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Chapter VIII

Second interview with Mr Septimus Lorton. But now the tables are turned. A pitiful exhibition. My father demands guarantees. He will write a letter to Mrs Chrysostom Lorton. My father's ordeal. When it was dark.

Save that it became the means so strangely selected for my early entrance into Xtian commerce, I do not propose to linger over the comparatively brief but effective interview that ensued. At first refused admission, the words Greenwich Park sent as a message by the servant sufficed to bring Mr Lorton hastily but reluctantly and unaccompanied to the front door. From there he conveyed us to one of the smaller and more distant schoolrooms, and it soon became obvious, in spite of his tentative denials, and even more despicable evasions, that my father and myself were the complete masters of the situation. It was true, of course, that he tried to temporize with the pathetic bravado of the exposed sinner.

‘But even if it were the case,’ he said, ‘which I am not prepared to admit, that I was in Greenwich Park with Mrs Chrysostom, do you suppose that, were I to deny it, my brother would believe you for a moment?’

Fulfilled as he was with a Xtian indignation, my father was unable to suppress a smile.

‘I imagine that at least,’ he said, ‘he would be interested in my son's knowledge that she was supposed to be shopping in Kensington.’

Mr Septimus Lorton protruded the tip of his tongue in a vain endeavour to moisten his lips.

‘And he would also be interested,’ I said, ‘to meet the lame newspaper-seller from whom she obtained change for ten shillings.’

My father nodded.

‘That cannot often happen,’ he said, ‘and my son tells me that the man picked up one of her gloves.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and followed her into the station with it, where she gave him a sixpence, and he called her a pretty lady.’

My father looked thoughtfully at the tips of his fingers.

‘From which I infer,’ he said, ‘that he could probably identify her.’

Mr Lorton passed one of his hands over the pale green surface of his cheek.

‘But, my dear sir,’ he said, ‘my dear sir, even suppose, I say, that without — er — prejudice, Mrs Chrysostom had so far honoured me as to accompany me for a walk in the park you mention, surely that is not necessarily an indiscreet act in view of the fact that I am her husband's brother.’

Again my father smiled.

‘But a brother, you must remember, whose testimonial would be worse than useless.’

For a moment Mr Lorton glanced from side to side with the bestial expression of a hunted rat. Then he spoke huskily, after licking his lips again and listening for a second or two over his left shoulder.

‘Perhaps I was rather hasty,’ he said, ‘rather hasty. In fact, I had — er — already begun to reconsider that.’

‘I am happy to hear it,’ said my father.

‘In fact,’ said Mr Lorton, ‘I think something could be done.’

My father bowed again. He was no longer smiling. I had seldom, indeed, seen him look so grave.

‘For the sake of your school,’ he said, ‘to say nothing of your soul, and for the sake of your brother's business, I sincerely hope so.’

‘Oh, I think so,’ said Mr Lorton, ‘I think so. Now, let me see. How could I be most helpful?’

My father cleared his throat.

‘Deeply as I am inclined,’ he said, ‘to expose this iniquity to the uttermost, and irreparable as has been its injury to my son's sensibilities, I am yet prepared to concede you the opportunity of retaining at least the semblance of your good name. But for my son I must claim every guarantee. Upon my son’s future your own is dependent.’

I dare not record that Mr Lorton smiled. Let me rather say that he exposed his incisors.

‘Dear Augustus,’ he said, ‘I’m sure he'll succeed. I'll send a line to my brother's wife.’

My father's expression never changed.

‘Do you apprehend then,’ he inquired, ‘that she can secure him the requisite position?’

‘Far more probably,’ said Mr Lorton, ‘than I. My — er — Mr Chrysostom Lorton is deeply attached to her.’

My father's silence was perhaps more eloquent than any merely verbal condemnation.

‘I — er — I’ll write tonight,’ said Mr Lorton.

‘Perhaps,’ said my father, ‘you’d be so kind as to give us Mrs Chrysostom Lorton's address.’

Mr Lorton hesitated.

‘Oh — er — certainly,’ he said. ‘Paternoster Towers, Enfield.’

My father made a note of this in his diary.

‘We shall call upon her,’ he said, ‘tomorrow at noon.’

Mr Lorton emitted a sort of gargling sound.

‘I — er — I’ll tell her,’ he said. ‘She’ll be delighted.’

Strong in the Lord, therefore, and indeed in comparatively good spirits considering the vileness with which we had been brought into contact, we returned home to a belated but none the less substantial meal; and it was not until this had been absorbed and my mother was in the scullery, cleansing the dishes that had contained it, that my father referred again to the interview that had been arranged for the following day.

‘Although it seemed wise,’ he said, ‘to suggest to that creature that both you and I would be present at it, I am afraid that my obligations to the Consolidated Water Board will, in reality, prevent me from being there, and that you must be prepared therefore, my dear Augustus, to face that female alone.’

I bowed my head.

‘I pray that you may trust me,’ I said.

With a slightly increased colour my father rose to his feet.

‘I have no doubt of it,’ he said. ‘But at the same time — at the same time — oh, Augustus, Augustus!’

Deeply moved, he advanced two or three paces and leaned heavily against the harmonium.

‘You see, my boy,’ he continued — at what a cost I could only afterward guess — ‘with this interview you will be definitely entering upon a new and most perilous phase of experience. For the first time — I must ask you to turn down the lamp — for the first time, as a marriageable adult, you will be called upon to encounter, face to face, a woman of fierce and unbridled passions.’

Here he paused for a moment and I could feel the floor shaking.

‘Oh, father,’ I cried. ‘Can I not spare you?’

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I must see it through.’

I bent forward to steady the lamp, and at the same time I turned it lower.

‘Mind the wick,’ he said.

‘Oh, father,’ I cried, ‘do you mean that she may want to kiss me?’

‘Oh, Augustus,’ he said, ‘or even more.’

‘Oh, father,’ I cried. ‘Is there anything more?’

He swallowed once or twice.

‘Oh, Augustus,’ he said.

I fear this chapter must remain unfinished.

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