ANOTHER AGENT

Mrs. Mowbray had put off all sign of agitation when in the evening she
sat down with her son Frank, at the hour of seven, which, in those days,
was a pretentiously late, even dissipated hour for dinner, at all events
in St. Rule’s, where most people dined early or at least at varying
hours in the afternoon, such as four o’clock, five o’clock, the very
height of discomfort, but supposed by some reasoning I am unable to
account for, to be virtuous and respectable hours, while anything later
than six was extravagant and almost wicked. Mrs. Mowbray dined at seven
by way of waving a flag of superiority over the benighted town. It was
reported commonly, that in London people were beginning to dine at
eight, an hour when honest folk were thinking of getting ready for bed,
or, at all events, were taking their supper as honest folk ought. I am
not able to explain why one hour should be considered more innocent than
another; but so it was. Frank Mowbray, half-influenced by his mother,
and half-drawn away into different modes of thinking by the young
society of St. Rule’s, which thought every way ridiculous that was not
its own way, was half-proud of the fashionable peculiarities of his
mother’s economy, and half-abashed to find himself held to habits which
were so different to those of the others. As the nights began to
lengthen he was impatient of being kept in at what the others thought
the most agreeable time of the evening, when all the young fellows were
clustering about the club, making up their matches for the next day. But
he had not yet reached the moment of revolt.

Mrs. Mowbray had put off, so far as she could, all appearance of
agitation. She was very nicely dressed according to the fashion of the
times. Her ringlets were flowing, her smiles freely dispensed, though
only her son was present to admire her. But she thought it was part of
her duty to make herself as agreeable to Frank as to any other member of
society. She listened quite patiently to all his talk about his young
men. She was indeed interested in this talk and pleased to hear about
everybody, who and what they were, and even whether they were
first-class or second-class players: and their special deeds of prowess
at the heathery hole or any other of the long list which Frank had at
his finger-ends. She liked to hear all the details with which Frank
could furnish her of their families as well as their golf. But that was
less interesting to him, and helped her but little in her researches.

“You see a great deal of the Buchanans, don’t you, Frank?” she said, in
the course of the conversation, not meaning much more by the question
than by many others.

But here Mrs. Mowbray instantly perceived a difference in her son’s
manner, which betrayed something quite new and unexpected.

Frank made a pause, which, though only for a moment, was noted by her
fine and vigilant spirit of observation, looked at her furtively,
coloured, and said: “Oh, the Buchanans! Yes, I see them now and then,”
in a tone quite different from that in which he had been discoursing
about the Seatons and the Beatons, and all the rest of the tribe.

“You see them now and then? Yes, that is all I expected: they are not
precisely of our _monde_,” his mother said.

“Why not of our _monde_?” cried Frank, “they are the best people in St.
Rule’s, and that is their _monde_; and it is our _monde_, I suppose, as
long as we stay here.”

“Yes, dear boy,” said his mother, “but, fortunately, you know we don’t
belong to it, and it is only a question of how long we stay here.”

Upon this, Frank cleared his throat, and collecting all his courage,
launched forth a suggestion which he had long desired, but, up to this
moment, had never had the bravery to make.

“Mother,” he said, “this is a very nice house, don’t you think? The
rooms are large, and I know you like large rooms. Just think what a
wretched little place the house in Chapel Street was in comparison. And
we were nobody there, and you always said you were not appreciated.”

“That is true enough; when you have no title, and are not rich, it is
hard, very hard, to get a footing in society,” Mrs. Mowbray said, with a
sigh.

“But we are somebody here,” said Frank, “you are looked up to as the
glass of fashion and the mould of form, that sort of thing, don’t you
know? All the ladies say to me, ‘What does Mrs. Mowbray do?’ or ‘What is
your mother going to do?’ They see your superiority and make you their
example.”

“Frank,” said his mother, pleased but a little doubtful, “you are
flattering me. I don’t know why you should flatter me.”

“I am not flattering you a bit, mother. It is quite true. Now, what I
mean to say is, why should we go back again to Chapel Street, where
there is not a single thing for a man to do, and the women are so
disagreeable to you, because you have no title–when we can be the first
people in the place, and so much thought of here.”

“Here!” said Mrs. Mowbray, with a little shriek of dismay.

“You know, mother, you always say how disappointing it is to go through
the world, and never know anybody who takes you at your true value,”
said Frank. “People are always–I have heard you say it a hundred
times–inquiring who we are, and what relation we are to Lord Mowbray,
and all that: as if we were not fit to be visited because we are not
related to Lord Mowbray.”

