The Wrong BoxRobert Louis Stevenson
Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer and David Widger
THE WRONG BOX
By Robert Louis Stevenson And Lloyd Osbourne
'Nothing like a little judicious levity,' says Michael Finsbury in thetext: nor can any better excuse be found for the volume in the reader'shand. The authors can but add that one of them is old enough to beashamed of himself, and the other young enough to learn better.
R. L. S. L. O.
CHAPTER I. In Which Morris Suspects
How very little does the amateur, dwelling at home at ease, comprehendthe labours and perils of the author, and, when he smilingly skims thesurface of a work of fiction, how little does he consider the hoursof toil, consultation of authorities, researches in the Bodleian,correspondence with learned and illegible Germans--in one word, the vastscaffolding that was first built up and then knocked down, to while awayan hour for him in a railway train! Thus I might begin this tale witha biography of Tonti--birthplace, parentage, genius probably inheritedfrom his mother, remarkable instance of precocity, etc--and a completetreatise on the system to which he bequeathed his name. The materialis all beside me in a pigeon-hole, but I scorn to appear vainglorious.Tonti is dead, and I never saw anyone who even pretended to regret him;and, as for the tontine system, a word will suffice for all the purposesof this unvarnished narrative.
A number of sprightly youths (the more the merrier) put up a certain sumof money, which is then funded in a pool under trustees; coming on fora century later, the proceeds are fluttered for a moment in the face ofthe last survivor, who is probably deaf, so that he cannot even hear ofhis success--and who is certainly dying, so that he might just as wellhave lost. The peculiar poetry and even humour of the scheme is nowapparent, since it is one by which nobody concerned can possibly profit;but its fine, sportsmanlike character endeared it to our grandparents.
When Joseph Finsbury and his brother Masterman were little ladsin white-frilled trousers, their father--a well-to-do merchantin Cheapside--caused them to join a small but rich tontine ofseven-and-thirty lives. A thousand pounds was the entrance fee; andJoseph Finsbury can remember to this day the visit to the lawyer's,where the members of the tontine--all children like himself--wereassembled together, and sat in turn in the big office chair, and signedtheir names with the assistance of a kind old gentleman in spectaclesand Wellington boots. He remembers playing with the children afterwardson the lawn at the back of the lawyer's house, and a battle-royal thathe had with a brother tontiner who had kicked his shins. The sound ofwar called forth the lawyer from where he was dispensing cake andwine to the assembled parents in the office, and the combatants wereseparated, and Joseph's spirit (for he was the smaller of the two)commended by the gentleman in the Wellington boots, who vowed he hadbeen just such another at the same age. Joseph wondered to himself ifhe had worn at that time little Wellingtons and a little bald head,and when, in bed at night, he grew tired of telling himself storiesof sea-fights, he used to dress himself up as the old gentleman, andentertain other little boys and girls with cake and wine.
In the year 1840 the thirty-seven were all alive; in 1850 their numberhad decreased by six; in 1856 and 1857 business was more lively, for theCrimea and the Mutiny carried off no less than nine. There remainedin 1870 but five of the original members, and at the date of my story,including the two Finsburys, but three.
By this time Masterman was in his seventy-third year; he had longcomplained of the effects of age, had long since retired from business,and now lived in absolute seclusion under the roof of his son Michael,the well-known solicitor. Joseph, on the other hand, was still up andabout, and still presented but a semi-venerable figure on the streetsin which he loved to wander. This was the more to be deplored becauseMasterman had led (even to the least particular) a model British life.Industry, regularity, respectability, and a preference for the four percents are understood to be the very foundations of a green old age. Allthese Masterman had eminently displayed, and here he was, ab agendo, atseventy-three; while Joseph, barely two years younger, and in the mostexcellent preservation, had disgraced himself through life by idlenessand eccentricity. Embarked in the leather trade, he had early weariedof business, for which he was supposed to have small parts. A taste forgeneral information, not promptly checked, had soon begun to sap hismanhood. There is no passion more debilitating to the mind, unless,perhaps, it be that itch of public speaking which it not infrequentlyaccompanies or begets. The two were conjoined in the case of Joseph; theacute stage of this double malady, that in which the patient deliversgratuitous lectures, soon declared itself with severity, and not manyyears had passed over his head before he would have travelled thirtymiles to address an infant school. He was no student; his reading wasconfined to elementary textbooks and the daily papers; he did not evenfly as high as cyclopedias; life, he would say, was his volume. Hislectures were not meant, he would declare, for college professors; theywere addressed direct to 'the great heart of the people', and theheart of the people must certainly be sounder than its head, for hislucubrations were received with favour. That entitled 'How to LiveCheerfully on Forty Pounds a Year', created a sensation among theunemployed. 'Education: Its Aims, Objects, Purposes, and Desirability',gained him the respect of the shallow-minded. As for his celebratedessay on 'Life Insurance Regarded in its Relation to the Masses', readbefore the Working Men's Mutual Improvement Society, Isle of Dogs, itwas received with a 'literal ovation' by an unintelligent audience ofboth sexes, and so marked was the effect that he was next year electedhonorary president of the institution, an office of less thanno emolument--since the holder was expected to come down with adonation--but one which highly satisfied his self-esteem.
