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    Chapter 14

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    Chapter 14
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    TROUBLE

    One evening Frank came home with a clouded face. His wife said nothing, but after dinner she sat on a footstool beside his chair and waited. She knew that if it were for the best, he would tell her everything, and she had confidence enough in his judgment to acquiesce in his silence if he thought it best to be silent. As a matter of fact, it was just this telling her which made his trouble hard to bear. And yet he thought it wiser to tell.

    'I've had something to worry me, dear.'

    'Poor old boy, I know you have. What was it?'

    'Why should I bother you with it?'

    'A nice wife I should be, if I shared all your joys and none of your sorrows! Anyhow, I had rather share sorrow with you than joy within any one else.' She snuggled her head up against his knee. 'Tell me about it, Frank.'

    'You remember my telling you just before our marriage that I was surety for a man?'

    'I remember perfectly well.'

    'His name was Farintosh. He was an insurance-agent, and I became surety for him in order to save his situation.'

    'Yes, dear, it was so noble of you.'

    'Well, Maude, he was on the platform this morning, and when he saw me, he turned on his heel and hurried out of the station. I read guilt in his eyes. I am sure that his accounts are wrong again.'

    'Oh, what an ungrateful wretch!'

    'Poor devil, I dare say he has had a bad time. But I was a fool not to draw out of that. It was all very well when I was a bachelor. But here I am as a married man faced with an indefinite liability and nothing to meet it with. I don't know what is to become of us, Maude.'

    'How much is it, dearest?'

    'I don't know. That is the worst of it.'

    'But surely your own office would not be so hard upon you?'

    'It is not my own office. It is another office--the Hotspur.'

    'Oh dear! What have you done about it, Frank?'

    'I called at their office in my lunch-hour, and I requested them to send down an accountant to examine Farintosh's books. He will be here to-morrow morning, and I have leave of absence for the day.'

    And so they were to spend an evening and a night without knowing whether they were merely crippled or absolutely ruined. Frank's nature was really a very proud one, and the thought of failing in his engagements wounded his self-respect most deeply. His nerves winced and quivered before it. But her sweet, strong soul rose high above all fear, and bore him up with her, into the serenity of love and trust and confidence. The really precious things, the things of the spirit, were permanent, and could not be lost. What matter if they lived in an eight-roomed villa, or in a tent out on the heath? What matter if they had two servants, or if she worked for him herself? All this was the merest trifle, the outside of life. But the intimate things, their love, their trust, their pleasures of mind and soul, these could not be taken away from them while they had life to enjoy them. And so she soothed Frank with sweet caresses and gentle words, until this night of gloom had turned to the most beautiful of all his life, and he had learned to bless the misfortune which had taught him to know the serene courage and the wholehearted devotion which can only be felt, like the scent of a fragrant leaf, when Fate gives us a crush between its iron fingers.

    Shortly after breakfast Mr. Wingfield, the accountant from London, arrived--a tall, gentlemanly man, with a formal manner.

    'I'm sorry about this business, Mr. Crosse,' said he.

    Frank made a grimace. 'It can't be helped.'

    'We will hope that the amount is not very serious. We have warned Mr. Farintosh that his books will be inspected to-day. When you are ready we shall go round.'

    The agent lived in a side-street not far off. A brass plate, outside a small brick house, marked it out from the line of other small brick houses. A sad-faced woman opened the door, and Farintosh himself, haggard and white, was seated among his ledgers in the little front room. A glance at the man's helpless face turned all Frank's resentment to pity.

    They sat down at the table, the accountant in the centre, Farintosh on the right, and Frank on the left. There was no talk save an occasional abrupt question and answer. For two hours the swish and rustle of the great blue pages of the ledgers were the chief sound, with the scratching of Mr. Wingfield's pen as he totalled up long columns of figures. Frank's heart turned to water as he saw the huge sums which had passed through this man's hands. How much had remained there? His whole future depended upon the answer to that question. How prosaic and undramatic are the moments in which a modern career is made or marred! In this obscure battlefield, the squire no longer receives his accolade in public for his work well done, nor do we see the butcher's cleaver as it hacks off the knightly spurs, but failure and success come strangely and stealthily, determined by trifles, and devoid of dignity. Here was the crisis of Frank's young life, in this mean front room, amongst the almanacs and the account-books.

    'Can I rely upon these figures?' asked Wingfield at last.

    'You can, sir.'

    'In that case I congratulate you, Mr. Crosse. I can only find a deficiency of fifty pounds.'

    Only enough to swallow the whole of their little savings, which they had carefully invested! However, it was good news, and Frank shook the proffered hand of the accountant.

