If we had gone to Perthshire, he would never, in all likelihood, have seen our city again.'
To give you some idea of this poor fellow's excellent character, and of the high estimation in which he was deservedly held, I may mention that his retirement was celebrated by the presentation of a testimonial. It assumed the quaint form of a receipted bill, representing the expenses incurred in furnishing his new house. I took the chair at the meeting. The landed gentry, the lawyers, and the merchants were present in large numbers; all equally desirous of showing their respect for a man who, in a position beset by temptations, had set an example of incorruptible integrity from first to last.
Some family troubles of mine, at that time, obliged me to apply for leave of absence. For two months my duties were performed by deputy.
Examining the letters and cards which covered the study-table on my return, I found a morsel of paper with some lines of writing on it in pencil, signed by Parley's wife. 'When you can spare a little time, sir, pray be so good as to let me say a word to you -- at your house.'
The handwriting showed plain signs of agitation; and the last three words were underlined. Was the good woman burdened with a domestic secret? and were her husband and children not admitted to her confidence?
I was so busily occupied, after my absence, that I could only make an appointment to see Mrs Parley at my breakfast time. The hour was so early that she would be sure to find me alone.
The moment she entered the room I saw a change in her, which prepared me for something serious. It may be, perhaps, desirable to add, by way explaining a certain tendency to excitement and exaggeration in Mrs Parley's ways of thinking and speaking, that she was a Welsh woman.
'Is there anything wrong at home?' I asked.
She began to cry. 'You know how proud I was, sir, of our grand house, and our splendid income. I wish we had gone where we first thought of going -- hundred, of miles away from this place! I wish Parley had never seen his lordship, and never earned the great reward!'
'You don't mean to tell me,'I said, 'that you and your husband have quarrelled?'
'Worse, sir, -- worse than that. Parley is so changed that my own husband is like a stranger to me. For God's sake, don't mention it! In your old age, after sleeping together for thirty years and more, I'm cast off. Parley has his bedroom, and I have mine!' She looked at me -- and blushed. At nearly sixty years of age, the poor creature blushed like a young girl!
It is needless to say that the famous question of the French philosopher was on the tip of my tongue: 'Who is she?' But I owed it to Parley's unblemished reputation to hesitate before I committed myself to a positive opinion. The question of the beds was clearly beyond the reach of my interference. 'In what other ways does Parley seem to be changed?' I inquired.
'Seem?' she repeated. 'Why even the girls notice it! They their father doesn't care about them now. And it's true! In our present prosperity, we can afford to pay a governess; and when we first settled in the new house, Parley agreed with me that the poor things ought to be better educated. He has lost all interest in their welfare. If I only mention the matter now, he says, "Oh! bother!" and discourages me in that way. You know, sir, he always dressed respectably, according to his station and time of life. That's all altered now. He has gone to a new tailor; he wears smart cutaway coats, like the young men; I found an elastic belt among his clothes -- the sort of thing they advertise to keep down fat, and preserve the figure. You were so kind as to give him a snuff-box, on his last birthday. It's of no more use to him now. Benjamin has given up taking snuff.'
Here I thought it desirable, in the interests of good Mrs Parley herself, to bring the recital of her grievances to a close. The domestic situation (to speak the language of the stage) was more than sufficiently revealed to me. After an exemplary life, the model husband and father had fallen in the way of one of those temptations which are especially associated with the streets of a great city -- and had yielded at the end of his career. A disastrous downfall; not altogether without precedent in the history of frail humanity, even at the wintry period of life! I was sorry, truly sorry; but in my position what could I do?
'I am at your service,' I said, 'if you will only tell me how I can advise you.'
'Some hussy has got hold of Benjamin!' cried the poor woman. 'And I don't know where to find her. What am I to do? Benjamin's too deep for me -- I believe I shall go mad!'
She fell back on her chair, and began to beat her hands on her lap. If I permitted this hysterical agitation to proceed in its usual course of development, the household would be alarmed by an outburst of screaming. There was but one way of composing Mrs Parley, and I took it.
'Suppose I speak to your husband?' I suggested.
'Oh, Mr Sheriff -- !'
In Mrs Parley's excitable Welsh nature even gratitude threatened to express itself hysterically.