'"Good-morning ma'am," said Tom Smart, closing the door of the little parlour as the widow entered.
'"Good-morning, Sir," said the widow. "What will you take for breakfast, sir?"
'Tom was thinking how he should open the case, so he made no answer.
'"There's a very nice ham," said the widow, "and a beautiful cold larded fowl. Shall I send 'em in, Sir?"
'These words roused Tom from his reflections. His admiration of the widow increased as she spoke. Thoughtful creature! Comfortable provider!
'"Who is that gentleman in the bar, ma'am?" inquired Tom.
'"His name is Jinkins, Sir," said the widow, slightly blushing.
'"He's a tall man," said Tom.
'"He is a very fine man, Sir," replied the widow, "and a very nice gentleman."
'"Ah!" said Tom.
'"Is there anything more you want, Sir?" inquired the widow, rather puzzled by Tom's manner. '"Why, yes," said Tom. "My dear ma'am, will you have the kindness to sit down for one moment?"
'The widow looked much amazed, but she sat down, and Tom sat down too, close beside her. I don't know how it happened, gentlemen — indeed my uncle used to tell me that Tom Smart said he didn't know how it happened either — but somehow or other the palm of Tom's hand fell upon the back of the widow's hand, and remained there while he spoke.
'"My dear ma'am," said Tom Smart — he had always a great notion of committing the amiable — "my dear ma'am, you deserve a very excellent husband — you do indeed."
'"Lor, Sir!" said the widow — as well she might; Tom's mode of commencing the conversation being rather unusual, not to say startling; the fact of his never having set eyes upon her before the previous night being taken into consideration. "Lor, Sir!"
'"I scorn to flatter, my dear ma'am," said Tom Smart. "You deserve a very admirable husband, and whoever he is, he'll be a very lucky man." As Tom said this, his eye involuntarily wandered from the widow's face to the comfort around him.
'The widow looked more puzzled than ever, and made an effort to rise. Tom gently pressed her hand, as if to detain her, and she kept her seat. Widows, gentlemen, are not usually timorous, as my uncle used to say.
'"I am sure I am very much obliged to you, Sir, for your good opinion," said the buxom landlady, half laughing; "and if ever I marry again — "
'"IF," said Tom Smart, looking very shrewdly out of the right-hand corner of his left eye. "IF — " "Well," said the widow, laughing outright this time, "WHEN I do, I hope I shall have as good a husband as you describe."
'"Jinkins, to wit," said Tom.
'"Lor, sir!" exclaimed the widow.
'"Oh, don't tell me," said Tom, "I know him."
'"I am sure nobody who knows him, knows anything bad of him," said the widow, bridling up at the mysterious air with which Tom had spoken.
'"Hem!" said Tom Smart.
'The widow began to think it was high time to cry, so she took out her handkerchief, and inquired whether Tom wished to insult her, whether he thought it like a gentleman to take away the character of another gentleman behind his back, why, if he had got anything to say, he didn't say it to the man, like a man, instead of terrifying a poor weak woman in that way; and so forth.
'"I'll say it to him fast enough," said Tom, "only I want you to hear it first."
'"What is it?" inquired the widow, looking intently in Tom's countenance.
'"I'll astonish you," said Tom, putting his hand in his pocket.
'"If it is, that he wants money," said the widow, "I know that already, and you needn't trouble yourself." '"Pooh, nonsense, that's nothing," said Tom Smart, "I want money. 'Tain't that."
'"Oh, dear, what can it be?" exclaimed the poor widow.
'"Don't be frightened," said Tom Smart. He slowly drew forth the letter, and unfolded it. "You won't scream?" said Tom doubtfully.
'"No, no," replied the widow; "let me see it."
'"You won't go fainting away, or any of that nonsense?" said Tom.
'"No, no," returned the widow hastily.
'"And don't run out, and blow him up," said Tom; "because I'll do all that for you. You had better not exert yourself."
'"Well, well," said the widow, "let me see it."
'"I will," replied Tom Smart; and, with these words, he placed the letter in the widow's hand.
'Gentlemen, I have heard my uncle say, that Tom Smart said the widow's lamentations when she heard the disclosure would have pierced a heart of stone. Tom was certainly very tender-hearted, but they pierced his, to the very core. The widow rocked herself to and fro, and wrung her hands.
'"Oh, the deception and villainy of the man!" said the widow.
'"Frightful, my dear ma'am; but compose yourself," said Tom Smart.
'"Oh, I can't compose myself," shrieked the widow. "I shall never find anyone else I can love so much!"
'"Oh, yes you will, my dear soul," said Tom Smart, letting fall a shower of the largest-sized tears, in pity for the widow's misfortunes. Tom Smart, in the energy of his compassion, had put his arm round the widow's waist; and the widow, in a passion of grief, had clasped Tom's hand. She looked up in Tom's face, and smiled through her tears. Tom looked down in hers, and smiled through his.
'I never could find out, gentlemen, whether Tom did or did not kiss the widow at that particular moment. He used to tell my uncle he didn't, but I have my doubts about it. Between ourselves, gentlemen, I rather think he did.
'At all events, Tom kicked the very tall man out at the front door half an hour later, and married the widow a month after. And he used to drive about the country, with the clay-coloured gig with the red wheels, and the vixenish mare with the fast pace, till he gave up business many years afterwards, and went to France with his wife; and then the old house was pulled down.'
'Will you allow me to ask you,' said the inquisitive old gentleman, 'what became of the chair?'
'Why,' replied the one-eyed bagman, 'it was observed to creak very much on the day of the wedding; but Tom Smart couldn't say for certain whether it was with pleasure or bodily infirmity. He rather thought it was the latter, though, for it never spoke afterwards.'
'Everybody believed the story, didn't they?' said the dirty-faced man, refilling his pipe.
'Except Tom's enemies,' replied the bagman. 'Some of 'em said Tom invented it altogether; and others said he was drunk and fancied it, and got hold of the wrong trousers by mistake before he went to bed. But nobody ever minded what THEY said.'
'Tom Smart said it was all true?'
'And your uncle?'
'They must have been very nice men, both of 'em,' said the dirty-faced man.
'Yes, they were,' replied the bagman; 'very nice men indeed!'