While Joseph was thus building himself up a reputation among the morecultivated portion of the ignorant, his domestic life was suddenlyoverwhelmed by orphans. The death of his younger brother Jacob saddledhim with the charge of two boys, Morris and John; and in the course ofthe same year his family was still further swelled by the addition of alittle girl, the daughter of John Henry Hazeltine, Esq., a gentlemanof small property and fewer friends. He had met Joseph only once, at alecture-hall in Holloway; but from that formative experience he returnedhome to make a new will, and consign his daughter and her fortune to thelecturer. Joseph had a kindly disposition; and yet it was not withoutreluctance that he accepted this new responsibility, advertised for anurse, and purchased a second-hand perambulator. Morris and John he mademore readily welcome; not so much because of the tie of consanguinityas because the leather business (in which he hastened to invest theirfortune of thirty thousand pounds) had recently exhibited inexplicablesymptoms of decline. A young but capable Scot was chosen as manager tothe enterprise, and the cares of business never again afflicted JosephFinsbury. Leaving his charges in the hands of the capable Scot (who wasmarried), he began his extensive travels on the Continent and in AsiaMinor.
With a polyglot Testament in one hand and a phrase-book in the other,he groped his way among the speakers of eleven European languages.The first of these guides is hardly applicable to the purposes of thephilosophic traveller, and even the second is designed more expresslyfor the tourist than for the expert in life. But he pressed interpretersinto his service--whenever he could get their services for nothing--andby one means and another filled many notebooks with the results of hisresearches.
In these wanderings he spent several years, and only returned to Englandwhen the increasing age of his charges needed his attention. The twolads had been placed in a good but economical school, where they hadreceived a sound commercial education; which was somewhat awkward, asthe leather business was by no means in a state to court enquiry. Infact, when Joseph went over his accounts preparatory to surrendering histrust, he was dismayed to
discover that his brother's fortune had notincreased by his stewardship; even by making over to his two wardsevery penny he had in the world, there would still be a deficit of seventhousand eight hundred pounds. When these facts were communicated to thetwo brothers in the presence of a lawyer, Morris Finsbury threatenedhis uncle with all the terrors of the law, and was only prevented fromtaking extreme steps by the advice of the professional man. 'You cannotget blood from a stone,' observed the lawyer.
And Morris saw the point and came to terms with his uncle. On the oneside, Joseph gave up all that he possessed, and assigned to hisnephew his contingent interest in the tontine, already quite a hopefulspeculation. On the other, Morris agreed to harbour his uncle and MissHazeltine (who had come to grief with the rest), and to pay to eachof them one pound a month as pocket-money. The allowance was amplysufficient for the old man; it scarce appears how Miss Hazeltinecontrived to dress upon it; but she did, and, what is more, she nevercomplained. She was, indeed, sincerely attached to her incompetentguardian. He had never been unkind; his age spoke for him loudly; therewas something appealing in his whole-souled quest of knowledge andinnocent delight in the smallest mark of admiration; and, though thelawyer had warned her she was being sacrificed, Julia had refused to addto the perplexities of Uncle Joseph.
