No cooler spot could be imagined on the hottest midsummer day than the picturesque forecourt of the premises occupied by Septimus John Clifford & Son, wine merchants, importers and exporters.
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It was a balmy autumn day four years after Queen Victoria ascended the throne, and the neighbourhood of Southampton Water was looking perhaps more brilliant and more beautiful than it had during the long summer which had just passed. Already the leaves were covering the ground, and away across the water pine-trees stood up like sentinels amidst…
Behind the forecourt, crowding the latter closely towards the edge of the River Thames, some few hundred yards below the point where the stream swept and swirled through the arches of the bridge, stretched an irregular block of buildings, that portion farthest from the court presenting a somewhat severe frontage to the river, its many floors, its narrow windows, and its winches and hoists dangling outside serving to show that it was there that Septimus John Clifford & Son stored their goods from oversea. Huge doors leading by wide, shallow steps to the basement hinted that it was through these easy portals that the wines of France, of Spain, and of Portugal found access to the vast vaults stretching away behind the muddy bank of the river.
The forecourt and its immediate background bore a very different appearance, for the garden, encompassed by moss-grown walls, was ablaze with flowers, while one huge mulberry tree reared its foliage before the main entrance of the building, its leaves rustling against the curious old dormer windows and strangely shaped balconies which adorned the front. Beneath the grateful shade cast by that mulberry tree lay Septimus John Clifford himself, at full length in a capacious basketwork chair, oblivious of his surroundings, careless even of the persistent flies that hovered about the gaudy silk handkerchief with which he had covered his head. Mr. Septimus was asleep. Clerks in the busy office within the huge bay window, not five yards from him, turned the leaves of musty ledgers with pathetic care lest they should awake the ruler of this establishment. The office boy, an urchin with round, rosy cheeks, swelled to the point of bursting, gathered up his feet upon the staves of his chair when the head clerk admonished him for shuffling them, and cast an anxious eye out through the wide-open window. Marlow, the clerk nearest to that sleeping form, almost held his breath; for he was apt to grunt and expand his lungs with a hiss that was exasperating.
"One hour, I think," observed Huggins, a white-haired clerk, who seemed to be the head of the office, consulting a silver watch which was as large as a good-sized turnip. "One hour precisely, I make it."
"And four minutes," ventured his assistant, a thin, lanky man, white-haired like his comrade. "It is time to wake him."
"Yes, now; he would not forgive delay."
Huggins rose silently from the high stool on which he was seated and crossed to the door on tiptoe. He descended the picturesque steps leading from the main entrance to the place with as much care as he would have employed had he been stepping over hot bricks, and advanced to the side of his master, as if determined to leave him asleep till the very last possible moment. For that was the spirit which pervaded the establishment of Septimus John Clifford & Son. A good master was served by loyal and grateful clerks, of whom none were more loyal and thoughtful than Huggins, the stout, clean-shaven, white-haired man who had spent thirty years of his peaceful life in the office.
"Hem! Three o'clock," said Huggins, coming to a standstill and casting his eyes first at the sleeping form of his master, then at the waving foliage of the mulberry tree, and later out across the river to the southern shore, then almost devoid of houses. For we do not speak of London in this year of grace 1913, but of London in 1810, a city of huge proportions even then, but small and puny when compared with the mass of buildings which now stretch far and wide. Smoke stacks and chimneys belching forth huge billows of dark cloud were not then such a feature of the giant capital. Green fields and waving trees came close up to the opposite bank of the Thames, while the few houses there were, the open country, and the stretch of shimmering water, with its quaint river craft, made a picture that was fascinating. From the shade and shelter of the forecourt the view was perfectly enchanting, and for a little while held all Huggins's attention, even though he looked out upon it every day of his life. Then he hemmed again, and gently touched the sleeve of the sleeper. Mr. Septimus stirred, then, hearing a cough beside him, sat up briskly, drew the handkerchief from his head, and, folding it with care, placed it in his pocket.
"Three o'clock, sir," said Huggins.
"No more?" asked Mr. Septimus.
"Five minutes past."
"Four," declared Mr. Septimus, consulting his own watch—one, too, of vast proportions. "The post has come?"
"There are four letters."
"And from Portugal?" asked Mr. Septimus eagerly.
"Drat the war!" cried Mr. Septimus, sitting forward with energy. "First this Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, disturbs all trade by pouring his soldiers into the Peninsula, and then he keeps up the disturbance by refusing to agree that he's beaten. He's beaten, ain't he, Huggins?"
