he was under an obligation to me that neither my father nor myself could morally allow ourselves to remit. And although for reasons that I have already mentioned I had not advanced from my original class, in the strictly ethical sense, by his own admission, I was facile princeps.*

`A good boy,' said Mr Lorton, `a very, very good boy, or shall we say, now that he has begun to shave, an extremely admirable young man.'

This was upon the next evening, the penultimate evening of my last term at school, when both my father and myself were sitting in Mr Lorton's study for the purpose indicated above.

`It is useless to deny, of course,' my father had said, `that we have been seriously disappointed in your school, or to suggest that either my son or myself will be able to look back upon it with approval. Nor can I profess to be wholly convinced as to the necessity that you have so often explained to me of promoting your pupils from class to class according to the results of an examination. At the same time I am open-minded enough to recognize that this method has the sanction of custom, and to forbear from arraigning you for the consequently meagre position that my son still occupies in your establishment. Refusing to accept the standard, I can afford to ignore its results. But of this, Mr Lorton, I am completely confident - that if the index had been a moral or religious one, my boy Augustus would have been second to none.'

Here my father paused for a moment to expectorate some phlegm, and it was then that Mr Lorton used the words I have quoted.

`A good boy,' he said, as his wife entered the room, `a very, very good boy, or shall we say, now that he has begun to shave, an extremely admirable young man.'

A heavily-constructed woman of immense height, with prominent cheek-bones and a bovine chin, it was generally understood that Mr Lorton had selected her chiefly on account of her income. And neither my father nor myself had ever been able to detect in her the least sign of intelligence. Happily her intrusion, however, was but momentary, and my father was able once more to proceed.

`I am obliged to you for your tribute,' he said, `and if, as you must surely admit, my son's influence in your school has been inestimable, you will the more readily agree with me in adopting a reciprocal attitude towards the important question of his future employment.'

As we both observed, Mr Lorton's expression changed a little. But his voice retained its professional amiability.

`Oh, precisely,' he said, `precisely, although you must understand, of course, that my influence is strictly limited.'

`Nevertheless,' said my father, `I am depending on its exertion to the utmost boundary of its capacity. And I should be glad to learn what openings you have in view for one to whom so admittedly you are a debtor.'

At this point Mrs Lorton returned and took up a position on her husband's left flank. Mr Lorton glanced at her before replying.

`Well, of course,' he said, `the problem is a somewhat difficult one.'

`It would be easier,' said Mrs Lorton, `if we were an employment agency.'

My father bowed.

`That I fully appreciate,' he said. `But I may at least assume, I trust, that you have considered the problem.'

`Oh, deeply,' said Mr Lorton, `very deeply, in fact I ought to say, perhaps, profoundly.'

My father leaned back, folding his arms.

`Then may I inquire,' he asked, `with what result?'

Again Mr Lorton glanced at his wife. But her slab-like face remained unstirred.

`Well, I can hardly say,' he replied, `that as yet - er - we have come to a definite conclusion. The moral qualities, you see, though extremely valuable -'

Chrysostom Lorton

Mr Chrysostom Lorton

`For ultimate salvation,' said my father, `they are essential.'

`Oh, of course,' said Mr Lorton, `of course. But in the meantime, you know, and taken by themselves -' He paused for a moment, and then his face brightened. `Have you ever thought,' he said, `of making your son a missionary?'

A sort of sigh emanated from his wife.

`In a warm country,' she said, `a long way off'

Mr Lorton nodded.

`Healthy but remote,' he said, `where his moral enthusiasm could have full play?'

`And where his personal appearance,' said Mrs Lorton, `could scarcely fail to be such a protection to him?'

`Quite so,' said Mr Lorton. `I can conceive of no one eating dear Augustus.'

Mrs Lorton smiled not unkindly.

`No one at all,' she said, `not even the most debased.'

Afterwards, as we discovered, these remarks lacked sincerity. But for the moment we were not ungrateful. Colouring with pleasure my father lifted his hand.

`I am again obliged to you,' he said, `for your tribute.'

Mr Lorton rose to his feet, evidently under the impression that the interview had ended.

`Oh, not at all,' he said, `not at all, we are only too happy to have been of any assistance.'

He moved towards the door. But my father motioned him back. Somewhat less agreeably, I thought, he sat down again. Allowing him a moment for this, my father then proceeded.

