George Manville Fenn.

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Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

The Vast Abyss, by George Manville Fenn.

This is one of the very best books by GM Fenn. It has a good steady
pace, yet one is constantly wondering how some dreadful situation is to
be got out of. The hero is young Tom, whose father had been a doctor
who had died in some recent epidemic, which had also carried off his
mother. Tom has been taken into the house and law business of an
uncle, but he does not seem to be getting on well there. Another uncle
visits, and takes Tom back with him, giving him a much pleasanter and
more interesting life. Together they convert an old windmill into an
astronomical observatory, which means grinding the glass lenses and
mirrors, as well as bringing the structure of the building up to the
required standard. In this they are encouraged by the daily visits of
the vicar, while the housekeeper, Mrs Fidler, and the old gardener, make
various remarks on the sidelines. However, there is a boy in the
village whose behaviour is not good at all, and many of the episodes in
the story are concerned with him, his dog, and their deeds.

Not wishing to spoil the story for you, we will simply say that there
is another issue involving the legal uncle, and his rather nasty son.


"I wish I wasn't such a fool!"

Tom Blount said this to himself as he balanced that self upon a high
stool at a desk in his uncle's office in Gray's Inn. There was a big
book lying open, one which he had to study, but it did not interest him;
and though he tried very hard to keep his attention fixed upon its
learned words, invaluable to one who would some day bloom into a family
solicitor, that book would keep on forming pictures that were not
illustrations of legal practice in the courts of law. For there one
moment was the big black pond on Elleston Common, where the water lay so
still and deep under the huge elms, and the fat tench and eels every now
and then sent up bubbles of air, dislodged as they disturbed the bottom.

At another time it would be the cricket-field in summer, or the football
on the common in winter, or the ringing ice on the winding river, with
the skates flashing as they sent the white powder flying before the

Or again, as he stumbled through the opinions of the judge in
"Coopendale _versus_ Drabb's Exors.," the old house and garden would
stand out from the page like a miniature seen on the ground-glass of a
camera; and Tom Blount sighed and his eyes grew dim as he thought of the
old happy days in the pleasant home. For father and mother both had
passed away to their rest; the house was occupied by another tenant; and
he, Tom Blount, told himself that he ought to be very grateful to Uncle
James for taking him into his office, to make a man of him by promising
to have him articled if, during his year of probation, he proved himself

"I wouldn't mind its being so dull," he thought, "or my aunt not liking
me, or Sam being so disagreeable, if I could get on - but I can't.
Uncle's right, I suppose, in what he says. He ought to know. I'm only
a fool; and it doesn't seem to matter how I try, I can't get on."

Just then a door opened, letting in a broad band of sunshine full of
dancing motes, and at the same time Samuel Brandon, a lad of about the
same age as Tom, but rather slighter of build, but all the same more
manly of aspect. He was better dressed too, and wore a white flower in
his button-hole, and a very glossy hat. One glove was off, displaying a
signet-ring, and he brought with him into the dingy office a strong
odour of scent, whose source was probably the white pocket-handkerchief
prominently displayed outside his breast-pocket.

"Hullo, bumpkin!" he cried. "How's Tidd getting on?"

"Very slowly," said Tom. "I wish you'd try and explain what this bit

"Likely! Think I'm going to find you in brains. Hurry on and peg away.
Shovel it in, and think you are going to be Lord Chancellor some day.
Guv'nor in his room?"

"No; he has gone on down to the Court. Going out?"

"Yes; up the river - Maidenhead. You heard at the breakfast, didn't

Tom shook his head.

"I didn't hear," he said sadly.

"You never hear anything or see anything. I never met such a dull,
chuckle-headed chap as you are. Why don't you wake up?"

"I don't know; I do try," said Tom sadly.

"You don't know! - you don't know anything. I don't wonder at the
governor grumbling at you. You'll have to pull up your boots if you
expect to be articled here, and so I tell you. There, I'm off. I've
got to meet the mater at Paddington at twelve. I say, got any money?"

"No," said Tom sadly.

"Tchah! you never have. There, pitch into Tidd. You've got your work
cut out, young fellow. No letters for me?"

"No. Yes, there is - one."

"No! - yes! Well, you are a pretty sort of a fellow. Where is it?"

"I laid it in uncle's room."

