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John Tatham, barrister-at-law, received one summer morning as he sat at
breakfast the following letter. It was written in what was once known
distinctively as a lady's hand, in pointed characters, very fine and
delicate, and was to this effect:--

"DEAR JOHN, Have you heard from Elinor of her new prospects and
intentions? I suppose she must have written to you on the subject. Do
you know anything of the man?... You know how hard it is to convince her
against her will of anything, and also how poorly gifted I am with the
power of convincing any one. And I don't know him, therefore can speak
with no authority. If you can do anything to clear things up, come and
do so. I am very anxious and more than doubtful; but her heart seems set
upon it.

"Your affect.
"M. S. D."

Mr. Tatham was a well-built and vigorous man of five-and-thirty, with
health, good behaviour, and well-being in every line of his cheerful
countenance and every close curl of his brown hair. His hair was very
curly, and helped to give him the cheerful look which was one of his
chief characteristics. Nevertheless, when these innocent seeming words,
"Do you know the man?" which was more certainly demonstrative of
certain facts than had those facts been stated in the fullest detail,
met his eye, Mr. Tatham paused and laid down the letter with a start.
His ruddy colour paled for the moment, and he felt something which was
like the push or poke of a blunt but heavy weapon somewhere in the
regions of the heart. For the moment he felt that he could not read any
more. "Do you know the man?" He did not even ask what man in the
momentary sickness of his heart. Then he said to himself, almost
angrily, "Well!" and took up the letter again and read to the end.

Well! of course it was a thing that he knew might happen any day, and
which he had expected to happen for the last four or five years. It was
nothing to him one way or another. Nothing could be more absurd than
that a hearty and strong young man in the full tide of his life and with
a good breakfast before him should receive a shock from that innocent
little letter as if he had been a sentimental woman. But the fact is
that he pushed his plate away with an exclamation of disgust and a
feeling that everything was bad and uneatable. He drank his tea, though
that also became suddenly bad too, full of tannin, like tea that has
stood too long, a thing about which John was very particular. He had
been half an hour later than usual this morning consequent on having
been an hour or two later than usual last night. These things have their
reward, and that very speedily; but as for the letter, what could that
have to do with the bad toasting of the bacon and the tannin in the tea?
"Do you know the man?" There was a sort of covert insult, too, in the
phraseology, as if no explanation was needed, as if he must know by
instinct what she meant--he who knew nothing about it, who did not know
there was a man at all!

After a while he began to smile rather cynically to himself. He had got
up from the breakfast table, where everything was so bad, and had gone
to look out of one of the windows of his pleasant sitting-room. It was
in one of the wider ways of the Temple, and looked out upon various
houses with a pleasant misty light upon the redness of their old
brickwork, and a stretch of green grass and trees, which were scanty in
foliage, yet suited very well with the bright morning sun, which was not
particularly warm, but looked as if it were a good deal for effect and
not so very much for use. That thought floated across his mind with
others, and was of the same cynical complexion. It was very well for the
sun to shine, making the glistening poplars and plane-trees glow, and
warming all the mellow redness of the old houses, but what did he mean
by it? No warmth to speak of, only a fictitious gleam--a thing got up
for effect. And so was the affectionateness of woman--meaning nothing,
only an effect of warmth and geniality, nothing beyond that. As a matter
of fact, he reminded himself after a while that he had never wanted
anything beyond, neither asked for it, nor wished it. He had no desire
to change the conditions of his life: women never rested till they had
done so, manufacturing a new event, whatever it might be, pleased even
when they were not pleased, to have a novelty to announce. That, no
doubt, was the state of mind in which the lady who called herself his
aunt was: pleased to have something to tell him, to fire off her big
guns in his face, even though she was not at all pleased with the event
itself. But John Tatham, on the other hand, had desired nothing to
happen; things were very well as they were. He liked to have a place
where he could run down from Saturday to Monday whenever he pleased, and
where his visit was always a cheerful event for the womankind. He had
liked to take them all the news, to carry the picture-papers, quite a
load; to take down a new book for Elinor; to taste doubtfully his aunt's
wine, and tell her she had better let him choose it for her. It was a
very pleasant state of affairs: he wanted no change; not, certainly,
above everything, the intrusion of a stranger whose very existence had
been unknown to him until he was thus asked cynically, almost brutally,
"Do you know the man?"

