About five years ago, on days when the sun shone warmly, an old man might have been observed taking the air in Kennington Park. He was one of those seedy and aimless old gentlemen usually described as having seen better days. He was generally supposed to have been engaged in the City in early life, and to live upon a small pension tendered to him out of the generosity of his old employers. He lived in humble apartments in a street which ran off the Camberwell New Road, and he attended twice on Sundays the conventicle of a strict sect of Dissenters, by whose minister he was much respected, although his small means prevented his subscribing liberally to the chapel funds.
Google does not have a lot to say about William MacKay, the author of this story, except that he was a journalist who wrote several novels, in addition to the collection of short stories this tale is included among.
That collection is called Unvarnished Tales, and it’s available at Project Gutenberg.
In Kennington Park he was treated with less respect—the geniuses of that famous resort having christened him “Old Boots,” in friendly recognition of the very disreputable manner in which he was shod, and the fact that his boots were never subjected to the necessary operations of the blacking brush.
Accompanying him in his walks was his only daughter, a maiden of nineteen or twenty years—a sparkling brunette, who, by her talent as an amateur milliner, was enabled out of very poor materials to dress herself becomingly and even with taste. She appeared quite devoted to the old gentleman, and many who saw them at once admired her for her filial affection, and also deplored the fact that a young woman so elegant and amiable should have her chances of matrimony spoiled by the caprice of an old man.
For, although Mr. Lowndes—that was the old gentleman’s name—attended his religious duties with great regularity, he was shy of making acquaintances, and reticent with a few whom chance had forced upon his society. And this by such people of the world as vegetate in Camberwell was put down to his selfishness. He was unwilling, they said, to give his daughter a chance of marrying, not because his love for her was great, but because he did not wish to lose so invaluable a nurse.
In this they did Old Boots a grievous wrong, for he loved Jessie better than anything else in the world.
Among the very few whose acquaintance the Lowndes family had made was a Mr. Evelyn Jones, a clerk in a bank in the City. This exemplary young gentleman belonged to the same conventicle as Mr. Lowndes, was a teacher in the Sunday-school, and bade fair to become a bright and shining light in the City. But these circumstances would not in themselves have led to a friendship. The fact is that he lodged in the same house as the superannuated City man and his daughter, and was in the habit of purchasing out of his own small means certain delicacies which the old man was too poor to provide. Evelyn was a frank, unsuspicious youth, and was permitted sometimes to join his fellow-lodgers for half-an-hour of an evening, when it was quite apparent that his pleasure was contributed to rather by the presence of Jessie than by the highly-improving conversation of her parent.
“How much do you think a man could afford to marry on?” he asked, during one of these visits.
“It depends,” replied Mr. Lowndes, “on the man; but more especially upon the woman. But why do you ask?”
“Because I’ve got a rise of ten pounds to-day.”
“And what, may I ask,” went on the old man, “does that make your salary?”
“Ninety pounds a-year,” replied Evelyn, with a flush of honest pride.
The old man smiled and shook his head.
“Isn’t that enough to keep a house on—a very small house, you know?”
The old man shook his head again.
“And how much would be enough?” queried the youth.
“I don’t think any young couple should commence housekeeping on less than a thousand a-year.”
Evelyn looked in blank amazement at his host.
“A thousand a-year!” he exclaimed.
“That was the amount I mentioned,” replied the old gentleman, with some asperity.
“But I shall never make such an income,” he said, in great despondency.
“Then you should never get married,” added the philosopher, calmly. Feeling, however, that he had been a little too harsh in his manner, he went on,—
“But you must not despair. Much money is made in the City by honesty and application. Be industrious, my young friend, and be honest. Heaven has rewarded other City men for the illustration of these qualities; Heaven may reward you. And now good evening. Jessie and I have some private business to transact.”
Poor Jones was dreadfully cast down by this interview. Because, truth to tell, he had fallen in love with the patient and beautiful lady who attended so assiduously on her broken-down father. And he had thus artfully contrived to obtain from the old gentleman a general opinion on the subject of matrimony. The result of his investigations was that he came to regard Mr. Lowndes as a perfect monster of selfishness.
“He guessed at what I was driving,” said Evelyn to himself, when he gained his own room. “He suspects that I want to marry Jessie, and has put a thousand a-year upon her as his price for making the sacrifice.”
Now, Evelyn Jones had been bred in the country, and had imbibed certain old-fashioned notions on the matter of courtship from his parents. He would have considered it a dishonourable act on his part to approach Jessie with an offer of marriage without having first consulted her only surviving parent. He inferred from a hundred little signs that she was not indifferent to him. But his highly moral training prevented his taking advantage of these circumstances to press his suit.
“I wish she had a mother,” he sighed; “I’d soon talk her over. And to hear that selfish old paragon talking of a thousand pounds! I’ll be bound he never had so much money in his whole life.”
Depressed spirits are but temporary afflictions with the young and sanguine. What appears at first to be an overmastering despair clears off. “Hope springs eternal” in the lover’s breast. And in a week’s time Evelyn Jones had recovered his equanimity, and determined once more to address Old Boots on the subject nearest to his heart. He purchased a pound of grapes and a bottle of port, and having returned to the suburban delights of his apartments off the Camberwell New Road, he watched the door of his fellow-lodger until he saw Miss Lowndes disappear to the lower regions to consult with her landlady.
This was his opportunity. He knocked at the door of Mr. Lowndes, and was bidden in short and querulous tones to enter. He presented his gifts to the old man, who, under the circumstances, could not do less than request him to remain. The port was opened—and so was the conversation. At first it meandered lightly among generalities. But eventually the young man “plucked up a spirit,” as the phrase hath it.
“D’you remember, Mr. Lowndes, my talking to you on the subject of matrimony?”
“I do,” answered the other, curtly.
“Well, I am in love. I want to marry.”
“And I say again, that on ninety pounds a-year it would be idiotcy.”
“But,” persisted the ardent Jones, “she is so good, such a clever housekeeper that I think she could make ninety pounds a-year go very far indeed.”
“And who, may I ask, is this paragon?”
“Oh! Mr. Lowndes, forgive me—pity me. I love your daughter.”
Mr. Jones, in all the scenes which his lively imagination had conjured up as likely to follow his proposal, did not imagine that which really occurred. Lowndes jumped from his chair; he became erect, his eyes flashed as he cried,—
“You scoundrel! You fool! Have you breathed word of this to her?”
“Not a word, upon my soul.”
Old Boots sank back into his chair, apparently much relieved.
“Then don’t,” he said, menacingly. “Tomorrow I will leave this. Do not attempt to follow us. The consequences be on your own head if you do.”
At that moment the door of the sitting-room opened, and two men entered, followed by Jessie, pale and alarmed.
One of the men spoke,—
“Mr. Morton,” he observed, quietly, “we have tracked you at last. You are arrested for the robbery of ten thousand pounds from the British Bullion Bank.”
Old Boots stood before them erect and even dignified. Jessie flew to him, and throwing her arms round his neck, wept bitterly.
“I am ready,” said Mr. Morton, the peccant secretary of the Bullion Bank. “May I request you to show some consideration for this innocent lady.”
Evelyn Jones stood forward.
“I, sir, do not shrink from knowing you in your—your misfortune. I will take care of your daughter.”
“You brainless puppy!” shrieked the prisoner. “She is my wife.”
And so indeed she was.