"What! Didn't I tell you my letters were not to go into his room? Of
all the - "

Tom sighed, though he did not hear the last words, for his cousin
hurried into the room on their right, came back with a letter, hurried
out, and the door swung to again.

"It's all through being such a fool, I suppose," muttered the boy. "Why
am I not as clever and quick as Sam is? He's as sharp as uncle; but
uncle doesn't seem a bit like poor mother was."

Just then Tom Blount made an effort to drive away all thoughts of the
past by planting his elbows on the desk, doubling his fists, and resting
his puckered-up brow upon them, as he plunged once more into the study
of the legal work.

But the thoughts would come flitting by, full of sunshiny memories of
the father who died a hero's death, fighting as a doctor the fell
disease which devastated the country town; and of the mother who soon
after followed her husband, after requesting her brother to do what he
could to help and protect her son.

Then the thought of his mother's last prayer came to him as it often
did - that he should try his best to prove himself worthy of his uncle's
kindness by studying hard.

"And I do - I do - I do," he burst out aloud, passionately, "only it is so
hard; and, as uncle says, I am such a fool."

"You call me, Blount?" said a voice, and a young old-looking man came in
from the next office.

"I! - call? No, Pringle," said Tom, colouring up.

"You said something out loud, sir, and I thought you called."

"I - I - "

"Oh, I see, sir; you was speaking a bit out of your book. Not a bad way
to get it into your head. You see you think it and hear it too."

"It's rather hard to me, I'm afraid," said Tom, with the puzzled look
intensifying in his frank, pleasant face.

"Hard, sir!" said the man, smiling, and wiping the pen he held on the
tail of his coat, though it did not require it, and then he kept on
holding it up to his eye as if there were a hair or bit of grit between
the nibs. "Yes, I should just think it is hard. Nutshells is nothing
to it. Just like bits of granite stones as they mend the roads with.
They won't fit nowhere till you wear 'em and roll 'em down. The law is
a hard road and no mistake."

"And - and I don't think I'm very clever at it, Pringle."

"Clever! You'd be a rum one, sir, if you was. Nobody ever masters it
all. They pretend to, but it would take a thousand men boiled down and
double distilled to get one as could regularly tackle it. It's an
impossibility, sir."

"What!" said Tom, with plenty of animation now. "Why, look at all the
great lawyers!"

"So I do, sir, and the judges too, and what do I see? Don't they all
think different ways about things, and upset one another? Don't you get
thinking you're not clever because you don't get on fast. As I said
before, you'd be a rum one if you did."

"But my cousin does," said Tom.

"Him? Ck!" cried the clerk, with a derisive laugh. "Why, it's my
belief that you know more law already than Mr Sam does, and what I say
to you is - Look out! the guv'nor!"

The warning came too late, for Mr James Brandon entered the outer
office suddenly, and stopped short, to look sharply from one to the
other - a keen-eyed, well-dressed man of five-and-forty; and as his brows
contracted he said sharply -

"Then you've finished the deed, Pringle?" just as the clerk was in the
act of passing through the door leading to the room where he should have
been at work.

"The deed, sir? - no, not quite, sir. Shan't be long, sir."

"You shall be long - out of work, Mr Pringle, if you indulge in the bad
habit of idling and gossiping as soon as my back's turned."

Pringle shot back to his desk, the door swung to, and Mr James Brandon
turned to his nephew, with his face looking double of aspect - that is to
say, the frown was still upon his brow, while a peculiarly tight-looking
smile appeared upon his lips, which seemed to grow thinner and longer,
and as if a parenthesis mark appeared at each end to shut off the smile
as something illegal.

"I am glad you are mastering your work so well, Tom," he said softly.

"Mastering it, uncle!" said Tom, with an uneasy feeling of doubt raised
by his relative's look. "I - I'm afraid I am getting on very slowly."

"But you can find time to idle and hinder my clerk."

"He had only just come in, uncle, and - "

"That will do, sir," said the lawyer, with the smile now gone. "I've
told you more than once, sir, that you were a fool, and now I repeat it.
You'll never make a lawyer. Your thick, dense brain has only one
thought in it, and that is how you can idle and shirk the duty that I
for your mother's sake have placed in your way. What do you expect,
sir? - that I am going to let you loaf about my office, infecting those
about you, and trying to teach your cousin your lazy ways? I don't know
what I could have been thinking about to take charge of such a great
idle, careless fellow."

