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Title: The Jest of Life Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203951h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2012 Date most recently updated: October 2012 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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A story rich in humour, it tells under what strange circumstances, cloaked in varying disguises, an unassuming dentist came to preach in Adelaide Cathedral; impersonate a high Society lady; deputise for a distinguished surgeon; explore, as a deputed spy the pits of social sin and shame; and, finally, ascend himself to affluence by a sharp turn of Fortune's wheel. Love, laughter and tears! A delightful and naive exposition of the workings of some human minds.
CHAPTER I.—THE SPELL OF THE ASIATIC.
CHAPTER II.—THE CHANGE IN THE ARCHDEACON.
CHAPTER III.—HE GOES TO THE RACES.
CHAPTER IV.—THE AWAKENING OF ST. BENGER'S.
CHAPTER V.—MR. TWIGGS BECOMES FRIVOLOUS.
CHAPTER VI.—LADY FITZ-TOOTLE'S RECEPTION.
CHAPTER VII.—A GREAT DOCTOR.
CHAPTER VIII.—A GREATER ONE STILL.
CHAPTER IX.—"WINKING THE NAUGHTY EYE."
CHAPTER X.—THE AFTERMATH.
CHAPTER XI.—THE PIT OF SHAME.
CHAPTER XII.—A COURTESAN OF THE KNIFE.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE RETURN OF THE ASIATIC.
CHAPTER XIV.—THE RESURRECTION OF HENRY MUFFINS.
CHAPTER XV.—"GINX'S BABY."
CHAPTER XVI.—MORE BABIES.
ONE fine sunny morning Mr. Montague Twiggs, dental surgeon of Adelaide, South Australia, walked slowly up the steps of his professional chambers on North Terrace, carrying a professional-looking bag that contained a sporting paper, two apples and a packet of neatly-cut cheese sandwiches.
Ordinarily a happy, jovial-looking man, his face just now was clouded over with a dark, despondent frown.
He proceeded into his surgery, and the white-gowned young woman who was dusting over the dental chair at once exclaimed brightly: "Good morning, sir."
Mr. Twiggs forced his face into a sort of smile. "Good morning, nurse," he replied. "Anyone waiting?"
"Yes, sir, four and a small packet."
Mr. Twiggs' face brightened as he started to thumb over the letters, but then at once it fell as quickly again. "No cheques!" he muttered. "Now why the deuce don't they cash up?"
He took off his coat and hat. "Oh! have you made any appointments, Hypatia?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, one for half past ten," the nurse replied. "A new patient who said he wanted a set of teeth!"
"Good! What sort of person was he?"
"Quite well-dressed, sir, and with a big gold chain. He said he kept the 'Wattle Tree Hotel,' in Hindley Street."
"Splendid! Hypatia, a publican! Publicans and sinners are the ones to attend! They always pay hard cash, and run no long-winded bills."
The telephone rang sharply and the nurse went out, returning, however, in a few moments.
"A gentleman wants to know if he can have an extraction under gas this morning," she announced. "He says he's got no nerve."
The dentist was busy with his letters. "Tell him I've got the nerve, if he's got the money," he replied, without looking up. "Yes, he can come at eleven."
"He says he's heard a lot to your credit," the nurse added.
"Credit!" ejaculated Mr. Twiggs turning angrily. "Great Scott! it's everlasting credit with the people here." He nodded significantly. "And you just mention to him, please, that the fee will be a guinea, and with anesthetic work it is customary for it to be paid at the time."
"Very good, sir," replied the nurse, and she swept softly from the room.
The dentist returned to his letters and with their perusal his despondency deepened. He opened the little packet and the broken parts of a plate of artificial teeth fell out upon the desk. A letter accompanied them in the box.
"Sir," he read, "when you made me my plate, you told me most distinctly that it would last me for twenty years, and yet it has actually broken in just over one. I was only eating a piece of bread and butter, too, at the time. I must say I am very disappointed, for my friend, Mrs. Gumby, has had her set for fifteen years and they are as good as the day when Mr. Spanker put them in. I understand Mr. Spanker is still practising and is most moderate in his charges. What do you intend to do?"
Mr. Twiggs closed his own teeth with a snap, and then with a gesture of contempt snatched up a pen and a sheet of his professional notepaper and commenced to write rapidly.
"Madam," he wrote, "it was an upper set of teeth that I had the privilege of making for you in the Month of June last year, and it is a broken lower plate that you now forward to me. Its quality and lasting properties, therefore, are no concern of mine. Breaking it, however, as you inform me you did when consuming only a piece of bread and butter, I would suggest that the butter may perhaps have been a trifle strong!
"With compliments, yours faithfully,
"P.S.—By-the-bye, my secretary has just reminded me that the fee for the upper denture has not as yet been paid. Doubtless, it has escaped your notice. So may I therefore expect a cheque by return of post?"
Mr. Twiggs read the letter through and then for the first time that morning, really smiled.
"A wicked world!" he murmured. "The usual try-on!"
There was a knock upon the door and the nurse entered again. "A lady on the phone, sir. She wants to know what your charge is for a set of teeth."
The dentist sighed heavily. "I used to think it was twenty guineas, Hypatia, but I believe now that I do them for nothing. Tell her, however, to come and see me and I'll discuss it with her then."
Alone once more, Mr. Twiggs rose up from his desk and stood looking gloomily out of the window.
"Rootity-toot," he hummed abstractedly to himself—
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute,
In a very charming manner——"
"A dog's life, a dentist's," he soliloquized, "and so much of the time it is working all for nothing! A poor thing, at any rate, to be a professional man, and don't I wish I'd got a shop or something, or was even keeping a public-house, instead! Then I'd be able to enjoy life a bit and have a day off when I wanted to, and go out with the kids."
A boy went by outside yelling shrilly: "Race-cards, race-cards for Morphettville."
Mr. Twiggs sighed deeply. "I wish I dared go," he muttered, "for I'm sure Whiskers will win to-day. He'll streak away like blue blazes in the straight and win by half a street. Blotter will be riding him, and he'll get the brute all out." He fingered a little packet of notes in his vest pocket, and then shook his head. "No, I'll not risk it. There's that wretched rent due on Wednesday and I must not be late again. I wonder now—hullo! hullo! I do believe that chap's coming in. He's stroking his face in a suspicious manner."
There was a few seconds pause and then came a ring at the bell.
"Ah!" muttered the dentist, "I thought I was right, but it'll be another God-reward-you job, probably, for he doesn't look up to much."
"Gentleman to see you, sir," announced the nurse, coming briskly into the surgery.
"Show him in," said Mr. Twiggs, "and, if anyone else comes, say I shan't be long."
The stranger was a small and elderly-looking man, dark and swarthy, with long hair and black, piercing eyes. He was shabbily dressed and the collar of his coat was buttoned up to his chin.
"Well, what can I do for you, now?" asked the dentist in the act of drying his hands.
The stranger salaamed deeply. "I want a tooth out, please," he replied. "I have a swelling under my jaw."
His voice was low and gentle and he spoke in perfect English, although it was plain to see he was a foreigner. He had the look, too, of long years under burning suns, and he held himself like one whose body was always bowed.
"I don't want chloroform," he added, "and you need put nothing on my gum, for I don't feel pain when I have willed my thoughts away." He spoke serenely. "To the initiated the body is but the servant of the mind."
"Ah!" murmured Mr. Twiggs, "a crank, of course! I thought he looked strange." He examined the tooth and then said aloud: "But it's a bad one and I'd better give you a little cocaine."
The stranger, however, shook his head. "It will not be necessary," he said, "for I shall be far away when you are taking it out."
The dentist picked up his hypodermic syringe. "Now don't be foolish," he said persuasively. "It's a bad tooth, I say, and I shall have to hurt you quite a good bit."
"But you can't hurt me," said the stranger smilingly, "for I shall be among the stars when you begin." His voice took on a note of authority. "I know what I am saying, for I am a Master in my own land."
Mr. Twiggs hesitated for a moment and then turning round proceeded to fill a tumbler with hot water.
"I shall not want that either," said the stranger, shaking his head again, "I shall not bleed, for I have willed it so."
"Good Lord!" ejaculated the dentist. He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, just as you like, have it so." He picked up a pair of forceps and the stranger leant back and closed his eyes. Mr. Twiggs bent over—there was a moment of intense silence—then came a deep indrawn breath and with a click the tooth fell into the basin by the side of the chair.
"Good man!" said Mr. Twiggs, "you didn't make a sound!"
And the stranger continued to make no sound. He lay back quiet and still, but his eyes were open now and he stared dreamily before him.
Then just when Mr. Twiggs was beginning to get uneasy, the man stirred and a moment later was smiling blandly as before.
"No, I never felt anything,"' he said, "and in those few seconds I went a far journey and learnt a lot about you."
Mr. Twiggs smiled dryly. "Well, there wasn't much to learn, anyhow. My life's too darned monotonous to have any secrets and I'm just a public slave."
"But you are a worker in the vineyard," said the stranger softy. "You minister at the altar of human pain!"
"Worker in the vineyard!" echoed the dentist scornfully. "Yes, I work there right enough, but precious few of the grapes come my way any time." He took a cachou from his pocket and stared stonily at the stranger. "Do you know, my friend," he continued, warming up, "that for half the work I do here I don't get paid a penny? Look at those books there."
He pointed disgustedly to a row of ledgers upon a shelf. "Those represent my bad debts, sir—the work I've done and shall never be paid for." He shook his head gloomily. "No, there's no collection in this tabernacle here and I'm just the sacrifice upon that altar you refer to."
"You labour for no reward then?" queried the stranger, with his eyes opened very wide.
"Have to," replied the dentist sadly. "Threatening letters don't frighten them and I lose money if I summons—every time."
"Then you are a good man," said the stranger after a pause, "and you will be one of the elect, in due time."
"Eh?" exclaimed the dentist, looking rather puzzled, "what does that mean?"
"In the next world you will reap great harvests. You will be one of the lords of the skies. I, Bizrah, say it, who have great powers lent me from on high."
The dentist smiled bitterly. "That's all very well, sir, and I'm sure it's very kind of you to say so. It's certainly quite nice to know that things are going to be O.K. with me at some future time, but what about just now? That's what troubles me." His voice rose emphatically. "What about this week, sir, next week and the week after? What about this world here? On Wednesday they will be coming for the rent and it'll be 'out you go' if I've not got the needful ready. Understand?"
The stranger regarded him searchingly. "Then you have troubles," he said very gravely, "and the yoke of this world galls upon your neck?"
"Too right it does," replied Mr. Twiggs feelingly, "and it's a precious tight fit sometimes, too."
The stranger rose up from the chair. "Then I must remedy it," he said very gently. "I must give you ease," and he put his hand into his pocket.
"Half a guinea, please," said Mr. Twiggs promptly.
But the man was standing in a sort of daze, and he ignored, if indeed he heard, the dentist's request. "Hush!" he said softly. "Make no sound, for I would commune with those who light the stars," and he closed his eyes, with his hand, however, still in his pocket.
Mr. Twiggs looked furtively in the direction of the door, and then he smiled when he remembered how slight and frail the stranger was.
"Quite dotty," he murmured, "but still I do hope he'll cash up. It'll be useful, for I've got no small change."
The stranger opened his eyes. "It is well," he said solemnly, "for word has been given me that you are to have peace and rest."
"Oh!" said Mr. Twiggs rather uneasily, "and what's the ticket now?"
"Hearken, O Dentist," said the stranger impressively. "Hearken, O Montague Mackerel Twiggs!"
Mr. Twiggs started. How on earth did the fellow know one of his names was Mackerel? He had never used the name, and it was not on his professional plate. It had certainly, however, been given him in baptism, after a long defunct brother of his mother, but he had dropped it years and years ago and his most intimate friends, even, had no knowledge that it was his.
"Montague Mackerel Twiggs," went on the stranger in grave and solemn tones, "you are wearied on the road of life. Your feet chafe and bleed and thorns pierce to your flesh. The burden you bear is heavy, and it is meet therefore that for a time you should have rest. Behold! I give you this."
At last the hand came out of the pocket, but instead of the crisp note and shining sixpence that Mr. Twiggs had hoped for, it produced only a small glass phial.
"Here, take this and break it when you are alone. No, be not afraid," for the dentist had suddenly stepped back. "It contains only three drops of a most beautiful perfume, distilled from the flowers in the garden of Nirvana, and its wonder is—that for a time it will set free your spirit from your body. It will give you change and rest." The stranger drew himself up with dignity. "It is a gift to you because of the unrequited work that you have done for human kind." His voice became very slow and stern. "Montague Mackerel Twiggs, when you have broken this phial and inhaled its vapour, the spirit of you will be loosened from the body and for forty days and two it will be freed to wander and to find a home in the bodies of some other human beings."
Mr. Twiggs edged himself stealthily round to the other side of the chair and glanced once again towards the door.
"Yes, quite dotty," was his muttered remark, "but if I humour him, perhaps he'll pay up now and go."
"Very much obliged, sir," he exclaimed heartily, "then I shan't be a dentist any more?" He pretended to appear anxious. "If so, who'll look after the practice, pray? Remember, I've got a wife and three children to support and there are always little bills to pay."
"The same powers," replied the stranger softly, "that liberate you from the daily toil will see to it that those dear to you suffer no harm." His face lit up admiringly. "But it grieves you that you leave, even for a short time, your work of service to mankind?" he asked.
"It will be a bit awkward, certainly," remarked Mr. Twiggs hesitatingly. "There's no knowing, for instance, what my assistant will do, if I go away."
"Fear not," said the stranger confidently, "all will be well, and even in your wanderings the good work will be going on. The whole time you will be purifying the minds of those into whose bodies you will choose to enter."
"Goodness gracious!" ejaculated Mr. Twiggs, not knowing exactly what to say, "will that really be so?"
"Yea, and for such time as your spirit is inhabiting their bodies, you will each hour hold their minds in sway. You will guide them; their thoughts will be your thoughts when you so desire it, and then their very speech and actions will be yours. You will teach them the glory of sacrifice and the sweetness of working for others without reward."
"Great Jupiter!" groaned Mr. Twiggs in real earnest this time. "I've certainly had enough experience in that department and no one should be a better teacher there."
The stranger reverently placed the little phial upon the table and then picked up his hat. "But remember," he added solemnly, as if in afterthought, "the boon that has been granted to you will last only forty days and two. During that period your spirit shall wander where you will, but, once you have chosen its habitation, it shall pass only from that being to some other—by the touching of your hand."
He walked slowly in the direction of the door.
"Gosh!" muttered the dentist, "he's not going to pay after all!"
But Mr. Twiggs was mistaken there, for as the stranger was passing the fire-place he put his hand in his pocket—the trouser pocket this time—and then came the unmistakable clink of a coin upon the mantel-shelf.
"A small tribute, sir," he said politely, "to your courtesy and skill," and with a low bow he opened the door and was gone.
Mr. Twiggs tip-toed stealthily across to the mantel-shelf and then exclaimed delightedly:
"A yellow-boy! A real sovereign of gold! Now who would have thought it?"
The nurse came in to clear up.
"Hypatia," cried the dentist excitedly, "my luck's going to turn, for a cash transaction has eventuated at last!" He picked up the sovereign and weighed it in his hand. "The very least I can do now is to take a ticket in Tatt's for the sweep on the Melbourne Cup." He hesitated, but only for a moment. "Put on your hat now and go straight round to Flack's, the tobacconist—you know where his shop is—and order me a ticket at once. He's not supposed to deal in them, but mention my name and it'll be quite all right."