"If not quite, then nearly, sir," came the respectful answer. "But they say that Wellington has cleared Portugal of the French. Stocks of wines are coming through more freely."
The reminder seemed to hearten the master of this establishment; his face assumed a cheerful expression. Not that it had appeared seamed with care before, for Septimus was the personification of good humour. He was a short, stout little man, bald headed and slightly bandy legged. Round, inquisitive goggles sat on a broad nose that spoke of good temper. A white muffler and stock, together with an even whiter waistcoat, covered a frame which may be described as decidedly ample, while shapely legs—shapely even though prone to bandiness—were clad in snuff-coloured overalls, which fitted like the proverbial glove, and set off a figure that was decidedly attractive and gentlemanly.
He stretched out a hand and took the letters which his clerk had brought for him. Then, selecting the one from Portugal, he opened it with the blade of his penknife.
"From Dom Juan de Esteros," he said, extracting the sheet within the envelope. "Ha! That is good news. The tide of war turns to Spain, and wines are accumulating at Oporto. That is good, Huggins. Our clients will be glad to hear that we can soon replenish their cellars. Business will look up."
Huggins nodded, while his sallow features reddened a trifle; for what concerned the house of Septimus John Clifford & Son concerned him, not from the pecuniary point of view, seeing that he was paid a steady salary whether business were good or bad, but because of his sympathetic interest in the firm.
"We can do with it, sir," he said. "Things have been a little slow in the office. There has been little work after three o'clock. The clerks have been inclined to become sleepy."
"And no wonder," responded Septimus, looking up with a laugh. "Like master, like man, Huggins. Can't blame 'em for sleeping after dinner if I do. It's a bad habit, Huggins, a bad habit. All the same, I believe it helps one wonderfully. Couldn't get through these hot days if it weren't for the forty winks I snatch. But let's see. Dom Juan—ah! he thinks the time has come for us to have a direct representative in Oporto. Talks of indifferent health caused by the anxieties of the war. Asks us to send someone."
"Ahem! Yes, sir," came from Huggins suggestively.
"To send someone," repeated Septimus. "A representative, Huggins. Eh?"
"Master Tom," came promptly from the clerk. "And son, sir—Clifford & Son."
He laid special emphasis on the last two words, causing Mr. Septimus to look up at him and discover the old servant's face glowing. As for the owner of this successful business of wine merchants, we can only say that he, too, looked enthusiastic.
"And son—yes, Huggins," he said. "How long is it since there was a son?"
"Seventeen years three months and two days, sir," was the answer. "Master Tom's age exactly."
"To the minute almost," laughed Septimus. "He's the one; he shall represent the firm at Oporto."
By the interest and attention these two gave to the affair one would have imagined that it was an entirely novel subject of discussion, whereas, to be precise, this quaint pair had long since settled the matter. For the "& Son" had become a feature of the business. Two centuries earlier Clifford & Son had first hung their trade sign outside those same premises, only in those days the house was exceedingly small and unpretentious. Still, there had been a son in the business, and thereafter, as the years passed, a succession of sons, while Septimus John had become, as it were, part of the stock-in-trade of this old house which boasted of the "& Son" always attached to it. However, in latter days, there had come a time when that old boast had almost failed them, for Mr. Septimus had succeeded his father at the age of thirty, exactly and precisely one day after the birth of his own boy. It was this same infant, christened Septimus John Esteros Thomas Clifford, who was now under discussion.
"You'll send him, of course, sir," exclaimed Huggins.
"Of course. He'd have gone two years ago if it hadn't been for the war. Drat the war, Huggins!" cried Septimus peevishly. "It has upset all my plans and ruined business. Here's Master Tom kicking his heels about the place and attempting to learn Spanish and Portuguese, when he should be in Oporto learning the languages simply because he couldn't help doing so, and at the same time attending to the business. I did that. I went out when I was sixteen, and came home for good at thirty. The son in this firm has been wanting ever since, for always the father has managed here in London, while the son has worked the business in Oporto. Tom shall go, and quickly too; I'll see him. What's that?"
Both heads were raised promptly, while Mr. Septimus and his clerk remained in their respective attitudes listening intently. From the room behind the wide bay window where the office staff worked there came not so much as a sound. Doubtless the white-haired junior clerk and his helpers still pored over their ledgers, while the fat office boy still sat with his legs curled around the supports of his stool. But from a room overhead there came the sound of strife. A girl's voice was heard, then came that of some young fellow, piercing and high pitched and querulous. The noise of a blow followed, a dull, heavy sound, which gave one the impression that a fist had descended on someone's jaw. A thud telling of a tumble came to the ears of the listeners almost immediately afterwards.