"Not careless, uncle," pleaded the lad. "I do try, but it is so hard."

"Silence, sir! Try! - not you. I meant to do my duty by you, and in due
time to impoverish myself by paying for your articles - nearly a hundred
pounds, sir. But don't expect it. I'm not going to waste my
hard-earned savings upon a worthless, idle fellow. Lawyer! Pish!
You're about fit for a shoeblack, sir, or a carter. You'll grow into as
great an idiot as your father was before you. What my poor sister could
have seen in him I don't - "



The loudly-closed door of the private office cut short Mr James
Brandon's speech, and he had passed out without looking round, or he
would have seen that his nephew looked anything but a fool as he sat
there with his fists clenched and his eyes flashing.

"How dare he call my dear dead father an idiot!" he said in a low fierce
voice through his compressed teeth. "Oh, I can't bear it - I won't bear
it. If I were not such a miserable coward I should go off and be a
soldier, or a sailor, or anything so that I could be free, and not
dependent on him. I'll go. I must go. I cannot bear it," he muttered;
and then with a feeling of misery and despair rapidly increasing, he
bent down over his book again, for a something within him seemed to
whisper - "It would be far more cowardly to give up and go."

Then came again the memory of his mother's words, and he drew his breath
through his teeth as if he were in bodily as well as mental pain; and
forcing himself to read, he went on studying the dreary law-book till,
in his efforts to understand the author, his allusions, quotations,
footnotes, and references, he grew giddy, and at last the words grew
blurred, and he had to read sentences over and over again to make sense
of them, which slid out of his mind like so much quicksilver.

Lunch-time came, and Pringle crept through the place where he was
seated, glanced at Mr Brandon's door, stepped close up, and whispered -

"I'm going to get my dinner. Don't look downhearted about a wigging,
Mr Tom. It's nothing when you're used to it."

"Ahem!" came from the inner office, and Pringle made a grimace like a
pantomime clown, suggesting mock horror and fear, as he glided to the
outer door, where he turned, looked back, and then disappeared; while,
as soon as he was alone, Tom took out a paper of sandwiches, opened it,
and began to eat, it being an understood thing that he should not leave
the office all day.

But those sandwiches, good enough of their kind, tasted as if they were
made of sawdust, and he had hard work to get them down, and then only by
the help of a glass of water from the table-filter, standing at the side
of the office - kept, Pringle said, to revive unfortunate clients whose
affairs were going to the bad. Every now and then a cough was heard
from the inner office, and Tom hurried over his meal in dread lest his
uncle should appear before he had finished. Then, as soon as the last
was eaten, and the paper thrust into the waste-basket, the boy attacked
his book once more, and had hardly recommenced when the inner office
door opened, and his uncle appeared, looking at him sharply - ready, Tom
thought, to find fault with him for being so long over his midday meal.

But there was nothing to complain about.

"I'm going to have my lunch," he said sharply, "and I may not come back,
though all the same I may. Mind that man Pringle goes on with his work,
and don't let me have any fault to find about your reading. When you go
home tell them to give you something to eat, for there will be no
regular dinner to-day, as I shall be out. Take home any letters that
may come, in case I don't look in."

"All right, uncle."

"And don't speak in that free-and-easy, offhand, unbusiness-like manner.
Say `Yes, sir,' and `No, sir,' if you are not too stupid to remember."

He put on his hat and went out, leaving the boy feeling as if a fresh
sting had been planted in his breast, and his brow wrinkled up more than
ever, while his heart grew more heavy in his intense yearning for
somebody who seemed to care for him, if ever so little.

Five minutes later Pringle came back, looking shining and refreshed. As
he entered he gave Tom an inquiring look, and jerked his head sidewise
toward the inner office.

Tom was not too stupid to understand the dumb language of that look and

"No," he replied. "He went out five minutes ago, and said that very
likely he wouldn't be back."

"And that you were to take any letters home after office hours?"

"Yes; how did you know?"

"How did I know!" said the clerk with a chuckle; "because I've been
caught before. That means that he'll be sure to look in before very
long to see whether we are busy. You'd better read hard, sir, and don't
look up when he comes. Pst! 'ware hawk!"

He slipped into the little office, and his stool made a scraping noise,
while, almost before Tom had settled down to his work, the handle of the
outer door turned and his uncle bustled in.