"What is this ticket you want me to get, sir?" asked the nurse, looking very puzzled.
Mr. Twiggs raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Oh! innocence!" he exclaimed incredulously. "I had no idea that such could exist in this guilty world." He beamed upon her. "Tatt's, Hypatia, is a lottery conducted in the little adjoining island of Tasmania. The prizes run from five pounds to twenty thousand and the cost of this particular ticket for the Melbourne Cup will be exactly one pound. You understand now?"
"Yes, sir," smiled the nurse, "and I'll go at once."
The door closed behind her. Mr. Twiggs thought with amusement of the little phial, and taking it up gingerly he carried it over to the light. It was smaller than his little finger and the glass was of a dark amber colour. He smiled as he regarded it, and his thoughts harked back to its donor.
"Rum old cove!" he remarked. "I wonder from what part of the world he comes. I ought certainly to have asked. Not much to look at, but some authority with him and a decided splash of the sacerdotal in his tones. Now what's in this phial? Just some ordinary kind of scent, I suppose! I'll take it home to the wife, anyhow." He grinned. "I'll be generous and she shall have the sniff."
It was not destined, however, that the absent Mrs. Twiggs should ever even see the phial, let alone have what her scoffing husband called 'the sniff,' for when the latter was in the act of replacing the fragile tube upon the table, he slipped suddenly upon the linoleum and—hey presto!—it fell on to the floor, and lay broken by the side of the dental chair.
"Oh! confound it!" ejaculated Mr. Twiggs in great annoyance. "Now I've broken the beastly thing, and it'll stain the carpet, too."
He snatched a napkin from a cupboard, and bending down began to rub vigorously at the small offending stain.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed suddenly, and he remembered afterwards that he had stopped almost at the very first rub. "What a funny smell! But it's not at all bad, though!"
He bent his face quite low down until his nose was almost touching the floor. He sniffed hard several times and then—he drew in a long breath.
"My word!" he ejaculated faintly, "but how giddy I feel! I must lie down."
He tottered across the room and threw himself down at full length upon the sofa. A fearful drumming noise came into his ears, and a spark of dreadful brightness flashed before his eyes. Something seemed to tear horribly inside him and then came a sound as of a rusty sword being drawn forcibly from its scabbard. He felt he was being stifled and he wanted to shriek out.
Suddenly, however, all discomfort left him, and a beautiful feeling of ease began to prevail through all his limbs. He felt light and buoyant, and there was a strange abandon in his smallest movement. He rubbed his eyes and drew in deep draughts of air. He stood up and then turning round—found that he was looking down upon himself recumbent upon the sofa!
It was several minutes before Mr. Twiggs regained his composure, but then somehow he did not feel very extraordinarily surprised.
"Gosh!" was his first remark, "so the foreign Johnny was right after all, and there's to be six weeks' holiday now for M. M. Twiggs, Esq., from his body and his clothes."
He strolled across the room and looked into the glass; or, rather, he thought he looked into the glass, for he could see nothing there.
"But, of course, I am invisible now," he said proudly. "My blooming spirit's not on show." He looked back to his body on the sofa. "So that's me, is it?" he remarked thoughtfully. "Well, I had no idea I was getting so bald, but the wife has certainly put a good crease in those old trousers of mine."
Then somewhere in the building he heard the sound of people talking.
"Ah, but I must hurry," he ejaculated fearfully. "The two of us must not be found here at once. Hypatia may be back any moment now, and then, of course, there'll be no end of a how-do-you-do."
He darted quickly into the hall and then for a moment stood hesitatingly wondering if in his spirit condition, it would be possible for him to open the hall-door.
The matter was, however, solved suddenly of its own accord, for the door clicked open and a man in over-alls entered clumsily. He was carrying a ladder and a pail. Obviously in a great hurry, he bustled boisterously forward before Mr. Twiggs had time to step aside, and the protruding end of the ladder struck the dentist squarely in the chest.
Or rather—it did not strike him, for it passed right through him, likewise the man himself and likewise half the pail.
"Gee-whiz!" remarked Mr. Twiggs airily, "that's one advantage of being a spirit anyhow," and with no more ado he hopped down the steps and was out on to the terrace.
"Now wait a moment," he said, "and let me think. Now why," he asked frowningly, "didn't I get straight away taken into the body of that workman chap? Goodness knows, we were close enough, for the beggar actually passed right through me!"
He thought for a moment. "Ah! I have it!" he exclaimed. "I didn't will it; it was not my wish." He scoffed contemptuously. "Exactly—and quite right too. No workmen-fellows for me to spend a holiday in. I'm out for something better. I can choose where I will, and I want a bit more life."
He glided invisibly along the terrace and took up a position by one of the public seats.
"Oh! what a glorious day!" he exclaimed with delight, "and I am free to go anywhere—free as air. So, I'll be off to the races now for sure, directly, of course, I've found someone appropriate to take me there." He frowned. "Ah! someone appropriate, that's the thing. I must have somebody respectable and nice. Now let me see," he went on, "what did that fellow say? 'When you so desire it, their thoughts shall be your thoughts, and their very speech and actions shall be yours.'" He nodded. "Yes, when I so desire it! That's it. Then I can sail in and do nothing if I wish, or I can take command at once and boss the whole show. Just as little or as much interference as I please. Well, I'll probably go easy at first anyhow, until I begin to feel my way a bit."
He believed that he shook his head. "But I must do nothing rash and must be very careful whom I choose. Somebody important, of course, and someone, too, who lives well." He threw out an imaginary chest. "Dominion and power will be mine, but still—still there is no reason for the creature comforts of life to be neglected." He affectionately patted an imaginary stomach. "Why, I could do with a good lunch straightaway, I believe. Ah! here's Sir Marcus. Now what of him? '"
A short fat man came waddling by. He was red in the face and breathing heavily. Two men respectfully passed the time of day to him, and a pretty woman bowed and gave him a sweet smile. To the two men the fat man returned a curt nod, but to the pretty woman he lifted his hat with a grand flourish, and was obviously inclined to stop, had she not seemingly been in a great hurry and passed on.
"Oh, you wicked old sinner, Sir Marcus," commented Mr. Twiggs. "I don't wonder the pretty one gave you the quick go-by. In your public achievements you may be an excellent advertisement for the city, but, in private life your reputation's not too good. Now is it, old boy?"
He looked thoughtfully after the retreating figure. "I'm half—I'm half inclined, though, to give you a trial. No, no, I won't. You're a bit too cardiac for my liking, and besides, I really ought to have someone more delectable, at any rate for a start. But there's Bunions, there; now what about him? Bunions, one of the crack doctors of South Australia! No, no, he's too old for me and, again, I feel my nerves want a complete rest from the worries of a practice, and all the relief-of-pain stunt. I want something restful, at any rate to begin with. Hullo! hullo! here's Poodlum, the banker. Now, he's much more my mark. He's respectable and rich and I'll bet anything he keeps a good table. I've often wanted, too, to know how they run things in that rotten old bank of his. Yes, Poodlum shall be my first home and then I'll go round at once and put myself down for a jolly good overdraft. So here goes for the quick creep-in."
Mr. Twiggs glided stealthily forward to intercept the unsuspicious individual whom he had designated as Poodlum, but when close near him a pedestrian farther away suddenly caught his eye.
"Ye gods!" he exclaimed excitedly, "but here's someone better still! The archdeacon! the great Bottleworthy himself! Oh! what a chance."
A most important-looking person was approaching, a man dressed in severe and immaculate clerical attire. He had a proud, handsome face and a commanding eye, and tall and of a good figure, he carried himself erectly, taking each step forward exactly as if he were marching at the head of some very important procession.
"Oh! Bottleworthy, Bottleworthy," went on Mr. Twiggs reproachfully, "what a lot you think of yourself and the whackings you've given me at St. Benger's!" His eyes gleamed. "But now to get back a bit of my own." He thought quickly. "Again, what did that foreign chap say? Ah! I have it. Their thoughts shall be your thoughts and when you so desire it their very speech and actions shall be yours! Oh! great Jehoshaphat!"
He glided forward to meet the new-comer; there was a rustle in the air, a sharp click somewhere, and then for the nonce the spirit of Montague Mackerel Twiggs was housed in the ample and prepossessing body of Augustine Bottleworthy, Archdeacon of St. Jehu's Cathedral and Head Master of the great St. Benger's College.
ARCHDEACON BOTTLEWORTHY was a very well-known person in Adelaide, the beautiful city of the plains, and there were few citizens there who were unaware who he was when they encountered him in any public place.
In the early fifties, a proud cleric of cold imperious mien, he was reserved in disposition and most distant towards those not in his own social circle.
Undue humility certainly never troubled him and believing always to the point of an obsession that an admiring Providence had destined him for great things, he was sure that his high advancement in the Church was only the matter of a very short time.
For twenty years Head Master of St. Benger's College, one of the great schools of South Australia, and eleven, as Archdeacon of the Cathedral, he was quite aware that he loomed large in the public eye and he saw to it, accordingly, that all his movements should be well chronicled in the City Press.
By no possibility could it be said that the public were ever, even for one day, kept ill-informed as to exactly what he or his family were doing.
"Archdeacon Bottleworthy," they read, "left yesterday by the Melbourne Express—Archdeacon Bottleworthy returned from Melbourne this morning—Archdeacon, Mrs. and Miss Bottleworthy are spending a few days at Victor Harbour—Archdeacon Bottleworthy will preach on Sunday at St. Stephen's—Archdeacon Bottleworthy is confined to his room with a bad cold," etc., etc.
At St. Benger's, with a little less reserve, he would have been an even greater success, for he was a fine organizer, and had all the routine of school life well at his fingers' ends. By the masters and the boys alike he was feared and respected, but not loved.
Such then was the man whom Fate had ordained should first receive the wandering spirit of Mr. Montague Mackerel Twiggs.
The archdeacon had been walking majestically along. The day, being a Saturday, was a holiday, but for all that, he told himself he was 'on duty.' He was always 'on duty,' it was his habit to say, and at that moment he was casting around a cold and severe eye to determine if any of his scholars should be comporting themselves in a manner that he would consider detrimental to the interests and reputation of the college.
He walked up North Terrace and then at once his eyebrows contracted into a frown. Pilcher secundus was eating an apple in the street! Most disgusting! He must be reproved for it. Pilcher always did look a greedy youth, and it should be brought sharply home to him on Monday that the consumption of fruit upon the public highway was not in accordance with the traditions of St. Benger's.
Then Riddle, the junior mathematical master, next caught his eye. He never had liked Riddle much, he murmured, and the fellow was now actually reading a sporting paper whilst waiting at the corner for a tram! The archdeacon knew it was a sporting paper at a glance, for it was highly pink in colour and upon the exposed front page there were pictures of horses galloping at great speed. Good! then Riddle should be interviewed on Monday and advised strongly as to the desirability of keeping his sporting proclivities within the confines of his own home.
But the archdeacon's annoyance was not over yet, for suddenly he visualized Holt, the school butler, in the act of buying a race-card from a yelling boy.
"So, so," he hissed angrily, "and that's what he's up to, is it? That's the flower-show for which he asked for early leave to go to this afternoon!"
He frowned contemptuously and then in majesty walked on. He nodded curtly to Wangleton, the Baptist Minister of North Unley, and then catching sight of Poodlum, the banker, in front of him, slackened his pace so that he should not have to say 'Good morning.' He despised Poodlum because, although a wealthy man now, the latter had had no university education and his parents had been of poor social status.
Presently he arrived opposite the Public Library and then, just when he was considering whether or not he should cross to the other side of the terrace—Poodlum really was walking so slowly—he suddenly felt a twinge.
He did not know exactly what it was, or indeed in what part of his august body he had actually felt it, but it startled him considerably and made him catch his breath.
Something had happened he realized; something had given way, and then to his great astonishment he burst into a hearty laugh.
It was a loud laugh, an exultant laugh, the laugh of a man who was enjoying a good joke. Two passing pedestrians looked up inquiringly; a little boy in front began to run, and Poodlum, the banker, turned half round to see what was happening.
"Rootity-toot," hummed the archdeacon gaily to himself—
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute
In a very charming manner,
Pinkitty-pong she patters along,
On the keys of the grand pianner."
He waved his hand smilingly to Poodlum and the latter, smiling back, waited for him to come on.
"Good morning, Poodlum," cried the archdeacon hilariously and in a most friendly manner, "and pray how are all the little Poodles to-day?"
The banker's jaw dropped. Surely he could not have caught the words aright!
"All wagging their little tails, eh?" went on the archdeacon gaily, "and being good boys and girls and not running after motor-cars or chasing the cats."
A frown, a reluctant frown, came into the banker's face. That Archdeacon Bottleworthy was a most important person he was quite aware, but it was clear the man was now insulting him and he felt most indignant.
"I don't quite follow you," he said very coldly.
The archdeacon beamed good nature. "Only a little joke," he smiled apologetically. "The sun and the holiday really are too stimulating for an old man." He put his arm into that of the banker and, after a moment's hesitation on the part of the latter, the two walked on.
"Now, where are you off to?" inquired the archdeacon. "To that musty old bank of yours, I suppose."
The banker nodded without replying. It still rankled in him that the archdeacon had punned so disrespectfully upon his name and referred to his children as 'poodles.'
Two young fellows, walking quickly, overtook them.
They were dressed sportingly, in light check suits, with light ties to match. They wore bowler hats and they carried race-glasses, slung across their shoulders. They were laughing and talking animatedly together but, catching sight of the archdeacon, their faces sobered instantly and they both got rather red.
The archdeacon put up his hand for them to stop.
"Ha!" he exclaimed heartily. "Bulger primus, and Perkins secundus." He turned all smiles to the banker. "Both old St. Benger's boys, Poodlum, and very good boys, too, except perhaps for being a trifle wild." He shook his finger playfully at the taller of the two. "Now tell me, Bulger," he asked, "how many times did I whack you whilst you were at St. Benger's? Now how many times, pray?"
"Couldn't say, sir," replied the young fellow looking very innocent, "but I'm sure it was more than once."
"More than once," ejaculated the archdeacon, elevating his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Why, you young rascal, it was at least fifty times and the same with Perkins here, too. But where are you off to so hurriedly now? There's plenty of time, if it's to the flower-show you are going."
"No, sir, we're going to the races at Morphettville," replied young Bulger stoutly, yet getting redder in the face than ever. "There are some crack horses from Victoria running against ours in the Cup to-day."
"Ah! so I understand!" commented the archdeacon thoughtfully. "But the Victorians won't win, anyhow," he added, "for we shall beat them, and Whiskers will do the trick at the home bend. He will streak away like blue blazes—er—er"—he seemed to wince suddenly, but steadied himself and went on—"he'll—he'll accelerate his pace considerably at the turn and will ultimately achieve success by many lengths. He will pay a good dividend, too, I should say."
For a few seconds, then, an intense silence ensued. The faces of the archdeacon's hearers were pictures of surprise, and both Bulger primus and Perkins secundus stood literally open-mouthed. The contempt that the Head Master of St. Benger's had for racing was so well known and indeed it was his boast that he did not know the name of even one race-horse in the Commonwealth. He was dead against all forms of betting, too.