    'I will stay for another hour to check these figures,' said Wingfield. 'But there is no need to detain you.'

    'You will come round and lunch with us?'

    'With pleasure.'

    'Au revoir, then.' Frank ran all the way home, and burst in upon his wife. 'It is not so very bad, dear--only fifty pounds.' They danced about in their joy like two children.

    But Wingfield came to his lunch within a solemn face.

    'I am very sorry to disappoint you,' he said, 'but the matter is more serious than I thought. We have entered some sums as unpaid which he has really received, but the receipts for which he has held back. They amount to another hundred pounds.'

    Maude felt inclined to cry as she glanced at Frank, and saw his resolute effort to look unconcerned.

    'Then it's a hundred and fifty.'

    'Certainly not less. I have marked the items down upon this paper for your inspection.'

    Frank glanced his practised eyes over the results of the accountant's morning's work.

    'You have credited him within a hundred and twenty pounds in the bank, I see.'

    'Yes, his bank-book shows a balance of that amount.'

    'When was it made out?'

    'Last Saturday.'

    'He may have drawn it since them.'

    'It is certainly possible.'

    'We might go round after lunch and make sure.'

    'Very good.'

    'And in any case, as it is the Company's money, don't you think we had better take it out of his hands?'

    'Yes, I think you are right.'

    It was a miserable meal, and they were all glad when it was finished. Maude drew Frank into the other room before he started.

    'I could not let you go without THAT, dearest. Keep a brave heart, my own laddie, for I know so well that we shall come through it all right.'

    So Frank set out with a higher courage, and they both returned to the agent's house. His white face turned a shade whiter when he understood their errand.

    'Is this necessary, Mr. Wingfield?' he pleaded. 'Won't you take my word for this money?'

    'I am sorry to have to say it, sir, but we have trusted in your word too often.'

    'But the money is there, I swear it.'

    'It is the Company's money, and we must have it.'

    'It will ruin my credit locally if I draw out my whole account under compulsion.'

    'Then let him keep ten pounds in,' said Frank. Farintosh agreed with an ill grace to the compromise, and they all started off for the bank. When they reached the door the agent turned upon them with an appealing face.

    'Don't come in with me, gentlemen. I could never hold up my head again.'

    'It is for Mr. Crosse to decide.'

    'I don't want to be unreasonable, Farintosh. Go in alone and draw the money.'

    They could never understand why he begged for that extra five minutes. Perhaps it was that he had some mad hope of persuading the bank manager to allow him to overdraw to that amount. If so, the refusal was a curt one, for he reappeared with a ghastly face and walked up to Frank.

    'I may as well confess to you, Mr. Crosse, I have nothing in the bank.'

    Frank whistled and turned upon his heel. He could not by reproaches add to the wretched man's humiliation. After all, he had himself to blame. He had incurred a risk with his eyes open, and he was not the man to whine now that the thing had gone against him. Wingfield walked home with him and murmured some words of sympathy. At the gate the accountant left him and went on to the station.

    So their liability had risen from fifty to two hundred and seventy pounds. Even Maude was for an instant daunted by the sum. The sale of their furniture would hardly meet it. It was the blackest hour of their lives, and yet, always a strange sweet undercurrent of joy was running through it, for it is only sorrow, fairly shared and bravely borne, which can weld two human souls together.

    Dinner was over when there came a ring at the bell.

    'If you please, sir, Mr. Farintosh would like to see you,' said the maid Jemima.

    'Show him in here.'

    'Don't you think, Frank, that I had better go?'

    'No, I don't. I never asked him to come. If he comes, let him face us both. I have not made much of my dealings with him alone.'

    He was shown in, downcast, shifty-eyed, and ill at ease. He laid his hat upon the floor, and crept humbly towards the chair which Frank pushed towards him.

    'Well, Farintosh?'

    'Well, Mr. Crosse, I have come round to tell you, and you too, missus, the sorrow I feel that I have brought this trouble upon you. I hoped all would have gone right after that last time, but I've had to pay up back debts, and that's what has put me wrong. I've never had what one may call a fair chance. But I'm really sorry, sir, that you who have, as one might say, befriended me, should have to suffer for it in this way.'

    'Words won't mend it, Farintosh. I only blame you for not coming to me when first things began to go wrong.'

    'Well, sir, I was always hoping that I could turn them right again, so as you wouldn't need to be troubled at all. And so it went from bad to worse until we find ourselves here. But what I wanted to ask you, Mr. Crosse, was what you meant to do about it?'

    Frank writhed before this home question.

    'Well, I suppose I am responsible,' said he.