The hour came when John had to assume the costume of that order of
workers whom a persistent popular joke nicknames the "Devil's Own:"--that
is, he had to put on gown and wig and go off to the courts, where he was
envied of all the briefless as a man who for his age had a great deal to
do. He "devilled" for Mr. Asstewt, the great Chancery man, which was the
most excellent beginning: and he was getting into a little practice of
his own which was not to be sneezed at. But he did not find himself in a
satisfactory frame of mind to-day. He found himself asking the judge,
"Do you know anything of the man?" when it was his special business so
to bewilder that potentate with elaborate arguments that he should not
have time to consider whether he had ever heard of the particular man
before him. Thus it was evident that Mr. Tatham was completely _hors de
son assiette_, as the French say; upset and "out of it," according to
the equally vivid imagination of the English manufacturer of slang. John
Tatham was a very capable young lawyer on ordinary occasions, and it was
all the more remarkable that he should have been so confused in his mind

When he went back to his chambers in the evening, which was not until it
was time to dress for dinner, he saw a bulky letter lying on his table,
but avoided it as if it had been an overdue bill. He was engaged to
dine out, and had not much time: yet all the way, as he drove along the
streets, just as sunset was over and a subduing shade came over the
light, and that half-holiday look that comes with evening--he kept
thinking of the fat letter upon his table. Do you know anything of
the man? That would no longer be the refrain of his correspondent,
but some absurd strain of devotion and admiration of the man whom John
knew nothing of, not even his name. He wondered as he went along in his
hansom, and even between the courses at dinner, while he listened with
a smile, but without hearing a word, to what the lady next him was
saying--what she would tell him about this man? That he was everything
that was delightful, no doubt; handsome, of course; probably clever; and
that she was fond of him, confound the fellow! Elinor! to think that she
should come to that--a girl like her--to tell him, as if she was saying
that she had caught a cold or received a present, that she was in love
with a man! Good heavens! when one had thought her so much above
anything of that kind--a woman, above all women that ever were.

"Not so much as that," John said to himself as he walked home. He always
preferred to walk home in the evening, and he was not going to change
his habit now out of any curiosity about Elinor's letter. Oh, not so
much as that! not above all women, or better than the rest, perhaps--but
different. He could not quite explain to himself how, except that he
had always known her to be Elinor and not another, which was a quite
sufficient explanation. And now it appeared that she was not different,
although she would still profess to be Elinor--a curious puzzle, which
his brain in its excited state was scarcely able to tackle. His thoughts
got somewhat confused and broken as he approached his chambers. He was
so near the letter now--a few minutes and he would no longer need to
wonder or speculate about it, but would know exactly what she said. He
turned and stood for a minute or so at the Temple gates, looking out
upon the busy Strand. It was still as lovely as a summer night could be
overhead, but down here it was--well, it was London, which is another
thing. The usual crowd was streaming by, coming into bright light as it
streamed past a brilliant shop window, then in the shade for another
moment, and emerging again. The faces that were suddenly lit up as they
passed--some handsome faces, pale in the light; some with heads hung
down, either in bad health or bad humour; some full of cares and troubles,
others airy and gay--caught his attention. Did any of them all know
anything of this man, he wondered--knowing how absurd a question it was.
Had any of them written to-day a letter full of explanations, of a
matter that could not be explained? There were faces with far more
tragic meaning in them than could be so easily explained as that--the
faces of men, alas! and women too, who were going to destruction as fast
as their hurrying feet could carry them; or else were languidly drifting
no one knew where--out of life altogether, out of all that was good in

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