Poodlum was the first to recover. He was still annoyed about the punning and inclined to be spiteful, in consequence.
"Dear me! Archdeacon Bottleworthy," he remarked dryly, "I'm sure I had no idea you were so well posted in racing matters. Why, perhaps you are even intending to go to Morphettville yourself?"
The archdeacon looked sternly at his interrogator. His face had dropped to cold, proud lines again and all traces of the jovial humour of the few moments back had passed.
"And why not?" he asked with dignity. "Why should I not, if I want to?" The ghost of a smile flickered into his eyes. "I should meet, I am sure, not a few of the fathers and mothers of my boys."
"You would, sir," said Bulger primus heartily, "and I'm sure you'd enjoy yourself if you came. It will be a great afternoon's sport and besides"—the young fellow grinned rather impudently here—"you could keep us all in order whilst you were there. But good-bye, sir, we must be going now," and touching their hats respectfully, the two young fellows moved off.
"Good-bye, Poodlum, too," said the archdeacon carelessly. "I expect our roads part here. I am going to the club," and with a wave of his hand the great man resumed his walk and turned up into King William Street.
The archdeacon's club, one of the best in the city, was the great Boodle Club in Bunkum Square, and considered by its members to be aristocratic and exclusive to a degree. In a vulgar world, it was a refined oasis for the great ones of the earth and, as far as new membership was concerned, its rules and regulations were of so hard, so stringent and of so inflexible a nature, that no one except those of extreme importance could ever hope to enter in.
It was true of some of its members that their origins were obscure, and of others that their appearance and intelligence hardly suggested the incidence of gentle birth, but still—still—they were undoubtedly possessed of qualities that uplifted them far above their fellows. They were giants in their own way, for—they were great masters of £. s. d.
Yes, pounds, shillings and pence were most highly esteemed in this holy of holies, and to members of the club, generally, their possession in no wise detracted from the worthiness of a candidate, when at election time he approached its sacred doors.
But the archdeacon was a member by virtue of his position in the Church, and he saw to it, accordingly, that he preserved his dignity as a unit of the professional classes. He never mingled too freely with the other members of the club, and was never too familiar with those whose merits had been appraised upon a strictly cash basis.
Arriving then at the club upon this particular morning, he walked slowly into the lounge, and, with a distant nod to those whom he encountered, ensconced himself comfortably in a large armchair, and picking up a magazine proceeded unconcernedly to read.
For quite a long time he remained absorbed in his periodical, and then in spite of his abstraction he was forced with some reluctance to take interest in the conversation that was going on around him.
An election of new members, it appeared, was shortly coming on and the desirability, or otherwise, of a certain candidate was being energetically discussed. From the remarks passing it was evident there was nothing at all detrimental about the individual in a general way, for he was well-connected, a gentleman, and well-known in the insurance world, but doubt was being covertly expressed as to his importance in a strictly financial sense.
"But he's not a bad sort," drawled a tall man with a monocle, "and he plays quite a good game of golf."
"He tipped me the winner of the Hurdle's last week," chirruped a short, stout individual who was absorbing cocktails like a sponge, "and I don't forget that it paid nearly seven to one."
"He was pretty good too during the war, wasn't he?" contributed a third speaker. "I remember he worked hard for the Soldiers' Fund."
"That's all very well," exclaimed a fussy little person with some irritation, "but look at the house he lives in. Why, it's hardly larger than a good-sized cottage!"
"Dreadful, dreadful!"' groaned the cocktail man, "but hasn't anyone been sent to take an exact measurement of the rooms?"
"Oh, you needn't try to be funny," replied the fussy person warmly. "Think of the good name we've got here. We must all try to keep up the reputation of the club."
The archdeacon put down his magazine. He thought, strangely, that it was his duty to make some comment.
"And do I understand," he asked, in his quiet and aristocratic tone, "that there is some doubt as to the desirability of this gentleman as a member, simply because he lives in a house of somewhat smaller dimensions than those we inhabit ourselves?"
An instant hush came over the room, and for a few moments not a sound could be heard. It was most unusual for the archdeacon at any time to take part in the general conversation of the club, and now that he was so doing, everyone was interested to learn the reason why.
"Well, it's not exactly that," stammered the fussy man, looking rather embarrassed, "but—er—er, you see we can't be too careful and must all pull together to keep this club select. We've got our reputation to keep up, you know."
"Pooh! pooh!" exclaimed the archdeacon scornfully, "our reputation is quite an imaginary one, for really, we are many of us nonentities here. Just the sons or grandsons of men who made money in very humble occupations and handed it down when they died." He shrugged his shoulders. "Worthy men, undoubtedly, but butchers, drovers, farm-hands and people who kept little shops or inns."
There was a gasp of astonishment from the fussy man, and the hush deepened in the room. The archdeacon was the cynosure of all eyes.
Could members believe their ears? What—the great Boodle referred to as a club of nonentities and their early and long-forgotten histories dragged obscenely into the light! It was unthinkable, and from the archdeacon of all people, too!
The archdeacon smiled. He seemed to be enjoying the sensation he was creating. "Not that all of us in callings or professions either, have great cause to boast," he went on, "for very few of us, indeed, are the really important people that we imagine ourselves to be.'"
For quite a long moment no one took up the challenge, and then Professor Sinker from an armchair by the window, broke the silence.
"Really, Archdeacon," he remarked reprovingly, "you're a little bit hard on us, aren't you?"
The archdeacon looked over towards the speaker.
"Not at all, Professor," he replied calmly. "It's quite a mild statement that I made. We are just a very ordinary lot of people here and apart from our mediocrity I may add, too, that we are not all of us—even honest."
The fat was in the fire right enough this time, and, in spite of all the awe usually accorded to the archdeacon, he was now regarded with scowling faces and black brows. This really was beyond a joke!
"Come, come, Archdeacon Bottleworthy," snapped the professor very sharply, "you've no right to make a statement like that. It's a libel upon us all."
The archdeacon looked round disdainfully. "Sir," he replied coldly, "I lost two umbrellas here last month."
For the moment, the drop even of a pin could have been heard, and the atmosphere was charged everywhere with grim suspense.
Then suddenly the cocktail man exploded violently into a loud and rapturous guffaw, and all eyes were on the instant levelled in his direction.
What was the fellow up to? The archdeacon had openly stigmatized some of them as dishonest and here was one of their number actually laughing and treating it as a good joke! His amusement was worse than out of place! It was disgraceful!
But their black looks were of no avail and the cocktail gentleman continued to rock and roar with laughter. Then notwithstanding everyone's resentment, their merriment began to spread. The angry lines upon faces softened, lips began to twitch, and then before anyone could realize that it had happened, a delighted roar of laughter was rolling round the room.
"Oh, lor!" groaned the cocktail man, wiping his eyes, "but who could have pinched the ecclesiastical umbrellas?"
Professor Sinker alone had preserved his equanimity. "But these umbrellas of yours, Archdeacon," he asked frowning, "were they expensive ones?"
"The first one had an ivory handle," replied the archdeacon, "but the handle of the second one was only bone." He smiled dryly. "I was acquiring wisdom, you see."
A short and stout man with a round, fat face bustled breathlessly into the room, and throwing himself into a chair, called for a whisky and soda. He was the great Dr. Bunions, of North Terrace.
"Hullo, Doc," said a member, "you're late for prayer-time this morning. What's happened?"
"Oh, I had an urgent call, just when I was coming away," replied the doctor pompously. "Twiggs, the dentist, had some sort of seizure, and I had to go at once."
A mild interest was occasioned. "Anything serious?" asked one man. "Twiggs is my dentist."
"Can't say yet," replied Dr. Bunions, "I've never seen anything quite like it before. The man seems to be in some kind of trance. He'll probably get over it, however, but in any case he'll be laid up for some months."
"Not at all," said the archdeacon, breaking in. "He'll be indisposed for exactly six weeks, and then he'll be better than he's ever been before."
Dr. Bunions stared at the archdeacon in great surprise, and then, from the expression on his face, seemed upon the point of making some sarcastic remark. But he remembered, in time, that he had many church patients, and also that the archdeacon was far too important a person to offend. So he just contented himself with a smile, and remarked dryly:
"Then we're rival practitioners, are we, Archdeacon? But I didn't know you had already made a diagnosis of the case."
"Nor have I," replied the archdeacon carelessly, "but for quite a long time I have thought something of the kind was coming on. Young Twiggs has been much too hard-worked." He raised his voice. "Twiggs is the best dentist in the State."
"But I thought Fangles was your dentist," said Dr. Bunions.
The archdeacon inclined his head haughtily. "Twiggs is our best dentist, I say."
"By the by, Doctor," broke in the man with the monocle, "now do you happen to have any umbrellas in your house?"
"Certainly, sir," replied the unsuspicious doctor, looking rather puzzled, "as a matter of fact, I have two."
For the second time that morning there was a delighted roar of laughter round the room, and the stout man ordered, paid for, and consumed another cocktail before the hilarity had quite died down.
For a while then the archdeacon resumed the perusal of his magazine, but soon becoming aware that he was feeling hungry, he proceeded into the dining-room to partake of lunch. There, to his astonishment, for it was his rule of life never to drink alcohol at any midday meal, he found himself ordering a pint of burgundy and later two brandy liqueurs.
"But I ought not to have done it," he frowned as he returned into the lounge, "for it is not seemly that the cloth should be seen drinking in public. It is sure to be remarked upon and may get back to St. Benger's."'
The clock struck one, and with everyone apparently bent upon going to the races, the lounge quickly emptied and soon the archdeacon was the only one remaining there.
He tried to concentrate upon his magazine but, do all he could, his thoughts were very far away, and above all things, to his very great annoyance, he kept on wondering how Whiskers would fare in the Cup.
But what a lovely day it was, he mused, and how delightful it would be to stroll about at Morphettville! How gay and bustling the race-course would look and how happy and animated everyone would be!
He sighed heavily, for he had not been to a race-meeting for nearly thirty years, not indeed, since his undergraduate days, and the memory of everything now came back to him, and struck at him like a blow. He was growing old, he told himself; he was losing grip on the happiness of life, and he was getting mouldy, like so many of the other clergy were.
He remembered so well the last race he had seen. It had been on the great, wide moor at Doncaster, in the far-off days at home. Yes, he could visualize, even now, the whole scene, with a great bunch of horses, nearly a score of them, all charging up the course in line. It had been anyone's race up to within a few yards of the judge's box, and then a beautiful little chestnut filly had flashed out in front and snatched the spoils almost in the last stride. It had been terribly exciting, and he remembered his delight, because it had been the winner he himself had backed.
Ah! those had been happy days, and he had not thought then that racing was an evil thing! He wrinkled up his forehead and looked very troubled. Then why did he think so now?
He thought on for quite a long while and then suddenly his face broke into a relieved and happy smile. Perhaps, after all, he was mistaken, he told himself, and therefore, as a just man, surely it was his clear duty to ascertain at once if it were really so. Yes, of course it was, and so he would go straightaway down to Morphettville and see for himself how Whiskers would—he corrected his thoughts quickly—how things were conducted on the race-course side. It was his duty, plain and unmistakable, and the wonder was he had not thought of it before! Really, he had been very remiss!
He picked up his hat and passing out of the building proceeded to walk quickly in the direction of the railway station.
THE afternoon was certainly going to be a glorious one, and within a few moments of leaving the club the subtle influence of blue sky and bright sun appeared in some mysterious way to have worked a most extraordinary change in the archdeacon. He walked with elastic, springy steps; he threw out his chest, and he inhaled delightedly the soft, warm air. His eyes twinkled and he smiled broadly. Indeed, the austere and scornful ecclesiastic of the Boodle Club was now replaced by an individual who scintillated joy and contentment, as if there were no cares or troubles in all the world.
At the top of the railway-station steps he came again upon Wangleton, the Baptist Minister, and the latter, remembering that curt nod of but a little while ago, now turned his head away and pretended not to see his colleague in the spiritual world. But the archdeacon stopped point-blank, and in the friendliest manner possible, proceeded to engage him in conversation. He asked him about his family, his work, and how his church was getting on. He invited him to come up to St. Benger's and hear the new organ they had put in, and also he expressed the hope that in future he should see more of him.
"You know, we black-coated chaps," he said finally, wagging his finger in the astonished minister's face, "ought to try and pull together more. The Reunion of Christendom will never eventuate, until we do," and off he went down the steps, smiling and beaming as before.
His smile, however, sobered somewhat down after he had taken his ticket and was approaching the platform from where the race-specials were about to start. Then he frowned in a puzzled kind of way and pinched himself furtively to make sure that he was not dreaming, but was truly and actually awake.
What had happened, he asked himself, that he, Augustine Bottleworthy, of all people, should be going to the race-meeting at Morphettville? And then he suddenly remembered. "Ah! it was his duty," and at once he chuckled at the very thought of all the gossip there would be.
Now racing is undoubtedly the most popular of all pastimes in the great Commonwealth of Australia, but for all that it is, and always has been, strictly taboo in Church circles. No clergyman or minister of any Protestant denomination is ever to be seen upon the race-course side, no matter how many of their congregation may be given openly to the sport.
So the archdeacon might well smile to himself when thinking of the stir his presence would now occasion at Morphettville. He knew it would be quite impossible that he would pass unnoticed, even amongst the large crowd that would be assembled there, and that speculation and interest would be aroused at once.
And he was quite right, too, but the speculation, and the interest he excited, began long before he had left the railway-station itself.
Before he had gone even five yards from the barrier, the official who had clipped his ticket there, turning to follow his retreating form with astonished eyes, gave it emphatically as his opinion that his own after-life was destined to be an unpleasant one. The inspector who politely showed him into the railway carriage gulped hard, as if he were in the act of swallowing his whistle, and the boy who came round with race-cards grinned impishly when he saw what manner of man it was who was handing him the sixpence.
But the archdeacon settled himself unconcernedly in a corner, congratulating himself that he had come in good time, for the carriage, a large saloon, began filling rapidly. He started to study the programme, and then again he found his hand wandering to his leg and once more he began pinching himself to make sure that he was actually awake.
What had happened, he again asked himself, and this time much more fearfully? What had come over his mind? The whole contents of the racing programme seemed perfectly familiar to him, and he sensed, without any possible doubt whatsoever, a most extensive acquaintanceship with the names, and even the very merits of the horses down to run!
He knew somehow, for instance, that Podger would be top-weight in the hurdles, and he was quite expecting that Dripping Tin would be carrying somewhere about nine stone one. He took it for granted that Baby Boy would be one of the bottom weights in the Welter, and that the burden of Whiskers would be seven stone four in the Cup! He appeared to know lots of other things, too, about the racing, and indeed the whole business seemed to be one with which he was on perfectly familiar and even intimate terms.
He pinched himself vigorously. Who was he—Augustine Bottleworthy, or some dreadful racing man? He could not for the life of him understand it. Two personalities were fighting in him, one cold, stern and haughty, and the other free-and-easy and profane, and each of them in turn appeared to be getting the upper hand.
The train started upon its short six-mile journey, and for the first few minutes or so he sat thoughtfully regarding the passing objects as the train flashed by. Then he sighed heavily, but immediately followed up the sigh with a chuckling laugh. Why should he worry, he asked himself suddenly? Life was for happiness and enjoyment, and it was a lovely day!
