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The Explorer - Chapter 5 Post by :cclittle Category :Long Stories Author :W. Somerset Maugham Date :May 2012 Read :623

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The Explorer - Chapter 5

Chapter V

Mrs. Crowley and Robert Boulger were standing by the fire, and there was a peculiar agitation about them. They were silent, but it seemed to Lucy that they had been speaking of her. Mrs. Crowley impulsively seized her hands and kissed her. Lucy's first thought was that something had happened to her brother. Lady Kelsey's generous allowance had made it possible for him to hunt, and the thought flashed through her that some terrible accident had happened.

'Is anything the matter with George?' she asked, with a gasp of terror.

'No,' answered Boulger.

The colour came to Lucy's cheeks as she felt a sudden glow of relief.

'Thank God,' she murmured. 'I was so frightened.'

She gave him, now, a smile of welcome as she shook hands with him. It could be nothing so very dreadful after all.

Lucy's uncle, Sir George Boulger, had been for many years senior partner in the great firm of Boulger & Kelsey. After sitting in Parliament for the quarter of a century and voting assiduously for his party, he had been given a baronetcy on the celebration of Queen Victoria's second Jubilee, and had finished a prosperous life by dying of apoplexy at the opening of a park, which he was presenting to the nation. He had been a fine type of the wealthy merchant, far-sighted in business affairs and proud to serve his native city in every way open to him. His son, Robert, now reigned in his stead, but the firm had been made into a company, and the responsibility that he undertook, notwithstanding that the greater number of shares were in his hands, was much less. The partner who had been taken into the house on Sir Alfred Kelsey's death now managed the more important part of the business in Manchester, while Robert, brought up by his father to be a man of affairs, had taken charge of the London branch. Commerce was in his blood, and he settled down to work with praiseworthy energy. He had considerable shrewdness, and it was plain that he would eventually become as good a merchant as his father. He was little older than Lucy, but his fair hair and his clean-shaven face gave him a more youthful look. With his spruce air and well-made clothes, his conversation about hunting and golf, few would have imagined that he arrived regularly at his office at ten in the morning, and was as keen to make a good bargain as any of the men he came in contact with.

Lucy, though very fond of him, was mildly scornful of his Philistine outlook. He cared nothing for books, and the only form of art that appealed to him was the musical comedy. She treated him as a rule with pleasant banter and refused to take him seriously. It required a good deal of energy to keep their friendship on a light footing, for she knew that he had been in love with her since he was eighteen. She could not help feeling flattered, though on her side there was no more than the cousinly affection due to their having been thrown together all their lives, and she was aware that they were little suited to one another. He had proposed to her a dozen times, and she was obliged to use many devices to protect herself from his assiduity. It availed nothing to tell him that she did not love him. He was only too willing to marry her on whatever conditions she chose to make. Her friends and her relations were anxious that she should accept him. Lady Kelsey had reasoned with her. Here was a man whom she had known always and could trust utterly; he had ten thousand a year, an honest heart, and a kindly disposition. Her father, seeing in the match a resource in his constant difficulties, was eager that she should take the boy, and George, who was devoted to him, had put in his word, too. Bobbie had asked her to marry him when he was twenty-one, and again when she was twenty-one, when George went to Oxford, when her father went into bankruptcy, and when Hamlyn's Purlieu was sold. He had urged his own father to buy it, when it was known that a sale was inevitable, hoping that the possession of it would incline Lucy's heart towards him; but the first baronet was too keen a man of business to make an unprofitable investment for sentimental reasons. Bobbie had proposed for the last time when he succeeded to the baronetcy and a large fortune. Lucy recognised his goodness and the advantages of the match, but she did not care for him. She felt, too, that she needed a free hand to watch over her father and George. Even Mrs. Crowley's suggestion that with her guidance Robert Boulger might become a man of consequence, did not move her. Bobbie, on the other hand, had set all his heart on marrying his cousin. It was the supreme interest of his life, and he hoped that his patience would eventually triumph over every obstacle. He was willing to wait.

