The Blank Cheque













‘Five o’clock tea’ is a phrase that our ‘rude forefathers,’ even of the last generation, would scarcely have understood, so completely is it a thing of to-day: and yet, so rapid is the March of Mind, it has already risen into a national institution, and rivals, in its universal application to all ranks and ages, and as a specific for ‘all the ills that flesh is heir to,’ the glorious Magna Charta.

Thus it came to pass that, one chilly day in March, which only made the shelter indoors seem by contrast the more delicious, I found myself in the cosy little parlour of my old friend, kind hospitable Mrs. Nivers. Her broad good-humoured face wreathed itself into a sunny smile as I entered, and we were soon embarked on that wayward smooth-flowing current of chat about nothing in particular, which is perhaps the most enjoyable of all forms of conversation. John (I beg his pardon, ‘Mr. Nivers’ I should say: but he was so constantly talked of and at, by his better half, as ‘John,’ that his friends were apt to forget he had a surname at all) sat in a distant corner with his feet tucked well under his chair, in an attitude rather too upright for comfort, and rather too suggestive of general collapse for anything like dignity, and sipped his tea in silence. From some distant region came a sound like the roar of the sea, rising and falling, suggesting the presence of many boys; and indeed I knew that the house was full to overflowing of noisy urchins, overflowing with high spirits and mischief, but on the whole a very creditable set of little folk.

‘And where are you going for your sea-side trip this summer, Mrs. Nivers?’

My old friend pursed up her lips with a mysterious smile, and nodded. ‘Can’t understand you,’ I said.

‘You understand me, Mr. De Ciel, just as well as I understand myself, and that’s not saying much. I don’t know where we’re going: John doesn’t know where we’re going—but we’re certainly going somewhere; and we shan’t even know the name of the place, till we find ourselves there! Now are you satisfied?’

I was more hopelessly bewildered than ever. ‘One of us is dreaming, no doubt,’ I faltered: ‘or—or perhaps I’m going mad, or——’ The good lady laughed merrily at my discomfiture.

‘Well, well! It’s a shame to puzzle you so,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you all about it. You see, last year we couldn’t settle it, do what we would. John said “Herne Bay”; and I said “Brighton”; and the boys said “somewhere where there’s a circus”; not that we gave much weight to that, you know: well, and Angela (she’s a growing girl, and we’ve got to find a new school for her, this year) she said “Portsmouth, because of the soldiers”; and Susan (she’s my maid, you know) she said “Ramsgate.” Well, with all those contrary opinions, somehow it ended in our going nowhere: and John and I put our heads together last week, and we settled that it should never happen again. And now, how do you think we’ve managed it?’

‘Quite impossible to guess,’ I said dreamily, as I handed back my empty cup.

‘In the first place,’ said the good lady, ‘we need change sadly. Housekeeping worries me more every year, particularly with boarders—and John will have a couple of gentleman-boarders always on hand: he says it looks respectable, and that they talk so well they make the House quite lively. As if I couldn’t talk enough for him!’

‘It isn’t that!’ muttered John. ‘It’s——’

‘They’re well enough sometimes,’ the lady went on (she never seemed to hear her husband’s remarks), ‘but I’m sure, when Mr. Prior Burgess was here, it was enough to turn one’s hair grey! He was an open-handed gentleman enough—as liberal as could be—but far too particular about his meals. Why, if you’ll believe me, he wouldn’t sit down to dinner without there were three courses! We couldn’t go on in that style, you know. I had to tell the next boarder he must be more hardy in his notions, or I could warrant him we shouldn’t suit each other.’

‘Quite right,’ I said. ‘Might I trouble you for another half cup?’

‘Sea-side air we must have, you see,’ Mrs. Nivers went on, mechanically taking up the tea-pot, but too much engrossed in the subject to do more, ‘and as we can’t agree where to go, and yet we must go somewhere——did you say half a cup?’

‘Thanks,’ said I. ‘You were going to tell me what it was you settled.’

‘We settled,’ said the good lady, pouring out the tea without a moment’s pause in her flow of talk, ‘that the only course was—(cream I think you take, but no sugar? Just so)—was to put the whole matter——but stop, John shall read it all out to you. We’ve drawn up the agreement in writing—quite ship-shape, isn’t it, John? Here’s the document: John shall read it you—and mind your stops, there’s a dear!’

John put on his spectacles, and in a tone of gloomy satisfaction (it was evidently his own composition) read the following.

Be it hereby enacted and decreed,

That Susan be appointed for the business of choosing a watering-place for this season, and finding a New School for Angela.

That Susan be empowered not only to procure plans, but to select a plan, to submit the estimate for the execution of such plan to the House-keeper; and, if the House-keeper sanction the proposed expenditure to proceed with the execution of such plan, and to fill up the Blank Cheque for the whole expense incurred.

