Meantime a feeble star, but sparkling some rays of comfort, began to shine upon Hugh's wintry prospects. The star arose in a grocer's shop. For one day his landlady, whose grim attentions had been increasing rather than diminishing, addressed him suddenly as she was removing his breakfast apparatus. This was a very extraordinary event, for she seldom addressed him it all; and replied, when he addressed her, only in the briefest manner possible.
"Have you got any pupils yet, Mr. Sutherland?"
"No -- I am sorry to say. But how did you come to know I wanted any, Miss Talbot?"
"You shouldn't have secrets at home, Mr. Sutherland. I like to know what concerns my own family, and I generally find out."
"You saw my advertisement, perhaps?"
To this suggestion Miss Talbot made no other answer than the usual compression of her lips.
"You wouldn't be above teaching a tradesman's son to begin with?"
"Certainly not. I should be very happy. Do you know of such a pupil?"
"Well, I can't exactly say I do know or I don't know; but I happened to mention to my grocer round the corner that you wanted pupils. Don't suppose, Mr. Sutherland, that I'm in the way of talking about any young men of mine; but it -- "
"Not for a moment," interrupted Hugh; and Miss Talbot resumed, evidently gratified.
"Well, if you wouldn't mind stepping round the corner, I shouldn't wonder if you might make an arrangement with Mr. Appleditch. He said you might call upon him if you liked."
Hugh jumped up, and got his hat at once; received the few necessary directions from Miss Talbot, and soon found the shop. There were a good many poor people in it, buying sugar, and soap, &c.; and one lady apparently giving a large order. A young man came to Hugh, and bent over the counter in a recipient position, like a live point of interrogation. Hugh answered --
"Mr. Appleditch will be disengaged in a few minutes. Will you take a seat?"
The grocer was occupied with the lady and her order; but as soon as she departed, he approached Hugh behind the rampart, and stood towards him in the usual retail attitude.
"My name is Sutherland."
"Sutherland?" said Mr. Appleditch; "I think I've 'eard the name somewheres, but I don't know the face."
"Miss Talbot mentioned me to you, I understand, Mr. Appleditch."
"Oh! ah! I remember. I beg your pardon. Will you step this way, Mr. Sutherland?"
Hugh followed him through a sort of draw-bridge which he lifted in the counter, into a little appendix at the back of the shop. Mr. Appleditch was a meek-looking man, with large eyes, plump pasty cheeks, and a thin little person.
"'Ow de do, Mr. Sutherland?" said he, holding out his hand, as soon as they had reached this retreat.
"Thank you -- quite well;" answered Sutherland, shaking hands with him as well as he could, the contact not being altogether pleasant.
"So you want pupils, do you, sir?"
"Ah! well you see, sir, pupils is scarce at this season. They ain't to be bought in every shop -- ha! ha!" (The laugh was very mild.) "But I think Mrs. Appleditch could find you one, if you could agree with her about the charge, you know, and all that."
"How old is he? A boy, I suppose?"
"Well, you're right, sir. It is a boy. Not very old, though. My Samuel is just ten, but a wonderful forward boy for his years -- bless him!"
"And what would you wish him to learn?"
"Oh! Latin and Greek, and all that. We intend bringing him up for the ministry. -- I hope your opinions are decided, sir?"
"On some points, they are. But I do not know to what you refer, exactly."
"I mean theological opinions, sir."
"But I shall not have to teach your little boy theology."
"Certainly not, sir. That department belongs to his mother and I. Unworthy vessels, sir; mere earthen vessels; but filled with the grace of God, I hope, sir."
The grocer parted his hands, which he had been rubbing together during this conversation, and lifted them upwards from the wrists, like the fins of a seal; then, dropping them, fell to rubbing them again.
"I hope so. Well -- you know the best way will be for me -- not knowing your opinions -- to avoid everything of a religious kind."
"Ah! but it should be line upon line, you know; here a little, and there a little, sir. As the bow is bent, you know -- the -- hoop is made, you know, sir."
Here Mr. Appleditch stepped to the door suddenly, and peeped out, as if he feared he was wanted; but presently returning, he continued:
"But time's a precious gift, sir, and we must not waste it. So, if you'll do us the honour, sir, to dine with us next Lord's day -- we may call it a work of necessity, you know -- you will see the little Samuel, and -- and -- Mrs. Appleditch."
"I shall be very happy. What is your address, Mr. Appleditch?"
"You had better come to Salem Chapel, Dervish town, and we can go home together. Service commences at eleven. Mrs. Appleditch will be glad to see you. Ask for Mr. Appleditch's pew. Goo-ood morning, sir."
Hugh took his leave, half inclined to send an excuse before the day arrived, and decline the connection. But his principle was, to take whatever offered, and thus make way for the next thing. Besides, he thus avoided the responsibility of choice, from which he always shrunk.
He returned to his novel; but, alas! the inventive faculty point-blank refused to work under the weight of such a Sunday in prospect. He wandered out, quite dispirited; but, before long, to take his revenge upon circumstances, resolved at least to have a dinner out of them. So he went to a chop house, had a chop and a glass of ale, and was astonished to find how much he enjoyed them. In fact, abstinence gave his very plain dinner more than all the charms of a feast -- a fact of which Hugh has not been the only discoverer. He studied Punch all the time he ate, and rose with his spirits perfectly restored.