“It is quite true,” said Mrs. Mowbray with indignation, “but I never
knew before that you had taken any notice of it, Frank.”

“Oh, I have taken great notice of it,” he said. “I never said anything,
for what was the use when I couldn’t do anything; but you don’t suppose
it didn’t hurt me very much to see that you were not receiving proper
attention, mother? Of course I took notice of it! but words never do any
good.”

“What a dear boy you are, Frank!” said his mother, kissing the tips of
her fingers to him. It was not very often that she was flattered in this
way. The flatter was usually done by herself. She was so well acquainted
with it, that she was not so easily convinced of its sincerity, as
others might have been; but still, sincere or not, there was no doubt
that these were very nice things for Frank to say.

“But here it is your notice that everybody would seek, mother,” he
continued. “It is you who would set the example, and everybody would
follow. Nobody thinks of asking whether we are related to Lord Mowbray,
here. We are just what we are, and the objects of respect. We are the
best people in the place,” Frank said.

“That is what you have just said of the Buchanans, Frank–and I told you
before–they are not of our _monde_.”

“What is our _monde_?” cried the young man. “It is not Lord Mowbray’s
_monde_, nor the _monde_ of the Rashleighs and those sort of people,
mother, whom we used to run after. I am sure they said just what you are
doing about us. They used to twist round their necks and thrust out
their heads, and screw up their noses, don’t you remember?”

“Oh, and bow with their eyelids and smile with the edge of their lips,”
cried Mrs. Mowbray. “I remember! How could I help remembering people not
fit to tie our shoes, but with an odious little baronetcy in the
family!”

“But nobody could do that here,” said Frank, with a feeling that he had
conducted his argument very cleverly, and had carried her with him all
along the line.

Mrs. Mowbray burst into a laugh. “Is it all for my benefit, to see me
respected, that you would like to shut me up in this little hole for
life,” she said.

Poor Frank was very much startled by this issue of his argument. He
looked up at her half-piteous, half-angry.

“I don’t call it a little hole,” he said.

“But I do,” said his mother, “a dreadful little hole! where you have to
make yourself agreeable to all sorts of people whom you would never
speak to, nor look at in society! Why, Frank, there is nobody here in
society. Not one that you would like to walk along Bond Street with.
Think of going along Rotten Row with any one of those girls on your
arm.”

“I should be very proud,” cried Frank, very red, “to go anywhere with
one of them on my arm.”

“My poor dear boy,” cried Mrs. Mowbray, “I knew that was what you meant
all the time. I always forget that you have come to the age for that
sort of thing. Only think how you would look if you were to meet Lady
Marion, and she were to begin to ask her questions. ‘Who was the young
lady, and who were her friends in town?’ ‘Oh, she doesn’t know anybody
in town.’ ‘Where did she come from?’ ‘Oh, not a place you ever heard of
in your life, a little town in Scotland.’ ‘Yes, Lord Laidlaw lives near,
of course she knows the Laidlaws?’ ‘Oh, no, she never heard of them; oh,
no, she knows nobody. She is only a minister’s daughter, and except that
she is prettyish—-’”

Mrs. Mowbray had the art of a mimic; and she had made her sketch of the
Lady Marion who asked questions, very amusing to her son, who had been
in his little way cross-examined by Lady Marion many times: but when she
described the young lady as prettyish, the young man bounded from his
chair.

“Take care, mother! no one, not even you, shall speak so of Elsie. I
won’t have it,” he cried.

“You would be obliged to have it, dear, if you had her,” his mother
said, composedly. “And as for speaking so, I have no wish to speak so. I
think she’s a very nice little girl, for St. Rule’s; you could never
take her into society, but for St. Rule’s she would do very well.”

“Then, mother,” said Frank, “you understand me, for you make me speak
very plain. We’ve got a good house here, and we’re rich enough to be
about the first people in the place; and I wish to settle in St.
Rule’s.”

“My poor boy,” cried Mrs. Mowbray, “rich, oh, my poor boy!”

And here, without any warning, she suddenly burst into a torrent of
tears. This was, perhaps, a proceeding to which her son was not wholly
unaccustomed; for he maintained, to a certain extent, his equanimity. He
walked up and down the room, striking the backs of the chairs with a
paper-knife he held in his hand for some seconds. And then he came back
to her, and asked, with a little impatience:

“Why am I a poor boy? and why is it so wonderful that we should be rich?
I am–I suppose we are rich–more or less–able at all events to take
our place among the best people in St. Rule’s.” He laughed, and went on
striking his little ivory toy against the chairs sharply. “It isn’t so
great a brag, after all,” he said, laughing, “among the best people in
St. Rule’s.”