In a large, dreary house in John Street, Bloomsbury, these four dwelttogether; a family in appearance, in reality a financial association.Julia and Uncle Joseph were, of course, slaves; John, a gentle man witha taste for the banjo, the music-hall, the Gaiety bar, and the sportingpapers, must have been anywhere a secondary figure; and the caresand delights of empire devolved entirely upon Morris. That these areinextricably intermixed is one of the commonplaces with which the blandessayist consoles the incompetent and the obscure, but in the case ofMorris the bitter must have largely outweighed the sweet. He grudged notrouble to himself, he spared none to others; he called the servantsin the morning, he served out the stores with his own hand, he tooksoundings of the sherry, he numbered the remainder biscuits; painfulscenes took place over the weekly bills, and the cook was frequentlyimpeached, and the tradespeople came and hectored with him in the backparlour upon a question of three farthings. The superficial might havedeemed him a miser; in his own eyes he was simply a man who had beendefrauded; the world owed him seven thousand eight hundred pounds, andhe intended that the world should pay.
But it was in his dealings with Joseph that Morris's characterparticularly shone. His uncle was a rather gambling stock in which hehad invested heavily; and he spared no pains in nursing the security.The old man was seen monthly by a physician, whether he was well or ill.His diet, his raiment, his occasional outings, now to Brighton, now toBournemouth, were doled out to him like pap to infants. In bad weatherhe must keep the house. In good weather, by half-past nine, he mustbe ready in the hall; Morris would see that he had gloves and that hisshoes were sound; and the pair would start for the leather businessarm in arm. The way there was probably dreary enough, for there was nopretence of friendly feeling; Morris had never ceased to upbraidhis guardian with his defalcation and to lament the burthen of MissHazeltine; and Joseph, though he was a mild enough soul, regarded hisnephew with something very near akin to hatred. But the way therewas nothing to the journey back; for the mere sight of the place ofbusiness, as well as every detail of its transactions, was enough topoison life for any Finsbury.
Joseph's name was still over the door; it was he who still signed thecheques; but this was only policy on the part of Morris, and designedto discourage other members of the tontine. In reality the business wasentirely his; and he found it an inheritance of sorrows. He tried tosell it, and the offers he received were quite derisory. He tried toextend it, and it was only the liabilities he succeeded in extending; torestrict it, and it was only the profits he managed to restrict. Nobodyhad ever made money out of that concern except the capable Scot, whoretired (after his discharge) to the neighbourhood of Banff and built acastle with his profits. The memory of this fallacious Caledonian Morriswould revile daily, as he sat in the private office opening his mail,with old Joseph at another table, sullenly awaiting orders, or savagelyaffixing signatures to he knew not what. And when the man of the heatherpushed cynicism so far as to send him the announcement of his secondmarriage (to Davida, eldest daughter of the Revd. Alexander McCraw), itwas really supposed that Morris would have had a fit.
Business hours, in the Finsbury leather trade, had been cut to thequick; even Morris's strong sense of duty to himself was not strongenough to dally within those walls and under the shadow of thatbankruptcy; and presently the manager and the clerks would draw a longbreath, and compose themselves for another day of procrastination. RawHaste, on the authority of my Lord Tennyson, is half-sister to Delay;but the Business Habits are certainly her uncles. Meanwhile, the leathermerchant would lead his living investment back to John Street like apuppy dog; and, having there immured him in the hall, would depart forthe day on the quest of seal rings, the only passion of his life. Josephhad more than the vanity of man, he had that of lecturers. He owned hewas in fault, although more sinned against (by the capable Scot) thansinning; but had he steeped his hands in gore, he would still notdeserve to be thus dragged at the chariot-wheels of a young man, to sita captive in the halls of his own leather business, to be entertainedwith mortifying comments on his whole career--to have his costumeexamined, his collar pulled up, the presence of his mittens verified,and to be taken out and brought home in custody, like an infant witha nurse. At the thought of it his soul would swell with venom, and hewould make haste to hang up his hat and coat and the detested mittens,and slink upstairs to Julia and his notebooks. The drawing-room at leastwas sacred from Morris; it belonged to the old man and the young girl;it was there that she made her dresses; it was there that he inkedhis spectacles over the registration of disconnected facts and thecalculation of insignificant statistics.
Here he would sometimes lament his connection with the tontine. 'If itwere not for that,' he cried one afternoon, 'he would not care to keepme. I might be a free man, Julia. And I could so easily support myselfby giving lectures.'
'To be sure you could,' said she; 'and I think it one of the meanestthings he ever did to deprive you of that amusement. There were thosenice people at the Isle of Cats (wasn't it?) who wrote and asked you sovery kindly to give them an address. I did think he might have let yougo to the Isle of Cats.'
