Vacant, and ready for your acceptance.'
'Good gracious me!' cried Tom; 'a hundred pounds a year! My dear John! Ruth, my love! A hundred pounds a year!'
'But the strangest part of the story,' resumed John Westlock, laying his hand on Tom's wrist, to bespeak his attention, and repress his ecstasies for the moment; 'the strangest part of the story, Miss Pinch, is this. I don't know this man from Adam; neither does this man know Tom.'
'He can't,' said Tom, in great perplexity, 'if he's a Londoner. I don't know any one in London.'
'And on my observing,' John resumed, still keeping his hand upon Tom's wrist, 'that I had no doubt he would excuse the freedom I took in inquiring who directed him to me; how he came to know of the change which had taken place in my friend's position; and how he came to be acquainted with my friend's peculiar fitness for such an office as he had described; he drily said that he was not at liberty to enter into any explanations.'
'Not at liberty to enter into any explanations!' repeated Tom, drawing a long breath.
'"I must be perfectly aware," he said,' John added, '"that to any person who had ever been in Mr Pecksniff's neighbourhood, Mr Thomas Pinch and his acquirements were as well known as the Church steeple, or the Blue Dragon."'
'The Blue Dragon!' repeated Tom, staring alternately at his friend and his sister.
'Aye, think of that! He spoke as familiarly of the Blue Dragon, I give you my word, as if he had been Mark Tapley. I opened my eyes, I can tell you, when he did so; but I could not fancy I had ever seen the man before, although he said with a smile, "You know the Blue Dragon, Mr Westlock; you kept it up there, once or twice, yourself." Kept it up there! So I did. You remember, Tom?'
Tom nodded with great significance, and, falling into a state of deeper perplexity than before, observed that this was the most unaccountable and extraordinary circumstance he had ever heard of in his life.
'Unaccountable?' his friend repeated. 'I became afraid of the man. Though it was broad day, and bright sunshine, I was positively afraid of him. I declare I half suspected him to be a supernatural visitor, and not a mortal, until he took out a common-place description of pocket-book, and handed me this card.'
'Mr Fips,' said Tom, reading it aloud. 'Austin Friars. Austin Friars sounds ghostly, John.'
'Fips don't, I think,' was John's reply. 'But there he lives, Tom, and there he expects us to call this morning. And now you know as much of this strange incident as I do, upon my honour.'
Tom's face, between his exultation in the hundred pounds a year, and his wonder at this narration, was only to be equalled by the face of his sister, on which there sat the very best expression of blooming surprise that any painter could have wished to see. What the beef- steak pudding would have come to, if it had not been by this time finished, astrology itself could hardly determine.
'Tom,' said Ruth, after a little hesitation, 'perhaps Mr Westlock, in his friendship for you, knows more of this than he chooses to tell.'
'No, indeed!' cried John, eagerly. 'It is not so, I assure you. I wish it were. I cannot take credit to myself, Miss Pinch, for any such thing. All that I know, or, so far as I can judge, am likely to know, I have told you.'
'Couldn't you know more, if you thought proper?' said Ruth, scraping the pie-board industriously.
'No,' retorted John. 'Indeed, no. It is very ungenerous in you to be so suspicious of me when I repose implicit faith in you. I have unbounded confidence in the pudding, Miss Pinch.'
She laughed at this, but they soon got back into a serious vein, and discussed the subject with profound gravity. Whatever else was obscure in the business, it appeared to be quite plain that Tom was offered a salary of one hundred pounds a year; and this being the main point, the surrounding obscurity rather set it off than otherwise.
Tom, being in a great flutter, wished to start for Austin Friars instantly, but they waited nearly an hour, by John's advice, before they departed.