‘Ah, sir,’ replied the little man, ’were all our great people like you! In the country—the provinces—they treat the representatives of the Fourth Estate as the squires a couple of generations back used to treat the parsons.’
‘What! Have you got a place at their tables?’ inquired Captain DeWitt.
’No, I cannot say that—not even below the salt. Mr. Richmond—Mr. Roy, you may not be aware of it: I am the proprietor of the opposition journals in this county. I tell you in confidence, one by itself would not pay; and I am a printer, sir, and it is on my conscience to tell you I have, in the course of business, been compelled this very morning to receive orders for the printing of various squibs and, I much fear, scurrilous things.’
My father pacified him.
‘You will do your duty to your family, Mr. Hickson.’
Deeply moved, the little man pulled out proof-sheets and slips.
‘Even now, at the eleventh hour,’ he urged, ’there is time to correct any glaring falsehoods, insults, what not!’
My father accepted the copy of proofs.
’Not a word,—not a line! You spoke of the eleventh hour, Mr. Hickson. If we are at all near the eleventh, I must be on my way to make my bow to Lady Wilts; or is it Lady Denewdney’s to-night? No, to-morrow night.’
A light of satisfaction came over Mr. Hickson’s face at the mention of my father’s visiting both these sovereign ladies.
As soon as we were rid of him, Captain DeWitt exclaimed,
‘If that’s the Fourth Estate, what’s the Realm?’
‘The Estate,’ pleaded my father, ‘is here in its infancy—on all fours—’
’Prehensile! Egad, it has the vices of the other three besides its own. Do you mean that by putting it on all fours?’
’Jorian, I have noticed that when you are malignant you are not witty. We have to thank the man for not subjecting us to a pledge of secresy. My Lady Wilts will find the proofs amusing. And mark, I do not examine their contents before submitting them to her inspection. You will testify to the fact.’
I was unaware that my father played a master-stroke in handing these proof-sheets publicly to Lady Wilts for her perusal. The incident of the evening was the display of her character shown by Miss Penrhys in positively declining to quit the house until she likewise had cast her eye on them. One of her aunts wept. Their carriage was kept waiting an hour.
‘You ask too much of me: I cannot turn her out’, Lady Wilts said to her uncle. And aside to my father, ‘You will have to marry her.’
‘In heaven’s name keep me from marriage, my lady!’ I heard him reply.
There was sincerity in his tone when he said that.