'He is a man of no intelligence,' cried Joseph. 'He lives here literallysurrounded by the absorbing spectacle of life, and for all the goodit does him, he might just as well be in his coffin. Think of hisopportunities! The heart of any other young man would burn within himat the chance. The amount of information that I have it in my powerto convey, if he would only listen, is a thing that beggars language,Julia.'
'Whatever you do, my dear, you mustn't excite yourself,' said Julia;'for you know, if you look at all ill, the doctor will be sent for.'
'That is very true,' returned the old man humbly, 'I will compose myselfwith a little study.' He thumbed his gallery of notebooks. 'I wonder,'he said, 'I wonder (since I see your hands are occupied) whether itmight not interest you--'
'Why, of course it would,' cried Julia. 'Read me one of your nicestories, there's a dear.'
He had the volume down and his spectacles upon his nose instanter, asthough to forestall some possible retractation. 'What I propose to readto you,' said he, skimming through the pages, 'is the notes of a highlyimportant conversation with a Dutch courier of the name of David Abbas,which is the Latin for abbot. Its results are well worth the moneyit cost me, for, as Abbas at first appeared somewhat impatient, I wasinduced to (what is, I believe, singularly called) stand him drink. Itruns only to about five-and-twenty pages. Yes, here it is.' He clearedhis throat, and began to read.
Mr Finsbury (according to his own report) contributed about four hundredand ninety-nine five-hundredths of the interview, and elicited fromAbbas literally nothing. It was dull for Julia, who did not requir
e tolisten; for the Dutch courier, who had to answer, it must have beena perfect nightmare. It would seem as if he had consoled himself byfrequent appliances to the bottle; it would even seem that (toward theend) he had ceased to depend on Joseph's frugal generosity and calledfor the flagon on his own account. The effect, at least, of somemellowing influence was visible in the record: Abbas became suddenly awilling witness; he began to volunteer disclosures; and Julia had justlooked up from her seam with something like a smile, when Morris burstinto the house, eagerly calling for his uncle, and the next instantplunged into the room, waving in the air the evening paper.
It was indeed with great news that he came charged. The demise wasannounced of Lieutenant-General Sir Glasgow Biggar, KCSI, KCMG, etc.,and the prize of the tontine now lay between the Finsbury brothers. Herewas Morris's opportunity at last. The brothers had never, it is true,been cordial. When word came that Joseph was in Asia Minor, Mastermanhad expressed himself with irritation. 'I call it simply indecent,' hehad said. 'Mark my words--we shall hear of him next at the North Pole.'And these bitter expressions had been reported to the traveller on hisreturn. What was worse, Masterman had refused to attend the lecture on'Education: Its Aims, Objects, Purposes, and Desirability', althoughinvited to the platform. Since then the brothers had not met. On theother hand, they never had openly quarrelled; Joseph (by Morris'sorders) was prepared to waive the advantage of his juniority; Mastermanhad enjoyed all through life the reputation of a man neither greedy norunfair. Here, then, were all the elements of compromise assembled;and Morris, suddenly beholding his seven thousand eight hundred poundsrestored to him, and himself dismissed from the vicissitudes of theleather trade, hastened the next morning to the office of his cousinMichael.
Michael was something of a public character. Launched upon the law at avery early age, and quite without protectors, he had become a traffickerin shady affairs. He was known to be the man for a lost cause; it wasknown he could extract testimony from a stone, and interest from agold-mine; and his office was besieged in consequence by all thatnumerous class of persons who have still some reputation to lose, andfind themselves upon the point of losing it; by those who havemade undesirable acquaintances, who have mislaid a compromisingcorrespondence, or who are blackmailed by their own butlers. Inprivate life Michael was a man of pleasure; but it was thought his direexperience at the office had gone far to sober him, and it was knownthat (in the matter of investments) he preferred the solid to thebrilliant. What was yet more to the purpose, he had been all his life aconsistent scoffer at the Finsbury tontine.
It was therefore with little fear for the result that Morris presentedhimself before his cousin, and proceeded feverishly to set forth hisscheme. For near upon a quarter of an hour the lawyer suffered him todwell upon its manifest advantages uninterrupted. Then Michael rose fromhis seat, and, ringing for his clerk, uttered a single clause: 'It won'tdo, Morris.'