    'You mean to pay the money, sir?'

    'Well, somebody must pay it.'

    'Do you remember the wording of the bond, Mr. Crosse?'

    'Not the exact wording.'

    'Well, sir, I should advise you to get your lawyer to read it. In my opinion, sir, you are not liable at all.'

    'Not liable!' Frank felt as if his heart had turned suddenly from a round-shot to an air-balloon. 'Why not liable?'

    'You were a little slapdashy, if one might say so, in matters of business, sir, and perhaps you read that bond less carefully than I did. There was a clause in it by which the Company agreed frequently and periodically to audit my accounts, so as to prevent your liability being at any time a very high one.'

    'So there was!' cried Frank. 'Well, didn't they?'

    'No, sir, they didn't.'

    'By Jove--Maude, do you hear that?--if that is right, they brought their own misfortunes upon themselves. Do you mean to say they never audited you?'

    'Yes, sir, they did so four times.'

    'In how long?'

    'In fourteen months.'

    The air-balloon was gone and the cannon-ball back in its place once more.

    'That will be held to exonerate them.'

    'No, sir, I think not. "Frequently and periodically" does not mean four times in fourteen months.'

    'A jury might take it so.'

    'Consider, sir, that the object was that your liability should be limited. Thousands of pounds were passing through my hands in that time, and therefore these four audits were, as one might say, insufficient for the object of the bond.'

    'So I think,' cried Maude, with conviction. 'Frank, we'll have the best advice upon the subject to-morrow.'

    'And meanwhile, Mr. Crosse,' said Farintosh, rising from his chair, 'I am your witness, whether the Company prosecutes me or not. And I hope that this will be some humble atonement for the trouble that I have brought you.'

    And so a first rift of light began to shine in the dark place. But it was not broadened by the letter which he found waiting upon his breakfast-table -

    Re Farintosh's Accounts.

    HOTSPUR INSURANCE OFFICE.

    Dear Sir,--On arriving in London I came here at once, and checked Farintosh's accounts from the books of the head office. I am sorry to say that I find a further discrepancy of seventy pounds. I am able, however, to assure you that we have now touched bottom. The total amount is three hundred and forty pounds, and a cheque for that sum at your early convenience would oblige us, as we are anxious to bring so unpleasant a business to a conclusion.--Yours truly,

    JAMES WINGFIELD.

    To which Frank and Maude in collaboration -

    Dear Sir,--I note your claim for 340 pounds on account of the affairs of your agent Farintosh. I am advised, however, that there have been certain irregularities in the matter, about which I must make some investigation before paying the claim.--Yours truly,

    Frank Crosse.

    To which the Hotspur Insurance Office -

    Sir,--Had your letter been a plea for more time to fulfil your engagement, we should have been content to wait; but since you appear disposed to dispute your liability, we have no alternative but to take immediate steps to enforce payment. -

    Yours truly, JOHN WATERS, Secretary.

    To which Frank and Maude -

    Sir,--My solicitor, A. C. R. Owen, of 14 Shirley Lane, E.C., will be happy to accept service.

    Which is the correct legal English for 'You may go to the devil!'

    But this is an anticipation. In the meantime, having received the original letter and answered it, Frank went up to town as usual, while Maude played the more difficult part of waiting quietly at home. In his lunch-hour Frank went to see his friend and solicitor, who in turn obtained leave to see the bond, and came back with a grave face.

    'You have a case,' said he, 'but by no means a certainty. It all depends upon how the judge might read the document. I think that it would strengthen our case very materially if we had counsel's opinion. I'll copy the bond and show it to Manners, and have his opinion before you go back to-night.'

    So Frank went round again after office-hours, and found Owen waiting in very low spirits, for their relations were closer than those of mere solicitor and client.

    'Very sorry,' said he.

    'Opinion against us.'

    'Dead against us.'

    Frank tried to look as if he didn't mind.

    'Let me see it.'

    It was a long blue document with the heading, 'The Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited, v. Frank Crosse.'

    'I have perused the case submitted to me, and the papers accompanying the same,' said the learned counsel, 'and in my opinion the Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited, are entitled to recover from Mr. Crosse under his guarantee, the sum of 340 pounds, being monies received by Mr. Farintosh, and not paid over by him to the said Company.' There was a great deal more, but it was anticlimax.

    'Well, what shall we do?' asked Frank helplessly. The British law makes one feel so.

    'Well, I should stand out, if I were you. There is certainly a chance.'

    'Look here, old chap,' said Frank, 'I may as well be honest with you. If this thing goes against me, I am stony broke. I don't know where your costs are coming from.'

