I flung up my hand sharply, by way, as well as I remember, of indignant protest; and, in the act, the packet slipped from my fingers, glanced between the railings, and fell and sunk in the river. I stood a moment petrified, and then, struck by the drollery of the incident, gave way to peals of laughter. I was still laughing when my stepmother reappeared, and the maid, who doubtless considered me insane, ran off to join her; nor had I yet recovered my gravity when I presented myself before the lawyer to solicit a fresh advance. His answer made me serious enough, for it was a flat refusal; and it was not until I had besought him even with tears, that he consented to lend me ten pounds from his own pocket. 'I am a poor man,' said he, 'and you must look for nothing farther at my hands.'
The landlady met me at the door. 'Here, madam,' said she, with a curtsey insolently low, 'here is my bill. Would it inconvenience you to settle it at once?'
'You shall be paid, madam,' said I, 'in the morning, in the proper course.' And I took the paper with a very high air, but inwardly quaking.
I had no sooner looked at it than I perceived myself to be lost. I had been short of money and had allowed my debt to mount; and it had now reached the sum, which I shall never forget, of twelve pounds thirteen and fourpence halfpenny. All evening I sat by the fire considering my situation. I could not pay the bill; my landlady would not suffer me to remove my boxes; and without either baggage or money, how was I to find another lodging? For three months, unless I could invent some remedy, I was condemned to be without a roof and without a penny. It can surprise no one that I decided on immediate flight; but even here I was confronted by a difficulty, for I had no sooner packed my boxes than I found I was not strong enough to move, far less to carry them.
In this strait I did not hesitate a moment, but throwing on a shawl and bonnet, and covering my face with a thick veil, I betook myself to that great bazaar of dangerous and smiling chances, the pavement of the city. It was already late at night, and the weather being wet and windy, there were few abroad besides policemen. These, on my present mission, I had wit enough to know for enemies; and wherever I perceived their moving lanterns, I made haste to turn aside and choose another thoroughfare. A few miserable women still walked the pavement; here and there were young fellows returning drunk, or ruffians of the lowest class lurking in the mouths of alleys; but of any one to whom I might appeal in my distress, I began almost to despair.
At last, at the corner of a street, I ran into the arms of one who was evidently a gentleman, and who, in all his appointments, from his furred great-coat to the fine cigar which he was smoking, comfortably breathed of wealth. Much as my face has changed from its original beauty, I still retain (or so I tell myself) some traces of the youthful lightness of my figure. Even veiled as I then was, I could perceive the gentleman was struck by my appearance: and this emboldened me for my adventure.
'Sir,' said I, with a quickly beating heart, 'sir, are you one in whom a lady can confide?'
'Why, my dear,' said he, removing his cigar, 'that depends on circumstances. If you will raise your veil--'
'Sir,' I interrupted, 'let there be no mistake. I ask you, as a gentleman, to serve me, but I offer no reward.'
'That is frank,' said he; 'but hardly tempting. And what, may I inquire, is the nature of the service?'
But I knew well enough it was not my interest to tell him on so short an interview. 'If you will accompany me,' said I, 'to a house not far from here, you can see for yourself.'
He looked at me awhile with hesitating eyes; and then, tossing away his cigar, which was not yet a quarter smoked, 'Here goes!' said he, and with perfect politeness offered me his arm. I was wise enough to take it; to prolong our walk as far as possible, by more than one excursion from the shortest line; and to beguile the way with that sort of conversation which should prove to him indubitably from what station in society I sprang.