When Lucy's first alarm was stayed, it occurred to her that Bobbie had come once more to ask her the eternal question, but the anxious look in his eyes drove the idea away. His pleasant, boyish expression was overcast with gravity; Mrs. Crowley flung herself in a chair and turned her face away.

'I have something to tell you which is very terrible, Lucy,' he said.

The effort he made to speak was noticeable. His voice was strained by the force with which he kept it steady.

'Would you like me to leave you?' asked Alec, who had accompanied Lucy into the drawing-room.

She gave him a glance. It seemed to her that whatever it was, his presence would help her to bear it.

'Do you wish to see me alone, Bobbie?'

'I've already told Dick and Mrs. Crowley.'

'What is it?' she asked.

Bobbie gave Dick an appealing look. It seemed too hard that he should have to break the awful news to her. He had not the heart to give her so much pain. And yet he had hurried down to the country so that he might soften the blow by his words: he would not trust to the callous cruelty of a telegram. Dick saw the agitation which made his good-humoured mouth twitch with pain, and stepped forward.

'Your father has been arrested for fraud,' he said gravely.

For a moment no one spoke. The silence was intolerable to Mrs. Crowley, and she inveighed inwardly against the British stolidity. She could not look at Lucy, but the others, full of sympathy, kept their eyes upon her. Mrs. Crowley wondered why she did not faint. It seemed to Lucy that an icy hand clutched her heart so that the blood was squeezed out of it. She made a determined effort to keep her clearness of mind.

'It's impossible,' she said at last, quietly.

'He was arrested last night, and brought up at Bow Street Police Court this morning. He was remanded for a week.'

Lucy felt the tears well up to her eyes, but with all her strength she forced them back. She collected her thoughts.

'It was very good of you to come down and tell me,' she said to Boulger gently.

'The magistrate agreed to accept bail in five thousand pounds. Aunt Alice and I have managed it between us.'

'Is he staying with Aunt Alice now?'

'No, he wouldn't do that. He's gone to his flat in Shaftesbury Avenue.'

Lucy's thoughts went to the lad who was dearest to her in the world, and her heart sank.

'Does George know?'

'Not yet.'

Dick saw the relief that came into her face, and thought he divined what was in her mind.

'But he must be told at once,' he said. 'He's sure to see something about it in the papers. We had better wire to him to come to London immediately.'

'Surely father could have shown in two minutes that the whole thing was a mistake.'

Bobbie made a hopeless gesture. He saw the sternness of her eyes, and he had not the heart to tell her the truth. Mrs. Crowley began to cry.

'You don't understand, Lucy,' said Dick. 'I'm afraid it's a very serious charge. Your father will be committed for trial.'

'You know just as well as I do that father can't have done anything illegal. He's weak and rash, but he's no more than that. He would as soon think of doing anything wrong as of flying to the moon. If in his ignorance of business he's committed some technical offence, he can easily show that it was unintentional.'

'Whatever it is, he'll have to stand his trial at the Old Bailey,' answered Dick gravely.

He saw that Lucy did not for a moment appreciate the gravity of her father's position. After the first shock of dismay she was disposed to think that there could be nothing in it. Robert Boulger saw there was nothing for it but to tell her everything.

'Your father and a man called Saunders have been running a bucketshop under the name of Vernon and Lawford. They were obliged to trade under different names, because Uncle Fred is an undischarged bankrupt, and Saunders is the sort of man who only uses his own name on the charge sheet of a police court.'

'Do you know what a bucketshop is, Lucy?' asked Dick.

He did not wait for a reply, but explained that it was a term used to describe a firm of outside brokers whose dealings were more or less dishonest.

'The action is brought against the pair of them by a Mrs. Sabidon, who accuses them of putting to their own uses various sums amounting altogether to more than eight thousand pounds, which she intrusted to them to invest.'

Now that the truth was out, Lucy quailed before it. The intense seriousness on the faces of Alec and Dick Lomas, the piteous anxiety of her cousin, terrified her.

'You don't think there's anything in it?' she asked quickly.

Robert did not know what to answer. Dick interrupted with wise advice.

'We'll hope for the best. The only thing to do is to go up to London at once and get the best legal advice.'

But Lucy would not allow herself, even for a moment, to doubt her father. Now that she thought of the matter, she saw that it was absurd. She forced herself to give a laugh.

