them very strong with me, which made me set my heart
on this expedition and work for it through many years.
First of all I had had to make money, for, as your
friend and my old friend Job Wilding told you, I cut
myself loose from my home ties at an early age. I had
made the money not only for this enterprise but enough
to last me through my life once some years before, and
had been robbed of it. Then I had to set to work again
and I was fortunate and made more than enough again
in a shorter time. So everything seemed golden. I
was in the very prime of life, my experience was riper,
and my zest for the undertaking only increased. Then
came the stroke, and my life was broken into little frag-
ments, for I had concentrated myself on one object
which was now lost to me for ever."
Richard listened breathless to this recital, delivered
in a calm even voice. The Squire stopped for a moment,
256 RICHARD BALDOCK
and went on in the same tone of unembittered reminis-
" I do not know how long it took me, looking back
on it all now, to adjust myself completely to such
absolutely changed conditions. I realized very soon
that unless I did so the rest of my life would be spoilt
and I did not intend that that should be. I set my
whole mind to the task, and succeeded. I think I have
even mastered regret, though that was not the work of
a day, or of a year. I believe there is nothing that a
man may not do with his mind if he sets himself to
it. I can only tell you, my friend Richard, that you
see before you a man whose whole outlook in life has
been changed more than once, who has nevertheless
determined that he will be happy to the end of his days ;
and who is happy and contented."
Richard went home that night with something to
think about. He was nearing the age of sixteen, and
his childhood was passing away from him. The age at
which a boy looks forward into the future and sees the
time at which he shall have embarked upon the life and
work of his manhood so far ahead that the interven-
ing years seem almost limitless, was coming to an end
for him, though as yet he possessed nothing more than
a glimmering of the responsibility that would pres-
ently lie with himself as to his future.
He thought about it to-night as he walked home under
the stars. What sort of life was it that was mapped
out for him? For the next three years he would go on
as he was doing now. Those years would be full of
interest. He would climb to the top of the little republic
of his school. His home life, always interesting to him
in spite of its limitations, would be rich in pleasure
because of this friends at the Hall. After that would
THE SQUIRE TALKS 57
come Oxford or Cambridge, and three or four years of a
life that appeared to him the most delightful that a
young man could lead. What should come later was
so very far away that until now he had never actually
brought his mind to bear upon it. He did so to-night,
not without effort, for the remoteness of twenty-three
to a boy of fifteen is immense. He pictured his state as
a clergyman as resembling that of his father, omitting
the preliminary years of subordinate preparation, and
ignoring the system of patronage in the Church of
England and the possibility of none being conferred
The outlook was not an unpleasant one. Supposing
himself to be filling a position such as that of his father,
the pursuits which he now enjoyed would not be denied
him. He would have to preach sermons, and he thought
he might like to do so. None of the work of a clergy-
man that he could call to mind would be distasteful to
him. What, then, was the reason for the shrinking
that lay in the back of his mind and coloured his
thoughts? He recognized that the shrinking existed,
tried to trace its cause and could not. Then he with-
drew his mind from its effort. There were years and
years before him of a life that he knew, and anticipated
with pleasure. No need to look beyond it the ability
even to look beyond it being very small for a boy of his
age. He dismissed the subject without difficulty, and
thought of Mr. Ventrey and the glimpses he had given
him of his early life.
But he had faced the problem for the first time,
however incompletely, and the time was coming when
he would have to face it to some purpose.
A COUNTESS AND A CONJURER
THERE is no need to linger over the next two years of
Richard's life, which flowed evenly. His friendship
with Mr. Ventrey and little Lettice continued, and was
responsible for the chief interests of his life. The
Squire lived for the most part at the Hall all the year
round. Sometimes he went to London or to Paris for
a few weeks, and took Lettice with him. Once he went
to Egypt for three months; Richard found Beechurst
very dull in consequence. Guests came and went at
the Hall, and Richard's knowledge of men and women
was widened by meeting people of every variety of fame
and achievement, for most of them to whom the Squire
extended his hospitality were of some account in the
world, and he saw to it that the boy should meet them
all. Some of them took a good deal of notice of him,
and some ignored him. Some would talk of their experi-
ences, and he would listen open-mouthed. Others, per-
haps the most famous, refused to talk at all, at least
about themselves, but, knowing who they were and
what they had done, he regarded them with no less awe.