"Here, did I leave my umbrella?" he said sharply.

"I did not see it, uncle - sir," replied Tom, jumping from his stool.

"Keep your place, sir, and go on with your work. Don't be so fond of
seizing any excuse to get away from your books. Humph, yes," he
muttered, as he reached into his room and took up the ivory-handled
article from where it stood.

The next moment he was at the door of the clerk's office.

"By the way, Pringle, you had better go and have that deed stamped this
afternoon if you get it done in time."

"Yes, sir," came back sharply, and the lawyer frowned, turned round, and
went out once more.

The outer door had not closed a minute before the inner one opened, and
Pringle's head appeared, but with its owner evidently on the alert, and
ready to snatch it back again.

"Good-bye! Bless you!" he said aloud. "Pray take care of yourself,
sir. You can bob back again if you like, but I shan't be out getting
the deed stamped, because, as you jolly well know, it won't be done
before this time to-morrow."

Pringle looked at Tom, smiled, and nodded.

"You won't tell him what I said, Mr Tom, I know. But I say, don't you
leave your stool. You take my advice. Don't you give him a chance to
row you again, because I can see how it hurts you."

Tom's lip quivered as he looked wistfully at the clerk.

"It's all right, sir. You just do what's c'rect, and you needn't mind
anything. I ain't much account, but I do know that. I wouldn't stay
another month, only there's reasons, you see, and places are easier to
lose than find, 'specially when your last guv'nor makes a face with the
corners of his lips down when any one asks for your character. Pst!
look out. Here he is again."

For there was a step at the door, the handle rattled, and as Pringle
disappeared, a quiet, grave-looking, middle-aged man stepped in.

"Do, Tom!" he said, as with an ejaculation of surprise the boy sprang
from his stool and eagerly took the extended hand, but dropped it again
directly, for there did not seem to be any warmth in the grasp. "Quite
well, boy?"

"Yes, Uncle Richard," said Tom, rather sadly.

"That's right. Where's my brother?"

"He has gone out, sir, and said he might not return this afternoon."

"Felt I was coming perhaps," said the visitor. "Here, don't let me
hinder you, my lad; he won't like you to waste time. Getting on with
your law reading?"

The boy looked at him wistfully, and shook his head.

"Eh? No? But you must, my lad. You're no fool, you know, and you've
got to be a clever lawyer before you've done."

Tom felt disposed to quote his other uncle's words as to his folly, but
he choked down the inclination.

"There, I won't hinder you, my lad," continued the visitor. "I know
what you busy London people are, and how we slow-going country folk get
in your way. I only want to look at a Directory, - you have one I know."

"Yes, sir, in the other office. I'll fetch it."

The quiet, grey-haired, grave-looking visitor gave a nod as if of
acquiescence, and Tom ran into the inner office, where he found that
Pringle must have heard every word, for he was holding out the London
Directory all ready.

"He must hear everything too when uncle goes on at me," thought Tom, as
he took the Directory and returned Pringle's friendly nod.

"Tell him he ought to give you a tip."

Tom frowned, shook his head, and hurried back with the great red book.

"Hah, that's right, my boy," said the visitor. "There, I don't want to
bother about taking off my gloves and putting on my spectacles. Turn to
the trades, and see if there are any lens-makers down."

"Yes, sir, several," said Tom, after a short search.

"Read 'em down, boy."

Tom obeyed alphabetically till he came to D, and he had got as far as
Dallmeyer when his visitor stopped him.

"That will do," he said. "That's the man I want. Address?"

Tom read this out, and the visitor said -

"Good; but write it down so that I don't forget. It's so easy to have
things drop out of your memory."

Tom obeyed, and the visitor took up the slip of paper, glanced at it,
and nodded.

"That's right. Nice clear hand, that one can read easily."

"And Uncle James said my writing was execrable," thought Tom.

"Good-bye for the present, boy. Tell your uncle I've been, and that I
shall come on in time for dinner. Bye. Be a good boy, and stick to
your reading."

He nodded, shook hands rather coldly, and went out, leaving Tom looking
wistfully after him with the big Directory in his hands.

"They neither of them like me," he said to himself, feeling sadly
depressed, when he started, and turned sharply round.

"On'y me, Mr Tom," said the clerk. "I'll take that. Directories
always live in my office. I say, sir."

"Yes, Pringle."