'I'm quite reassured. You don't think for a moment that father would deliberately steal somebody else's money. And it's nothing short of theft.'

'At all events it's something that we've been able to get him released on bail. It will make it so much easier to arrange the defence.'

A couple of hours later Lucy, accompanied by Dick Lomas and Bobbie, was on her way to London. Alec, thinking his presence would be a nuisance to them, arranged with Mrs. Crowley to leave by a later train; and, when the time came for him to start, his hostess suddenly announced that she would go with him. With her party thus broken up and her house empty, she could not bear to remain at Court Leys. She was anxious about Lucy and eager to be at hand if her help were needed.

* * *

A telegram had been sent to George, and it was supposed that he would arrive at Lady Kelsey's during the evening. Lucy wanted to tell him herself what had happened. But she could not wait till then to see her father, and persuaded Dick to drive with her from the station to Shaftesbury Avenue. Fred Allerton was not in. Lucy wanted to go into the flat and stay there till he came, but the porter had no key and did not know when he would return. Dick was much relieved. He was afraid that the excitement and the anxiety from which Fred Allerton had suffered, would have caused him to drink heavily; and he could not let Lucy see him the worse for liquor. He induced her, after leaving a note to say that she would call early next morning, to go quietly home. When they arrived at Charles Street, where was Lady Kelsey's house, they found a wire from George to say he could not get up to town till the following day.

To Lucy this had, at least, the advantage that she could see her father alone, and at the appointed hour she made her way once more to his flat. He took her in his arms and kissed her warmly. She succumbed at once to the cheeriness of his manner.

'I can only give you two minutes, darling,' he said. 'I'm full of business, and I have an appointment with my solicitor at eleven.'

Lucy could not speak. She clung to her father, looking at him with anxious, sombre eyes; but he laughed and patted her hand.

'You mustn't make too much of all this, my love,' he said brightly. 'These little things are always liable to happen to a man of business; they are the perils of the profession, and we have to put up with them, just as kings and queens have to put up with bomb-shells.'

'There's no truth in it, father?'

She did not want to ask that wounding question, but the words slipped from her lips against her will. He broke away from her.

'Truth? My dear child, what do you mean? You don't suppose I'm the man to rob the widow and the orphan? Of course, there's no truth in it.'

'Oh, I'm so glad to hear that,' she exclaimed, with a deep sigh of relief.

'Have they been frightening you?'

Lucy flushed under his frank look of amusement. She felt that there was a barrier between herself and him, the barrier that had existed for years, and there was something in his manner which filled her with unaccountable anxiety. She would not analyse that vague emotion. It was a dread to see what was so carefully hidden by that breezy reserve. She forced herself to go on.

'I know that you're often carried away by your fancies, and I thought you might have got into an ambiguous position.'

'I can honestly say that no one can bring anything up against me,' he answered. 'But I do blame myself for getting mixed up with that man Saunders. I'm afraid there's no doubt that he's a wrong 'un--and heaven only knows what he's been up to--but for my own part I give you my solemn word of honour that I've done nothing, absolutely nothing, that I have the least reason to be ashamed of.'

Lucy took his hand, and a charming smile lit up her face.

'Oh, father, you've made me so happy by saying that. Now I shall be able to tell George that there's nothing to worry about.'

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Dick. Fred Allerton greeted him heartily.

'You've just come in time to take Lucy home. I've got to go out. But look here, George is coming up, isn't he? Let us all lunch at the _Carlton at two, and get Alice to come. We'll have a jolly little meal together.'

Dick was astounded to see the lightness with which Allerton took the affair. He seemed unconscious of the gravity of his position and unmindful of the charge which was hanging over him. Dick was not anxious to accept the invitation, but Allerton would hear of no excuses. He wanted to have his friends gathered around him, and he needed relaxation after the boredom of spending a morning in his lawyer's office.

'Come on,' he said. 'I can't wait another minute.'

He opened the door, and Lucy walked out. It seemed to Dick that Allerton was avoiding any chance of conversation with him. But no man likes to meet his creditor within four walls, and this disinclination might be due merely to the fact that Allerton owed him a couple of hundred pounds. But he meant to get in one or two words.

