Seated on the counter, pounding desperately away at something in a mortar, as if his life depended on it, was a peculiar-looking gentleman in shirt-sleeves. Very tall, very thin, with legs and arms that bore the appearance of being too long even for his tall body, great hands and feet, a thin face dark and red, a thin aquiline nose, black hair, and black prominent eyes that seemed to be always on the stare—there sat he, his legs dangling and his fingers working. A straightforward, honest, simple fellow looked he, all utility and practicalness—if there is such a word. One, plain in all ways.
It was Janus Verner—never, in the memory of anybody, called anything but “Jan”—second and youngest son of Lady Verner, brother to Lionel. He brother to courtly Lionel, to stately Decima, son to refined Lady Verner? He certainly was; though Lady Verner in her cross moods would declare that Jan must have been changed at nurse—an assertion without foundation, since he had been nursed at home under her own eye. Never in his life had he been called anything but Jan; address him as Janus, or as Mr. Verner, and it may be questioned if Jan would have answered to it. People called him “droll,” and, if to be of plain, unvarnished manners and speech is to be droll, Jan decidedly was so. Some said Jan was a fool, some said he was a bear. Lady Verner did not accord him any great amount of favour herself. She had tried to make Jan what she called a gentleman, to beat into him suavity, gracefulness, tact, gloss of speech and bearing, something between a Lord Chesterfield and a Sir Roger de Coverley; and she had been obliged lo give it up as a hopeless job. Jan was utterly irreclaimable: Nature had made him plain and straightforward, and so he remained. But there was many a one that the world would bow down to as a model, whose intrinsic worth was poor compared to unoffending Jan’s. Lady Verner would tell Jan he was undutiful. Jan tried to be as dutiful to her as ever he could; but he could not change his ungainly person, his awkward manner. As well try to wash a negro white.
Lady Verner had proposed that Jan should go into the army, Jan (plain spoken as a boy, as he was still) had responded that he’d rather not go out to be shot at. What was she to do with him? Lady Verner peevishly asked. She had no money, she lamented, and she would take care Jan was not helped by Mr. Verner. To make him a barrister, or a clergyman, or a Member of Parliament (it was what Lady Verner said), would cost vast sums of money; a commission could be obtained for him gratis, in consideration of his father’s services.
“Make me an apothecary,” said Jan.
“An apothecary!” echoed Lady Verner, aghast. “That’s not a gentleman’s calling.”
Jan opened his great eyes. Had he taken a liking for carpentering, he would have deemed it gentlemanly enough for him.
“What has put an apothecary’s business into your head?” cried Lady Verner.