Fatal Zero. A Diary Kept at Homburg. by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald
Chapter I

Chapter I.

Datchley, Monday, August the First.—Another day of agony and of acting. Soon all must be stopped. It cannot go on. Here is my last day of absence from the bank, and I am not one bit better. They have been only too indulgent. But what can they do? They must have their work done, and already they are complaining up in the London office. A hundred and fifty pounds a year, and that darling of mine, Dora—the children—all depending on me. If I lost this situation, what would become of us? And yet I must. My fingers can scarcely feel the pen, and the trembling characters swim before my eyes as I write on; the paper seems to rise up like waves of a huge white sea and suffuse my pupils. What am I to do? There, my darling has just gone out with the usual question, "How do you feel now, dear? You are stronger after this rest, are you not?" And I falsely say "Yes!" How can I pain her, she suffers more than I do. O, what folly and infatuation to have brought her into this state of life! I should have stood by and let her marry that man, who would have, at least, maintained her in comfort; but my own selfishness would not let me. He might have turned out a good husband. Though he was not a good man, she must have made him one. But my selfishness must sacrifice her to myself. Like us all! There! I open a book—a favourite one of mine—Holy Living and Dying, and read a sentence; up rises the page to my eyes like a great wave of foam; a faint buzzing begins in my ears and swells into the roar of a great sea. What does all this mean? What can be coming? God preserve my senses! or can this be a punishment that I have deserved? Yet the doctor proceeds with his cant, "A little rest is all that is wanted—you must give up work." How smoothly they say these things—so complacently. And pray will you, sir, feed her, feed them, pay the rent? No! so far from that, his eye is wandering to her gentle delicate little fingers, which, by that divine Aladdin's Lamp a dear devoted girl contrives to find, have got hold of what will satisfy him. We men can find for ourselves readily enough, but they find for others. There—there I must stop.

That cruel fellow, Maxwell, the manager, has been twice here in these three days. A cold, hard, cruel man. He said, he supposes I am suffering, as I say so, but really he cannot see what is wrong with me. With difficulty restraining myself, I ask him, Did he suppose I was counterfeiting, or that the doctor was counterfeiting? He answers in his insolent way, that what he supposed privately did not bear on the matter; the question was how the bank was to get its work done. I must see that they could not go on paying high salaries to invalids. He had his duty to the board and shareholders. I was either very sick, or only a little sick. If the former I had better resign, if the latter I had better return to my work. He really could give me no longer than to-morrow at furthest.

Poor Dora shrinks from this cruel sentence as if she were standing in the dock with a child in her arms.

"Oh, Mr. Maxwell," she cries, "you will not be so cruel!" He gave her a savage look.

"That is the word they have for me through the town. Mr. Maxwell, the hard man—a griping, cruel man. I do my duty, my good Mrs. Austen, and let every one else whether they are ladies and gentlemen or no, do theirs."

That was our crime. He never forgave that. He had once swept the bank offices, so the story went. He had no religion but money and figures. He had never been seen once in a place of worship, and one of the clerks saw a cheap translation of the infidel Renan on his table. Yet whatever he does to us I can pray for him to an indulgent Lord, and I shall get Dora to do the same. There again, I must stop. This agitation makes me forget for a few seconds that I can't write.

Tuesday, 2nd.—At last it has all broken down. I dare not go to the office. Quite helpless. She sees it, and knows the miserable night I have passed. I have sent to Maxwell, to the bank. He has cruelly warned me that on the day after to-morrow they will call upon me to resign. Then what will be done! .... only one thing—Heaven's will.

Three o'clock. Mr. Stanhope, the clergyman, just gone. Lord Langton has fallen from his horse, and they have got down Sir Duncan Dennison, the great London doctor—a good man and a charitable man—and Mr. Stanhope has brought him on to me. But his remedy! I could have laughed, but for her sad face. "My good friend, no tricks will do here. You are in a bad way this moment; and I tell you solemnly your only chance is the German waters, and, listen, one special one of those German places—Homburg—is the only thing to save you. I snatched a man from the jaws, from the throat of death, this year, by packing him off. You must go to-morrow morning." A fine remedy, and a precious one truly. Maxwell comes in as the doctor is there, and Dora passionately tells him what has been said. He listens coolly and civilly.