Mr. Septimus rose to his feet with agility and gathered up his letters. There was a severe look on his face as he made towards the steps leading into the house.
"Those two quarrelling," he said over his shoulder.
"Then it isn't Master Tom's doing," declared Huggins, with decision. "That Master José's always at him. He's sly, he is; he's jealous of his cousin."
"Then it'll be a good thing when they're separated. Ah! There again!" cried Mr. Septimus, as the sound of other blows came to his ears, as well as a scream of rage. "I'll go to them; this conduct is disgraceful!"
He bounded up the steps at a speed that would have surprised those who did not know him; for, as we have explained, the head of the firm of wine merchants was distinctly stout, and his appearance belied all suggestion of activity. But Septimus could move quickly when he liked, while his business hours were characterized by bustle. He stepped hurriedly across the hall and went up the wide oak staircase two steps at a time. He was panting just a little when he reached the door of the apartment wherein the scuffle was taking place and threw it wide open. And there he stood for a little time, breathing deeply, regarding the people in the room with wide-open eyes, which seemed to fill the whole area of his spectacles and take in everything.
"Stop this instantly!" he commanded, seeing two lads struggling together in the far corner. "I have never seen anything more disgraceful."
The scene before him might well have drawn such words from the lips of the head of such a decorous firm as Septimus John Clifford & Son; for the room was in confusion. A heavy desk, occupying the centre, that would have been upset but for its weight, had been jerked out of position and now stood at an angle. A chair lay on its back, while an inkpot of large dimensions lay against the near wall with a wide puddle of ink about it, and the panelled wall itself was splashed in all directions with the same dark fluid. A young girl some sixteen years of age gripped one side of the desk, and stood there watching the contest with staring eyes that were decidedly frightened. Two lads occupied the centre of the picture, and as Septimus entered they were locked together in a firm embrace, each one endeavouring to belabour the other. But at the voice of command they broke away, one of them, a youth of medium height, promptly turning from his antagonist toward the door. The movement was the signal for the other to strike out swiftly, sending his fist crashing against the other's head, and following the cowardly movement by a kick which cut the feet of his opponent from beneath him, and brought the lad with a thud to the floor.
"That was a coward's blow!" declared Septimus hotly, advancing into the room; "the kick was contemptible. Stand away in that corner, José. I will thrash you severely if you attempt another movement."
He closed the door quietly behind him, placed a seat at the desk so that he could see all three within the room, then slowly wiped and adjusted his glasses.
"Please explain," he began icily, when finally his glasses were adjusted. "I left you here at two o'clock. You had work sufficient to last you till the evening. What is the meaning of this disgraceful interruption? You, Tom, answer."
He looked closely at each of the lads in turn, and then fixed his eyes upon the one who had been struck in such a cowardly manner by the other. In doing so Septimus Clifford looked upon the counterpart of himself. For before him was the son who was of so much importance to the house of Clifford, the son who was to represent the firm in Oporto—the one, in fact, whom the reader will already have observed was particularly favoured by Huggins. Tom was of middle height, as we have remarked, well built and solidly put together. In spite of his ruffled hair and his flushed face there was something undoubtedly attractive about the young fellow, so much so that Septimus could not fail but note it.
"Looks me square in the face and eye," he muttered beneath his breath. "That's the way with the Cliffords. Knows he's probably in for a licking, and yet don't funk it. He's ready to receive what he's earned, and ain't going to lie to lessen the punishment. Well?" he asked severely, for Septimus was not the one to show favour.
But Tom made no answer. He stood squarely facing his father, his character clearly shown upon a face that was decidedly pleasing if not exactly handsome.
"Well?" demanded Septimus again, more curtly if anything.
"Ask him, sir," came the reply, while Tom jerked his head at the lad over in the far corner where Septimus had ordered him.
"Then you," exclaimed the stout little man, turning to the second youth, he who had delivered the cowardly blow and kick. "What have you to answer?"
"He started it," came abruptly from the one questioned. "Tom called me names and struck me."
"Ah!" exclaimed Septimus, regarding the youth coldly, till the latter reddened beneath his scrutiny. "He started it, José, you say. Why?"