A guest who came more often than any one else to
the Hall, and whom Richard disliked, was Mr. Ventrey's
sister-in-law and Lettice's aunt, the Dowager Countess
of Pontypridd. She was a tall, bony woman with a
high-bridged nose, and surveyed the world through a
pair of tortoise-shell glasses attached to a sort of tor-
toise-shell paper knife in a way Richard felt to be
offensive. He thought she was not unlike his Aunt
A COUNTESS AND A CONJURER 259
Henrietta Moggeridge, but that lady could have given
her many points in vivacity and intelligence, for Lady
Pontypridd's contributions to any conversation in
which she might take part were not of a lively order,
and usually bore upon her own importance in the scheme
of things. This seemed to be the only topic which really
interested her. Richard thought it rather surprising
that Mr. Ventrey should care to have her in the house so
much and treat her so courteously as he did when she
was there. Although she was always coldly civil to
himself, he suspected her of disliking him, and his sus-
picion was well founded. More than once she had taken
the Squire to task for allowing him to be so much in the
company of his granddaughter. She did so once as they
were sitting in the garden at the back of the house and
Richard and Lettice were approaching them, but still
some way off, from one of their long journeys of ex-
ploration in the forest.
" I cannot think, my dear Harry," said Lady Ponty-
pridd, " why you should allow Lettice to be so con-
stantly with that boy of the Vicar's. Surely he is not
a fit companion for her."
" Richard Baldock, Louisa," replied the Squire, " is
a gentleman for whom I have the greatest possible
regard. For the last year he has been my own most
constant companion. I cannot permit you to disparage
one of my intimate friends."
" I wish you would kindly be serious for a moment,
Harry. I feel deeply upon this subject, and intend
to speak about it. I am to introduce Lettice when the
time comes, and I have a right to ask that she shall not
be brought up to form connections which I should cer-
tainly not, in my position, allow her to form when she
comes under my charge."
260 RICHARD BALDOCK
" If you never introduce her to any one with a less
attractive character than that of my friend Richard,
Louisa, I shall be very well satisfied."
" I dare say the boy's character is good. I don't
know anything about it. It seems to me that he pre-
sumes, but I dare say that is your fault. It is his
social status I object to. It makes him unfitting to be
the constant companion of a girl with Lettice's pros-
pects and connections. In the position which I occupy,
a position which I have no desire to overrate I beg
your pardon, Harry? I repeat, a position whieh I
have no desire to overrate, but which is a well-known
and well-established one, I do not wish that the girl
should come to me hampered by undesirable ties. You
would not wish her to marry this boy, I suppose, the
son of a poor country clergyman of neither birth nor,
so far as I can judge, manners? "
" The question of Lettice's marriage is not a very
pressing one at present, Louisa. She is not yet nine
" The question of a girl's marriage is always press-
ing. It may very well be thought of before she leaves
" We have not time to discuss the question as fully
as you would wish to, Louisa, unless you would care to
discuss it in the presence of the parties concerned. It
may save trouble if I say at once that I do not want
to discuss it at all. Lettice gets nothing but good
from her companionship with Richard Baldock, and as
long as I am alive they will see as much of each other
as he or she or I could desire. If she ever comes to be
entirely under your charge you will act as you please.
You will oblige me by taking this decision as final."
., Lady Pontypridd did so, as far as direct remon-
A COUNTESS AND A CONJURER
strance with her brother-in-law was concerned, but her
manner did not increase in geniality towards Richard,
who escaped contact with her as far as he was able.
Lettice confided to him that she did not love her aunt.
" Interfering " was the word that occurred most often
in her strictures. But, although Lady Pontypridd's
visits were frequent, they were never very lengthy, and
the disturbing influence she exercised when at the Hall
removed itself with her departure.
Throughout the two years of which we are now tak-
ing occasional glimpses Richard's home life was serene.
It seemed to him, when he thought about it, that his
father had altered was a different man from the one
who had lectured and worried him in his childhood.
