Julian Casti’s uncle had been three years dead. It was well for him that he lived no longer; his business had continued to dwindle, and the last months of the poor man’s life were embittered by the prospect of inevitable bankruptcy. He died of an overdose of some opiate, which the anguish of sleeplessness brought him into the habit of taking. Suicide it might have been, yet that was scarcely probable; he was too anxious on his daughter’s account to abandon her in this way, for certainly his death could be nothing to her profit. Julian was then already eighteen, and quickly succeeded in getting a situation. Harriet Smales left London, and went to live with her sole relative, except Julian, an aunt who kept a stationer’s shop in Colchester. She was taught the business, and assisted her aunt for more than two years, when, growing tired of the life of a country town, she returned to London, and succeeded in getting a place at a stationer’s in Gray’s Inn Road. This was six months ago. Having thus established herself, she wrote to Julian, and told him where she was.
Julian never forgot the promise he had made to his uncle that Christmas night, eight years ago, when he was a lad of thirteen. Harriet he had always regarded as his sister, and never yet had he failed in brotherly duty to her. When the girl left Colchester, she was on rather bad terms with her aunt, and the latter wrote to Julian, saying that she knew nothing of Harriet’s object in going to London, but that it was certainly advisable that some friend should be at hand, if possible, to give her advice; though advice (she went on to say) was seldom acceptable to Harriet. This letter alarmed Julian, as it was the first he had heard of his cousin’s new step; the letter from herself at the end of a week’s time greatly relieved him, and he went off as soon as possible to see her. He found her living in the house where she was engaged, apparently with decent people, and moderately contented; more than this could never be said of the girl. Since then, he had seen her at least once every week. Sometimes he visited her at the shop; when the weather was fine, they spent the Sunday afternoon in walking together. Harriet’s health seemed to have improved since her return to town. Previously, as in her childhood, she had always been more or less ailing. From both father and mother she had inherited an unhealthy body; there was a scrofulous tendency in her constitution, and the slightest casual ill-health, a cold or any trifling accident, always threatened her with serious results. She was of mind corresponding to her body; restless, self-willed, discontented, sour-tempered, querulous. She certainly used no special pains to hide these faults from Julian, perhaps was not herself sufficiently conscious of them, but the young man did not seem to be repelled by her imperfections; he invariably treated her with gentle forbearance, pitied her sufferings, did many a graceful little kindness in hope of pleasing her.