AN ASSIGNATION

So, it would seem from the artless confession of Miss Lambert, that
Patience Hancock had only too much reason for her fears: the lilac silk
necktie had not been bought for the edification of Bridgewater and the
junior clerks.

That the correct James Hancock had fuddled himself with punch, told
droll stories, and lent Mr Lambert twenty pounds, were facts so utterly
at variance with the known character of that gentleman as to be
unbelievable by the people who knew him well.

Not by people well acquainted with human nature, or the fact that a
grain of good-fellowship in the human heart exhibits extraordinary and
radium-like activity under certain conditions: the conditions induced
by punch and beauty and good-fellowship in others, for instance.

One morning, after the day upon which he had refused to assist Frank
Leavesley to “make a fool of himself with a girl,” James Hancock arrived
at his office at the usual time, in the usual manner, and, nodding to
Bridgewater as he had nodded to him every morning for the last thirty
years, passed into the inner office and closed the door.

The closing of the door was a new departure; it had generally been left
ajar as an indication that Bridgewater might come in whenever he chose,
to receive instructions and to consult upon the morning letters.

The expression on Bridgewater’s face when he heard the closing of the
door was so extraordinarily funny, that one of the younger clerks, who
caught a glimpse of it, hastily stuffed his handkerchief into his mouth
and choked silently behind the lid of his desk.

Quarter of an hour passed, and then the door opened.

“Bridgewater!”

The old gentleman stuck his pen behind his ear and answered the summons.

James Hancock was seated at his desk. On it lay an envelope addressed
in a lady’s handwriting; he covered the envelope with a piece of
blotting paper as Bridgewater entered.

“I’m going out this morning, Bridgewater, on some private business.”

“Out this morning?” echoed Bridgewater in a tentative tone.

“Yes; I leave you in charge.”

“But Purvis, Mr James, Purvis has an appointment with you at twelve.”

“Oh, bother Purvis! Tell him to call to-morrow, his affair will wait;
tell him the deed is not drawn and to come again to-morrow.”

“How about Isaacs?”

“Solomon Isaacs?”

“Yes, Mr James.”

“What time is he coming?”

“Half-past eleven.”

“Tell him to come to-morrow.”

“I’m afraid he won’t. I’m—-”

“If he won’t,” said Mr Hancock with some acerbity, “tell him to go to
the devil. I don’t want his business especially–let him find some one
else. Now see here, about these letters.”

He went into the morning letters, dictating replies to the more
important ones and leaving the rest to the discretion of his clerk.

“And, Bridgewater,” said Mr Hancock, as the senior clerk turned to
depart, “I am expecting a lady to call here at half-past ten or quarter
to eleven: show her in, it’s Miss Lambert.”

“You have had no word from Mr Charles Bevan, sir, since he called the
other day?”

“Not a word. He is a very hot-headed young man; he inherits the Bevan
temper, the Bevan temper,” reiterated James Hancock in a reflective
tone, tapping his snuff-box and taking a leisurely pinch. “I remember
his father John Bevan at Ipswich, during the election, threatening to
horsewhip my father; then when he found he was in the wrong, or rather
that his own rascally solicitor was in the wrong, he apologised very
handsomely and came to us. The family affairs have been in our hands
ever since, as you know, and, though I say it myself, they could not
have been in better.”

“May I ask, Mr James, how affairs are with the Lamberts?–a sweetly
pretty young lady is Miss Lambert, and so nice spoken.”

“The Lamberts’ affairs seem very much involved; but you know,
Bridgewater, I have nothing to do with their affairs. I called to see
Mr Lambert purely as a friend. It would be very unprofessional to call
otherwise. D—-n it!” suddenly broke out old Hancock, as if some one
had pricked him with a pin, “a man is not always a business man. I’m
getting on in life. I have money enough and to spare. I’ve done pretty
much as I liked all my life, and I’ll do so to the end; yes, and I’d
break all the laws of professional etiquette one after the other
to-morrow if I chose.”

Bridgewater’s amazed face was the only amazed part of his anatomy; he
was used to these occasional petulant outbursts, and he looked on them
with equanimity.

Hancock had been threatening to retire from business for the last ten
years, to retire from business and buy a country place and breed horses.
No one knew so well as Bridgewater the impossibility of this and the
extent to which his master was bound up in his business–the business
was his life.

He retired, mumbling something that sounded like an assent, and going to
his desk put the letters in order.

Mr Hancock, left to himself, took a letter from his breast-pocket. It
was addressed in a large careless hand to

“JAMES HANCOCK, ESQ.

