On the station platform at Dudley Port, in the dusk of a February afternoon, half-a-dozen people waited for the train to Birmingham. A south-west wind had loaded the air with moisture, which dripped at moments, thinly and sluggishly, from a featureless sky. The lamps, just lighted, cast upon wet wood and metal a pale yellow shimmer; voices sounded with peculiar clearness; so did the rumble of a porter's barrow laden with luggage. From a foundry hard by came the muffled, rhythmic thunder of mighty blows; this and the long note of an engine-whistle wailing far off seemed to intensify the stillness of the air as gloomy day passed into gloomier night.
In clear daylight the high, uncovered platform would have offered an outlook over the surrounding country, but at this hour no horizon was discernible. Buildings near at hand, rude masses of grimy brick, stood out against a grey confused background; among them rose a turret which vomited crimson flame. This fierce, infernal glare seemed to lack the irradiating quality of earthly fires; with hard, though fluctuating outline, it leapt towards the kindred night, and diffused a blotchy darkness. In the opposite direction, over towards Dudley Town, appeared spots of lurid glow. But on the scarred and barren plain which extends to Birmingham there had settled so thick an obscurity, vapours from above blending with earthly reek, that all tile beacons of fiery toil were wrapped and hidden.
Of the waiting travellers, two kept apart from the rest, pacing this way and that, but independently of each other. They were men of dissimilar appearance; the one comfortably and expensively dressed, his age about fifty, his visage bearing the stamp of commerce; the other, younger by more than twenty years, habited in a way which made it; difficult to as certain his social standing, and looking about him with eyes suggestive of anything but prudence or content. Now and then they exchanged a glance: he of the high hat and caped ulster betrayed an interest in the younger man, who, in his turn, took occasion to observe the other from a distance, with show of dubious recognition.
The trill of an electric signal, followed by a clanging bell, brought them both to a pause, and they stood only two or three yards apart. Presently a light flashed through the thickening dusk; there was roaring, grinding, creaking and a final yell of brake-tortured wheels. Making at once for the nearest third-class carriage, the man in the seedy overcoat sprang to a place, and threw himself carelessly back; a moment, and he was followed by the second passenger, who seated himself on the opposite side of the compartment. Once more they looked at each other, but without change of countenance.
Tickets were collected, for there would be no stoppage before Birmingham: then the door slammed, and the two men were alone together.
Two or three minutes after the train had started, the elder man leaned forward, moved slightly, and spoke.
"Excuse me, I think your name must be Hilliard."
"What then?" was the brusque reply.
"You don't remember me?"
"Scoundrels are common enough," returned the other, crossing his legs, "but I remember you for all that."
The insult was thrown out with a peculiarly reckless air; it astounded the hearer, who sat for an instant with staring eyes and lips apart; then the blood rushed to his cheeks.
"If I hadn't just about twice your muscle, my lad," he answered angrily, "I'd make you repent that, and be more careful with your tongue in future. Now, mind what you say! We've a quiet quarter of an hour before us, and I might alter my mind."
The young man laughed contemptuously. He was tall, but slightly built, and had delicate hands.
"So you've turned out a blackguard, have you?" pursued his companion, whose name was Dengate. "I heard something about that."
"You drink, I am told. I suppose that's your condition now."
"Well, no; not just now," answered Hilliard. He spoke the language of an educated man, but with a trace of the Midland accent. Dengate's speech had less refinement.
"What do you mean by your insulting talk, then? I spoke to you civilly."
"And I answered as I thought fit."
The respectable citizen sat with his hands on his knees, and scrutinised the other's sallow features.
"You've been drinking, I can see. I had something to say to you, but I'd better leave it for another time."
Hilliard flashed a look of scorn, and said sternly—
"I am as sober as you are."
"Then just give me civil answers to civil questions."
"Questions? What right have you to question me?"
"It's for your own advantage. You called me scoundrel. What did you mean by that?"
"That's the name I give to fellows who go bankrupt to get rid of their debts."
"Is it!" said Dengate, with a superior smile. "That only shows how little you know of the world, my lad. You got it from your father, I daresay; he had a rough way of talking."
"A disagreeable habit of telling the truth."
"I know all about it. Your father wasn't a man of business, and couldn't see things from a business point of view. Now, what I just want to say to you is this: there's all the difference in the world between commercial failure and rascality. If you go down to Liverpool, and ask men of credit for their opinion about Charles Edward Dengate, you'll have a lesson that would profit you. I can see you're one of the young chaps who think a precious deal of themselves; I'm often coming across them nowadays, and I generally give them a piece of my mind."
"If you gave them the whole, it would be no great generosity."
"Eh? Yes, I see you've had a glass or two, and it makes you witty. But wait a bit I was devilish near thrashing you a few minutes ago; but I sha'n't do it, say what you like. I don't like vulgar rows."
"No more do I," remarked Hilliard; "and I haven't fought since I was a boy. But for your own satisfaction, I can tell you it's a wise resolve not to interfere with me. The temptation to rid the world of one such man as you might prove too strong."
There was a force of meaning in these words, quietly as they were uttered, which impressed the listener.
"You'll come to a bad end, my lad."
"Hardly. It's unlikely that I shall ever be rich."
"Oh! you're one of that sort, are you? I've come across Socialistic fellows. But look here. I'm talking civilly, and I say again it's for your advantage. I had a respect for your father, and I liked your brother—I'm sorry to hear he's dead."
"Please keep your sorrow to yourself."
"All right, all right! I understand you're a draughtsman at Kenn and Bodditch's?"
"I daresay you are capable of understanding that."
Hilliard planted his elbow in the window of the carriage and propped his cheek on his hand.
"Yes; and a few other things," rejoined the well-dressed man. "How to make money, for instance.—Well, СКАЧАТЬ