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"O, wheest!" he cried, "that's not
all, that's not the worst of it--it's nothing! How could I tell you
were proud of me? O! I wish, I wish that I had known; but you always
said I was such a disgrace! And the dreadful thing is this: we were all
taken up last night, and we have to pay Collette's fine among the six,
or we'll be had up for evidence--shebeening it is. They made me swear to
tell you; but for my part," he cried, bursting into tears, "I just wish
that I was dead!" And he fell on his knees before a chair and hid his
face.

Whether his father spoke, and whether he remained long in the room or at
once departed, are points lost to history. A horrid turmoil of mind and
body; bursting sobs; broken, vanishing thoughts, now of indignation, now
of remorse; broken elementary whiffs of consciousness, of the smell of
the horse-hair on the chair-bottom, of the jangling of church bells that
now began to make day horrible throughout the confines of the city, of
the hard floor that bruised his knees, of the taste of tears that found
their way into his mouth: for a period of time, the duration of which I
cannot guess, while I refuse to dwell longer on its agony, these were
the whole of God's world for John Nicholson.

When at last, as by the touching of a spring, he returned again to
clearness of consciousness and even a measure of composure, the bells
had but just done ringing, and the Sabbath silence was still marred by
the patter of belated feet. By the clock above the fire, as well as by
these more speaking signs, the service had not long begun; and the
unhappy sinner, if his father had really gone to church, might count on
near two hours of only comparative unhappiness. With his father, the
superlative degree returned infallibly. He knew it by every shrinking
fibre in his body, he knew it by the sudden dizzy whirling of his brain,
at the mere thought of that calamity. An hour and a half, perhaps an
hour and three-quarters, if the Doctor was long-winded, and then would
begin again that active agony from which, even in the dull ache of the
present, he shrank as from the bite of fire. He saw, in a vision, the
family pew, the somnolent cushions, the Bibles, the Psalm-books, Maria
with her smelling-salts, his father sitting spectacled and critical;
and at once he was struck with indignation, not unjustly. It was inhuman
to go off to church and leave a sinner in suspense, unpunished,
unforgiven. And at the very touch of criticism, the paternal sanctity
was lessened; yet the paternal terror only grew; and the two strands of
feeling drew him in the same direction.

And suddenly there came upon him a mad fear lest his father should have
locked him in. The notion had no ground in sense; it was probably no
more than a reminiscence of similar calamities in childhood, for his
father's room had always been the chamber of inquisition and the scene
of punishment; but it stuck so rigorously in his mind that he must
instantly approach the door and prove its untruth. As he went, he struck
upon a drawer left open in the business table. It was the money-drawer,
a measure of his father's disarray: the money-drawer--perhaps a pointing
providence! Who is to decide, when even divines differ, between a
providence and a temptation? or who, sitting calmly under his own vine,
is to pass a judgment on the doings of a poor, hunted dog, slavishly
afraid, slavishly rebellious, like John Nicholson on that particular
Sunday? His hand was in the drawer almost before his mind had conceived
the hope; and rising to his new situation, he wrote, sitting in his
father's chair and using his father's blotting-pad, his pitiful apology
and farewell--

"MY DEAR FATHER,--I have taken the money, but I will pay it back as
soon as I am able. You will never hear of me again. I did not mean any
harm by anything, so I hope you will try and forgive me. I wish you
would say good-bye for me to Alexander and Maria, but not if you don't
want to. I could not wait to see you, really. Please try to forgive
me."

"Your affectionate son, JOHN NICHOLSON."

The coins abstracted and the missive written, he could not be gone too
soon from the scene of these transgressions; and remembering how his
father had once returned from church, on some slight illness, in the
middle of the second psalm, he durst not even make a packet of a change
of clothes. Attired as he was, he slipped from the paternal doors, and
found himself in the cool spring air, the thin spring sunshine, and the
great Sabbath quiet of the city, which was now only pointed by the
cawing of the rooks. There was not a soul in Randolph Crescent, nor a
soul in Queensferry Street; in this outdoor privacy and the sense of
escape, John took heart again; and with a pathetic sense of
leave-taking, he even ventured up the lane and stood a while, a strange
peri at the gates of a quaint paradise, by the west end of St. George's
Church. They were singing within; and by a strange chance the tune was
"St. George's, Edinburgh," which bears the name, and was first sung in
the choir, of that church. "Who is this King of Glory?" went the voices
from within; and to John this was like the end of all Christian
observances, for he was now to be a wild man like Ishmael, and his life
was to be cast in homeless places and with godless people.

