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a little buzz of conversation going on, and jokes and occasional laughter, although the presence of the principal clerk usually repressed such exhibitions of hilarity.
“ You must come to us to-morrow night, Dunsford,” said an elderly man, to a junior, who had all day been working by his side, “ it is Grace's birthday, and we are going to be very gay, and keep her coming of age with great festivity. You will join us, I know.”
Gladly, Sir, since you are so kind ; and if Miss Ashton wishes it too,” replied the handsome young man he addressed, colouring with pleasure, or some other feeling, as he spoke the last words.
“I wish you would ask me too, Ashton,” said a voice close behind them, which made them both start, and turn round.
It was Mr. Cameron himself, who having entered the office to speak to his head clerk, had caught the sound of the invitation.
Ashton professed, with a mixture of pride and gratitude, how much he should be flattered if Mr. Cameron would honour his little party with his presence. He was sure it would be welcome news to Grace.
No, don't tell her,” replied the merchant; “ I shall come and take her by surprise, to see what sort of a housekeeper she contrives to make; I've a notion that she is a good girl, and manages very well in that way; and some day she will make somebody very happy as a
There was nothing very extraordinary in such a remark; it was true, but common-place, and the less surprising as Mr. Cameron was godfather to Grace Ashton, and had always taken a good deal of notice of her ; yet these few words made the two individuals who overheard them very uncomfortable.
One of these was Harry Dunsford himself; he was to be sure very much in love with the object of Mr. Cameron's eulogium, and lovers have a prescriptive right to torment themselves about trifles, and indulge in gratuitous and supernumerary fears.
It would, indeed, be a very comfortable thing for the rest of the world if these individuals were the only ones who subjected themselves to such wilful tortures ; and, as these torments are supposed to form half the delight of love, it would be a pity if lovers should not be able to have their share ; whilst, in all other cases, similar mistrusts produce an unnecessary but positive amount of unhappiness.
What it was that annoyed Harry would be difficult exactly to define ; a mixture of jealousy and mortification, a fear lest the merchant's praise should so far enhance the father's opinion of the daughter's value, as to make him seek a higher match ; and a suspicion that Mr. Cameron himself would not be pleased with his pretensions, when they became known; these were the most obvious and rational of his feelings. It was no recent passion on his part, this affection for Grace Ashton ; he had fallen in love with her ten years ago, when he first came up to London.
Harry was an orphan; and the uncle who had superintended his education, that is to say, had chosen his school, and managed his little fortune, had never“ afforded him a congenial home in his house. At fifteen, he had been placed in Mr. Cameron's counting-house, and left to shift for himself in this situation, forlorn and dangerous as such a life must be to the young and inexperienced, without a friend to speak to, or a home to receive them in ther
leisure hours. But Harry was of a cheerful temper, and of steady principles ; somehow, in his early troubles, he had acquired a degree of firmness, self-reliance, and hopefulness which supported him wonderfully; and he soon won the affections of Mr. Ashton, who first pitied, then admired, and finally loved the boy; they were engaged in the same department, and Harry was ere lòng invited to make Ashton's house his home, if he pleased ; and he was able once more to enjoy domestic pleasures, and a family circle, such as his memory still presented to him as his, before the terrible fever had carried off his parents and his two little sisters.
Of course he had fallen in love with Grace Ashton; he had called her his sister, and she had allowed him to treat her as such for some years, but gradually these things changed ; Grace grew into a woman, and a degree of embarrassment, of consciousness, of painful pleasure, and of pleasing pain mixed with their intercourse, and silently superseded the old frank and fraternal manners which had been so natural.
Harry's lodgings were not very far from Mr. Ashton's house, and thither they took their way
together, on quitting the counting-house, both silent and pre-occupied ; the younger, of course, by his love-affairs, the elder less sentimentally engrossed by certain foreign correspondence.
Leaving them on their way home, I shall return to the counting-house, from the door of which was slowly issuing a man of striking appearance, good-looking, or perhaps actually handsome, except for a downčast look in his black eyes, and a sinister curl to the corners of his mouth, which gave a passing expression of subtilty to his features, almost repulsive. This was James Wildey, the confidential clerk, and friend of the wealthy merchant. He, too, was meditating on the praise of Grace Ashton which had reached his ears. To him it was as unwelcome as to Harry Dunsford, though for very different reasons.
He was no rival to the young man, and yet to him, too, the idea occurred, ridiculous as it seemed, that the merchant was thinking of Grace as a wife for himself. Mr. Cameron was nearly sixty, and Grace Ashton only twenty-one ; Mr. Cameron had been a widower about eight months, and had never indicated in any way, either by word or deed, the slightest intention of marrying again;