Edward Bulwer Lytton
Night and Morning, Volume 5
"Per ambages et ministeria deorum."—PETRONTUS.
[Through the mysteries and ministerings of the gods.]
Mr. Roger Morton was behind his counter one drizzling, melancholy day. Mr. Roger Morton, alderman, and twice mayor of his native town, was a thriving man. He had grown portly and corpulent. The nightly potations of brandy and water, continued year after year with mechanical perseverance, had deepened the roses on his cheek. Mr. Roger Morton was never intoxicated—he "only made himself comfortable." His constitution was strong; but, somehow or other, his digestion was not as good as it might be. He was certain that something or other disagreed with him. He left off the joint one day—the pudding another. Now he avoided vegetables as poison—and now he submitted with a sigh to the doctor's interdict of his cigar. Mr. Roger Morton never thought of leaving off the brandy and water: and he would have resented as the height of impertinent insinuation any hint upon that score to a man of so sober and respectable a character.
Mr. Roger Morton was seated—for the last four years, ever since his second mayoralty, he had arrogated to himself the dignity of a chair. He received rather than served his customers. The latter task was left to two of his sons. For Tom, after much cogitation, the profession of an apothecary had been selected. Mrs. Morton observed, that it was a genteel business, and Tom had always been a likely lad. And Mr. Roger considered that it would be a great comfort and a great saving to have his medical adviser in his own son.
The other two sons and the various attendants of the shop were plying the profitable trade, as customer after customer, with umbrellas and in pattens, dropped into the tempting shelter—when a man, meanly dressed, and who was somewhat past middle age, with a careworn, hungry face, entered timidly. He waited in patience by the crowded counter, elbowed by sharp-boned and eager spinsters—and how sharp the elbows of spinsters are, no man can tell who has not forced his unwelcome way through the agitated groups in a linendraper's shop!—the man, I say, waited patiently and sadly, till the smallest of the shopboys turned from a lady, who, after much sorting and shading, had finally decided on two yards of lilac-coloured penny riband, and asked, in an insinuating professional tone,—
"What shall I show you, sir?"
"I wish to speak to Mr. Morton. Which is he?"
"Mr. Morton is engaged, sir. I can give you what you want."
"No—it is a matter of business—important business." The boy eyed the napless and dripping hat, the gloveless hands, and the rusty neckcloth of the speaker; and said, as he passed his fingers through a profusion of light curls "Mr. Morton don't attend much to business himself now; but that's he. Any cravats, sir?"
The man made no answer, but moved where, near the window, and chatting with the banker of the town (as the banker tried on a pair of beaver gloves), sat still—after due apology for sitting—Mr. Roger Morton.
The alderman lowered his spectacles as he glanced grimly at the lean apparition that shaded the spruce banker, and said,—
"Do you want me, friend?"
"Yes, sir, if you please;" and the man took off his shabby hat, and bowed low.
"Well, speak out. No begging petition, I hope?"
"No, sir! Your nephews—"
The banker turned round, and in his turn eyed the newcomer. The linendraper started back.
"Nephews!" he repeated, with a bewildered look. "What does the man mean?
Wait a bit."
"Oh, I've done!" said the banker, smiling. "I am glad to find we agree so well upon this question: I knew we should. Our member will never suit us if he goes on in this way. Trade must take care of itself. Good day to You!"
"Nephews!" repeated Mr. Morton, rising, and beckoning to the man to follow him into the back parlour, where Mrs. Morton sat casting up the washing bills.
"Now," said the husband, closing the door, "what do you mean, my good fellow?"
"Sir, what I wish to ask you is-if you can tell me what has become of—of the young Beau—, that is, of your sister's sons. I understand there were two—and I am told that—that they are both dead. Is it so?"
"What is that to you, friend?"
"An please you, sir, it is a great deal to them!"
"Yes—ha! ha! it is a great deal to everybody whether they are alive or dead!" Mr. Morton, since he had been mayor, now and then had his joke. "But really—"
"Roger!" said Mrs. Morton, under her breath—"Roger!"
"Yes, my dear."
"Come this way—I want to speak to you about this bill." The husband approached, and bent over his wife. "Who's this man?"
"I don't know."
"Depend on it, he has some claim to make-some bills or something. Don't commit yourself—the boys are dead for what we know!"
Mr. Morton hemmed and returned to his visitor.
"To tell you the truth, I am not aware of what has become of the young men."
"Then they are not dead—I thought not!" exclaimed the man, joyously.
"That's more than I can say. It's many years since I lost sight of the only one I ever saw; and they may be both dead for what I know."
"Indeed!" said the man. "Then you can give me no kind of—of—hint like, to find them out?"
"No. Do they owe you anything?"
"It does not signify talking now, sir. I beg your pardon."
"Stay—who are you?"
"I am a very poor man, sir."
Mr. Morton recoiled.
"Poor! Oh, very well—very well. You have done with me now. Good day— good day. I'm busy."
The stranger pecked for a moment at his hat—turned the handle of the door-peered under his grey eyebrows at the portly trader, who, with both hands buried in his pockets, his mouth pursed up, like a man about to say "No" fidgeted uneasily behind Mrs. Morton's chair. He sighed, shook his head, and vanished.
Mrs. Morton rang the bell-the maid-servant entered. "Wipe the carpet, Jenny;—dirty feet! Mr. Morton, it's a Brussels!"
"It was not my fault, my dear. I could not talk about family matters before the whole shop. Do you know, I'd quite forgot those poor boys. This unsettles me. Poor Catherine! she was so fond of them. A pretty boy that Sidney, too. What can have become of them? My heart rebukes me. I wish I had asked the man more."
"More!—why he was just going to beg."
"Beg—yes—very true!" said Mr. Morton, pausing irresolutely; and then, with a hearty tone, he cried out, "And, damme, if he had begged, I could afford him a shilling! I'll go after him." So saying, he hastened back through the shop, but the man was gone—the rain was falling, Mr. Morton had his thin shoes on—he blew his nose, and went back to the counter. But, there, still rose to his memory the pale face of his dead sister; and a voice murmured in his ear, "Brother, where is my child?"
"Pshaw! it is not my fault if he ran away. Bob, go and get me the county paper."
Mr. Morton had again settled himself, and was deep in a trial for murder, when another stranger strode haughtily into the shop. The new-comer, wrapped in a pelisse of furs, with a thick moustache, and an eye that took in the whole shop, from master to boy, from ceiling to floor, in a glance, had the air at once of a foreigner and a soldier. Every look fastened on him, as he paused an instant, and then walking up to the alderman, said,—
"Sir, you are doubtless Mr. Morton?"
"At your commands, sir," said Roger, rising involuntarily.
"A word with you, then, on business."
"Business!" echoed Mr. Morton, turning rather pale,