The ocean trip was more enjoyed by Robert than by Mrs. Vernon. For three days the lady was quite seasick, while her young secretary was not at all affected. He was indefatigable in his attentions to the invalid, and gained a stronger hold upon her affections.
“I don’t know what I should do without you, Robert,” she said on the third day. “You seem to me almost like a son.”
“I am glad to hear you say this, Mrs. Vernon,” returned Robert, adding with a smile, “if you had said I seemed to you almost like a nephew, I should not have been so well pleased.”
“I should like to forget that I have a nephew,” said Mrs. Vernon, with momentary bitterness. “I shall never forget his treachery and ingratitude.”
Robert did not follow up the subject. Frederic Vernon’s ingratitude to his aunt and benefactress seemed to him thoroughly base, but he did not care to prejudice Mrs. Vernon against him.
“I wish you were my nephew,” continued Mrs. Vernon thoughtfully. “I cannot help contrasting your treatment of me to his.”
“I have reason to be grateful to you,” said Robert. “I was very badly situated when you took me in.”
“I feel repaid for all I have done for you, Robert,” said Mrs. Vernon. “But now go on deck and enjoy the bright sunshine and the glorious breeze.”
“I wish you could go with me.”
“So do I. I think I shall be able to accompany you to-morrow.”
Mrs. Vernon felt so much better the next day that she was able to spend a part of the time on deck, and from that time a portion of every day was devoted to out-of-door exercise. She was able to walk on deck supported by Robert, who was never so occupied with the new friends he made among the passengers as to make him neglectful of his benefactress.
Mrs. Vernon, too, made some acquaintances.
“How devoted your son is to you, Mrs. Vernon,” said Mrs. Hathaway, an elderly widow from the city of New York. “I wish I had a son, but alas! I am childless.”
“So am I,” said Mrs. Vernon quietly.
Mrs. Hathaway looked surprised.
“Is he not your son, then?”
“He is not related to me in any way.”
“I am surprised to hear it. What then is the secret of your companionship?”
“He is my private secretary.”
“And he so young! Is he competent to serve you in that capacity?”
“Entirely so. He is thoroughly well educated and entirely reliable.”
“If you ever feel disposed to part with him, transfer him to me.”
Mrs. Vernon smiled.
“Have you no near relatives, then?”
“No, I once had a son, who died about the age of your young secretary. I should be glad if you would transfer him to me. I am rich, and I would see that he was well provided for.”
“I don’t think I could spare him. I too am rich, and I can provide for him.”
“If you change your mind my offer holds good.”
Later in the day when they were together Mrs. Vernon said, “Robert, I don’t know but I ought to increase your salary.”
“You pay me more now than anyone else would.”
“I am not sure of that. I have had an application to transfer you to another party.”
“Any person on this steamer?”
“Yes; Mrs. Hathaway.”
“Does she need a private secretary?”
“Probably not, but she says you are about the age of a son she lost. I think she wants you to supply his place. She is rich, and might do more for you than I am doing.”
“I am quite satisfied with my present position. I do not want to leave you.”
Mrs. Vernon looked gratified.
“I do not want to lose you,” she said, “but I thought it only fair to speak of Mrs. Hathaway’s offer.”
“I am very much obliged to her, but I prefer to remain with you.”
Mrs. Vernon looked pleased.
“I should be willing to transfer my nephew Frederic to Mrs. Hathaway,” she said, “but I doubt if the arrangement would prove satisfactory to her.”
The voyage was a brief one, their steamer being one of the swiftest of the Cunard liners, and a week had scarcely passed when they reached the pier at Liverpool. A short stay in Liverpool, and they took the train for London, where they took rooms at the Charing Cross Hotel. Robert was excited and pleased with what he saw of the great metropolis. He had his forenoon to himself. Mrs. Vernon had visited London fifteen years before, and had seen the principal objects of interest in the city. She rose late, and did not require Robert’s presence till one o’clock.
“Go about freely,” she said. “You will want to see the Tower, and Westminster Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament. I don’t care to see them a second time.”
“But I don’t feel quite right in leaving you.”
“Don’t feel any solicitude for me. I am three times your age, and our tastes and interests naturally differ. When I need you, I shall signify it, but it will seldom be till afternoon.”
In the afternoon they often took a carriage and drove in the parks or out into the country. So between the drives and his own explorations Robert was in a fair way of becoming well acquainted with the great metropolitan district.
One afternoon, about a week after their arrival, Mrs. Vernon said with a smile: “To-morrow morning I shall require your presence.”
“Certainly, Mrs. Vernon.”
“We will go out at eleven o’clock. It is on business of your own.”
“Business of my own?” repeated Robert, wondering what it would be. “I will be ready.”
At eleven o’clock Robert ordered a hansom cab, and the driver awaited directions.
“Do you know the office of Baring Brothers, bankers?” asked Mrs. Vernon.
“Take us there.”
It was on the firm of Baring Brothers that Mrs. Vernon had a letter of credit, and Robert concluded that she was intending to draw some money from them. He did not connect her errand with himself.
Arrived at the banking house, Robert remained in an outer room, while Mrs. Vernon was closeted with a member of the firm.
After twenty minutes Robert was called in.
“Robert,” said Mrs. Vernon, “you will append your signature here.”
“Then this is the young gentleman for whom you have established a credit with us?” said the banker.
“He is very young.”
“Sixteen years old.”
“Do you wish him to have a guardian?”
“No. He is to have absolute control of the funds in your charge.”
When they emerged from the banking house Mrs. Vernon said: “Robert, I will explain what probably mystifies you. I have placed to your credit with Baring Brothers the sum of four hundred pounds. It is at your own control.”
Robert looked inexpressibly astonished. He knew that four hundred pounds represented about two thousand dollars in American money.
“What have I done to deserve such liberality?” he asked gratefully.
“You have become the friend that my nephew ought to have been. I am rich, as you are probably aware, and shall be unable to carry my money with me when I die. I might, of course, make a will, and leave you the sum I have now given, but the will would probably be contested by my nephew if he should survive me, and I have determined to prevent that by giving you the money in my lifetime. How far Frederic Vernon will be my heir I cannot as yet tell. It will depend to a considerable extent upon his conduct. Whatever happens, I shall have the satisfaction of feeling that I have shown my appreciation of your loyalty and fidelity.”
“I don’t know what to say, Mrs. Vernon. I hope you will believe that I am grateful,” answered Robert warmly.
“I am sure of it. I have every confidence in you, Robert.”
To Robert the events of the morning seemed like a wonderful dream. Three months before he had been wandering about the streets of Chicago a poor boy in search of employment. Now he was worth two thousand dollars, in receipt of a large income, and able to lay by fifty dollars a month. But above all, he was made independent of his step-father, whose attempts to control him were more than ever futile. This led him to think that he ought to apprise his mother of his present whereabouts and his health. He did not think it advisable to mention the large gift he had just received, or the amount of the salary he was receiving, though he had no doubt it would change the feelings of Mr. Talbot toward him. His step-father worshiped success, and if he knew that Robert was so well provided for he would do all that lay in his power to ingratiate himself with him.
After writing the letter to his mother, he wrote as follows to his fellow-clerk, Livingston Palmer, whom he had not informed of his European journey.
“Dear Friend Palmer,” he wrote, “you will be surprised to hear that I am in London, and shall probably spend several months on this side of the water. I am still acting as private secretary to Mrs. Vernon, who continues to be kind and liberal. From time to time I will write to you. I inclose a ten-dollar bill as a present, and shall be glad to have you spend it in any way that is agreeable to yourself.