"I used to wish I'd got a lot of rich old uncles, but I don't now.
Wouldn't give tuppence a dozen for 'em. Ketched again! - All right, Mr
Tom, sir; I'll put it away."

For the door opened once more, and their late visitor thrust in his

"Needn't tell your uncle I shall come to-night."

Pringle disappeared with the Directory, and Uncle Richard gazed after
him in a grim way as he continued -

"Do you hear? Don't tell him I shall come; and you needn't mention that
I said he wouldn't want me, nor to his wife and boy neither. Bye."

The door closed again, and the inner door opened, and Pringle's head
appeared once more.

"Nor we don't neither, nor nobody else don't. I say, Mr Tom, I thought
it was the governor. Ever seen him before?"

"Only twice," said Tom. "He has been abroad a great deal. He only came
back to England just before dear mother - "

Tom stopped short, and Pringle nodded, looked very grave, and said
softly -

"I know what you was going to say, Mr Tom."

"And I saw him again," continued the lad, trying to speak firmly, "when
it was being settled that I was to come here to learn to be a lawyer.
Uncle James wanted Uncle Richard to bring me up, but he wouldn't, and
said I should be better here."

"Well, perhaps you are, Mr Tom, sir," said Pringle thoughtfully. "I
don't know as I should care to live with him."

"Nor I, Pringle, for - Here, I say, I don't know why I tell you all

Pringle grinned.

"More don't I, sir. P'r'aps it's because we both get into trouble
together, and that makes people hang to one another. Steps again. Go
it, sir."

The clerk darted away, and Tom started leading once more; but the steps
passed, and so did the long, dreary afternoon, with Tom struggling hard
to master something before six o'clock came; and before the clock had
done striking Pringle was ready to shut up and go.

"You'll take the keys, sir," he said. "Guv'nor won't come back now.
I've got well on with that deed, if he asks you when he comes home.
Good-evening, sir."

"Good-evening, Pringle," said Tom; and ten minutes later he was on his
way to his uncle's house in Mornington Crescent, where he found dinner
waiting for him, and though it was only cold, it was made pleasant by
the handmaid's smile.

Tom began a long evening all alone over another law-book, and at last,
with his head aching, and a dull, weary sense of depression, he went up
to the bedroom which he shared with his cousin, jumped into his own bed
as soon as he could to rest his aching head, and lay listening to a
street band playing airs that sounded depressing and sorrowful in the
extreme, and kept him awake till he felt as if he could never drop off,
and cease hearing the rumble of omnibuses and carts.

Then all at once Mr Tidd came and sat upon his head, and made it ache
ten times worse, or so it seemed - Mr Tidd being the author of one of
the books his uncle had placed in his hands to read.

He tried to force him off, but he would not stir, only glared down at
him laughing loud, and then mockingly, till the torture seemed too much
to be borne; and in an agony of misery and despair he tried to escape
from the pressure, and to assure his torturer that he would strive hard
to master the book. But not a word could he utter, only lie there
panting, till the eyes that glared looked close down into his, and a
voice said -

"Now then, wake up, stupid. Don't be snoring like that."


Tom Blount started up in bed confused and staring. He was only half
awake, and it was some time before he could realise that it was his
cousin, who had come back from his trip boisterous and elated, and who
had been playing him some trick as he lay there asleep.

"Well, what are you staring at, old torpid?" cried Sam, as he now began
to divest himself slowly of his coat and vest.

"I - that is - have been asleep," stammered Tom.

"Asleep? Yes, and snoring loud enough to bring the plaster off the
ceiling. Why, you must have been gorging yourself like a
boa-constrictor, and been sleeping it off. Come, wake up, bumpkin,
you're half stupid now."

"I'm quite awake, Sam. Had a pleasant day? I say, were you sitting on
my head?"

"Was I doing what?" cried Sam. "No, I wasn't; but you want some one to
sit upon you to bring you to your senses. Wake up; I want to talk."

Tom tried to rub the last traces of his drowsiness out of his eyes, and
now sat up watching his cousin, who, after taking off collar and tie,
unfastened his braces, and then, as if moved by a sudden thought, he
tied the aforesaid suspenders about his waist. Then, grinning to
himself, he stooped down, untied his Oxford shoes, pushed them off, took
up one, and shouting "_Play_!" bowled it sharply at Tom where he sat up

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