The Wrong Box

Page 46

'There is something in that,' returned Joseph. 'And I believe I can trust you. I believe you will stand by me.'

'I hardly know what you mean,' said the lawyer, 'but if you are in need of money I am flush.'

'It's not that, my dear boy,' said the uncle, shaking him by the hand. 'I'll tell you all about it afterwards.'

'All right,' responded the nephew. 'I stand treat, Uncle Joseph; what will you have?'

'In that case,' replied the old gentleman, 'I'll take another sandwich. I daresay I surprise you,' he went on, 'with my presence in a public-house; but the fact is, I act on a sound but little-known principle of my own--'

'O, it's better known than you suppose,' said Michael sipping his brandy and soda. 'I always act on it myself when I want a drink.'

The old gentleman, who was anxious to propitiate Michael, laughed a cheerless laugh. 'You have such a flow of spirits,' said he, 'I am sure I often find it quite amusing. But regarding this principle of which I was about to speak. It is that of accommodating one's-self to the manners of any land (however humble) in which our lot may be cast. Now, in France, for instance, every one goes to a cafe for his meals; in America, to what is called a "two-bit house"; in England the people resort to such an institution as the present for refreshment. With sandwiches, tea, and an occasional glass of bitter beer, a man can live luxuriously in London for fourteen pounds twelve shillings per annum.'

'Yes, I know,' returned Michael, 'but that's not including clothes, washing, or boots. The whole thing, with cigars and occasional sprees, costs me over seven hundred a year.'

But this was Michael's last interruption. He listened in good-humoured silence to the remainder of his uncle's lecture, which speedily branched to political reform, thence to the theory of the weather-glass, with an illustrative account of a bora in the Adriatic; thence again to the best manner of teaching arithmetic to the deaf-and-dumb; and with that, the sandwich being then no more, explicuit valde feliciter. A moment later the pair issued forth on the King's Road.

'Michael, I said his uncle, 'the reason that I am here is because I cannot endure those nephews of mine. I find them intolerable.'

'I daresay you do,' assented Michael, 'I never could stand them for a moment.'

'They wouldn't let me speak,' continued the old gentleman bitterly; 'I never was allowed to get a word in edgewise; I was shut up at once with some impertinent remark. They kept me on short allowance of pencils, when I wished to make notes of the most absorbing interest; the daily newspaper was guarded from me like a young baby from a gorilla. Now, you know me, Michael. I live for my calculations; I live for my manifold and ever-changing views of life; pens and paper and the productions of the popular press are to me as important as food and drink; and my life was growing quite intolerable when, in the confusion of that fortunate railway accident at Browndean, I made my escape. They must think me dead, and are trying to deceive the world for the chance of the tontine.'

'By the way, how do you stand for money?' asked Michael kindly.

'Pecuniarily speaking, I am rich,' returned the old man with cheerfulness. 'I am living at present at the rate of one hundred a year, with unlimited pens and paper; the British Museum at which to get books; and all the newspapers I choose to read. But it's extraordinary how little a man of intellectual interest requires to bother with books in a progressive age. The newspapers supply all the conclusions.'

'I'll tell you what,' said Michael, 'come and stay with me.'

'Michael,' said the old gentleman, 'it's very kind of you, but you scarcely understand what a peculiar position I occupy. There are some little financial complications; as a guardian, my efforts were not altogether blessed; and not to put too fine a point upon the matter, I am absolutely in the power of that vile fellow, Morris.'

'You should be disguised,' cried Michael eagerly; 'I will lend you a pair of window-glass spectacles and some red side-whiskers.'

'I had already canvassed that idea,' replied the old gentleman, 'but feared to awaken remark in my unpretentious lodgings.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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