He looked round to find himself being most intently regarded by a young man sitting opposite to him. Like the archdeacon, the latter was holding a race-card in his hand, but his eyes were now fastened furtively upon the clergyman's face. He seemed not only puzzled, but a trifle uneasy as well, as if apparently he did not relish such close proximity to a man who was given to laughing to himself.
The archdeacon smiled blandly. "Lovely day, sir, is it not?"' he remarked.
"Yes, it is," assented the young man rather nervously.
"Sure to be a good crowd," went on the archdeacon.
The young man just nodded his head this time, and for a moment there was silence. Then the archdeacon suddenly bent over and asked with his most ingratiating smile: "Now what do you think of Reunion?"
The young man appeared most embarrassed.
"What weight has it got?" he stammered, as he began hurriedly to turn over the pages of his race-card.
The archdeacon burst into a loud and hearty laugh. "Very good, very good! Excellent, my young friend!" He tapped the young man jocularly upon the knee and then suddenly became grave again. "But I'm afraid it's got a very big weight indeed, for it's weighted with all the jealousies and mistakes of nearly two thousand years."
The young man looked more uncomfortable than ever, and it almost seemed as if he were about to get up and change his seat, but happily for his peace of mind the archdeacon's attention was at that moment diverted into quite another direction.
A man at the other end of the carriage, hearing the laughter, had turned round to see what was going on. Meeting the archdeacon's eye, however, he had instantly averted his gaze, and sinking his neck into his collar had tried forthwith to make himself as unnoticed and inconspicuous as possible.
The archdeacon frowned as if rather puzzled, but then light seemed to break in upon him and he smiled with the pleasure of a man making an unexpected and agreeable discovery.
"Ah, Riddle!" he exclaimed. "I thought I knew that suit of clothes," and, with a courteous bow of apology to the young man opposite, he rose up and moved briskly along the carriage to where his junior mathematical master was sitting.
The luckless Riddle, however, was not alone, for there were a lady and two little boys with him. The archdeacon gave him a friendly pat upon the shoulder and squeezed down beside him.
"Well, Riddle," he said jovially, "so you wouldn't notice one of your friends, eh?"
The junior mathematical master was hot in his embarrassment. He had recognized the archdeacon the instant he had looked round, but had devoutly hoped that the recognition was not mutual, for to be caught, as he was now, by the Head when going to the races was a ghastly piece of misfortune that might easily lead to his dismissal from the school. The archdeacon, he knew, had absolutely no mercy where his prejudices were concerned, and he felt sick in his dismay when he thought of his wife and two little boys.
But he pulled himself together and forced his lips into a smile.
"I didn't think it could be you, sir," he replied, and then he inclined his head towards the lady opposite. "This is my wife, sir. Mary, this is Archdeacon Bottleworthy, our Head."
Mrs. Riddle coloured. She, of course, knew all about the archdeacon and was quite aware that the situation was most awkward, and indeed, might mean positive disaster for her husband, but she was a clever woman, as well as a pretty one—she was still only in the twenties—and rising to the occasion, gave the archdeacon a most captivating smile.
"I've often heard you preach," she fibbed bravely. "We always try to go, when it's your duty at the cathedral."
The archdeacon raised his hand protestingly. "My dear young lady," he replied, "now don't please refer to that, upon a beautiful day like this. We're all on pleasure bent this afternoon and unpleasant matters should be put away." He smiled at the two little boys and patted the elder one upon the head. "Now what's your name?" he asked.
"Jack," replied the little boy.
"Well, when you're old enough, Jack, your Daddy must bring you up to my school. Now don't forget that, Riddle." He turned again to the little boy. "You'd like to come, Jack, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, please," said the little boy and he added timidly: "Daddy says there's a bear up there."
The mother blushed scarlet and Riddle himself broke into a clammy sweat.
The archdeacon looked puzzled for a moment and then, observing, as he could not help doing, the embarrassment upon the parents' faces, a sudden light came into his own.
"Ha, ha!" he laughed happily. "A bear! Of course there is! That's me!" He wagged his finger roguishly at the luckless master. "'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,' Riddle, but you really will have to be more careful as they grow older." He chucked little Jack delightedly under the chin. "Well, you shall come up and see the bear, my boy, and perhaps he'll be able to find you a nice warm corner in his cage." He smiled pleasantly at Mrs. Riddle, and then turned again to her husband. "Now where are you going to take these youngsters to this afternoon, Riddle—on to the grand-stand?"
"No, sir," stammered the perspiring Riddle, "we're all going on the Flat. It's just a little picnic we're going to have there. We've brought our lunch with us!"
"And very nice too," said the archdeacon. "It will be lovely for the children, I'm sure."
"If Ju-Ju wins," said little Jack shyly, "Daddy's going to buy us pistols that fire caps."
There was a horrible glare from the boy's father and Mrs. Riddle looked as uncomfortable as anyone could possibly be.
The archdeacon's face became all suddenly cold and stern and he turned frowningly to the junior mathematical master.
"Riddle," he said sharply, and there was anger as well as incredulity in his tone, "you're not surely going to put money on Ju-Ju? You can't be such an ass!"
Poor Riddle winced, and in his own mind he felt more muddled than any ass. He could think of no adequate excuse at all. His misfortunes had all come so quickly that he had had no time to prepare for them. Fate was indeed dealing a disastrous blow. He had boarded the train expecting to have a nice, happy afternoon and perhaps back a winner or two with a lucky half-crown, and then—in had butted this dreadful ecclesiastic and everything was being spoilt. Visions of instant dismissal on Monday loomed up into his mind, and he wondered where on earth he would be able to get another crib.
"A friend of mine, sir," he stammered crestfallenly at length, "advised me that Ju-Ju was certain to win the race to-day and I was going to have a trifle on him, for luck."
The archdeacon shook his head. "Ju-Ju won't win," he said emphatically. "They're not running him to win to-day. I'm sure of it." He looked round significantly and lowered his voice. "Back Whiskers," he muttered; "he's the nap for this afternoon. He's a snip."
The junior mathematical master could not believe his ears.
"Back Whiskers!" he exclaimed incredulously—"put some money on him, sir!"
The archdeacon nodded. "He's a sure thing," he whispered, "and you'll be able to make your wife a nice little present afterwards." He smiled most benevolently upon Mrs. Riddle. "Here, give me your race-card, Mrs. Riddle, and I'll mark what I think's going to win. I'm not a bad judge, as you will see."
Mrs. Riddle was all smiles as she handed over the card. She could not for the life of her understand it, but she realized thankfully that whatever danger had threatened them had, at any rate for the moment, passed, and she was so bright and animated in her relief that the archdeacon thought how pretty and attractive she looked.
The remainder of the journey passed very quickly for them all, and Mrs. Riddle, for one, was quite sorry when it was over. She was simply charmed with the archdeacon. He was so polite and so courtly and had such aristocratic manners. Besides, he undoubtedly wanted to be so friendly, too. Twice, again, he spoke about the little boys going to St. Benger's and when finally upon their arrival at the race-course, he said good-bye, he gave them all a hearty hand-shake and wished them good-luck.
"Hm!" he muttered thoughtfully to himself, as he walked towards the entrance gates. "Riddle's not at all a bad sort and not half such an irresponsible chap as I have thought him. Nice little wife, too, and good-looking children. Must cost him something to keep them so spick and span. That's why, I suppose, he always wears that one shabby suit himself." The archdeacon frowned. "I'll see what salary we are paying him on Monday. It's time, perhaps, he had a rise."
The horses had gone down to the starting post for the first race when the archdeacon arrived upon the course, and most of the spectators had already taken up their positions upon the grand-stand, to ensure a good view. All the lower rows were crowded, and so he had to proceed some way up, before he could obtain a seat.
Now it could convey no very good idea of exactly what occurred to say that the archdeacon was noticed at once. Not only was he noticed, but he immediately became the centre of lively interest for a great many pairs of eyes, and his stately march up the steps was punctuated, at almost every stride, by the greetings he both gave and returned. He was lifting his hat all the time.
"How do you do, Mrs. Wopple-Smith? how do you do, Mrs. Muggs? a lovely day, Mr. Bumbletoes; beautiful weather, Mrs. Potts."
He simply beamed amiability, and every line of his fine, handsome face and every curve of his upright and commanding figure spoke of the good temper which possessed him.
He found a seat at last, and in the friendliest manner possible at once opened a conversation with the man sitting next to him.
"Glorious afternoon, isn't it? Yes, but I like it hot; in fact, it can't be too hot for me. Ah! this race is only a mile, I see. Then they will be starting right opposite to us on the other side, won't they? No, I don't think myself that Turk's Head can give the weight. He's a good horse, I know, but nine stone's a steadier any day for a three-year-old. I think one of the middle brigade will take it. Chatsworthy for instance, or Friar's Oak. But there goes the starting-bell, and now we shall soon see."'
A couple of minutes later and a roar from the crowd announced that the horses were off. Then for a few minutes followed the usual almost breathless silence.
"Turk's Head got a good break on them anyhow," said the archdeacon's neighbour triumphantly. "They'll never catch him now."
"Don't you be so sure, my friend," replied the archdeacon calmly. "Turk's Head's only a six furlong horse, remember, and he's not bred to stay. He's certainly running well, but they've a long way to go yet."
The man looked round in astonishment. He knew well who the archdeacon was, and now to hear him talking so familiarly of racing matters surprised him immensely. But a minute later and he was destined to be even more surprised still.
The horses came thundering into the straight and then things happened almost exactly as the archdeacon had forecast. Turk's Head led easily until just beyond six furlongs and then he shut up like a concertina, leaving Chatsworthy and Old Joe to carry on. The pair ran neck and neck, until within ten yards of the winning post and then up came Friar's Oak to beat them both by more than a length. Chatsworthy took second place, by the shortest of heads.
The archdeacon walked down off the grand-stand with an amused smile upon his face. "Really," he murmured, "I don't know at all what's happened, but I'm certainly not a bad judge. One with each barrel, first time."
He was pounced upon at once by a showily dressed woman, with a highly-powdered face.
"Archdeacon," she exclaimed volubly, "I'm astonished to see you here! Fancy you're coming racing, now!"
"Why not, Mrs. Gobling?" replied the archdeacon blandly. "Why separate the glad shepherd from his flock?" He smiled grimly and waved his hand around. "Quite a number of my sheep I see are here, although from the way they've just missed supporting Friar's Oak, I'm almost inclined to believe that many of them must be goats. Look! he's paying an £18 15s. 0d. dividend in the totalisator and I regarded him as quite a good thing."
"Oh, Archdeacon Bottleworthy!" exclaimed the showily dressed woman delightedly, "I had no idea you knew anything about racing. Now do, please, mark my card for me."
"Certainly I will, Mrs. Gobling," replied the archdeacon, laughing, "but, remember, I am only doing it in my capacity as a private individual." He looked round with a well-assumed appearance of guile and lowered his voice to a whisper. "As Archdeacon of the Cathedral, and Head Master of St. Benger's, I have no knowledge whatsoever about horses, for they are only the very languid predecessors of motor-cars to me."
"Oh, Archdeacon," said Mrs. Gobling, "you are a wonderful man!"
The two walked up and down the lawn and it was soon known all over the race-course that Archdeacon Bottleworthy was in the enclosure. People edged near to have a look at the bold cleric who was so defying the conventions of his order, and many were the laudatory remarks that were passed about him.
"Well I'm damned!" exclaimed a bull-necked individual whom, from his general appearance, no one would certainly have suspected of being a teetotaller. "A blinking parson, is it, and enjoying himself too! Now where's his show, I wonder? I must find out and take the missus to see what form he shows on his own course. Sure I will."
"Oh, look!" said a middle-aged lady upon the grand-stand, vigorously powdering her nose. "Now, just fancy Archdeacon Bottleworthy being here! Who would have thought it, and he looks as nice as anything too. I'll give it to my boy the next time he says the Head is a bear."
"Ha-ha!" sniffed cynical old Major Kanns, "Bottleworthy's got more go in him than I thought. I really think I must return the compliment and go and hear him preach. I've got a crooked threepenny bit that's been bothering me for quite a long while, and it will just do for the collection bag. No one will take it in the City."
Just after the fifth race had been decided one of the committee-men of the racing club rushed excitedly into their private room.
"Look here, you fellows," he called out, "we ought to invite old Bottleworthy in to have some refreshment. Gingerbeer or anything he likes. He seems a decent old sort and it won't do us any harm."
"Oh, no," said another member, "leave the old blighter alone. I'm told he's going to preach to-morrow in the cathedral and he'll probably pitch it in then, hot and strong, about the evils of gambling. He's only come here to spy out the land."
"Spy out the land!" ejaculated the first speaker disdainfully. "Why he's been picking out winners all the afternoon! He's been marking people's cards ever since he came on the course and I know for a fact that he's already given three firsts and one second. He told simply scores of people to back Whiskers and there are whole bevies of Church females now counting up their cash. I tell you it's the greatest blow the Nonconformist clergy have had for years. Spy out the land indeed! Why, he's been by far the best tipster here this afternoon."
And there could be no denial of the truth of the committee-man's report. The archdeacon had certainly been most successful in his prognostications. He had picked out Blucher for the Hurdles when the bookmakers had been offering ten to one. Then he had given Conger Eel for the Welter and it had returned its gratified supporters £6 5s. 0d. in the totalisator. But it was Whiskers that had been his greatest triumph—for Whiskers, the despised Whiskers—ridden by a raw apprentice boy, had simply romped home and had paid the delightful dividend of £27 for each pound invested.
It had been the easiest win of the afternoon, too. All the horses had got off well and Ju-Ju had led for half a mile. Then Grey Salmon had suddenly headed the field, and it had been shouted everywhere that the son of Tinned Fish would take the spoils. But just after turning the bend and coming into the straight, Whiskers had been noticed to be going like a scalded cat and almost before anyone could realize it, he had established a lead of at least half a dozen lengths. Nothing could then make any impression on him, and retaining his advantage to the end, he had simply rolled home as he liked.
The congratulations to the archdeacon had been almost overwhelming and not even the comparative seclusion of a corner in the tea-room had been able to preserve him from the attention of his admirers.
But the best summary of all that happened upon that memorable afternoon was undoubtedly that given by the committee-man, Puffett-Hughes, to his wife that night at dinner.
"Yes, my dear, it's quite true that the great Archdeacon Bottleworthy came to the races, although it seems incredible, and no one can understand it, even now. But there he was the whole afternoon strutting about like an old peacock, with all his feathers spread. He went everywhere and he was friendly and affable to everyone. He took a most active interest in the racing, too, and simply reeled off winners, as if he were quoting texts. They say he was right through the card without one mistake. I know for certain he gave Whiskers to win the Cup, for with my own ears I heard him implore the Button-Browns to back nothing else in the race. He said Whiskers would head all the others as he came round into the straight, and, funnily enough, that's exactly what the old beggar did.
"Then you should have seen Bottleworthy clap, when young Blotter rode up to weigh in. Of course most people had lost their money and the boy was getting quite a cool reception until the archdeacon started the cheers. Then everybody began to laugh and the cheering that followed was as much, I am sure, for the archdeacon as for the boy himself.
"Then the next thing that happened was that we invited Bottleworthy into the committee-room to have some refreshment, and, by Jove, we got the shock of our lives there again! We asked him if he would like some lemonade or a cup of tea, and he replied as bold as brass that he'd prefer a large whisky and soda. A large whisky and soda, mind you, not a small one!
