John Varey Nicholson was stupid;yet, stupider men than he are now sprawling in Parliament, andlauding themselves as the authors of their own distinction. He was of a fat habit, even from boyhood, and inclined to acheerful and cursory reading of the face of life; and possiblythis attitude of mind was the original cause of hismisfortunes. Beyond this hint philosophy is silent on hiscareer, and superstition steps in with the more ready explanationthat he was detested of the gods.
His father — that iron gentleman — had long agoenthroned himself on the heights of the DisruptionPrinciples. What these are (and in spite of their grim namethey are quite innocent) no array of terms would render thinkableto the merely English intelligence; but to the Scot they oftenprove unctuously nourishing, and Mr. Nicholson found in them themilk of lions. About the period when the churches conveneat Edinburgh in their annual assemblies, he was to be seendescending the Mound in the company of divers red-headedclergymen: these voluble, he only contributing oracular nods,brief negatives, and the austere spectacle of his stretched upperlip. The names of Candlish and Begg were frequent in theseinterviews, and occasionally the talk ran on the ResiduaryEstablishment and the doings of one Lee. A stranger to thetight little theological kingdom of Scotland might have listenedand gathered literally nothing. And Mr. Nicholson (who wasnot a dull man) knew this, and raged at it. He knew therewas a vast world outside, to whom Disruption Principles were asthe chatter of tree-top apes; the paper brought him chill whiffsfrom it; he had met Englishmen who had asked lightly if he didnot belong to the Church of Scotland, and then had failed to bemuch interested by his elucidation of that nice point; it was anevil, wild, rebellious world, lying sunk in dozenedness,for nothing short of a Scots word will paint thisScotsman’s feelings. And when he entered into his ownhouse in Randolph Crescent (south side), and shut the door behindhim, his heart swelled with security. Here, at least, was acitadel impregnable by right-hand defections or left-handextremes. Here was a family where prayers came at the samehour, where the Sabbath literature was unimpeachably selected,where the guest who should have leaned to any false opinion wasinstantly set down, and over which there reigned all week, andgrew denser on Sundays, a silence that was agreeable to his ear,and a gloom that he found comfortable.
Mrs. Nicholson had died about thirty, and left him with threechildren: a daughter two years, and a son about eight yearsyounger than John; and John himself, the unlucky bearer of a nameinfamous in English history. The daughter, Maria, was agood girl — dutiful, pious, dull, but so easily startled thatto speak to her was quite a perilous enterprise. ‘Idon’t think I care to talk about that, if youplease,’ she would say, and strike the boldest speechlessby her unmistakable pain; this upon all topics — dress,pleasure, morality, politics, in which the formula was changed to‘my papa thinks otherwise,’ and even religion, unlessit was approached with a particular whining tone of voice. Alexander, the younger brother, was sickly, clever, fond of booksand drawing, and full of satirical remarks. In the midst ofthese, imagine that natural, clumsy, unintelligent, and mirthfulanimal, John; mighty well-behaved in comparison with other lads,although not up to the mark of the house in Randolph Crescent;full of a sort of blundering affection, full of caresses, whichwere never very warmly received; full of sudden and loud laughterwhich rang out in that still house like curses. Mr.Nicholson himself had a great fund of humour, of the Scotsorder — intellectual, turning on the observation of men; hisown character, for instance — if he could have seen it inanother — would have been a rare feast to him; but hisson’s empty guffaws over a broken plate, and empty, almostlight-hearted remarks, struck him with pain as the indices of aweak mind.
Outside the family John had early attached himself (much as adog may follow a marquis) to the steps of Alan Houston, a ladabout a year older than himself, idle, a trifle wild, the heir toa good estate which was still in the hands of a rigorous trustee,and so royally content with himself that he took John’sdevotion as a thing of course. The intimacy was gall to Mr.Nicholson; it took his son from the house, and he was a jealousparent; it kept him from the office, and he was a martinet;lastly, Mr. Nicholson was ambitious for his family (in which, andthe Disruption Principles, he entirely lived), and he hated tosee a son of his play second fiddle to an idler. After somehesitation, he ordered that the friendship should cease — anunfair command, though seemingly inspired by the spirit ofprophecy; and John, saying nothing, continued to disobey theorder under the rose.
John was nearly nineteen when he was one day dismissed ratherearlier than usual from his father’s office, where he wasstudying the practice of the law. It was Saturday; andexcept that he had a matter of four hundred pounds in his pocketwhich it was his duty to hand over to the British LinenCompany’s Bank, he had the whole afternoon at hisdisposal. He went by Princes Street enjoying the mildsunshine, and the little thrill of easterly wind that tossed theflags along that terrace of palaces, and tumbled the green treesin the garden. The band was playing down in the valleyunder the castle; and when it came to the turn of the pipers, heheard their wild sounds with a stirring of the blood. Something distantly martial woke in him; and he thought of MissMackenzie, whom he was to meet that day at dinner.
Now, it is undeniable that he should have gone directly to thebank, but right in the way stood the billiard-room of the hotelwhere Alan was almost certain to be found; and the temptationproved too strong. He entered the billiard-room, and wasinstantly greeted by his friend, cue in hand.
‘Nicholson,’ said he, ‘I want you to lend mea pound or two till Monday.’
‘You’ve come to the right shop, haven’tyou?’ returned John. ‘I havetwopence.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Alan. ‘You can getsome. Go and borrow at your tailor’s; they all doit. Or I’ll tell you what: pop your watch.’
‘Oh, yes, I dare say,’ said John. ‘Andhow about my father?’
‘How is he to know? He doesn’t wind it upfor you at night, does he?’ inquired Alan, at which Johnguffawed. ‘No, seriously; I am in a fix,’continued the tempter. ‘I have lost some money to aman here. I’ll give it you to-night, and you can getthe heir-loom out again on Monday. Come; it’s a smallservice, after all. I would do a good deal more foryou.’
Whereupon John went forth, and pawned his gold watch under theassumed name of John Froggs, 85 Pleasance. But thenervousness that assailed him at the door of that inglorioushaunt — a pawnshop — and the effort necessary to inventthe pseudonym (which, somehow, seemed to him a necessary part ofthe procedure), had taken more time than he imagined: and when hereturned to the billiard-room with the spoils, the bank hadalready closed its doors.
This was a shrewd knock. ‘A piece of business hadbeen neglected.’ He heard these words in hisfather’s trenchant voice, and trembled, and then dodged thethought. After all, who was to know? He must carryfour hundred pounds about with him till Monday, when the neglectcould be surreptitiously repaired; and meanwhile, he was free topass the afternoon on the encircling divan of the billiard-room,smoking his pipe, sipping a pint of ale, and enjoying to themasthead the modest pleasures of admiration.
None can admire like a young man. Of all youth’spassions and pleasures, this is the most common and leastalloyed; and every flash of Alan’s black eyes; every aspectof his curly head; every graceful reach, every easy, stand-offattitude of waiting; ay, and down to his shirt-sleeves andwrist-links, were seen by John through a luxurious glory. He valued himself by the possession of that royal friend, huggedhimself upon the thought, and swam in warm azure; his owndefects, like vanquished difficulties, becoming things on whichto plume himself. Only when he thought of Miss Mackenziethere fell upon his mind a shadow of regret; that young lady wasworthy of better things than plain John Nicholson, still knownamong schoolmates by the derisive name of ‘Fatty’;and he felt, if he could chalk a cue, or stand at ease, with sucha careless grace as Alan, he could approach the object of hissentiments with a less crushing sense of inferiority.