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The Hand of Ethelberta.
N an extensive plot of ground, lying
somewhere between the Thames and the Kensington squares, stood the premises of Messrs. Nockett and Perch, builders and contractors. The yard with its workshops formed part of one of those frontier lines between mangy business and garnished domesticity that occur in what are called improving neighbourhoods. We are accustomed to regard increase as the chief feature in a great city's progress, its well-known signs greeting our
eyes on every outskirt. Slush-ponds may be seen turning into basement-kitchens; a broad causeway of shattered earthenware smothers plots of budding gooseberry bushes and vegetable trenches, foundations following so closely upon gardens that the householder may be expected to find cadaverous sprouts from overlooked potatoes rising through the chinks of bis cellar-floor. But the other great process, that of internal transmutation, is not less curious than this encroachment of grey upon green.
Its first erections are often only the milk-teeth of a suburb, and as the district rises in dignity they are dislodged by those which are to endure. Slightness becomes supplanted by comparative solidity, commonness by novelty, lowness and irregularity by symmetry and height. VOL. XXIIII.--NO. 196.
An observer of the precinct which has been named as an instance in point might have stood under a lamp-post and heard simultaneously the peal of the visitor's bell from the new terrace on the right hand, and the stroke of tools from the musty workshops on the left. Waggons laden with deals came up on this side, and landaus came down on the otherthe former to lumber heavily through the old-established contractors' gates, the latter to sweep fashionably into the square.
About twelve o'clock on the day following Lord Mountclere's exhibition of himself to Christopher in the jeweller's shop at Melchester, and almost at the identical time when the viscount was seen to come from the office for marriage licences in the same place, a carriage drove nearly up to the gates of Messrs. Nockett and Co.'s yard. A gentleman stepped out and looked around. He was a man whose years would have been pronounced as five-and-forty by the friendly, fifty by the candid, fifty-two or three by the grim. He was as handsome a study in grey as could be seen in town, there being far more of the raven's plumage than of the gull's in the mixture as yet; and he had a glance of that practised sort which can measure people, weigh them, repress them, encourage them to sprout and blossom as a March sun encourages crocuses, ask them questions, give them answers,-in short, a glance that could do as many things as an American cooking-stove or a multum-in-parvo pocketknife. But, as with most men of the world, this was mere mechanism : his actual emotions were kept so far within his person that they were rarely heard or seen near his features.
On reading the builders' names over the gateway he entered the yard, and asked at the office if Solomon Chickerel was engaged on the premises. The clerk was going to be very attentive, but finding the visitor had come only to speak to a workman, his tense attitude slackened a little, and he merely signified the foot of a Flemish ladder on the other side of the yard, saying, “ You will find him, sir, up there in the joiners' shop.”
When the man in the black coat reached the top he found himself at the end of a long apartment as large as a chapel and as low as a maltroom, across which ran parallel carpenters' benches to the number of twenty or more, a gangway being left at the side for access throughout. Behind every bench there stood a man or two, planing, fitting, or chiseling, as the case might be. The visitor paused for a moment, as if waiting for some cessation of their violent motions and uproar till he could make his errand known. He waited ten seconds, he waited twenty; but, beyond that a quick look had been thrown upon him by every pair of eyes, the muscular performances were in no way interrupted : everyone seemed oblivious of his presence, and absolutely regardless of his wish. In truth, the texture of that salmon-coloured skin could be seen to be aristrocratic without a microscope, and the exceptious artisan has an offhand way when contrasts are made painfully strong, by an idler of this kind coming, gloved and brushed into the very den where he is sweating and muddling in his shirt-sleeves,
« Oh no.
The gentleman from the carriage then proceeded down the workshop, wading up to his knees in a sea of shavings, and bruising his ankles against corners of board and sawn-off blocks that lay hidden like reefs beneath. At the ninth bench he made another venture.
“Sol Chickerel ?” said the man addressed, as he touched his planeiron upon
the oil-stone. “He's one of them just behind.” “D— it all, can't one of you show me?” the visitor angrily observed, for he had been used to more attention than this. Here, point him out.” He handed the man a shilling.