There was certainly a more agreeable accord between
them. It was probably chiefly owing to the fact that
with growth in years Richard's character was showing
increasing self-reliance and independence, and that he
was no longer an object upon whom petty interference
could safely be exercised.
But John Baldock had changed. Every man changes
in character as the years go over his head, and gets
either better or worse. With all his drawbacks of tem-
perament and mistaken views, his mind was honestly
set upon righteousness as he understood it, and his
reward had come with advancing years in a riper
knowledge of good and evil. No doubt, confronted with
the development of a nature stronger and saner than
his own, he had learnt from it, though he might have
been surprised to hear that he could learn anything
from his son, and the standards by which he had
hitherto judged the world were shifting.
After the first few weeks, during which he thought
he had found in the Squire a man entirely after his own
262 RICHARD BALDOCK
heart, the Vicar had gradually withdrawn from his
intimacy at the Hall. He was, perhaps, the only man
in Beechurst whose opinion of Mr. Ventrey was not of
the highest. The Squire puzzled him. He could not
close his eyes to his genuine benevolence nor to the
intrepidity with which he faced his restricted life; but
he failed, although he made earnest endeavours, to trace
these good qualities to the source from which he was
assured they alone could spring. Mr. Ventrey was not
a religious man, as John Baldock understood religion,
but he accused him in his mind of having tried to palm
himself off as such during the early stages of their
acquaintance. He regarded him with watchful sus-
picion, afterwards almost with aversion, but kept his
thoughts to himself, and not until a later date allowed
his antagonism to appear.
Richard's relations with John Meaking, to use the
language of the King's Speech, continued friendly. He
still frequented the shop in Abbey Street during his
spare hours in Storbridge, although he now looked
upon novels with suspicion and severely restricted him-
self in their consumption. He was able to do his friend
a very good turn, for he induced Mr. Ventrey, who
was a large buyer of books, to make his purchases
through the medium of Mr. Gannett ; and, since the
Squire could not go to the shop, Meaking was required
to pay him frequent visits with parcels of books for
inspection, and thereby gained experience in the wants
of customers of the more intelligent order, as well as an
agreeable series of outings.
Mr. Gannett's business continued to prosper, and
Mr. Gannett's assistant with it. The shop had been
enlarged by the inclusion of a small adjoining house,
the upper part of which Meaking occupied as part
A COUNTESS AND A CONJURER 263
reward for his labours, and provided a home therein for
his mother, which, if it were not as good as her ambi-
tion aspired to, was a good deal better than the one she
had hitherto occupied. His enterprise was rather re-
markable in its results, for Storbridge was a small
town and could hardly have been expected to maintain
a thriving retail bookseller. But he had concentrated
his energies on securing customers from the surround-
ing neighbourhood, studied their requirements so care-
fully and maintained such an attractive exhibition of
books in the shop itself, that he drove a thriving trade,
and Mr. Gannett became known vicariously as one of
the most understanding booksellers in the provinces.
Meaking did not long continue to double the parts of
salesman and errand boy. He very soon had an assist-
ant as well as a boy under him, and even then found
ample scope for his activities.
" Are you satisfied with the way things have turned
out now?" Richard asked him one day, about a year
after he had come to Storbridge.
" With the way things have turned out here I'm
more than satisfied," he replied. " I couldn't have be-
lieved that I should have done what I have in the time.
But there's a limit, and I've reached it. There's no
scope for extending the business farther in a little
place like this, though we're exceptionally fortunate in
having such a large area to draw on outside. Of
course, I shall succeed to the business when Mr. Gan-
nett dies, and I don't suppose he'll last many years
longer. But I expect I shall have to make a change,
though I'm happy enough where I am."
"Then why on earth make a change?" asked Rich-
ard, not unnaturally.
" It's ambition, my boy. It leads you on, and you
264 RICHARD BALDOCK
can't help yourself. I know I can do big things if I
get the opportunity, and there's something urges me to
get it and go and do them."