“Oh,” cried Mrs. Mowbray, “how am I to tell him? Oh, how am I to tell
him? Frank, we have always said, when we came into the Scotch money, all
would be well. I thought it was such a fine sum, that we should throw
off all our debts, and be really rich as you say. Oh, that is only a
dream, Frank, like so many things we have trusted in! There will be
scarcely any money. You may well start and stare at me. Oh, Frank, I
that thought as soon as it came, all our difficulties would be over, and
we should be quite right.”

“What difficulties?” said Frank, “what difficulties, mother? I always
thought we were well off.”

“This has been the aim of my life,” said Mrs. Mowbray, “that you should
never find out any difficulties, that everything should go as if it were
on velvet; and then when the Scotch money came, that all would be right.
I did not think then that all Mr. Anderson’s fine fortune had been
frittered away–I did not tell you that, Frank–by defaulters.”

She liked the word: there was something vague and large in it: it meant
something more than debtors: “defaulters,” she said again, and shook her
head.

“What in the world do you mean, mother? Who are the defaulters, and what
have they to do with me?”

“Mr. Anderson’s money has been frittered away,” she said. “He lent it to
everybody; and instead of preserving their notes, or their bills, or
whatever it was, he threw them into the fire, I suppose. And nobody
paid. I believe half St. Rule’s is built on old Mr. Anderson’s money,
the money that ought to be yours. But he never kept the papers, and
none of them have been so honourable as to pay.”

Frank stared at his mother with a bewildered face. He had never managed
his own affairs. For a year or two past, he had begun to think that this
was foolish, and that he might perhaps, if he tried, learn to understand
business as well as his mother; but he had never had the strength of
mind to assert himself. He had received an ample allowance from her
hands, and he had tacitly agreed that until the Scotch property became
his, everything should go on as before. But it had always been
understood, that when he attained his Scotch majority, there was to be a
change. His Scotch majority was to be a great day. All the hoards of his
old uncle were then to come into his hands. Retarded manhood,
independence, and wealth were all to be his. And now what was this he
heard, that these hoards of money were frittered away? He could not at
once understand or grasp what it meant. He stared at his mother with
bewildered eyes.

“I wish you would tell me what you mean,” he said. “What has happened?
Is it something you have found out? Is there anything that can be done?
I cannot believe that all the property is lost.”

“There is one thing that can be done, Frank. If we can find out the
defaulters, we can still make them pay up. But we must make haste, for
in another year the Statute of Limitations will come in, and they will
be beyond our reach.”

“What is the Statute of Limitations? and how can we make them pay up?
And what does it mean altogether?” said the disturbed young man.
“Mother, you should not have let me go on like this, knowing nothing
about it. I ought to have known. And how am I to find them out and make
them pay up? You that have always managed everything, you ought to have
done it.”

“My son, whom I have always spared and saved from all trouble,” she
said, throwing up her hands, “he tells me I should have done that! Oh,
Frank, it isn’t very pretty of you to upbraid me, when I have always
done everything for the best.”

“Mother, I don’t want to upbraid you. I daresay you have done everything
that was right,” he said, “but this is rather a dreadful thing to find
out all at once. And there must be something that can be done–tell me
whether there isn’t something I could do.”

“Oh, yes,” she said, with a sudden laugh, “there is one thing to be
done, and that is to find out who are the defaulters. There is one man I
am sure that knows, and you are, I suppose, in favour with the family,
Frank, considering your intentions which you have just been telling me
of. The one man is Dr. Buchanan. If you are going, as you say, to be his
son-in-law, perhaps he will tell you. I am sure he is one of them
himself.”

“Mother, if all this is to set me against—-”

“It is not to set you against any one,” said Mrs. Mowbray. “I like Dr.
Buchanan myself. _I think he is one of them_. If you can find out from
him who they are, perhaps we may yet be saved.”

“He is one of them! This is nonsense, nonsense! You don’t know what you
are saying, mother.”

“I wish everybody were as clear and composed as I am. I believe he is
one of them. But make use of your interest with the boy and the girl,
and get him to tell you who they are. And then perhaps we may be saved.”

The young man went round and round the room, striking the backs of the
chairs with his paper-knife, solemnly, as if he expected to find some
hollow place and make a discovery so.

“I don’t understand it. I don’t know what you mean. I can’t believe that
this is possible,” he said; and he gave a louder crack to an old
armchair, and stood before it, pondering, as if the secret must be out
at last.