"Then Spicer, the chairman, as a compliment, suggested he should be taken into the weighing-room and other places where the general public are not permitted to go. Spicer thought it would be an education for him and give him some idea of the inner workings of the racing game. But, bless your heart, Bottleworthy seemed to know as much about things there as we did, if not more. He even knew all the jockeys by name, and started chipping one or two of them for the way they rode. He told Muggins he was a bad finisher, and used his whip too much, and he advised Ferntops to ride with a much longer stirrup, for it always looked as if he had got no control over his mounts."
Puffett-Hughes nodded smilingly to his wife. "Yes, my dear, everyone thought it most extraordinary Bottleworthy should have come to the meeting and, to return the compliment, scores of racing folk have arranged to go to the cathedral to-morrow to hear him preach." He made a grimace. "I'm going and so are you."
The archdeacon arrived home that evening, very cheerful, although rather tired.
His family was a small one, consisting only of his wife and daughter, and no one could by any possibility have said that he was not fortunate in their possession. His wife, a small and fragile-looking woman, had a great affection for him but was very much afraid of him as well. All her married life, she had never crossed him, regarding him as a superior sort of being, who was wise in all things, and whose will should always be law. His daughter, Margaret, however, was much firmer in disposition than her mother and rather resembled her father in appearance. She was a tall, good-looking girl of two and twenty, with clear-cut aristocratic features and beautiful grey eyes. She, too, stood in some considerable awe of her father, but by no means to the extent that her mother did, and of late years she had often dared to argue with him, and to laugh at some of his ideas, when he happened to be in a particularly good humour.
The archdeacon was certainly happy in his home life and, if he were seldom demonstrative in his affection for his family, it was apparently because it was natural for him to be reserved.
His wife met him as he came into the hall. "Ah, now don't scold me because I'm late," he said gaily. "I've been to the races, my dear."
"The races, Augustine!" she ejaculated, looking very startled. "What made you go there?"
He bent down and kissed her affectionately on the cheek. "Why not, Theresa?" he asked. "It was quite an experience and I met so many people I knew, quite half the cathedral congregation, I am sure, and certainly more than half the choir."
"But you must have felt out of place, Augustine," she said.
"Not at all, my dear," he replied, looking rather pleased and then, after a moment, puzzled. "Indeed everything seemed to come quite naturally to me and I made some really wonderful prognostications as to which particular horses would come in first. In fact, Theresa," and he dropped his voice and smiled mysteriously, "although I don't quite understand it, your husband was verily among the prophets, this afternoon."
Contrary to the usual order of things, it was quite a lively dinner that evening, and under the mellowing influence of some old wine the archdeacon overflowed with wit and humour, indeed, he was so bright and merry that he kept his wife and daughter in smiles all the time.
He remarked how becomingly the former had done her hair, and laughingly said it reminded him of the day when he had first met her.
"You remember how you squeezed my hand then, Theresa," he said, "that afternoon when we were introduced at the bishop's garden-party? Oh, yes, she did, Margaret!"—for his wife had smilingly shaken her head—"she squeezed it right enough and I couldn't prepare a line of my sermon that evening, in consequence! She looked at me, too, as she is looking now." He pretended to sigh heavily. "I remember I was intending at that time to join the High Church party and become a celibate priest, and I am always convinced it was that squeeze that upset all my plans."
"Was mother's then the only girl's hand that ever gave you a squeeze, Father?" asked his daughter demurely, but with a twinkle in her eyes.
"Tut, tut!" replied the archdeacon grandly. "Remember, my dear, I was ordained when I was quite young"—he affected a discreet cough—"and the Church was never without its privileges. Oh, by the by, Margaret," he went on, as if his thoughts had suddenly been turned into some particular channel, "I met young Grainger at the races this afternoon. He came up and shook hands with me, but somehow he didn't think to ask after you."
The girl flushed hotly. She was surprised as well as embarrassed, for she knew it was not like her father to make any mention at all of young Grainger's name. Everyone was quite aware that the latter was an admirer of hers and also that because of the occupation of his people he was never invited up to the house. His father was a provision merchant in the City, but he himself had just been admitted to the practice of the law. A little more than three years Margaret's senior, and an old St. Benger's boy, he was well spoken and undeniably good-looking. He was also not without some determination of character, for notwithstanding repeated snubs from the archdeacon, whenever, indeed, the latter deigned to notice him, he was always about and handy at any public function, where it was probable the girl would be. What exactly Margaret thought about him no one knew, but it was averred by some that, when at the cathedral, she always took care to look, at least once, in the direction where he usually sat.
"Yes," the archdeacon went on thoughtfully, "he's certainly a good-looking young fellow, and there's one thing I always did like about him—he's always most obliging and polite. This afternoon he was most anxious to explain to me all about the details of horse-racing, but I assured him it was quite unnecessary, and in return I advised him to back a quadruped called 'Whiskers.'"
"And did it win, Father?" asked his daughter, who had now recovered her composure.
"Certainly it did, my dear, and it paid a most healthy dividend, too, £27 for each pound invested. Its progress was, moreover, exactly as I predicted. It was not of much account in the early part of the race, but once round the corner it was seen to be galloping like blue blazes"—he smothered a cough—"ahem! was seen to be proceeding at a greatly accelerated pace and finally it easily outdistanced all the others and came in first."
Dinner over, they went into the drawing-room, and the archdeacon was just lighting a cigar when the telephone bell rang sharply in the hall, and a moment later the parlour-maid came in.
"It's a Mr. Grainger, sir," she said to the archdeacon, "and he wants to know when he can see you for a few minutes, about the Old Boys' Concert. He says he won't keep you long."
"Ah," remarked the archdeacon, thoughtfully, "certainly a most determined young man. I thought he had not been given that square chin of his for nothing." He turned to his daughter.
"You speak to him, Margaret," he said rather slyly. "Tell him he can come up this evening if he likes, but impress upon him that I can only give him a few minutes, and that if he stays longer than that, then you or your mother will have to entertain him. I have my sermon for to-morrow to prepare."
Some twenty minutes later a student of psychology would have been enabled to make at least three subtle analyses in the drawing-room of Archdeacon Bottleworthy, at St. Benger's College.
First, he would have considered the archdeacon himself, a man of seemingly two distinct personalities; the one cold and narrow-minded, and contemptuous of the young fellow then before him, because the latter's father pursued an occupation that to the arch-deaconal mind was incompatible with the calling of a gentleman, and the other—warm and sympathetic, but for long years entombed in prejudice and pride, and only now tearing at its cere-cloth and rising from the dead.
Then, next, there was young Grainger. A challenger in the lists of love! A youth who had for his incentive the desire of all the ages, and who was urged forward and made bold by the inherited instinct of all time.
And then there was the girl. What of the girl? Was the mystery and sweetness of Love calling to her, and was she, even now, preparing for the great surrender, when a woman bows her head to the woman nature in her, and gives up all?
Who could have told?
The following evening, the Sunday evening, a full quarter of an hour before the time when the service was to begin, the great cathedral of St. Jehu was filled to its utmost capacity, and in hoarse whispers the cathedral officials frankly admitted to one another that they could not understand it at all.
That the archdeacon was always a good draw they conceded readily enough, but for the cathedral to be fully occupied so early, required more explanation than on the surface was apparent.
"And such a mixed lot, too, Mottle," whispered Spiker, the head verger, to his assistant. "There's people 'ere I've never seen come before." He covered his mouth with his hand, and with a great air of mystery dropped his voice very low. "Racing crowd—lots of them. That's old Bloxam, the trainer, I just showed to the front pew, and before him there was Spooner and the jockey 'Obbs, and there's lots of others, too."
"Pooh, pooh!" whispered back Mottle, whose rule of life it was never to be outdone. "I've been showing in nothing but trainers and jocks for the last half hour. There's four jocks all together over there by that pillar now." He nodded his head solemnly, as if he were confiding some tremendous secret. "That little one's Blotter, who won on Whiskers yesterday, the one with the red tie."
"You don't say so," muttered Spiker, with a reverence that he had never in his life accorded to any Church dignitary, "and it paid twenty-seven pounds for one!"
But there was no doubt that, even allowing for the somewhat exaggerated statement of Mr. Mottle, there were a large number of racing people in the cathedral that evening. Indeed, as Bloxam, the trainer, remarked when once, for one brief moment, he summoned up courage and turned his head to look round, there was enough material at hand to have made up quite a respectable race-meeting, in all its departments.
"Quite a good-looking lot, we are too," he whispered to his neighbour, "if our blooming faces wasn't so red. But I do hope the boys won't fidget and'll behave. We don't, any of us, know the course too well, but it'll be all right if we go easy and just follow old Bottleworthy over the jumps."
But Mr. Bloxam, as events proved, need have had no anxiety at all on the score of good behaviour. Nothing at all went wrong. It was true that habitual frequenters of the cathedral could sense a certain feeling of strained awkwardness in the building, and it is quite possible as several of them afterwards averred, that a palpable rustle of excitement did flutter round when the numbers of the hymns went up into their frame, but apart from this little and peculiar happening everything else was just as ordinary and regular as it possibly could be, and the offertory afterwards showed most conclusively in what appreciation the service had been held.
Punctually at the stroke of seven the choir appeared, and behind them marched the clergy, with Archdeacon Bottleworthy and the bishop last of all. It was remarked by several that the archdeacon looked rather pale, and indeed it seemed that he was even nervous as he took his place in his accustomed stall.
But he looked as dignified and majestic as ever, as if he were quite aware that the chancel of a cathedral was the only fit and proper setting for a personality such as his. And when in due time he mounted the pulpit steps and, after a silent prayer, paused for a moment to look thoughtfully upon the sea of upturned faces before him, there was no one surely in that great congregation who was not moved to some small or great extent by the mien of priestly authority that was his.
It was quite a short sermon that he preached, but one very much to the point.
Undoubtedly the greatest failing of many well-intentioned religious people, he told them, was their narrow-mindedness. They took to themselves certain views of life—in most cases quite by accident, and without any thought at all—and for those who did not agree with them they had nothing but condemnation and distrust. They arrogated to themselves superior judgment in all things, and were convinced, absolutely, that they alone were right. The more ignorant they were, the more certain they were, for it was their obsession that they should measure all the corn of the earth in their own little pottles.
And it was these narrow-minded people who so turned the world against religion, for they made of it a deadly Upas tree, beneath whose shadow were to die so much of the joy and happiness of life.
But in reality religion was a kind and beautiful thing, giving to all a consciousness of right and wrong, and without something of it, in some form or other, no man could be a useful member of the community and of service to his kind.
No matter what his disposition was, everyone must have and follow some definite rule of conduct, and whether in his business or his pleasure, he must see to it that he did not fall away from his reverence for ideals. It was the cheat and the liar who filled the world with distrust. It was the trickster and the thief in any calling who robbed that calling of its honour and good name, and it must be remembered always that things that were not wrong in themselves, became wrong and harmful to the community when their pursuit was carried on among surroundings of evil.
So, in conclusion, it must be the endeavour of everyone to so purify his calling that the slanderer and the bigot should be able to cast no stone.
"Jim," whispered old Bloxam, to his friend Maloney, as they were coming out of the cathedral, "I shall only run one of mine in the Handicap next week, and the racing folks can chip in with me on Fairy Queen if she's good enough to win. There shall be no stalling them off with Beggar Boy, as I intended. I've done with all that."
Major Kanns took his crooked threepenny bit home with him after all. He had put half a crown in the plate and, as he tucked himself into bed that night, he ruminated rather thoughtfully on the many years that had passed since he had last said any prayers.
THE days of the ensuing week were certainly not without their surprises both for the masters and scholars of St. Benger's, and it was soon remarked in many quarters that something must have happened to the Head. He seemed to have altered most strangely, and to be in every way so different from his former self.
In all respects a changed man, he was revealing characteristics which no one had dreamed that he possessed before. He was inquiring and sympathetic, and he had lost much of his lordly detachment from any interest whatsoever in the private affairs of either the masters or the boys. He was exhibiting, too, a sense of humour, and things that would before have roused him to contemptuous anger, now only made him smile.
Altogether, he seemed to have become kindlier, and there was a touch of common human nature about him that no one had ever noticed until then.
The change began first to be remarked upon when, on the Monday morning, he was dealing with the usual weekly punishment squad.
Mondays were always 'Black Mondays' at St. Benger's for all those who either in their work or conduct during the previous week, had fallen short of the standard required of them, and punctually at eleven o'clock that day they were accustomed to be lined up in the corridor adjoining the Head Master's study and later to be interviewed, one by one, in the grave and solemn precincts of the study itself.
On this particular Monday morning there were twenty-three of them waiting in varying degrees of dread and expectancy to see the Head, and they noted, with the usual foreboding, the school marshal precede them into the study with a good-sized bundle of solid-looking canes.
"Old Bottles is none too good this morning," whispered Stubbins ominously. "Catcher says he looked in a fearful rage when he heard there were twenty-three of us up to-day."
"It's that beast Harker again," said young Gelsworthy with some heat. "He's reported eight of us this week for his rotten Latin, and you'll see we'll get the stick all round and lose the half holiday as well."
"Bottles went to the races on Saturday," remarked Tod Brown impressively. "My pater saw him there and he's sworn ever since that he's a very fine man." Young Brown fingered the seat of his trousers tenderly. "I wish my pater was going to be here now."
The study door opened suddenly and on the instant all conversation ceased. The Head Master appeared in the corridor and stood regarding the boys with a cold, stern eye.
"Ah! quite a full house, I perceive," he remarked dryly, after a moment's pause. "Twenty-three of you, I am given to understand." He pushed the study door wide open and, with a show of great politeness waved his hand. "Come in, young gentlemen. Yes, all of you, please. Come in. That's right. Stand over there by the wall. Don't crowd. Now, Stubbins, shut the door, if you'll be so kind."
He sat down at his desk and, picking up a sheaf of papers, began slowly, one by one, to go over their contents. The room was very silent and the boys hardly dared to breathe.
"Exactly," remarked the Head presently, "and you appear to be a very desperate lot of boys. Mr. Henderson has had to report three of you, Mr. Goldsworthy and Mr. Henning each report four, Mr. Harker reports eight, and Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Riddle each two." He looked up and eyed the boys grimly. "Really, really, this is a very dreadful condition of affairs!"
The boys stared at him in surprise. There was nothing certainly in his words to convey any idea of kindliness or clemency, but with the instinct of young animals they sensed in some way that he was not really very angry with them, and in their perplexity they just opened their mouths and gaped. The Head Master went on. "Come, I'll take Stubbins first. Step out, Stubbins, please. Now what have you done, pray?"
He picked up one of the reports off his desk and proceeded to run quickly through it.
"Ah!" he exclaimed sternly, "your Scripture's bad. You didn't know the names of the Kings of Israel." He eyed Stubbins as if he were some strange sort of animal. "You didn't know them, eh?"
"No, sir," replied Stubbins, and his voice quavered, although he was a sturdy-looking boy.
"Ah!" again exclaimed the Head Master, and there was a perfect wealth of expression in his voice. "How old are you now?"
"Fifteen and a half, sir."