Before I could say another word the door burst open, and a whole army of boys tumbled into the room, headed by little Harry, the pet of the family, who hugged in his arms the much-enduring parlour-cat, which, as he eagerly explained in his broken English, he had been trying to teach to stand on one leg. ‘Harry-Parry Ridy-Pidy Coachy-Poachy!’ said the fond mother, as she lifted the little fellow to her knee and treated him to a jog-trot. ‘Harry’s very fond of Pussy, he is, but he mustn’t tease it, he mustn’t! Now go and play on the stairs, there’s dear children! Mr. De Ciel and I want to have a quiet talk.’ And the boys tumbled out of the room again, as eagerly as they had tumbled in, shouting ‘Let’s have a Chase in the Hall!’

‘A good set of Heads, are they not, Mr. De Ciel?’ my friend continued, with a wave of her fat hand towards the retreating army. ‘Phrenologists admire them much. Look at little Sam, there. He’s one of the latest arrivals, you know, but he grows—mercy on us, how that boy does grow! You’ve no idea what a Weight he is! Then there’s Freddy, that tall boy in the corner: he’s rather too big for the others, that’s a fact—and he’s something of a Bully at times, but the boy has a tender heart, too: give him a bit of poetry, now, and he’s as maudlin as a girl! Then there’s Benjy, again: a nice boy, but I daren’t tell you what he costs us in pocket-money! Oh, the work we had with that boy, till we raised his allowance! Hadn’t we, John?’ (‘John’ grunted in acquiescence.) ‘It was Arthur took up his cause so much, and worried poor John and me nearly into our graves! Arthur was a very nice boy, Mr. De Ciel, and as great a favourite with the other boys as Harry is now, before he went to Westminster. He used to tell them stories, and draw them the prettiest pictures you ever saw! Houses that were all windows and chimnies—what they call “High Art,” I believe. We tried a conservatory once on the High-Art principle, and (would you believe it?) the man stuck the roof up on a lot of rods like so many knitting-needles! Of course it soon came down about our ears, and we had to do it all over again. As I said to John at the time, “If this is High Art, give me a little more of the Art next time, and a little less of the High!” He’s doing very well at Westminster, I hear, but his tutor writes that he’s very asthmatic, poor fellow——’

‘Æsthetic, my dear, æsthetic!’ remonstrated John.

‘Ah, well, my love,’ said the good lady, ‘all those long medical words are one and the same thing to me. And they come to the same thing in the Christmas bills, too: they both mean “Draught as before”! Well, well! They’re a set of dear good boys on the whole: they’ve only one real Vice among them——but I shall tire you, talking about the boys so much. What do you think of that agreement of ours?’

I had been turning the paper over and over in my hands, quite at a loss to know what to say to so strange a scheme. ‘Surely I’ve misunderstood you?’ I said. ‘You don’t mean to say that you’ve left the whole thing to your maid to settle for you?’

‘But that’s exactly what I do mean, Mr. De Ciel,’ the lady replied, a little testily. ‘She’s a very sensible young person, I can assure you. So now, wherever Susan chooses to take us, there we go!’ (‘There we go! There we go!’ echoed her husband in a dismal sort of chant, rocking himself backwards and forwards in his chair.) ‘You’ve no idea what a comfort it is to feel that the whole thing’s in Susan’s hands!’

‘Go where Susan takes thee,’ I remarked, with a vague idea that I was quoting an old song. ‘Well, no doubt Susan has very correct taste, and all that—but still, if I might advise, I wouldn’t leave all to her. She may need a little check——’

‘That’s the very word, dear Mr. De Ciel!’ cried my old friend, clapping her hands. ‘And that’s the very thing we’ve done, isn’t it, John?’ (‘The very thing we’ve done,’ echoed John.) ‘I made him do it only this morning. He has signed her a Blank Cheque, so that she can go to any cost she likes. It’s such a comfort to get things settled and off one’s hands, you know! John’s been grumbling about it ever since, but now that I can tell him it’s your advice——’

‘But, my dear Madam,’ I exclaimed, ‘I don’t mean cheque with a “Q”!’

“——your advice,’ repeated Mrs. N., not heeding my interruption,’ why, of course he’ll see the reasonableness of it, like a sensible creature as he is!’ Here she looked approvingly at her husband, who tried to smile a ‘slow wise smile,’ like Tennyson’s ‘wealthy miller,’ but I fear the result was more remarkable for slowness than for wisdom.

I saw that it would be waste of words to argue the matter further, so took my leave, and did not see my old friends again before their departure for the sea-side. I quote the following from a letter which I received yesterday from Mrs. Nivers.

‘Margate. April 1

‘Dear Friend,

‘You know the old story of the dinner-party where there was nothing hot but the ices, and nothing cold but the soup? Of this place I may fairly say that there is nothing high but the prices, the staircases, and the eggs; nothing low but the sea and the company: nothing strong but the butter; and nothing weak but the tea!’

From the general tenour of her letter I gather that they are not enjoying it.



Is it really seriously proposed——in the University of Oxford, and towards the close of the Nineteenth Century (never yet reckoned by historians as part of the Dark Ages)——to sign a Blank Cheque for the expenses of building New Schools, before any estimate has been made of those expenses——before any plan has been laid before the University, from which such an estimate could be made——before any architect has been found to design such a plan——before any Committee has been elected to find such an architect?




Source 2018-07-13:

2018-07-13, update: 2022-07-13

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