"What about the forest? You threw up opportuni-
ties deliberately on purpose to come back to it. Have
you got tired of it already? "
" You know quite well I haven't. It's the passion of
my life, and I don't care who knows it. But I'm not
sure that I've earned it yet. Every man's got to do
the work that's in him wherever it leads him. If he
don't, he spoils his pleasure. I may have to go away
from here, but I should come back after I'd got as far
as I could expect to get. I'd never lose sight of the
forest. It'd always be in my mind, wherever I was, and
I shall hope to spend my last days here."
" When you are too old to enjoy it. I'd rather have
it now and make less money."
" It isn't making money. You don't understand
these things. You haven't got a career before you
like I have."
" I'm going to be a clergyman. That's just as much
of a career as being a bookseller."
" It is to some people ; it isn't to you. You don't
know what a career is. Do you think of what you're
going to do when you're a clergyman every hour of the
day and night ? "
" I generally go to sleep at night ; but I can't say
I think much about it yet even in the day."
" Of course you don't; and, if you think about it at
all, you just think that you'll be able to have rather a
good time. You don't think about the work you're
going to do. I don't blame you, either. You, as you
are, are never going to be a clergyman at least, I
hope you won't. If ever you are, you'll be quite a
A COUNTESS AND A CONJURER 265
different person. Then nothing will be of any impor-
tance except your work. You won't care where it takes
you. And that's what I feel about mine. I don't even
feel as if it was for me to decide. When the time
comes for me to go away from here I shall go, and not
even the forest will keep me."
" Well, I hope you won't go yet awhile."
" I shan't. I've got that clear, at any rate. I shall
stay here as long as Mr. Gannett lives, and, when I've
succeeded to his business, then I shall have to think
about it and do what I'm led to do. And I should
just like to say this to you, Dick Baldock. There will
be a place for you in whatever business I've got, so long
as it has to do with books, as I expect it will. You
may think that you won't want it now, and very likely
you won't. But remember that it'll be there waiting for
you if you like to take it, and that's what I wouldn't
say to anybody else in the world."
Richard thanked him in suitable terms, and took
One afternoon, about a year later than this, there
was a charity entertainment in the Town Hall at Stor-
bridge. The school had an unexpected half-holiday;
it was a wet day, and Richard had a few shillings in
his pocket. This concurrence of circumstances led him
to one of the cheaper seats in the hall, prepared thor-
oughly to enjoy the varied performance which the com-
mittee of the charity aforesaid had provided for its
patrons. This included songs, serious and comic, in-
strumental music, a company of bell-ringers, and a
ventriloquist billed in important capital letters as Lieu-
When the curtain rose for this item of the entertain-
ment, it revealed the usual ventriloquist's stock-in-trade,
66 RICHARD BALDOCK
dummy figures of a leering old man and woman and two
most unpleasant-featured children sitting on a row of
chairs facing the audience. This amiable party was
immediately joined by a clean-shaven gentleman in a
full-dress naval uniform, in whom to his intense surprise,
Richard recognized his old friend and adviser, Mr. Bliss,
his aunt's butler.
The performance was an excellent one. Mr. Bliss, or
Lieutenant Joy, had the most complete control over his
facial muscles, and his ventriloquial voice was wonder-
fully natural, whether it was applied to the shrewish
remarks of the old woman, the querulous replies of the
old man, or the surprising impertinences of the two
disagreeable children. Richard had never heard a ven-
triloquist before, and was lost in admiration of the feats
performed by his one-time friend. He was also very
anxious to speak to him, and when his turn, vociferously
applauded, was over, sacrificed the rest of the enter-
tainment, which by now was nearly ended, and went
round to the back of the hall to wait till Lieutenant
Joy should come out.
It was Mr. Bliss who came out a quarter of an hour
later, and who recognized Richard instantly, and shook
him very warmly by the hand.
" I saw you," he said. " I looked out for you, know-
ing you lived in these parts, but hardly expected to be
so fortunate. There's nobody I'd rather have met.
Now step into this fly they'll bring out my boxes di-
rectly and drive with me up to the station. We shall
have time for a cup of tea there before my train goes.
I've got to get on to Brigmouth performing there to-
night winter gardens most fashionable audience.