"A boy of fifteen and a half who doesn't know the names of the Kings of Israel! Goodness gracious, what's coming over the school?" The Head's voice deepened in intensity and he shook his finger in the boy's face. "Stubbins, Stubbins," he said slowly, "and how do you expect, pray, to become a decent and an upright man, if you are not cognizant of the names of the Kings of Israel? How in the name of conscience can you ever hope to live a happy life? How——" but he stopped suddenly and, shrugging his shoulders in despair, apparently controlled himself only with a great effort. He motioned to the luckless Stubbins to stand back. There was a moment's awed silence and then the Head picked up another paper. His voice dropped into very quiet tones. "Pilcher, now, please. Pilcher primus, I believe."
A tall, thin boy with a very freckled face stood forward. He looked bright and intelligent, but was now obviously very anxious. The Head spoke quite gently. "Mr. Harker reports very poorly of your Latin, Pilcher, and he adds that your home-work, particularly, is very bad. How's that now? Surely you have someone at home who can help you with your Virgil? Let me see now, what's your father?"
"A butcher, sir," replied Pilcher, with a little catch in his voice.
The Head smiled. "Of course, of course," he exclaimed blandly. "I ought to have remembered that. Mr. Pilcher, of Unley Road. He supplies us with meat, and with very excellent meat, too. I couldn't wish for better." He appeared to think for a moment. "Well, what are you going to be, Pilcher?"
"A butcher, too, sir," replied Pilcher, a little defiantly and getting rather red.
"Excellent," said the Head, "excellent; a most useful occupation. But still—still, Pilcher," and his voice became very grim and stern, "however do you expect to become a good butcher without a sound classical education behind you? 'Bonus—bona—bonum.' Now how on earth could you ever cut up joints of meat or serve customers properly without knowing that? Think how you're handicapping yourself. Think of it, boy."
But apparently Pilcher primus for the moment could think clearly of nothing at all. He just stared and stared, like a rabbit fascinated before a snake.
The Head picked up another paper and went on. "Then there's Spinkston here. His Latin is terrible as well. Couldn't even decline equus—a horse. What are you going to be, Spinkston—a butcher, too?"
"No, sir," squeaked a very small boy with curly hair and a frightened little face. "My father's a farmer, sir. I'm going on the farm."
"Goodness gracious!" commented the Head again. "Going on a farm and you can't decline equus—a horse!" He looked very serious. "Now, what on earth are you going to do?"
The little boy looked very much as if he were going to cry.
"Tut, tut," said the Head kindly, perceiving the lad's distress. "Don't worry about it now." He shrugged his shoulders, and then his face suddenly brightened. "Ah! I have it. You must use motor-tractors instead of horses. That's it. Motor-tractors are what you must have. No horses at all. Now, don't forget it, Spinkston. It's most important. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," replied the little boy tearfully. "I'll tell father about it when I go home."
The Head nodded approvingly and picked up another paper.
"Something different now. Middleton late for prayers, and Rusher reported for breaking one of the school windows with a stone from his shanghai. Now, Middleton, what is your excuse?"
"Please, sir," pleaded Middleton, who was a fat, red-faced boy, "I had to feed the chickens on Friday and I missed my train."
"So, so," said the Head—"then Friday is the only day on which your chickens are fed? Like the snakes in the zoo, eh! Only once a week?"
"No, sir," stammered Middleton, "they're fed every day."
"And you feed them?"
"Then why particularize about Friday?" The Head Master frowned sceptically. "No, no, Middleton; it won't do. You were late on Friday not because you had to feed the chickens, but because you either didn't get up early enough or else you spent too long over your bacon and eggs." He waved his hand as if to dismiss the whole matter. "My punishment is—you take a dozen eggs up to the hospital to-morrow. Now do you agree?"
"Yes, sir," replied Middleton promptly, and looking very much relieved.
"And now, Rusher," continued the Head, "what about you? Caught red-handed, I suppose, using your catapult about the school?"
"Yes, sir," replied the boy almost inaudibly.
"No excuses," asked the Head, "no mitigating circumstances, no explanations of any kind?" The boy shook his head. "Just sheer, wilful disobedience of the rules of the school?"
"Yes, sir," said the boy again, very quietly. There was a long silence and then the Head sighed. "I had a catapult myself, once," he said musingly, and more as if speaking to himself than to the assembled boys, "and I believe I was very proud of it. It had notches cut in it for every bird I had killed. It was very cruel." He suddenly leant forward to young Rusher. "Now, had yours got notches cut in, too?"
"Yes, sir," replied the boy.
"Little notches for the sparrows, and bigger notches for the large birds, eh?"
"Yes, sir," again.
"Ah!" The Head dropped back into his chair and stared fixedly out through the window. A strange chord had been stirred in him and he was going back in memory to the years of long ago. He had been a careless boy himself then at school, and he smiled now at his thoughts. He, too, had hated Latin; he, too, had been late for chapel, and undeniably he had been caught with catapults.
"Egad, but I was a bad boy then!" he said suddenly, aloud. "A regular little bad egg, I must have been."
He looked round at the assembled boys and then frowned heavily. Quite unwittingly, he realized, he had spoken his thoughts and now, mindful of his lapse, he searched among his audience for any signs of levity or amusement.
But all there were grave as mutes. They were too uncertain and too puzzled to be amused. They stood waiting for the breaking of the storm.
Suddenly the Head smiled. He picked up the bundle of canes and threw it into the corner.
"It's peace to-day, boys, and I shan't cane any of you, but mind you"—he looked menacing and stern—"I put you on your honour—you must try hard not to be sent here again." He shook his head sadly. "You see, my boys, I'm really very sorry for some of you. You are round pegs in square holes and a good many of you have no business at all to come to this college, for you are learning some things that will be of poor service to you in after-life." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled sardonically. "But I can't help it; you're the victims of a vicious social system. You're sent here, many of you, not because you will learn what will best fit you for the years to come, but simply because it's considered the correct thing in certain circles for everyone who's supposed to have a little money to send his boys to St. Benger's. Your parents, apparently, only just want you to be able to say when you've grown up: 'Oh, yes, I went to St. Benger's. I was educated there. Old Bottles often gave me the stick!' You needn't grin, Stubbins. I've got ears as well as eyes, and my study windows are not always closed." He pursed his lips in scorn. "Yes, that's all it is. For so many, this barren, empty, useless pride. You're just pitch-forked here as an adjunct to the fur-coats, the electric washers, and the eight-cylinder motor-cars that your parents can afford to buy. But you must realize my position and how I am placed. This college takes your parents' money and I, as its Head Master, must give them what they pay for, in return. So Stubbins must learn his Kings of Israel, Pilcher must 'bonus—bona—bonum,' Middleton must not be late at prayers, and Rusher must keep his shanghais at home. It's all in the contract that I have to carry out."
He stood up and smiled in some amusement at the boys.
"Well, you can all go this morning. I'll let you off this time."
There was a moment's silence and then a low voice—it was Stubbins—murmured: "Thank you, sir!" to be immediately followed by a chorus of 'Thank you's' from the other boys as they filed slowly out.
"Mr. Harker," said the Head, when, a little later, he chanced upon the Latin Master in the quadrangle, "if you can arrange it, please, I should like fewer boys to be sent up to me for punishment in future." He smiled pleasantly as if to soften the reproach. "You know, Harker, it's a bad master who relies upon the cane."
The Latin Master coloured in annoyance. He was old and crabby, and had been at St. Benger's years longer even than the archdeacon himself, and he was nettled, as well as surprised, to be made the subject of reproof. He, alone, of all the masters, was on somewhat familiar terms with the Head.
"Whom the Lord loveth, He chastens," he growled.
The archdeacon poked him slyly in the ribs. "But you're not the Lord, Harker. You must remember that."
During all that week, following upon the example set by the Head, quite a happy spirit of friendliness settled over St. Benger's, and the boys themselves contributed not a little to the general atmosphere of content. They were certainly less obstreperous and, as far as conduct was concerned, there were no flagrant breaches of the rules of the school.
"What's come over the young beggars?" asked Henderson, the Science Master, on the Thursday afternoon in the common-room. "I've only given two impositions so far this week."
"Epidemic of plague, I think," grunted old Harker, sourly. "They're all sickening for some disease. I left my handkerchief on my desk this morning, and no one cleaned the blackboard with it when I was away."
The boys were seeing a lot more of their Head Master, too, for not a little to their surprise he appeared often upon the playing-grounds during the periods of recess. He took quite an interest in their games and chatted almost as if he were one of them himself.
But it was on the Saturday following that it was destined he was to astonish everybody most.
It was the annual inter-sports day and, according to the yearly custom, St. Benger's was to be engaged in friendly rivalry with the neighbouring College of King John's.
The day was always arranged for during the middle of the summer term, and great interest was invariably occasioned as to which college would be successful in the greater number of events. The colleges took it in turns for the contests to be decided upon their respective grounds, and this year it was at St. Benger's that the sports were to take place.
King John's was another of the great colleges of South Australia and the rivalry between it and St. Benger's was always keen, both in scholarship and upon the playing fields. Its Head Master was the Rev. Andrew McTavish, who, true to his name, was born north of the Tweed. About the same age as the archdeacon, he was, however, most unlike him in appearance. He was spare and thin to look upon, with a long face and grizzled hair, and he had a straight and rather severe mouth, but kind-looking and gentle light-blue eyes. In his speech he was witty with a dry, caustic humour.
The two head masters, in the ordinary way, associated very little with one another and, indeed, rarely had speech together except upon the playing fields when their respective schools were in rivalry. If at other times they happened to encounter one another they were wont to nod distantly and pass on.
There was dislike upon both sides. The archdeacon considered McTavish as of poor birth and a schismatic, and the latter regarded the archdeacon as both a prig and a snob.
Imagine, therefore, the surprise of Mr. and Mrs. McTavish to receive, in the middle of the week, a most cordially-worded invitation from Archdeacon and Mrs. Bottleworthy to come to luncheon on the inter-sports day. Mrs. McTavish laughed rather bitterly. "And I suppose they think they're doing the great thing now in inviting us," she sniffed, "but I know exactly what it'll be. Just a hole-and-corner scratch meal, with no one there but ourselves. They won't ask any of their grand friends to meet us and it's just done to patronize—that's all."
"Then we won't go," said Mr. McTavish at once. "I don't want to have any more dealings with Bottleworthy than I can help. I detest the man. We won't go, I say."
"Nonsense," replied his wife, with decision, "of course we'll go. I want to see the old curmudgeon in his own house. I'll love to see how he carries on at home. Besides, if we don't go, they will think we are afraid." She nodded her head viciously. "Yes, we'll just go and peck at the lunch and be very distant all the time. You can look bored and I'll wear my new taffeta. We'll hardly speak a word."
It was not destined, however, that the plan of Mrs. McTavish should be carried out, at any rate in its entirety. They both went to the luncheon sure enough, and the good lady certainly did wear her new taffeta, but then after that all her intentions met with an abrupt decease, and the whole plan of campaign fell ignominiously through.
The archdeacon happened to encounter them as they were entering the school grounds, and from that very moment he was amiability and friendliness itself.
"I'm so glad you've come," he said heartily. "I'm afraid we gave you very short notice, but it was only at the very last moment that we thought of having any luncheon party at all." He lowered his voice confidingly. "My wife said I was getting quite an old fogey and must really make myself more sociable to my friends."
Mrs. McTavish bowed stiffly and gave him a very limp hand. The archdeacon, however, shook it warmly and held it, she thought, for quite an unnecessary time.
"My word!" he exclaimed gallantly, "but you do look young! Fancy now, you being the mother of a graduate in honours! Oh, yes, of course, I've heard about your boy. Bachelor of Arts and a first class in classics! Now that's the sort of man I want here." He nodded his head emphatically. "I must speak to your husband about it and see if your boy would come."
In spite of her animosity, Mrs. McTavish flushed with pleasure. Her only son was the pride of her life, and the archdeacon, like a conqueror, was stabbing through the chinks of her armour. A master at St. Benger's! Of course, her boy would not accept, but it was very gratifying to be asked, all the same.
Mrs. Bottleworthy appeared at that moment and carried her off, leaving the two head masters by themselves.
"Now, come along, McTavish," said the archdeacon briskly, "I want to show you all the arrangements we have made and see if they quite meet with your approval."
He linked his arm with that of the Head Master of King John's and together they paraded the school grounds.
Although it was still early, there were a good few of the boys and their relatives about, not only the St. Benger's boys but those of King John's as well, and the head masters were kept busy taking off their hats the whole time.
"Nice-looking lot of boys, yours," remarked the archdeacon, "and well-behaved too. There's one thing I will say—I don't think I ever remember seeing any of them misbehave themselves in the streets!" He made a grimace. "I only wish I could say the same of mine."
Mr. McTavish swallowed something in his throat. He was feeling very embarrassed. He had come to St. Benger's determined to be as cold and formal as was consistent with bare politeness and expecting a like frigidity from the archdeacon had prepared himself at all points for the fray.
But such friendliness upset his plans altogether. The archdeacon, without doubt, intended to be as friendly as he possibly could be—quite naturally friendly, too, without any straining for effect.
They walked round together and inspected all the arrangements that had been made, and then, on their return to the school garden, the archdeacon took out his watch.
"Still a few minutes to go," he said. "Now what do you say—what do you say"—he looked knowingly at McTavish—"to just a wee appetizer before lunch?"
The Head Master of King John's promptly shook his head. "It's against ma preenciples," he replied stolidly. "I'm almost teetotal and never drink between meals."
"Same here," said the archdeacon quickly. He looked round guiltily and dropped his voice to a whisper. "In fact, I don't know what Mrs. Bottleworthy would say if she knew I had suggested it; but still, still, this is a special occasion and"—he hesitated a moment—"myself, I'm almost inclined to risk it."
"It's against ma preenciples," replied McTavish again.
"I'm opening some special champagne," went on the archdeacon, still whispering. "We've got the Governor and Lady Ekin coming, and I want to test a bottle to make sure the wine is not corked."
McTavish opened his eyes in surprise. The Governor and his lady coming! Then it wasn't going to be the hole-and-corner lunch his wife had expected, after all!
"Dr. Bunions will be here, too," continued the archdeacon, "and he's a great judge of wine."
"Champagne is a fine medicine, certainly," admitted McTavish cautiously, after a moment's thought, "when used, of course, at the proper time."
"Exactly," exclaimed the archdeacon with relief, and as if a great burden had been lifted off his mind. He poked McTavish slyly in the ribs. "It's a medicine, as you say, and we're both feeling rather low," and with no more ado he laid his hand upon his companion's arm, and drew him unresistingly through the french windows into the study.
A few minutes later Mrs. Bottleworthy was anxiously waiting to give the order for the luncheon to be served. All who were expected were present, except her husband and Mr. McTavish, and she imagined they were still out in the grounds.
"It must be some very important matter that is keeping them," she apologized to the company generally. "My husband is never late and I can't think what has happened."
"Oh, when these schoolmasters get together," said the Governor smilingly, "they're worse than old ladies any day. I expect they've quite forgotten us and are absorbed in mapping out some new forms of punishment for their boys." He raised his eyes piously. "Thank heaven my school-days are over and their deliberations will not affect me."
A hearty laugh was heard outside, and, the door opening, the two absentees appeared. The archdeacon was profound in his apologies for keeping everyone waiting, and, Mr. McTavish having been duly introduced, the party proceeded into lunch.
The meal certainly promised to be an excellent one, and Mr. McTavish, catching his wife's eye, gave her what was intended to be an agreeably surprised wink.
"But what kept you waiting so long, Augustine?" asked Mrs. Bottleworthy of her husband, when the guests had settled down.
