OMENS

One day this late June, or one morning, rather, Miss Hancock’s dreams of
the future and her part in it became again troubled.

James Hancock, to use a simile taken from the garden, showed signs of
sprouting. A new hat had come home the night before from the hatter’s,
and he had bought a new necktie _himself_. Hitherto he had paid for his
neckties and Patience had bought them, sombre neckties suitable to a
lawyer and a celibate. This thing from Amery and Loders, a thing of
lilac silk suitable enough for a man of twenty, caused Patience to stare
when it appeared at breakfast one morning round the neck of her brother.

But she said nothing, she poured out the tea and watched her brother
opening his letters and reading his newspaper, and munching his toast.
She listened to his remarks on the price of consols and the fall in
Russian bonds, and his grumbles because the “bacon was fried to a
cinder,” just as she had watched and listened for the last thirty
years. Then, when he had finished and departed, she rose and went
downstairs to bully the cook and terrorise the maids, which
accomplished, she retired to her own room to dress preparatory to going
out.

The house in Gordon Square had the solidity of structure and the gloom
peculiar to the higher class houses in Bloomsbury. The great
drawing-room had a chandelier that lived in a bag, and sofas and chairs
arrayed in brown holland overalls; there were things in woolwork that
Amelia Sedley might have worked, and abominations of art, deposited by
the early Victorian age, struggled for pride of place with Georgian
artistic attempts. The dining-room was furnished with solid mahogany,
and everything in and about the place seemed solid and constructed with
a view to eternity and the everlasting depression of man.

A week’s sojourn in this house explained much of a certain epoch in
English History to the mind of the sojourner; at the termination of the
visit one began to understand dimly the humours of Gillray and the
fidelity to truth of that atmosphere of gloom pervading the pictures of
Hogarth. One understood why, in that epoch, men drank deep, why women
swooned and improved swooning into a fine art, why Society was generally
beastly and brutal, and why great lords sat up all night soaking
themselves with brandy and waiting to see the hangman turn off a couple
of poor wretches in the dawn; also, why men hanged themselves without
waiting for the hangman, alleging for reason “the spleen.”

Miss Hancock, having arranged herself to her own satisfaction, took her
parasol from the stand in the hall, and departed on business bent.

She held three books in her hand–the butcher’s, the baker’s, and the
greengrocer’s. She felt in a cheerful mood, as her programme included
and commenced with an attack on the butcher–_Casus Belli_–an
overcharge made on the last leg of mutton but one. Having defeated the
butcher, and tackled the other unfortunates and paid them, she paused
near Mudie’s Library as if in thought. Then she made direct for
Southampton Row and the office of her brother, where, as she entered the
outer office, Bridgewater was emerging from the sanctum of his master,
holding clutched to his breast an armful of books and papers.

Bridgewater would have delighted the heart of John Leech. He had a red
and almost perfectly round face; his spectacles were round, his body was
round, his eyes were round, and the expression of his countenance, if I
may be allowed the figure, was round. It was also slightly mazed; he
seemed forever lost in a mild astonishment, the slightest thing out of
the common, heightened this expression of chronic astonishment into one
of acute amazement. A rat in the office, a fall in the funds, a clerk
giving notice to leave, any of these little incidents was sufficient to
wreathe the countenance of Mr Bridgewater with an expression that would
not have been out of place had he been gazing upon the ruins of Pompeii,
or the eruption of Mont Pelée. He had scanty white hair and enormous
feet, and was, despite his bemazed look, a very acute old gentleman in
business hours. The inside of his head was stuffed with facts like a
Whitaker’s almanac, and people turned to him for reference as they would
turn to “Pratt’s Law of Highways” or “Archbold’s Lunacy.”

Bridgewater seeing Miss Hancock enter, released somewhat his tight hold
on the books and papers, and they all slithered pell mell on to the
floor. She nodded to him, and, stepping over the papers, tapped with the
handle of her parasol at the door of the inner office. Mr Hancock was
disengaged, and she went in, closing the door behind her carefully as
though fearful of some secret escaping.

She had no secret to communicate, however, and no business to transact,
she only wanted a loan of Bridgewater for an hour to consult him about
the lease of a house at Peckham. (Miss Hancock had money in her own
right.) Having obtained the loan and stropped her brother’s temper to a
fine edge, so that he was sharp with the clerks and irritable with the
clients till luncheon time, Miss Hancock took herself off, saying to the
head clerk as she passed out, “I want you to come round to luncheon,
Bridgewater, to consult you about a lease; my brother says he can spare
you. Come at half-past one sharp; Good-day.”

“Well to be sure!” said Bridgewater scratching his encyclopædic head,
and gazing in the direction of the doorway through which the lady had
vanished.