'Are you fixed up with a solicitor?' he asked.

'Do you think I'm a child, Dick?' answered the other. 'Why, I've got the smartest man in the whole profession, Teddie Blakeley--you know him, don't you?'

'Only by reputation,' answered Dick drily. 'I should think that was enough for most people.'

Fred Allerton gave that peculiarly honest laugh of his, which was so attractive. Dick knew that the solicitor he mentioned was a man of evil odour, who had made a specialty of dealing with the most doubtful sort of commercial work, and his name had been prominent in every scandal for the last fifteen years. It was surprising that he had never followed any of his clients to the jail he richly deserved.

'I thought it no good going to one of the old crusted family solicitors. I wanted a man who knew the tricks of the trade.'

They were walking down the stairs, while Lucy waited at the bottom. Dick stopped and turned round. He looked at Allerton keenly.

'You're not going to do a bolt, are you?'

Allerton's face lit up with amusement. He put his hands on Dick's shoulders.

'My dear old Dick, don't be such an ass. I don't know about Saunders--he's a fishy sort of customer--but I shall come out of all this with flying colours. The prosecution hasn't a leg to stand on.'

Allerton, reminding them that they were to lunch together, jumped into a cab. Lucy and Dick walked slowly back to Charles Street. Dick was very silent. He had not seen Fred Allerton for some time and was surprised to see that he had regained his old smartness. The flat had pretty things in it which testified to the lessee's taste and to his means, and the clothes he wore were new and well-cut. The invitation to the _Carlton showed that he was in no want of ready money, and there was a general air of prosperity about him which gave Dick much to think of.

Lucy did not ask him to come in, since George, by now, must have arrived, and she wished to see him alone. They agreed to meet again at two. As she shook hands with Dick, Lucy told him what her father had said.

'I had a sleepless night,' she said. 'It was so stupid of me; I couldn't get it out of my head that father, unintentionally, had done something rash or foolish; but I've got his word of honour that nothing is the matter, and I feel as if a whole world of anxiety were suddenly lifted from my shoulders.'

* * *

The party at the _Carlton was very gay. Fred Allerton seemed in the best of spirits, and his good-humour was infectious. He was full of merry quips. Lucy had made as little of the affair as possible to George. Her eyes rested on him, as he sat opposite to her, and she felt happy and proud. Now and then he looked at her, and an affectionate smile came to his lips. She was delighted with his slim handsomeness. There was a guileless look in his blue eyes which was infinitely attractive. His mouth was beautifully modelled. She took an immense pride in the candour of soul which shone with so clear a light on his face, and she was affected as a stranger might have been by the exquisite charm of manner which he had inherited from his father. She wanted to have him to herself that evening and suggested that they should go to a play together. He accepted the idea eagerly, for he admired his sister with all his heart; he felt in himself a need for protection, and she was able to minister to this. He was never so happy as when he was by her side. He liked to tell her all he did, and, when she fired him with noble ambitions, he felt capable of anything.

They were absurdly light-hearted, as they started on their little jaunt. Lady Kelsey had slipped a couple of banknotes into George's hand and told them to have a good time. They dined at the _Carlton_, went to a musical comedy, which amused Lucy because her brother laughed so heartily--she was fascinated by his keen power of enjoyment--and finished by going to the _Savoy for supper. For the moment all her anxieties seemed to fall from her, and the years of trouble were forgotten. She was as merry and as irresponsible as George. He was enchanted. He had never seen Lucy so tender and so gay; there was a new brilliancy in her eyes; and, without quite knowing what it was that differed, he found a soft mellowness in her laughter which filled him with an uncomprehended delight. Neither did Lucy know why the world on a sudden seemed fuller than it had ever done before, nor why the future smiled so kindly: it never occurred to her that she was in love.

When Lucy, exhausted but content, found herself at length in her room, she thanked God for the happiness of the evening. It was the last time she could do that for many weary years.

* * *

A few days later Allerton appeared again at the police court, and the magistrate, committing him for trial, declined to renew his bail. The prisoner was removed in custody.

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