"Business, my dear, business," replied the archdeacon airily. "Mr. McTavish and I had some most important matters to discuss."
"I was suggesting," observed the Governor banteringly, "that you were devising some new forms of torture for the wretched boys. Thumb-screws and scourges, for instance, instead of detentions and canes."
"Not at all, not at all," replied the archdeacon smilingly, "for our present resources are quite adequate for all contingencies that may arise. It was just business that kept us and we forgot the flight of time."
"Business, eh?" commented the short, stout and famous Dr. Bunions, of North Terrace, "but I thought I heard the popping of a cork as I passed by the study door!"
A short silence followed and then a ripple of laughter ran round the room, in which the archdeacon joined.
"My good friend, Mr. McTavish," he began, with his eyes twinkling, "was in need of some little——"
"No, no, dinna ye put it down to me," broke in the Head of King John's quickly, dropping humorously into his broadest Scotch. "It was ye who were the tempter with yer wire-cutter and yer honeyed words. Ye were the serpent in the garden this day."
Thereupon the archdeacon laughed as heartily as anyone and the meal proceeded under the happiest conditions possible. Mrs. McTavish, in particular, was enjoying herself, and, at the same time, wondering how she could ever have been so mistaken about the archdeacon. He was a courtly English gentleman and there was not a trace of snobbery about him. He was kind and considerate to everyone and particularly so, it seemed, to her husband.
Presently, the matter of the afternoon's sports came up and the archdeacon was emphatic that St. Benger's would win the rubber of the nine events.
"No, there's no hope for you, McTavish," he remarked, "we've got you fair and square this time."
"Ye think ye have," sniffed McTavish grimly, "but there'll be one or two leetle upsets that ye don't expect."
"We've got you in the Hundred Yards," said the archdeacon, "the Half-mile and the Hurdles, for certain. Then, we're pretty sure of at least one of the Jumps, and the 'Old Boys' will be a walk-over for us."
"Pooh! pooh!" said McTavish, "but I dinna give ye any of them for certain. We've got a new runner, I may tell ye, who's a champion, and we'll take all the events up to half a mile."
"Our boy, Stubbins, has, so to speak, won the Hundred Yards already," replied the archdeacon emphatically, "and it's only a matter there of folding up the tape."
"Stubbins!" sniffed McTavish contemptuously, "why our McRobertson will beat him by ten yards."
"Not at all," retorted the archdeacon. "Stubbins will win there, I repeat."
"No," insisted McTavish. "McRobertson's the pea."
"Stubbins, I say," said the archdeacon.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," implored the Governor in mock distress. "Remember you are head masters."
Both the archdeacon and Mr. McTavish laughed heartily.
"Well, anyhow," said the former, when the laughter died down, "I'll wager you a cigar that St. Benger's is top dog to-day."
"Done," replied Mr. McTavish promptly, "and Sir Robert shall umpire the bet. But who's yer champion, pray, in the 'Old Boys' race?" he went on. "Ours is Wagstaff. At least we think he's our best."
The archdeacon smilingly waved his hand. "Ours is my young friend, Mr. Grainger, here, sitting next to my daughter." He laughed slyly. "He's a most determined young fellow and will stick it, every inch of the race."
They all looked interestedly at Harold Grainger, and the latter coloured slightly, under the general regard.
"Good gracious!" suddenly continued the archdeacon. "I quite forgot. Now what are you eating, Grainger?" He looked anxiously down the table. "None of that trifle, I hope. You can't run on that."
"On the contrary, Mr. Grainger," advised McTavish with a grin, "have two helpings, with plenty of cream. Ye'll run ten yards better, after a heavy meal."
But neither counsel fell upon very attentive ears, for young Grainger, at that moment, had no interest at all in anything so earthly as eating or drinking.
Instead, profound and tumultuous emotions were holding him in their sway, and all his thoughts were centred upon Margaret Bottleworthy, now sitting by his side.
Always, from his late boyhood, the archdeacon's daughter had possessed his thoughts, and all his young manhood she had been his divinity, from afar. Now for the first time he had been brought closely into living actual contact with her. He was speaking to her alone, he was looking into her eyes, and he was watching the delicious play of her lips as she spoke to him in return. He could catch the perfume, too, of her hair as she leant towards him, and once, when their hands touched, he was stung as if by the scorch of some consuming fire. He was the moth before the candle of love, and nothing mattered to him but his nearness to the flame.
It was a Homeric contest between the two colleges that afternoon.
To begin with, King John's won the Half-mile with the greatest of ease; first, second and third, with none of the St. Benger's boys giving serious fight. Then the High Jump fell to them also, but—it must be said, to St. Benger's credit—only by a bare inch.
There were glum faces, among the home party, and only the archdeacon's equanimity was in no wise undisturbed.
"Tut-tut," he exclaimed confidently, making use of his favourite exclamation, "the battle's only just beginning and we shall gather strength as we go along. Bumbletoes will win the Hurdles straightaway. He's a marvel over the sticks. After that, too, everything will go swimmingly."
And sure enough, the archdeacon's optimism was at once rewarded, for Master Bumbletoes won the Hurdles exactly as he pleased. Jumping like the proverbial cat, he just played with his opponents from start to finish. He won easing up, with a smile from ear to ear, and was carried shoulder-high past his admiring parents to the dressing-room.
Then St. Benger's won the Quarter-mile. Not by yards, it is true, for only by hard-won inches could Fraser finally peg his opponents back. Still, it was a good win and the youth well deserved the acclamations that followed.
"Two all, Archdeacon," said McTavish grimly. "Poor leetle King John's is giving ye quite a run, anyhow."
The two head masters were certainly the best of friends, and their unexpected cordiality was much commented upon by the parents present.
"Archdeacon Bottleworthy's quite a gentleman," remarked Mrs. Pullet, whose husband worked in a Government office, "and he evidently thinks quite a lot of our Mr. McTavish, and so he ought. McTavish is a splendid fellow, though I do wish his wife wouldn't wear such dreadful shoes."
The Long Jump went to King John's and, to the great consternation of St. Benger's, the Obstacle Race too.
"We're beaten," grunted old Harker, to the other masters. "We can't possibly win the next three events off the reel."
"I'm not so sure of that," exclaimed Riddle. "I'd like to bet anybody an even fiver anyhow that we win the next two."
But there was general gloom all round and no acceptance was forthcoming of the junior mathematical master's sporting offer. Besides Riddle, only the archdeacon himself seemed hopeful, and the Head of St. Benger's was still all smiles and confidence.
"We shall get the Mile right enough," he said, "and then Stubbins will win the Hundred Yards."
But suddenly, to the consternation of all concerned, a dreadful rumour began to gain currency among the officials of St. Benger's. From where it first emanated no one knew, but in a few moments it caused a great bestirment in the home camp.
Stubbins had been hocussed—he had been got at by the other side! There was no doubt about it! He had eaten four meat pies!
All the afternoon, it was remembered now, he had been noticed in the vicinity of the refreshment tent, and scheming minds and bulging purses had no doubt deliberately encompassed his downfall.
The junior mathematical master was one of the first to hear of it, and in great concern he rushed off to find the Head.
"Stubbins is gorging on pies, sir," he gasped. "He's eaten four of them already, and he won't be fit to run."
The archdeacon paled in dismay. "Pies," he ejaculated, "and four of them! Good heavens! We have been out-generalled! We must find him. Quick! He must be given an emetic, if he's not been hidden away."
But there proved to be no question of any hiding away, for the devouring Stubbins was found easily and at once in the refreshment tent and—oh horrors!—he was holding an enormous pasty in either hand.
"Stubbins," roared the archdeacon, "you soulless little wretch! What have you eaten?"
Examination and cross-examination proceeded at lightning speed and it was very quickly elicited that the four meat pies were by no means the whole of the tale.
Buttered Londons, hot pasties and ice-creams made up the full dreadfulness of the confession, and in a couple of minutes, with a stern guard on either side, the gorging but still unsatisfied Stubbins was hurried quickly away.
An emetic was insisted upon, and by the chemistry master's advice a rush was immediately made for hot mustard and water; but at this stage of the proceedings the patient became truculent, and so in the end it was decided that he should simply be kept fasting instead.
St. Benger's won the Mile as the Head had predicted. Their chief representative ran a most confident race and the issue, after the first few hundred yards, was never in doubt.
"Hurrah, hurrah," roared out St. Benger's. "Well run, sir, well run!"
Then, at last, came the Hundred Yards, and seven white-faced and nervous-looking boys lined up in front of the starter. The eighth boy was not nervous at all. He was the redoubtable Stubbins and it seemed that his courage had been inflamed, rather than submerged, by the consumption of pasties and meat pies. At any rate, he alone of the contestants showed no apprehension at all. He took up his position with a swaggering gait, he grinned round impudently at the masters of his school, he spat upon his hands with the utmost sang-froid, and it was said, even, that he actually winked at the Head, when the latter was whispering to him final instructions as to how the race should be run.
"Bang!" went the pistol, and off like a flight of swallows darted the boys.
Then followed moments of most terrible suspense for the supporters of St. Benger's. There was no sign of their champion appearing in the front. Forty yards—fifty yards—sixty—and the consumer of meat pies was buried in the ruck. Seventy yards—and then, suddenly a tousled head of black hair was seen bobbing up right in the middle of the runners! Eighty yards—and a perfect hurricane of shouting rent the air, for an impish figure had jerked violently forward, with a face sensual with the debauchery of pasties and meat pies!
Stubbins had arrived!
Like a bullet he sped forward, like an avalanche he burst towards the tape, like Destiny it was impossible he could be stayed.
It was all over and he had won out completely by himself. A roar of frenzied cheering burst from the spectators and Stubbins was immediately surrounded by a crowd of frantic admirers. His hands were almost wrenched from him, he was patted violently on the back, and he ejaculated words and phrases that in respectable families are supposed to be unknown to small boys.
Finally, he was led, or to be more exact, he was followed, into the refreshment tent, where, as an old habitue of the place, he at once nonchalantly resumed his accustomed stool by the counter, sacrosanct to the consumption of pasties and meat pies.
In the meantime, the contestants were stripping for the Old Boys' Race, and it would convey no idea of the precise conditions to say that excitement ran high. Everything was now depending upon this last race.
"Grainger," said the archdeacon impressively, "if we don't win, never you speak to me again."
"And if we do, sir," replied young Grainger quietly, "what then?"
The archdeacon looked at him smilingly and then, all in a moment, his smile faded and died away. In the midst of foolishness he realized that he was in Life. He was playing with fire.
He was encouraging this youth, it came suddenly to him. As a man himself, and not too old to have forgotten the divine stirrings of his younger days, he knew quite well where young Grainger's longings lay, and it made him all at once—afraid.
This youth was in love with his daughter and through him, if he were not careful, might be carried on the continuance of his line. It was a tremendous thing to consider. The two streams of their blood would mingle and a bond of flesh would be between them.
Then the archdeacon smiled again. Well, why not? he asked himself, and his eyes took in admiringly the young man's face and form. A nice face and a good face and a body clean and strong. Lithe, virile limbs and the whole appearance—just the very kind to make a young girl proud.
The archdeacon patted Harold Grainger kindly on the shoulder.
"Fortune ever favours the brave," he said enigmatically, "and I'm not quite an old fool, although it does happen I'm an archdeacon."
Young Grainger crimsoned up to the very roots of his hair. He had not dreamed his query would be taken seriously, but, realizing now that it had been, the sympathetic nature of the reply thrilled him to a great hope.
"All right, sir," he said confidently. "I'll give them the run of the afternoon."
And certainly St. Benger's did give King John's the run young Grainger had promised.
There were six selected runners, three from each of the colleges, but it was mainly upon Wagstaff and young Grainger that all eyes were turned.
The race was for three hundred yards and, to the consternation of St. Benger's Grainger made quite a bad beginning. He got off slowly and lost a good three yards at the start, but instantly he made an amazing recovery and at thirty yards was practically on terms again. At any rate, he had actually drawn level with the King John's crack at that distance, and from then onwards there was no separating the pair. Locked together, they shot away from all the others. Foot by foot and stride by stride they ran, as if they were one man, and finally, to a hurricane of cheers, they both breasted the tape in the self-same fraction of a second.
Everyone had expected the verdict, and for the moment a pandemonium of excitement reigned. Four and a half wins each! A tie and never had such a thing happened before!
There was a hurried consultation of the sports committee, a great bobbing of heads, and then it was announced that the dead heat must be run off. Ten minutes was to be allowed for the contestants to recover their breath and refresh.
The archdeacon was in great feather. So far from being depressed at the turn events had taken, he seemed of everyone the most delighted.
"A glorious contest, McTavish," he exclaimed. "I would not have missed it for worlds. A veritable battle of the gods. A race the boys will remember all their lives."
"The committee are men of no imagination," growled McTavish. "Far better to have left it as a draw. Then we could have all gone home happy." He shrugged his shoulders gloomily. "Now, half of us will go home in tears."
There was an intense hush everywhere when the two champions again took their places in front of the starter. The gossip of the elders had died down and the raucous treble of the small boys was stilled. Indeed to many of the young ones it was the most intense moment, hitherto, of all their lives. The honour of their respective schools was in the melting pot and under many a small, tight waistcoat a little heart beat tremulously.
"Bang," and the race which was to decide everything had started. A mighty roar rang out and then—instantly—it was merged into a still mightier wail of "O—o—oh!"
Grainger had got away like a greyhound, but Wagstaff had slipped violently and fallen to his side. He made no attempt to regain his feet, but instead lay clutching one of his ankles, with his face drawn up into an expression of great pain.
For a few yards, Grainger ran at his utmost speed and then sensing from the exclamations of the crowd that something unexpected had happened, he glanced like lightning over his shoulder, to find that he was running alone. Instantly he looked back, and then realizing what had happened, immediately stopped running and with no hesitation returned quickly to where his opponent lay. He bent down and made to help him to his feet.
A sudden hush had fallen on the crowd; the shouting was all stilled, and for the moment it seemed that no one could quite grasp what was taking place. Then the generosity of young Grainger's action broke suddenly upon them, and a great roar of cheering rose from all round the field.
"Bravo, Grainger! Bravo!" they yelled, and they surged impetuously over the ropes to where he stood.
In a moment he was the centre of a cheering and excited crowd, and with great difficulty the officials pushed their way through.
The archdeacon patted him delightedly upon the back.
"Excellent," he exclaimed enthusiastically, "the action of a gentleman! I'm proud of you." He turned to the committee-men. "Our representative declines to complete the course, so the dead heat must stand."
The injured man was lifted up and it was found that he had sprained his ankle.
The Head Master of King John's sprang up on to a chair.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he called out, "and boys of my own school. I am sure that there is not a single person here who is not glad that things are to be allowed to remain as they are. St. Benger's, to-day, has given us a magnificent example of true sportsmanship and although upon some future occasion we may reasonably hope to beat them in the race-events, I am quite sure we shall never be able to excel them in the courtesy and generosity that they have exhibited towards us this afternoon. Three cheers now for St. Benger's."
"Three cheers for St. Benger's," yelled the King John's boys.
"Three cheers for King John's," yelled back the St. Benger's boys.
There was cheering and shouting everywhere, and not a face was to be seen that was not happy and beaming with smiles.
"One thing more," called out Mr. McTavish. "Three cheers now for Archdeacon Bottleworthy. Now then—hip, hip, hooray!"