`Sensible as I am,' he said, `both of the justice, and I may say discernment, of your suggestion, neither on financial nor hygienic grounds am I able to entertain it; and indeed in its main outlines the province of my son's future has already been delineated for us. Second to none in my admiration of the noble calling to which you have referred, surely they are nobler who have created the means by which our missionaries subsist, and who, of the wealth that their efforts have amassed, continue to support these emissaries of religion. It is therefore to Commerce that my son has been called, but in his first introduction to this sacred field, we have only thought it right to afford you the opportunity of being the possible instrument of Providence.'

`I see,' said Mr Lorton. `That is very kind of you.'

`Take away the number,' said his wife, `that you first thought of'

My father stared at her. But she appeared to be in a kind of stupor, and it seemed more merciful to avert his eyes.

`It has, in fact, occurred to us,' he said, `or rather to me - for it was to me personally that the idea was vouchsafed - that your brother Chrysostom would be glad to hear that my son's services were now available.'

For two or three moments Mr Lorton seemed to struggle for breath. Then he made a meaningless sound like that of a small animal.

`My brother C - Chrysostom?' he said at last. `But in what capacity would you propose to offer your son?'

My father smiled somewhat dryly.

`I should hardly have thought offer,' he said, `was the right word.'

Mrs Lorton looked at her husband.

`He means that dear Augustus,' she said, `would allow Chrysostom to approach him.'

`Provided,' said my father, `that he gave sufficient assurances. Of course we should look forward to an eventual partnership.'

`And not to succession?' asked Mrs Lorton.

`Only in the event,' said my father, `of Mr Chrysostom's decease.'

Mr Lorton wiped his forehead.

`That's most considerate,' he said, `most considerate.'

`Then perhaps I can rely,' said my father, `on your taking immediate steps to arrange an interview for us with your brother.'

But Mr Lorton shook his head.

`I'm very sorry,' he replied. `But that's quite impossible. For, in the first place, my brother's business is a very complicated and peculiar one, and in the second I regret to say that I have absolutely no influence with him. In fact - er - well, to tell the truth, any testimonial from me would be worse than useless.'

`Oh, worse,' said Mrs Lorton, `much worse. And besides, he has no vacancies.'

For perhaps a quarter of a minute there was a dead silence, and then very slowly my father rose to his feet.

`So I am to understand,' he said, `that you entirely refuse to approach your brother on my son's behalf?'

With a pitiable gesture Mr Lotion shrugged his shoulders, and the clock on the mantelpiece made an insolent crowing noise. Trembling, but composed, my father swept it to the floor together with several of its adjacent ornaments. Then very quietly, but with increasing emphasis, he began to address Mr Lorton. It was a painful task. It is always a painful task to confront such a character with its own portrait. But it was a duty from which, I am proud to say, I never knew my father to shrink. Nor did he cease, on the present occasion, until the last iota of it had been discharged, though such, as I have shown, was his verbal economy that this was completed in fifteen minutes. Then with his hand resting upon my shoulder, for he was still the taller by two and a half inches, we turned our backs, as we thought for ever, upon Mr and Mrs Septimus Lorton.

I have said for ever. But though, as the event proved, this was a misjudgement on both our parts, it must not be assumed that either my father or myself had lost his self-confidence. For the moment, it was true, the path seemed obstructed, the vision obscured, the end denied. But neither of us doubted that, by means yet unrevealed, I should be brought at last to the destined haven, although, as I must admit, neither of us foresaw the tremendous speed with which this would be accomplished.

Such was the case, however, for when brooding alone, upon the very next evening, in Greenwich Park, a familiar voice pierced my consciousness and suddenly awakened my every faculty. It was a warm but cloudy April dusk, and I was sitting upon a seat under a large chestnut tree, when I began to hear again, to my disgust and astonishment, the detested voice of Mr Septimus Lorton. Rapidly withdrawing myself behind the tree, I then observed him to be approaching my seat, evidently engrossed in his conversation with a medium-sized female who was accompanying him. For a moment, as was only natural, I resolved to transport myself as far as possible from his neighbourhood. But by some impulse - I realize now, of course, that this could only have had one origin - I merely performed perhaps a quarter of a revolution round the commanding trunk of the chestnut tree. By this manoeuvre, not, I think, uningenious, I thus concealed myself from his vision, while at the same time conferring upon myself such possible advantages as might accrue from observation. Nor was the event to prove me unjustified. For hardly had he arrived at the seat that I had vacated when he proceeded, accompanied by his companion, himself to sit down upon it.

