Chapter XXIV: A Dangerous Promise

“Now, sir,” he said, as he closed the door behind him “I think that I have a right to inquire what the meaning may be of the scene of which I was an involuntary witness this morning?”

“It means,” Tom answered firmly but gently, “that I am engaged to Miss
Harston, and have been for some time.”

“Oh, indeed,” Girdlestone answered coldly, sitting down at his desk and turning over the pile of letters.

“At my request,” said Tom, “our engagement was kept from your knowledge. I had reason to believe that you objected to early engagements, and I feared that ours might be disagreeable to you.” I trust that the recording angel will not register a very black mark against our friend for this, the one and only falsehood that ever passed his lips.

During the long silent walk the merchant had been revolving in his mind what course he should pursue, and he had come to the conclusion that it was more easy to guide this impetuous stream of youth than to attempt to stem it. He did not realize the strength of the tie that bound these two young people together, and imagined that with judgment and patience it might yet be snapped. It was, therefore, with as good an imitation of geniality as his angular visage would permit of that he answered his companion’s confession.

“You can hardly wonder at my being surprised,” he said. “Such a thing never entered my mind for a moment. You would have done better to have confided in me before.”

“I must ask your pardon for not having done so.”

“As far as you are concerned,” said John Girdlestone affably, “I believe you to be hard-working and right-principled. Your conduct since you have joined the firm has been everything which I could desire.”

Tom bowed his acknowledgments, much pleased by this preamble.

“With regard to my ward,” continued the senior partner, speaking very slowly and evidently weighing his words, “I could not wish her to have a better husband. In considering such a question I have, however, as you may imagine, to consult above everything else the wishes of my dead friend, Mr. John Harston, the father of the young lady to whom you say that you are engaged. A trust has been reposed in me, and that trust must, of course, be fulfilled to the letter.”

“Certainly,” said Tom, wondering in his own mind how he could ever have brought himself for one moment to think evil of this kindly and righteous old man.

“It was one of Mr. Harston’s most clearly expressed wishes that no words or even thoughts of such matters should be allowed to come in his daughter’s way until she had attained maturity, by which he meant the age of one-and-twenty.”

“But he could not foresee the circumstances,” Tom pleaded. “I am sure that a year or so will make no difference in her sentiments in this matter.”

“My duty is to carry out his instructions to the letter. I won’t say, however,” continued Mr. Girdlestone, “that circumstances might not arise which might induce me to shorten this probationary period. If my further acquaintance with you confirms the high impression which I now have of your commercial ability, that, of course, would have weight with me; and, again, if I find Miss Harston’s mind is made up upon the point, that also would influence my judgment.”

“And what are we to do in the mean time?” asked the junior partner anxiously.

“In the mean time neither you nor your people must write to her, or speak to her, or hold any communication with her whatever. If I find you or them doing so, I shall be compelled in justice to Mr. Harston’s last request to send her to some establishment abroad where she shall be entirely out of your way. My mind is irrevocably made up upon that point. It is not a matter of personal inclination, but of conscience.”

“And how long is this to last?” cried Tom.

“It will depend upon yourselves. If you prove yourself to be a man of honour in this matter, I may be inclined to sanction your addresses. In the mean time you must give me your word to let it rest, and neither to attempt to speak to Miss Harston, nor to see her, nor to allow your parents to communicate with her. The last condition may seem to you to be hard, but, in my eyes, it is a very important one. Unless you can bring yourself to promise all this, my duty will compel me to remove my ward entirely out of your reach, a course which would be painful to her and inconvenient to myself.”

“But I must let her know of this arrangement. I must tell her that you hold out hopes to us on condition that we keep apart for a time.”

“It would be cruel not to allow you to do that,” Girdlestone answered. “You may send her one letter, but remember there shall be no reply to it.”

“Thank you, sir; thank you!” Tom cried fervently. “I have something to live for now. This separation will but make our hearts grow fonder. What change can time make in either of us?”

“Quite so,” said John Girdlestone, with a smile. “Remember there must be no more walking through the square. You must remain absolutely apart if you wish to gain my consent.”

“It is hard, very, very hard. But I will promise to do it. What would
I not promise which would lead to our earlier union?”

“That is settled then. In the mean time, I should be obliged if you would go down to the docks and look after the loading of the transferable corrugated iron houses for New Calabar.”

“All right, sir, and thank you for your kindness,” said Tom, bowing himself out. He hardly knew whether to be pleased or grieved over the result of his interview; but, on the whole, satisfaction prevailed, since at the worst it was but to wait for a year or so, while there seemed to be some hopes of gaining the guardian’s consent before that. On the other hand, he had pledged himself to separate from Kate; but that would, he reflected, only make their re-union the sweeter.

All the morning he was engaged in superintending the stowing of great slabs of iron in the capacious hold of the Maid of Athens. When the hour of luncheon arrived no thought of food was in the lad’s head, but, burying himself in the back parlour of a little Blackwall public-house, he called for pen, ink, and paper, and proceeded to indite a letter to his sweetheart. Never was so much love and comfort and advice and hope compressed into the limits of four sheets of paper or contained in the narrow boundary of a single envelope. Tom read it over after he had finished, and felt that it feebly expressed his thoughts; but, then, what lover ever yet did succeed in getting his thoughts satisfactorily represented upon paper. Having posted this effusion, in which he had carefully explained the conditions imposed upon him, Tom felt considerably more light-hearted, and returned with renewed vigour to the loading of the corrugated iron. He would hardly have felt so satisfied had he seen John Girdlestone receiving that same letter from the hands of the footman, and reading it afterwards in the privacy of his bedroom with a sardonic smile upon his face. Still less contented would he have been had he beheld the merchant tearing it into small fragments and making a bonfire of it in his capacious grate. Next morning Kate looked in vain out of the accustomed window, and was sore at heart when no tall figure appeared in sight and no friendly hand waved a morning salutation.

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