"Now I am in for it," said he, "I will be extravagant for once." So he went and bought a cigar, which he spun out into three miles of smoke, as he wandered through Shoreditch, and Houndsditch, and Petticoat-lane, gazing at the faces of his brothers and sisters; which faces having been so many years wrapt in a fog both moral and physical, now looked out of it as if they were only the condensed nuclei of the same fog and filth.
As he was returning through Whitechapel, he passed a man on the pavement, whose appearance was so remarkable that he could not help looking back after him. When he reflected about it, he thought that it must have been a certain indescribable resemblance to David Elginbrod that had so attracted him. The man was very tall. Six-foot. Hugh felt dwarfed beside him; for he had to look right up, as he passed, to see his face. He was dressed in loose, shabby black. He had high and otherwise very marked features, and a dark complexion. A general carelessness of demeanour was strangely combined with an expression of reposeful strength and quiet concentration of will. At how much of this conclusion Hugh arrived after knowing more of him, I cannot tell; but such was the description he gave of him as he saw him first: and it was thoroughly correct. His countenance always seemed to me (for I knew him well) to represent a nature ever bent in one direction, but never in haste, because never in doubt.
To carry his extravagance and dissipation still further, Hugh now betook himself to the pit of the Olympic Theatre; and no one could have laughed more heartily, or cried more helplessly, that night, than he; for he gave himself wholly up to the influences of the ruler of the hour, the admirable Robson. But what was his surprise when, standing up at the close of the first act, and looking around and above him, he saw, unmistakeably, the same remarkable countenance looking down upon him from the front row of the gallery. He continued his circuit of observation, trying to discover the face of Funkelstein in the boxes or circles; but involuntarily he turned his gaze back to the strange countenance, which still seemed bent towards his. The curtain rose, and during the second act he forgot all about everything else. At its close he glanced up to the gallery again, and there was the face still, and still looking at him. At the close of the third act it had vanished, and he saw nothing more of it that evening. When the after-piece was over, for he sat it out, he walked quietly home, much refreshed. He had needed some relaxation, after many days of close and continuous labour.
But awfully solemn was the face of good Miss Talbot, as she opened the door for him at midnight. Hugh took especial pains with his boots and the door-mat, but it was of no use: the austerity of her countenance would not relax in the least. So he took his candle and walked up-stairs to his room, saying only as he went -- being unable to think of anything else:
"Good night, Miss Talbot."
But no response proceeded from the offended divinity of the place.
He went to bed, somewhat distressed at the behaviour of Miss Talbot, for he had a weakness for being on good terms with everybody. But he resolved to have it out with her next morning; and so fell asleep and dreamed of the strange man who had watched him at the theatre.
He rose next morning at the usual time. But his breakfast was delayed half an hour; and when it came, the maid waited upon him, and not her mistress, as usual. When he had finished, and she returned to take away the ruins, he asked her to say to her mistress that he wanted to speak to her. She brought back a message, which she delivered with some difficulty, and evidently under compulsion -- that if Mr. Sutherland wanted to speak to her, he would find her in the back parlour. Hugh went down instantly, and found Miss Talbot in a doubly frozen condition, her face absolutely blue with physical and mental cold combined. She waited for him to speak. Hugh began:
"Miss Talbot, it seems something is wrong between you and me."
"Yes, Mr. Sutherland."
"Is it because I was rather late last night."
"Rather late, Mr. Sutherland?"
Miss Talbot showed no excitement. With her, the thermometer, in place of rising under the influence of irritation, steadily sank.
"I cannot make myself a prisoner on parole, you know, Miss Talbot. You must leave me my liberty."
"Oh, yes, Mr. Sutherland. Take your liberty. You'll go the way of all the rest. It's no use trying to save any of you."
"But I'm not aware that I am in any particular want of saving, Miss Talbot."
"There it is! -- Well, till a sinner is called and awakened, of course it's no use. So I'll just do the best I can for you. Who can tell when the Spirit may be poured from on high? But it's very sad to me, Mr. Sutherland, to see an amiable young man like you going the way of transgressors, which is hard. I am sorry for you, Mr. Sutherland."
Though the ice was not gone yet, it had begun to melt under the influences of Hugh's good-temper, and Miss Talbot's sympathy with his threatening fate. Conscience, too, had something to do with the change; for, much as one of her temperament must have disliked making such a confession, she ended by adding, after a pause:
"And very sorry, Mr. Sutherland, that I showed you any bad temper last night."
Poor Miss Talbot! Hugh saw that she was genuinely troubled about him, and resolved to offend but seldom, while he was under her roof.
"Perhaps, when you know me longer, you will find I am steadier than you think."
"Well, it may be. But steadiness won't make a Christian of you."
"It may make a tolerable lodger of me, though," answered Hugh; "and you wouldn't turn me into the street because I am steady and nothing more, would you?"
"I said I was sorry, Mr. Sutherland. Do you wish me to say more?"
"Bless your kind heart!" said Hugh. "I was only joking."
He held out his hand to Miss Talbot, and her eyes glistened as she took it. She pressed it kindly, and abandoned it instantly.
So all was right between them once more.
"Who knows," murmured Miss Talbot, "but the Lord may save him? He's surely not far from the kingdom of heaven. I'll do all I can to make him comfortable."