Being a slow runner my position now was one of the extremest peril, and in the event of detection, I could only have relied upon my happily exceptional vocal powers. But a closer inspection of Mr Lorton's companion and something in the tones in which he was addressing her combined in bidding me hold my ground entirely regardless of personal danger. Indeed from the beginning, I think, it was less the physical than the moral contingencies that disturbed me. For I had instantly recognized, to my profound discomfort, that the person accompanying him was not Mrs Septimus Lorton. A woman of much slenderer and more graceful build, she had a pink complexion and hazel eyes, with a rather large but conceivably alluring mouth, and a considerable quantity of yellowish hair. Her name, it appeared, was Nina, the i being pronounced as if it were an e, and it was quickly apparent to me that, for the first time, I was in the presence of the gravest human vice. Nor have I ever, perhaps, entirely recovered from the enormous shock of that discovery. For though I had been aware, of course, from my studies of Holy Scripture, that such things had occurred in the Middle East, and had even deduced from contemporary newspapers their occasional survival in the British Islands, I had never dreamed it possible that here, in a public park in the Xtian London of my own experience, a married man could thus openly sit with his arm round a female who was not his wife.

Trembling all over, I was afraid for two or three moments that I was about to relapse into unconsciousness, and that I did not do so I can only attribute to the amazing discovery that followed. For no sooner had Mr Lorton taken his seat than the petrifying fact became manifest that his fellow-criminal was not only married herself, but was actually the wife of his brother Chrysostom.* Afterwards, as was inevitable perhaps, I utterly broke down, but not until I had made full notes of their conversation, learned that Mrs Chrysostom was supposed to be out shopping, and observed them kiss one another several times. Then, pale and distraught, blinded with tears, and scarcely indeed able to suppress my sobs, I hurried home, and within less than an hour had buried my face in my father's waistcoat.

`Oh, father,' I cried, `father,' and though he had misinterpreted my convulsions, I shall never forget the tenderness with which he signalled to my mother to fetch a basin as quickly as possible. Nor was he less sympathetic when I had succeeded in convincing him that my paroxysms were spiritual rather than gastric, for smoothing my hair with his unoccupied hand, he at once readjusted my head to its former position.

`My poor boy,' he said, `my poor Augustus. Tell me what's happened. Take your time. There, there now. I've sent your mother away. But she's left the basin here in case.'

`Oh, sin,' I cried, `sin - unbelievable sin in Greenwich Park.'

I felt my father's abdomen give a violent heave.

`In Greenwich Park?' he said. `Never!'

`Oh, yes,' I cried, `yes. Would that it were no. But it was not no.'

My father bent over me, patting my head.

`My poor boy,' he said. `What sort of sin?'

`Oh, the worst,' I said, `the worst. It was Mr Lorton and Mrs Chrysostom.'

`Good Heavens,' said my father, `Mr Lorton?'

`Mr Septimus,' I said, `and Mrs Chrysostom.'

`But what were they doing?' asked my father.

Burning all over, I replied that they had been kissing.

`Kissing,' he said, `kissing? You mean to tell me you saw them kissing?'

`Oh, father,' I said, `several times, with mutual expressions of passionate regard.'

I had now reared my head from. the lower part of his waistcoat, and it would have been hard to say which of us was the deeper scarlet. Then my father covered his eyes.

`Mutual expressions?' he whispered. `Do you remember them?'

With a shaking hand I offered him my pocketbook.

`They are there,' I said. `I wrote them down.'

Like a tornado he tore them from my grasp.

`My darling,' he read. `Oh, Septimus. Give me another. Well, just one. My only darling. Light of my heart. Do you know what your lips are like? No, tell me.'

Then a great light shone in my father's eyes.

`Providence has delivered them,' he said, `into our hands.'

For a moment I was silent. Then I rose to my feet.

`I had rather thought,' I said, `that might be the case.'

`Oh, it is,' said my father. `It is. Do you remember those beautiful words of David's, ``the righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked''?'

`Not only do I remember them' I said, `but had you not quoted them, I should certainly have done so myself.'

`We'll wash them tonight,' said my father. `Put on your cap. No, it would perhaps be better to wear your bowler,' and five minutes later we were standing once more on the front-door step of Hopkinson House.

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