“No trouble to do that,” said the workman; and he turned and signified Sol by a nod without moving from his place.
The stranger entered Sol's division, and said at once:“I want to speak a few words with you in private. Is not a Mrs. Petherwin your
sister?" Sol started suspiciously. “Has anything happened to her ? ” he at length said, hurriedly.
It is on a business matter that I have called. You need not mind owning the relationship to me —the secret will be kept. I am the brother of one whom you may have heard of from her—Lord Mountclere."
“I have not. But if you will wait a minute, sir- _” He went to a little glazed box at the end of the shop, where the foreman was sitting, and, after speaking a few words to this person, Sol led Mountelere to the door, and down the ladder.
“I suppose we cannot very well talk here, after all?" said the gentleman when they reached the yard, and found several men moving about therein.
Perhaps we had better go to some room—the nearest inn will answer the purpose, will it not ?"
“ There's the Red Lion over the way. They have a very nice private room upstairs."
Yes, that will do." And passing out of the yard, the man with the glance entered the inn with Sol, where they were shown to the parlour as requested.
While the waiter was gone for some wine, which Mountclere ordered, the more ingenuous of the two resumed the conversation by saying, awkwardly: “Yes, Mrs. Petherwin is my sister, as you supposed, sir; but on her account I do not let it be known.”
“Indeed,” said Mountclere. “Well, I came to see you in order to speak of a matter which I thought you might know more about than I do, for it has taken me quite by surprise. My brother, Lord Mountclere, is, it seems, to be privately married to Mrs. Petherwin to-morrow.”
“Is that really the fact ?” said Sol, becoming quite shaken. 6 I had no thought that such a thing could be possible !"
“ It is imminent."
“ Father has told me that she has lately got to know some nobleman; but I never supposed there could be any meaning in that."
“You were altogether wrong,” said Mountclere, leaning back in his chair and looking at Sol steadily. “Do you feel it to be a matter upon which you will congratulate ber?"
“A very different thing," said Sol, vehemently. “Though he is your brother, sir, I must say this, that I would rather she married the poorest man I know."
“ From what my father has told me of him, he is not desirable brother-in-law to me than I shall be in all likelihood to him. What business has a man of that character to marry Berta, I should like to ask ?”
“That's what I say," returned Mountclere, revealing his satisfaction at Sol's estimate of his noble brother : it showed that he had calculated well in coming here. “My brother is getting old, and he has lived strangely: your sister is a highly respectable young lady."
“ And he is not respectable, you mean? I know he is not.”
I cannot say that,” returned Mountclere. Possibly a certain fraternal feeling repressed a direct assent: and yet this was the only representation which could be expected to prejudice the young man against the wedding, if he were such an one as the visitor supposed Sol to bea man vulgar in sentiment and ambition, but pure in his anxiety for his sister's happiness. “At any rate, we are agreed in thinking that this would be an unfortunate marriage for both," added Mountclere.
“ About both I don't know. It may be a good thing for him. When do you say it is to be, sir-to-morrow ?”.
“ I don't know what to do!” said Sol, walking up and down. “If half what I have heard is true, I would lose a winter's work to prevent her marrying him. What does she want to go mixing in with people who despise her for ? Now look here, Mr. Mountclere, since you have been and called me out to talk this over, it is only fair that you should tell me the exact truth about your brother. Is it a lie, or is it true, that he is not fit to be the husband of a decent woman ?"
“ That is a curious enquiry,” said Mountclere, whose manner and aspect, neutral as a winter landscape, had little in common with Sol's warm and unrestrained bearing. “ There are reasons why I think your sister will not be happy with him."
“ Then it is true what they say," said Sol, bringing down his fist upon the table. “I know your meaning well enough. What's to be done? If I could only see her this minute, she might be kept out of it.”
“ You think your presence would influence your sister-if you could see her before the wedding ?”
“ I think it would But who's to get at her?” "I am going, so you had better come on with me-unless it would best for your father to come."
Perhaps it might,” said the bewildered Sol. “But he will not le