GORDON SQUARE.

It ran:–

“DEAR MR HANCOCK,–I’ll be delighted to come to-morrow; I haven’t
seen the Zoo for years, not since I was quite small. No, don’t
trouble to come and fetch me, I will call at the office at
half-past ten or quarter to eleven, that will be simpler.–Yours
very sincerely,

“FANNY LAMBERT.”

“I’ll be hanged if it’s simpler,” grumbled James Hancock, as he returned
the letter to his pocket. “Why in the name of all that’s sacred couldn’t
she have let me call?–the clerks will talk so. No matter, let them–I
don’t care.”

“Miss Lambert,” said Bridgewater, opening the door.

Mr Hancock might have thought that Spring herself stood before him in
the open doorway, such a pleasing and perfect vision did Miss Lambert
make. She was attired in a chip hat, and a dress of something light in
texture and lilac in colour, and, from the vivacity of her manner and
the general sprightliness of her appearance, seemed bent upon a day of
pleasure.

“I’m so awfully sorry to be so soon,” said Miss Lambert. “It’s only
twenty minutes past ten; the clocks have all gone wrong at home. James
broke out again yesterday; he went out and took far, far too much; isn’t
it dreadful? I don’t know what we are to do with him, and he wound up
the clocks last night, and I believe he has broken them all, at least
they won’t go. Father has gone away again; he is down in Sussex paying a
visit to a Miss Pursehouse, we met her in Paris. She asked me to come
too, but I had to refuse because my dressmaker–I mean, Susannah
couldn’t be left by herself, she smashes things so. She fell on the
kitchen stairs this morning, bringing the breakfast things up–are you
busy? and are you sure I’m not bothering you or interfering with clients
and things? I arrived here really at ten minutes past ten, and walked up
and down outside till people began to stare at me, so I came in.”

“Not a bit busy,” said Mr Hancock; “delighted you’ve come so early. Is
that chair comfortable?”

“Quite, thanks.”

“Sure you won’t take this easy-chair?”

“No, no; this is a delightful chair. Who is that nice old man who showed
me in?”

“Bridgewater, my chief clerk. Yes, he is a very good sort of man
Bridgewater; he’s been with us now a number of years.”

“I like him, because he always smiles at me and looks so friendly and so
funny. He’s the kind of man one feels one would like to knit something
for; a–muffler or mittens. I will, next Christmas, if he wouldn’t be
offended.”

“Offended! Good heavens, no, he’d be delighted–perfectly delighted, I’m
sure, perfectly. Come in!”

“A telegram, sir,” spoke Bridgewater’s voice. He always “sir’d” his
master in the presence of strangers.

“Excuse me,” said Mr Hancock, putting on his glasses and opening the
telegram. He read it carefully, frowned, then smiled, and handed it to
Fanny.

“Am I to read it?” said the girl.

“Please.”

Fanny read:–

“I relinquish fishing-rights. Make the best terms with Lambert you
can.–BEVAN.”

“Isn’t it nice of him?” she said without evincing any surprise; “he
told me he would when he called.”

“Told you he would?”

“Yes.”

“When did you see Mr Bevan?”

“Why, he called–didn’t I tell you?–oh no, I forgot–he called, and he
was _awfully_ nice. Quite the nicest man I’ve met for a long time. He
stayed to luncheon and tea and supper.”

“Was your father at home?”

“No.”

“I would rather this had not happened,” said Mr Hancock in a slightly
pained voice. “Mr Bevan is a gentleman for whom I have great respect,
but considering the absence of your father, the absence of a
host–er–er–conventionalities, um—-”

“Oh, he didn’t seem to mind,” said Fanny; “he knew father was away, and
took us just as we were. He’s awfully rich, I suppose, but he was just
as pleasant as if he were poor–came marketing and carried the basket;
and, I declare to goodness, if I had known we had such a jolly cousin
before, I’d have gone and hunted him up myself in the–‘Albany,’ isn’t
it?”

“Mr Bevan lives in the ‘Albany,'” said the lawyer. “It is a bachelors’
residence, and scarcely a place–scarcely a place for a–er–lady to
call–no, scarcely a place for a lady to call. However, what’s done is
done, and we must make the best of it.”

“If I had only thought,” said Fanny, who had not been listening to the
humming and hawing of Mr Hancock, “I’d have asked him to come with us
to-day. Gracious! it’s just eleven. Shall we go?”

Mr Hancock took his hat and umbrella, opened the door, and they passed
out.