My thanks are due to the Editors of Longman’s Magazine, Temple Bar, the Argosy, Home Chimes, and the Illustrated London News, in which periodicals these stories first appeared.
To be rich is a luxurious sensation — the more so when you have plumbed the depths of hard-up-ness as a Fleet Street hack, a picker-up of unconsidered pars, a reporter, an unappreciated journalist — all callings utterly inconsistent with one’s family feeling and one’s direct descent from the Dukes of Picardy.
When my Aunt Dorcas died and left me seven hundred a year and a furnished house in Chelsea, I felt that life had nothing left to offer except immediate possession of the legacy. Even Mildred Mayhew, whom I had hitherto regarded as my life’s light, became less luminous. I was not engaged to Mildred, but I lodged with her mother, and I sang duets with Mildred, and gave her gloves when it would run to it, which was seldom. She was a dear good girl, and I meant to marry her some day. It is very nice to feel that a good little woman is thinking of you — it helps you in your work — and it is pleasant to know she will say “Yes” when you say “Will you?”
But, as I say, my legacy almost put Mildred out of my head, especially as she was staying with friends in the country just then.
Before the first gloss was off my new mourning I was seated in my aunt’s own armchair in front of the fire in the dining-room of my own house. My own house! It was grand, but rather lonely. I did think of Mildred just then.
The room was comfortably furnished with oak and leather. On the walls hung a few fairly good oil-paintings, but the space above the mantelpiece was disfigured by an exceedingly bad print, “The Trial of Lord William Russell,” framed in a dark frame. I got up to look at it. I had visited my aunt with dutiful regularity, but I never remembered seeing this frame before. It was not intended for a print, but for an oil-painting. It was of fine ebony, beautifully and curiously carved.
I looked at it with growing interest, and when my aunt’s housemaid — I had retained her modest staff of servants — came in with the lamp, I asked her how long the print had been there.
“Mistress only bought it two days afore she was took ill,” she said; “but the frame — she didn’t want to buy a new one — so she got this out of the attic. There’s lots of curious old things there, sir.”
“Had my aunt had this frame long?”
“Oh yes, sir. It come long afore I did, and I’ve been here seven years come Christmas. There was a picture in it — that’s upstairs too — but it’s that black and ugly it might as well be a chimley-back.”
I felt a desire to see this picture. What if it were some priceless old master in which my aunt’s eyes had only seen rubbish?
Directly after breakfast next morning I paid a visit to the lumber-room.
It was crammed with old furniture enough to stock a curiosity shop. All the house was furnished solidly in the early Victorian style, and in this room everything not in keeping with the “drawing-room suite” ideal was stowed away. Tables of papier-maché and mother-of-pearl, straight-backed chairs with twisted feet and faded needlework cushions, firescreens of old-world design, oak bureaux with brass handles, a little work-table with its faded moth-eaten silk flutings hanging in disconsolate shreds: on these and the dust that covered them blazed the full daylight as I drew up the blinds. I promised myself a good time in re-enshrining these household gods in my parlour, and promoting the Victorian suite to the attic. But at present my business was to find the picture as “black as the chimley-back;” and presently, behind a heap of hideous still-life studies, I found it.