Well, upon me word, I'm pleased to see you, and looking
so well, and grown, too. Who'd have thought now,
steady with those boxes that's right, here's twopence
for you. Step in, Mr. Baldock station, cabby, down
Mr. Bliss was the bustling man of tricks, kindliness,
and harmless self-importance whom Richard remem-
bered. Already it was difficult to recall the other side
of him, which he also remembered, or to bend imagina-
tion to being called " sir " by him.
" Well, you see, Mr. Baldock," he said, when they
were seated side by side in the fly and driving towards
the station, " I've cut the painter. No more positions
of responsibility in other people's households, though
I took the small precaution of slightly changing my
name, in case a public life should prove a failure, and I
might have to go back to it. No chance of that now,
though. I'm full up of engagements, and climbing to
the top of the tree. Now, tell me honestly, have you
ever seen a ventriloquy artist to beat me? "
" I've never seen one at all before," replied Richard,
" but I can't imagine a better. I think it's wonderful.
But what about the juggling? This is quite a new line,
" It is," replied Mr. Bliss. " It's a funny thing. I
spent many years of hard work preparing for the jug-
gling profession, and started in that line when I threw
up my appointment with her ladyship your aunt, you
know. But I don't mind acknowledging to you now,
though I wouldn't have done a year ago, that I should
never have risen far in it. It's overstocked for one
thing; and I don't think I've got the originality to
invent new exhibitions. You can't do much without
that. I wasn't getting good engagements ; and, in fact,
I was spending money I'd saved, instead of earning
more. Of course, being used to a good table all my
268 RICHARD BALDOCK
life, I live a bit higher than most artists. I'm looked
up to, I assure you, in the profession ; and it would
surprise most of them to know that I'd ever heen in
what's called service, let alone what I told you of my
early days. I know the secret's safe with you, and you
won't let on. Of course, all ventriloquists are lieu-
tenants, but they think I'm a real retired naval officer.
I don't undeceive 'em, though I don't tell lies about it.
It's good for business.
" Well, I'll tell you how it was. I was a bit down in
my luck once not poor, you know, I'd got plenty of
money put by, but beginning to think I wasn't going to
get on. I was in a show with a ventriloquist, and, with-
out thinking much about it, just careless like, I tried
to imitate him. You'd hardly believe it, but, with next
to no practice at all, I found I was what you might call
a ventriloquist born. It came as easy to me as talking
natural. Within a month actually as short a time as
that I'd thrown over the juggling and was booking
engagements for a new and refined ventriloquy turn.
And I never look back from that moment. Now
that's what I call a remarkable thing. Years and
years of labour and application wasted, and complete
success at once in a line I'd never so much as thought
of. Don't you think, in your experience, it's remark-
" Yes," said Richard, " it rather goes against work
with an object."
Mr. Bliss eyed him askance. " You haven't forgotten
that, then," he said.
" No, I thought it was very good advice."
" And so it is. You stick to it, Mr. Richard. Don't
be led away by what's happened to me. Mine's natural
gift, discovered by chance. That alters things. And
A COUNTESS AND A CONJURER 269
you don't suppose that even that's turned into a career
without work, do you? "
"I suppose not. Do you have to practise much?"
" Not for the voice. That comes natural, as I told
you. But fresh gag's got to be invented. It doesn't
do to stand still. Now, didn't you think that the dia-
logue was crisp and mirth-provoking?"
" I thought it was jolly funny," replied Richard.
" Did you make it up yourself? "
" Well, don't tell any one else, but no, I haven't got
the invention for it. That's my weak point. I employ
a literary man to do it for me. An Oxford scholar he
is, and if I wanted a dialogue in Greek or Hebrew, he'd
do it for me just as easy as English."
" You're rather lucky to find a man like that."
" Ye es. And he's lucky too. I treat him liberally.
He well, I don't mind telling you he drinks. I first
met him in a bar. In fact, he's pretty far gone. But
the stuff that man knocks out ! when he's sober. It
would make the fortune of Punch. I've sometimes laid
on my bed and ached with laughter over it. Some of
it I can't use in mixed assemblies though for smoking
concerts it's well, it's unique. I keep him at it. I've
got pages and pages of jokes locked away at home all
paid for. If I can keep him going for another year I
shall have enough to last me my lifetime. Ah, here we
are at the station. Now, I'll just run and get a ticket,