The youth addressed reddened even more at the question, while his eyes shifted from the face of his interrogator to Tom's, and then across to the girl's. Contrasting the two young fellows, Tom and José, one could not compliment the latter; for he seemed to be the very opposite of Tom. A year his senior, perhaps, he was lanky and lean, while his arms and legs and body seemed to writhe and twist as his eyes shifted from corner to corner. The chin disclosed weakness of character and want of firmness, to which thin lips and watery eyes added nothing. In short, José was anything but attractive.
"Why did Tom start this quarrel?" asked Septimus relentlessly, his glasses turned on José all the while.
"I don't know," came the surly answer. "He's always quarrelling."
"Then you began the matter?" said Septimus, turning upon Tom the same close scrutiny. "Why?"
"He didn't!" came abruptly from the girl, who was standing a few paces from him. "José is not telling the truth. Even though he is my brother, I can't remain quiet and know that he is blaming Tom for what is really his own fault."
José's eyes gleamed as his sister spoke. His brows were knit together and his thin lips pursed, as is the case with one in anger. At that moment this unattractive youth looked as if he would willingly have struck his own sister.
"She favours him," he cried angrily. "She's always on his side."
"Silence!" commanded Septimus sternly. "Now, Marguerite, tell me about it."
"He started to tease me," declared the girl, nodding towards her brother. "He splashed the letter I was writing with ink, and then threw some over my needlework. Tom asked him to stop, and then called him a bully. José threw the inkpot at him promptly."
"Ah!" came from the man seated in the centre. "And then?"
"Tom knocked him down twice; then they began to struggle together."
"It's a lie!" shouted José, beside himself with rage, his pale lips trembling.
"Eh?" asked Tom curtly, advancing a pace towards him, and looking threatening.
"Stop!" ordered Septimus, lifting a hand. "By rights I ought to leave you two to settle the matter between you. I have no fears as to what the result would be; for a man or youth who accuses his sister of lying deserves a thrashing, while you, José, deserve it twice over. You have lied yourself, and I myself saw you deliver a cowardly blow. You will remain here and go on with your work; Tom will come below with me. For the future try to be friendly to one another, at least till you are parted."
"Parted?" asked Tom curiously, while a scowl showed on José's face.
"Yes, parted," repeated Septimus. "The time has come for you to go to Oporto, Tom, there to act as representative of this business."
José's face was a study as he listened to the words and saw the pride and enthusiasm with which Tom was so obviously filled. Even Marguerite was regarding her cousin as if he were a hero, and, indeed, that was the light in which she was wont to look at him. For ever since he was a little fellow Tom had been Marguerite's special protector, and often and often had he saved her from her brother's ill treatment. José was, in fact, a bully. Sneaking and mean by nature, he was the very opposite of his sister, and ever since the two had been brought to the house he had been jealous of his cousin Tom. That was the secret of their ill feeling from the beginning. Provided José treated Marguerite fairly, Tom was prepared to live on good terms with him. But always José regarded Tom as a fortunate rival, as his future master; for was not Tom the son attached to the firm? And now to hear that he was to go to Oporto, there to rule the roast, filled José with envy and hatred. He could see Tom his own master, with clerks to do his bidding, while he, José, the less fortunate, was slaving at a humble desk in England. It roused his ire when he recollected that were there no Tom he himself would fill his place, and would one day be the head of the firm of Septimus John Clifford & Son.
The scowl on José's face had deepened as Septimus spoke. Tom's happy features incensed him to the point of bursting. A moment or so later, when the door had closed between him and the other three, and while their steps still resounded in the passage, José gave full vent to his hatred and anger. He pranced up and down the room. He glared out through the window as Tom appeared, and if looks could have killed, that young fellow would have ceased to exist forthwith. Then José flung himself petulantly on to a chair, buried his face in his hands, and remained in that position for some few minutes, his restless limbs writhing and twitching meanwhile.
Suddenly, however, he sat up and stared hard at the wall opposite.
"Why not?" he asked himself, as if apropos of nothing, while a cunning leer bent his lips. "If there were no Tom, José would go to Oporto. And who would carry out the work more fittingly? Tom shall not go there. I swear that I will prevent him."
He was poring over a book half an hour later when Septimus entered the room again with the intention of having a serious conversation with him, and to all appearances José was a different individual. He was sorry for the anger he had shown, sorry that he had insulted his sister, and eager to be friendly with everyone. But, then, José was a crafty individual. That night as he lay in bed within ten feet of our hero he was concocting plans whereby to defeat the aims of Septimus, and bring about the downfall of Tom, his cousin.