"With that I have nothing to say. We have to begin making out the report to-night, and are not going to take on fresh hands to swell the expenses. The best thing you can do—and I advise you as manager—is to resign at once. I have another man ready for the place, and I dare say it could be arranged that a quarter's salary could be got in some way, as a bonus, with which you could take your expedition."

"And leave them to starve! What do you suppose is to become of us? Are they to be turned out on the road? Has your bank, your board of blood-suckers, no heart, no soul?"

"The Associated Bank!—God bless me, yes!" said Sir Duncan, who had been silent. "I attend at least two of the directors, as honest and soft fellows as ever signed a cheque. They're not the fellows to suck anybody's blood—unless at least, it's in private."

"They are men of business, sir," said Maxwell, "and do their duty to the bank and the shareholders."

Then they all left us, Sir Duncan saying:

"My poor fellow, I am sorry for you! Something may turn up."

We, however, were calm. As I said before, I had taught Dora whom to turn to in these straits, and bade her pray for even Maxwell. On myself I find a sort of insensibility coming, I suppose from illness. And yet I have great vitality and life, and if there was a crisis or purpose before me, could shake all off for a time.

Four o'clock!—What ungrateful creatures we are! Oh, to an ever bountiful Providence be all praise! It seems like a miracle; but that confidence, somehow, never failed. A telegram lies before me from the directors in London. A note from Maxwell, at the same time. He would not come himself, though he came so often before, to gloat over our miseries. But I shall find out more of his treachery. Still I am so joyous, so supremely happy, I can be angry with no one. Mr. Barnard, who is a director, but who has been away on the Continent, has come down himself. He has seen and told me the plan—leave of absence, and I am not to resign! Oh, happy change! I feel as in a dream!

Five o'clock.—There is more happiness to set down. I can hardly write these words—not from sickness, but from excitement. It is all settled, and I go, not this morning, but to-night—this very night. Heaven is very good—too good! Not an hour ago Mr. Barnard came in here—his knock made me tremble.

"So you are ill?" he said, it seemed with sternness. "Well, this can't go on. You will lose your situation; the bank must have its work done."

"I know it, sir," I said.

"And so this Sir Duncan says nothing short of Homburg will do you. A first-class watering-place, and an expensive journey for a bank clerk! Well, well!"

Dora was in a flood of tears. "Oh, he will die, sir!" she said, passionately.

"No he won't," he said, with a sudden change in manner—"or, at least, if he does, it shall be his own fault. Come, he shall go, and this night too."

My dear gave a scream. I felt the colour in my own face. He sat down and gave us details of this miraculous deliverance.

Here was the plan, and I do recognise in it one more proof of that actual guidance of Providence—that positive interference in our affairs here below. Oh, how unworthy, I say again, am I of such goodness! Our bank, it seems, in London, has a good many Jew directors, and has been trying to get a little foreign business in the way of agency. A rich Frankfurt merchant, whom he knew, was anxious to buy an estate in England, for which Barnard was trustee. It was a small one, but he fancied the situation and the house. The writings were prepared; and a solicitor was going out to have them executed, and to receive the money and make other arrangements, when Mr. Barnard conceived this idea of substituting me for the solicitor.

"You shall have your expenses there and back, and handsome ones, too, out of which you can squeeze a fortnight's keep. But you must be back within the month; no shirking, mind, for I am your warranty, and get well, too; make use of every hour; for if you lose this chance, we can't promise you another."

He has gone. A case with the papers and a letter of instruction has just come up. A clerk who brought them counted down fifty golden sovereigns. It is a dream. Dora danced round and kissed one of them. If she were only coming, my love and guardian angel; but we cannot compass that! It will be only for one month, and I shall come back to her happy and strong, and able to work for our children. Is it a dream? It is like a wish in a Fairy Tale. The express leaves to-night at eight. I shall sleep in London and go on to-morrow.

Wednesday, London, Charing Cross Hotel.—Bore the journey wonderfully, getting better absolutely. This is all hope dancing before my eyes. No ledger this morning—my heart is bounding within me. So curious this great desolate chamber, where a hundred people are taking breakfast. Could hear the screaming of the engine close by. My train, yes, in ten minutes. Delighful all this excitement. It is new life—a bright sunny day—the bustling crowds going by—the gay look of everything, and the pleasant journey all before me.