It was thus, with no rising sense of the adventurous, but in mere
desolation and despair, that he turned his back on his native city, and
set out on foot for California--with a more immediate eye to Glasgow.




CHAPTER IV

THE SECOND SOWING


It is no part of mine to narrate the adventures of John Nicholson, which
were many, but simply his more momentous misadventures, which were more
than he desired, and by human standards more than he deserved; how he
reached California, how he was rooked, and robbed, and beaten, and
starved; how he was at last taken up by charitable folk, restored to
some degree of self-complacency, and installed as a clerk in a bank in
San Francisco, it would take too long to tell; nor in these episodes
were there any marks of the peculiar Nicholsonic destiny, for they were
just such matters as befell some thousands of other young adventurers in
the same days and places. But once posted in the bank, he fell for a
time into a high degree of good fortune, which, as it was only a longer
way about to fresh disaster, it behoves me to explain.

It was his luck to meet a young man in what is technically called a
"dive," and, thanks to his monthly wages, to extricate this new
acquaintance from a position of present disgrace and possible danger in
the future. This young man was the nephew of one of the Nob Hill
magnates, who run the San Francisco Stock Exchange much as more humble
adventurers, in the corner of some public park at home, may be seen to
perform the simple artifice of pea and thimble: for their own profit,
that is to say, and the discouragement of public gambling. It was hence
in his power--and, as he was of grateful temper, it was among the things
that he desired--to put John in the way of growing rich; and thus,
without thought or industry, or so much as even understanding the game
at which he played, but by simply buying and selling what he was told to
buy and sell, that plaything of fortune was presently at the head of
between eleven and twelve thousand pounds, or, as he reckoned it, of
upwards of sixty thousand dollars.

How he had come to deserve this wealth, any more than how he had formerly
earned disgrace at home, was a problem beyond the reach of his philosophy.
It was true that he had been industrious at the bank, but no more so than
the cashier, who had seven small children and was visibly sinking in a
decline. Nor was the step which had determined his advance--a visit to a
dive with a month's wages in his pocket--an act of such transcendent
virtue, or even wisdom, as to seem to merit the favour of the gods. From
some sense of this and of the dizzy see-saw--heaven-high, hell-deep--on
which men sit clutching; or perhaps fearing that the sources of his
fortune might be insidiously traced to some root in the field of petty
cash; he stuck to his work, said not a word of his new circumstances, and
kept his account with a bank in a different quarter of the town. The
concealment, innocent as it seems, was the first step in the second
tragicomedy of John's existence.

Meanwhile he had never written home. Whether from diffidence or shame,
or a touch of anger, or mere procrastination, or because (as we have
seen) he had no skill in literary arts, or because (as I am sometimes
tempted to suppose) there is a law in human nature that prevents young
men--not otherwise beasts--from the performance of this simple act of
piety:--months and years had gone by, and John had never written. The
habit of not writing, indeed, was already fixed before he had begun to
come into his fortune; and it was only the difficulty of breaking this
long silence that withheld him from an instant restitution of the money
he had stolen or (as he preferred to call it) borrowed. In vain he sat
before paper, attending on inspiration; that heavenly nymph, beyond
suggesting the words "My dear father," remained obstinately silent; and
presently John would crumple up the sheet and decide, as soon as he had
"a good chance," to carry the money home in person. And this delay,
which is indefensible, was his second step into the snares of fortune.

Ten years had passed, and John was drawing near to thirty. He had kept
the promise of his boyhood, and was now of a lusty frame, verging
towards corpulence; good features, good eyes, a genial manner, a ready
laugh, a long pair of sandy whiskers, a dash of an American accent, a
close familiarity with the great American joke, and a certain likeness
to a R-y-l P-rs-n-ge, who shall remain nameless for me, made up the
man's externals, as he could be viewed in society. Inwardly, in spite of
his gross body and highly masculine whiskers, he was more like a maiden
lady than a man of twenty-nine.

It chanced one day, as he was strolling down Market Street on the eve of
his fortnight's holiday, that his eye was caught by certain railway
bills, and in very idleness of mind he calculated that he might be home
for Christmas if he started on the morrow.



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