It was in vain that the leather merchant pleaded and reasoned, andreturned day after day to plead and reason. It was in vain that heoffered a bonus of one thousand, of two thousand, of three thousandpounds; in vain that he offered, in Joseph's name, to be content withonly one-third of the pool. Still there came the same answer: 'It won'tdo.'
'I can't see the bottom of this,' he said at last. 'You answer none ofmy arguments; you haven't a word to say. For my part, I believe it'smalice.'
The lawyer smiled at him benignly. 'You may believe one thing,' said he.'Whatever else I do, I am not going to gratify any of your curiosity.You see I am a trifle more communicative today, because this is our lastinterview upon the subject.'
'Our last interview!' cried Morris.
'The stirrup-cup, dear boy,' returned Michael. 'I can't have my businesshours encroached upon. And, by the by, have you no business of your own?Are there no convulsions in the leather trade?'
'I believe it to be malice,' repeated Morris doggedly. 'You always hatedand despised me from a boy.'
'No, no--not hated,' returned Michael soothingly. 'I rather like youthan otherwise; there's such a permanent surprise about you, you look sodark and attractive from a distance. Do you know that to the nakedeye you look romantic?--like what they call a man with a history? Andindeed, from all that I can hear, the history of the leather trade isfull of incident.'
'Yes,' said Morris, disregarding these remarks, 'it's no use cominghere. I shall see your father.'
'O no, you won't,' said Michael. 'Nobody shall see my father.'
'I should like to know why,' cried his cousin.
'I never make any secret of that,' replied the lawyer. 'He is too ill.'
'If he is as ill as you say,' cried the other, 'the more reason foraccepting my proposal. I will see him.'
'Will you?' said Michael, and he rose and rang for his clerk.
It was now time, according to Sir Faraday Bond, the medical baronetwhose name is so familiar at the foot of bulletins, that Joseph (thepoor Golden Goose) should be removed into the purer air of Bournemouth;and for that uncharted wilderness of villas the family now shook offthe dust of Bloomsbury; Julia delighted, because at Bournemouth shesometimes made acquaintances; John in despair, for he was a man of citytastes; Joseph indifferent where he was, so long as there was pen andink and daily papers, and he could avoid martyrdom at the office; Morrishimself, perhaps, not displeased to pretermit these visits to the city,and have a quiet time for thought. He was prepared for any sacrifice;all he desired was to get his money again and clear his feet of leather;and it would be strange, since he was so modest in his desires, and thepool amounted to upward of a hundred and sixteen thousand pounds--itwould be strange indeed if he could find no way of influencing Michael.'If I could only guess his reason,' he repeated to himself; and by day,as he walked in Branksome Woods, and by night, as he turned upon hisbed, and at meal-times, when he forgot to eat, and in the bathingmachine, when he forgot to dress himself, that problem was constantlybefore him: Why had Michael refused?
At last, one night, he burst into his brother's room and woke him.
'What's all this?' asked John.
'Julia leaves this place tomorrow,' replied Morris. 'She must go up totown and get the house ready, and find servants. We shall all follow inthree days.'
'Oh, brayvo!' cried John. 'But why?'
'I've found it out, John,' returned his brother gently.
'It? What?' enquired John.
'Why Michael won't compromise,' said Morris. 'It's because he can't.It's because Masterman's dead, and he's keeping it dark.'
'Golly!' cried the impressionable John. 'But what's the use? Why does hedo it, anyway?'
'To defraud us of the tontine,' said his brother.
'He couldn't; you have to have a doctor's certificate,' objected John.
'Did you never hear of venal doctors?' enquired Morris. 'They're ascommon as blackberries: you can pick 'em up for three-pound-ten a head.'
'I wouldn't do it under fifty if I were a sawbones,' ejaculated John.
'And then Michael,' continued Morris, 'is in the very thick of it. Allhis clients have come to grief; his whole business is rotten eggs. Ifany man could arrange it, he could; and depend upon it, he has his planall straight; and depend upon it, it's a good one, for he's clever, andbe damned to him! But I'm clever too; and I'm desperate. I lost seventhousand eight hundred pounds when I was an orphan at school.'
'O, don't be tedious,' interrupted John. 'You've lost far more alreadytrying to get it back.'