    'Don't bother about that,' said Owen kindly. 'After all, Manners is not infallible. Let us have Holland, and see what he can make of it.'

    So twenty-four hours later Frank found Owen radiant with another opinion in his hand.

    'Dead for us this time. Look here!'

    And he read out, 'I have carefully considered the case submitted to me for my opinion, and the documents sent therewith. In my opinion the Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited, are not entitled to recover against Mr. Crosse the sum claimed by them or any part thereof, as there has been a breach on their part of an essential condition of the guarantee.' 'He reads "frequently and periodically" as we do,' continued Owen, glancing over the long document, 'and he is very clear as to our case.'

    'Suppose we have another, and try the best of three,' said Frank.

    'It's too expensive a game. No, Holland is a sound man, and his opinion would weigh with any judge. I think we have enough to go on with.'

    'And you think it is safe?'

    'No, no, nothing is ever safe in the law. But we can make a fight of it now.'

    And now Frank was to learn what it meant to be entangled in an intricate clumsy old machine, incredibly cumbrous and at the same time incredibly powerful, jolting along with its absurd forms and abominable English towards an end which might or might not be just, but was most certainly ruinously expensive. The game began by a direct letter from the Queen, of all people, an honour which Frank had never aspired to before, and certainly never did again.

    Victoria, by the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, remarked abruptly to Frank Crosse of Woking, in the county of Surrey, 'We command you that within eight days of the service of this writ on you, inclusive of the day of such service, you cause an appearance to be entered for you in an action at the suit of the Hotspur Insurance Company, Limited.' If he didn't do so, Her Majesty remarked that several very unpleasant things might occur, and Hardinge Stanley, Earl of Halsbury, corroborated Her Majesty. Maude was frightened to death when she saw the document, and felt as if unawares they must have butted up against the British Constitution, but Owen explained that it was only a little legal firework, which meant that there might be some trouble later.

    'Well, at any rate,' said Frank, 'it means that in eight days it will all be over.'

    Owen laughed heartily at the remark.

    'It means,' said he, 'that in eight days we must promise that at some future date we will begin to make preparations for something to happen in the future. That is about the meaning of it. All you can do now is to be perfectly philosophic, and leave the rest to me.'

    But how is a man with a capital of fifty pounds going to be philosophic when he is fighting an opponent whose assets, as a certain hoarding near Clapham Junction told him every morning, exceeded three millions of pounds. He treated it lightly to Maude, and she to him, but each suffered horribly, and each was well aware of the other's real feelings. Sometimes there was a lull, and they could almost believe that the whole thing was over. And then the old machine gave a creak, and the rusty cog-wheels took one more turn, and they both felt the horrid thing which held them.

    First of all, they had to enter appearances, which meant that they would dispute the action. Then the other side had to make an affidavit verifying their claim. Then a Master had to pronounce whether the action should be treated offhand, or whether he would listen to what they had to say about it. He decided to listen to what was to be said. Then each side claimed to see the other's documents, 'discovery' they called it, as if the documents were concealed, and they had to hunt for them stealthily with lanterns. Then each made remarks about the other's documents, and claimed to see the remarks so made. Then the lawyers of the Company made a statement of their claim, and when she read it Maude burst into tears, and said that it was all over, and they must make the best of it, and she should never forgive herself for that new dress in the spring. And then Frank's lawyer drew up a defence, and when Frank heard it, he said, 'Why, what a silly business it seems! They have not got a leg to stand upon.' And so, after all these flourishes and prancings, the two parties did actually begin to show signs of coming to a hearing after all, and a day was fixed for the trial. By a coincidence it was Frank's birthday. 'There's a good omen!' cried Maude.

    The first herald of the approaching conflict was a seedy person, who thrust a paper into Frank's hand as he emerged from The Lindens in the morning. It was another letter from Her Majesty, in which sub poena (Her Majesty has not a gracious way of putting things in these documents), Mr. Frank Crosse had 'to attend at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, at the sittings of the Queen's Bench Division of our High Court of Justice, to give evidence on behalf of the Hotspur Company.'

    This seemed to Frank to be a most unexpected and fearsome stroke, but Owen simply laughed.

    'That is mere bluff,' said he. 'It makes me think that they are weakening. They want to frighten you.'

    'They did,' said Frank.

    'Two can play at that game. We must keep a bold front.'

    'What do you mean to do?'

    'To subpoena all their crowd.'

    'Capital!' cried Frank. So a clerk was sent across to the Hotspur office with a whole bundle of subpoenas, and served them liberally out. And in two days' time was the day of battle.
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