A perfectly thunderous cheer followed immediately, and it was so vociferous and so prolonged that, in spite of an attempt at nonchalance and sang-froid, the archdeacon became visibly affected. The easy smile died from his face, he drew in the corners of his mouth and then—then, was it a tear, or only just a fleck of dust, that he wiped furtively from the corner of his eye?
"And who said that Bottleworthy wasn't popular at St. Benger's," remarked the Governor when later he and his wife were being driven home in their car. "Why, the old blighter seems quite an idol with the boys, and yet up to to-day I've always thought of him as a pompous old fool, detested by them all."
Later that evening Margaret and young Grainger were sitting, in the walled garden, under the trees. They talked casually together, but always he was watching her, and always—she turned away her eyes. They spoke of ordinary matters and they sat quite far apart upon the garden seat. Two very ordinary young people, anyone would have said. Just a pretty girl and a nice, clean-looking boy. All the observances of their class lay between them, and the customs and conventions of the community in which they lived. She—was just 'Miss Bottleworthy' to him and he—was just 'Mr. Grainger' to her. So matter-of-fact, so commonplace, and just the everyday politeness of a boy and girl thrown together for the moment—alone.
And yet—yet, had the veil been lifted, and had the secrets of the heart been known, nothing about them was ordinary, nothing about them was conventional, and it was no walled garden that hemmed them in! It was a wide and mighty world in which they breathed, a world of phantasy, a world of dreams. They were both sleeping too, and, in their sleep their thoughts were all of one another and they shivered and they sighed delicious sighs.
Nothing would wake them for awhile and all the thundering facts of Life would pass unheeded—for their sleep was deep, and heavy with the opiate dreams of Love.
Foolishness! foolishness! and dreams that fade and die! Yet, may Heaven in some way compensate those who have not so dreamed and sighed!
As the archdeacon was just getting into bed that night he remarked casually to his wife:
"I think, dear, we ought to invite young Grainger up to dinner next week. He's a nice young fellow, and he certainly brought great credit upon St. Benger's to-day."
"Very well, Augustine," replied his wife meekly. "I'll write to him to-morrow."
"Oh! no, don't do that," said the archdeacon. "Just invite him incidentally when you see him at the bishop's garden party on Monday."
"But he mayn't be there, Augustine. He mayn't be able to be away from his work."
The archdeacon smiled grimly as he switched off the light.
"I think he'll manage it somehow, Theresa. I heard Margaret mention to him that she was going and, as I have remarked once or twice before, he's a most determined young man. Yes, he'll be there right enough."
THE bishop's garden party upon the following Monday afternoon was favoured with delightful weather, and at the appointed hour the faithful and unfaithful from all parts of the city were disporting themselves with dignity and decorum upon the episcopal lawn.
All who were of importance in church circles had gathered together there and many who were of no importance at all. The company, like a box of assorted biscuits, was mixed.
The great Lady Fitz-Tootle was present and Mrs. Bangs also, the butcher's lady from Walkerville. Mr. and Mrs. Wopple-Smith, the millionaire cattle-owners from Alice Springs, were there, and likewise Miss Piper, the young person who typed at the Church rummage shop in Butler Square. Dr. Hoop-Brown, too, who had incised some of the wealthiest cuticles in all Australia was much in evidence, in the same way as Mr. Box, who at Rundle Street corner kept the chewing-gum and candy store.
And so on, with hosts of other people, both of high and low degree.
Outwardly, at all events, they appeared to constitute a most happy and harmonious crowd, for whatsoever opinions they may have been holding privately of one another, the very sanctity of their surroundings for the moment blotted out all memories of social inequalities and masked in smiles the faces of great and small alike.
Nearly all the clergy of the diocese were there and they moved to and fro among the guests, like glad shepherds shepherding their flocks.
There was activity and conversation everywhere and, as the stimulating effect of the tea and cakes began gradually to make themselves felt, the animated voices of the revellers rose, anthem-wise, upon the air.
The Archdeacon of the Cathedral was, of course, among the guests and it needed no second glance to see that he was in an excellent humour with himself. He was very different, however, from the purposeful Head Master of the previous week, for now a spirit of careless and light-hearted levity seemed to be possessing him. He had a joke and a jest and was all smiles for everyone, poking fun at his friends and acquaintances, with his witty sallies provoking laughter and amusement wherever he went. In appearance he was certainly a credit both to the cathedral and St. Benger's, for none there looked so distinguished as he, and he shone resplendent among the other clergy, like a sun among the stars. The bishop, even, lacked something that he possessed—the aristocracy of his bearing and the regal bonhomie that he dispensed to everyone, as he marched along.
"Don't know what's happened to Bottleworthy," growled the rector of St. Asaph's to the vicar of St. Joan's. "He's generally so stand-offish and distant and now, to-day, he's as friendly as if his Easter Offering were coming round."
And the rector was not by any means the only one who was remarking upon the affability of the archdeacon. Many people had noticed it, and it was occasioning much conversation over many cakes and cups of tea.
Mrs. Bangs was surprised to be shaken warmly by the hand and Miss Piper coloured in delight when she was addressed in a fatherly way as 'my dear.' Mr. Box, too, was elated that his opinion should be asked about the weather, and lots of other unimportant people were unexpectedly gratified at the interest taken in their affairs.
Indeed the archdeacon seemed to be bent on making himself agreeable to all and sundry whom at other times he would scarce have noticed with a nod.
Late in the afternoon he found himself in the vicinity of the great Lady Fitz-Tootle of Fitz-Tootle Hall, a very important person indeed in her own estimation. Of haughty and aristocratic mien, it was well known to everyone that it was not her wont to mingle with any but the most exclusive among the high lights of Adelaide society, and her presence now at the garden party was accordingly regarded as a gesture of most queenly condescension to the sanctity of the lord bishop's calling.
A generous patroness of the toilet specialist and the chemist's shop, she was an expensively dressed woman of well beyond middle-age, and this afternoon she was looking very bored. Hardly speaking a word to anyone, she stood staring stonily through her lorgnette at the other guests.
That she was regarding them as decidedly out of the ordinary was quite apparent, and the pursed-up lips and elevated eyebrows spoke eloquently of the great gulf that a wise and considerate Providence between her and them had fixed.
She sighed with great relief, therefore, when the archdeacon came up, and she held out to him a soft, well-manicured hand. The archdeacon raised his hat with an air of deference that was quite magnificent and then, after a few words of greeting, the two sat down at a small vacant table near at hand.
"Oh, what a mixed lot!" murmured the great lady plaintively. "I suppose, of course, the poor bishop had to invite them, but where, oh, where did he find them all?"
The archdeacon was all sympathy and understanding at once. "In the Garden of Eden," he replied with an amused smile, "for they are just ordinary and common Adams and Eves." He lowered his voice impressively. "And the bishop is the serpent who is now trying to brighten and enliven the monotony of their lives."
"But what dreadful people!" said her ladyship.
"Dreadful!" echoed the archdeacon with intense feeling. "Why, I am quite sure not half of them even have got motor-cars." His voice deepened in gloom. "And the worst of it is, we may have to meet them in heaven later on."
"Oh, but that's very far away, Archdeacon Bottleworthy," said her ladyship reprovingly, "and many things may happen before then."
"And let's hope they may," said the archdeacon emphatically, "for no harps or haloes can make up for their disgraceful lack of cash."
Lady Fitz-Tootle frowned. The archdeacon was making fun of her, she felt sure, and for a moment she glanced at him quizzically. "But look at the way some of them are dressed," she said pityingly, turning away and ignoring his remark. "Look at that creature by the tree there. Now, how many different colours has she got on?"
"Seven," replied the archdeacon promptly. "I've counted them already." He lowered his voice in reverence. "She reminds me of the seven deadly sins."
Her ladyship frowned again. Really she could not understand the archdeacon. She turned the conversation abruptly.
"But I'm very worried, Archdeacon Bottleworthy," she said. "I have nearly a hundred more invitations to get out for my reception to meet Lord Sanderson on Friday, and they must all be dispatched to-night." She looked very troubled. "His lordship arrives here on Friday morning, you know, and I do so want his first impression of Australia to be a good one. I want him to be brought straight into contact with those people who are helping to make Australia great."
"Ah, exactly," said the archdeacon solemnly, "I understand. And so, of course, you are inviting the farmers, the fruit-growers, the sheep-people, and the cattle-folk from out-back."
Lady Fitz-Tootle opened her eyes very wide. "I am inviting the people Lord Sanderson would wish to meet," she said haughtily; "the important people in the city, and the people of class and culture here." She smiled and bowed. "Such as you and I, for instance, Archdeacon."
But the archdeacon shook his head. His face was grave and it had lost its bantering look.
"Our class is not of much account, I am afraid, to Australia," he said sadly. "We are only the froth upon the surface and the good liquor lies all underneath. We are——"
"We are quite different from the common people, Archdeacon," interrupted her ladyship with some heat, "and we represent something that they do not."
Again the archdeacon shook his head. "The difference is only on the surface, I say, for as far as wealth and means are concerned, we have been more fortunate than they have, and that is all." He bent towards her and smiled with great good humour again. "Now take our own two cases for example," he went on, "and see where our good fortune has come in." He looked at her with great benevolence. "Now you were a shop assistant once, in a draper's, weren't you, years ago?"
Lady Fitz-Tootle sat up with a jerk. She stared at the archdeacon in amazement; she seemed almost to stop breathing and then, from pallor under her cosmetics, she reddened furiously, as if she were going to burst.
"Oh, yes," continued the archdeacon blandly, "everybody knows it. And a very pretty little shop-girl you were, too, they say." He went on. "Well, you married young Shepley Tootle, not Fitz-Tootle then, whose father had made money in hides, up Brisbane way, and invested it in real estate. Your husband's land inheritances turned out very valuable ones, and, a prosperous man, he was knighted, just ten years ago. Unhappily, he died, and later, you came over to Adelaide and took your place"—the archdeacon made a deep bow here—"of such importance in this beautiful city of the plains." He sighed. "It is a regret to us all there are no children to carry on the line."
Lady Fitz-Tootle made no comment; indeed it seemed that she was no longer listening. She gazed out stonily at the crowd, but without her lorgnette now, and her bearing had lost something of its stately pose.
The archdeacon shrugged his shoulders. "But I myself have not much to boast of, as regards birth," he said smilingly, "for my grandparents were quite of the labouring class, and they lived, I know, in a little cottage at a rental of a few shillings a week. My grandfather, I have often heard, was a market gardener in quite a small way and their son, my father, of course went to the village school. But he was industrious and persevering and, winning a small scholarship, he was able to proceed to a higher school, and later to enter the Church through a third-rate training college. He had no university education and, handicapped in every way, he lived and died a poor curate, with never more than two hundred a year. But I was more favoured, for my poor father had starved and scraped to give me good schools and to send me on to Cambridge. I worked hard, took my degree, and later was fortunate to marry into a little money. I came out here to Australia where, as you know, every sixpence counts for righteousness and"—the archdeacon laughed with great good nature—"here am I now, a dignitary of the cathedral and Head Master of the great St. Benger's College." He waved his arm round. "So you see, your ladyship, you and I are really no different from the others here, only more fortunate, as I say, and that is all."
But her ladyship still made no comment and, the archdeacon having apparently finished all he had to say, there was silence at the little table.
Two of the other guests at that moment passed near, a man and a woman. The man was middle-aged and wore big boots and stiff, awkward-looking clothes. He had large, horny hands and a strong, pleasant face, and he was sun-burned to a rich, deep brown. He kept looking round from side to side, as if he were uncomfortable and out of place in his surroundings. The woman with him was short and stout, and appeared to be very hot. She had a big, happy, red face, and her clothes were in much better style than those of her companion. She seemed very pleased with herself and to be enjoying everything immensely.
The archdeacon rose suddenly to his feet. "Ah," he exclaimed enthusiastically, "here are Mrs. Bangs and her brother, who lives out-back, beyond Oodnadatta. Most interesting people. I must introduce you," and with an energetic wave of his arm, he beckoned to the passing couple to approach.
But the rosy-cheeked Mrs. Bangs did not appear to be too willing to comply. She looked uneasily at Lady Fitz-Tootle and seemed more than half inclined to pass on. But the archdeacon called out to her.
"Oh, do come here, please, Mrs. Bangs. I want to introduce you and Mr. Chickseed to Lady Fitz-Tootle. Her ladyship is dying to meet you both," and he laid his hand upon her ladyship's arm.
And, indeed, it did almost seem at the next moment as if Lady Fitz-Tootle were dying of something, although it was certainly doubtful if the impending decease had anything at all to do with Mrs. Bangs or her brother.
Her ladyship had suddenly become hunched-up as if in pain and there was a look of startled and extraordinary amazement upon her face. She had paled and whitened to the utmost limit that the rouge allowed, and she blinked hard several times.
"My smelling salts," she murmured faintly; "quick, in my bag."
Oh, wonderful sympathy and intuition of all womankind! It was Mrs. Bangs, of course, who was promptest in first aid and who at once located the ammonia-bottle in the exact spot in which it lay amongst the other vital articles in her ladyship's bag.
She was most quick and methodical, too, in her ministrations, and, forcing the salts upon the sufferer, implored her breathlessly to take a sniff, a deep sniff, and a strong sniff, until she felt quite herself again.
Mr. Chickseed and the archdeacon looked on with scared and frightened eyes, the former regarding the sufferer as anxiously, no doubt, as he was wont to regard sick cows out-back up Oodnadatta way, and the latter—well the latter was both feeling and looking very ill himself.
Happily for everyone's peace of mind, Lady Fitz-Tootle began to come to very quickly. She took several very deep breaths and then she smiled as if she were suddenly amused about something.
"How—very—very foolish—of—me," she exclaimed faintly. "I really do not know what did happen, but it seemed—it seemed that something in me went click inside."
"Take another sniff of the salts," urged Mrs. Bangs, sympathetically. "It can't do you no 'arm, you know."
"Oh, you are kind, dear Mrs. Bangs," said Lady Fitz-Tootle. "I'm sure I should have fainted right away, if you had not been so quick. I had a dreadful pain."
"Perhaps it was nooralgy or toothache coming on," suggested Mrs. Bangs.
"Oh, how clever of you to think of it! Of course it was! Now I shall have to ring up at once for an appointment with Mr. Twiggs." Her ladyship's voice took on sharp and decisive tones. "Mr. Montague Twiggs, of North Terrace, is the best dentist in all Australia."
The archdeacon regarded her intently. "What was happening," he asked himself, "and where had he heard that expression of opinion before?" He felt as if he had just come out of a bad dream.
"And so this is your brother, Mrs. Bangs," said her ladyship with a beaming smile. "I'm sure I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Chickseed. You live a long way from Adelaide, I understand?"
"Seven hunnud miles," said Mr. Chickseed slowly, regarding Lady Fitz-Tootle interestedly with his clear blue eyes, "and two hunnud and fifty miles from the railway station when I'm at home." He spoke very deliberately, his manner of speech seeming almost a counterpart of the measured assurance of his movement.
"Oh, how interesting," exclaimed her ladyship with enthusiasm, "but how lonely you must be."
"Nay," said Mr. Chickseed solemnly, "we've neighbours only sixty miles away."
"Sixty miles!" cried Lady Fitz-Tootle, lifting up her hands, "and you call them neighbours, at sixty miles?"
"Well," drawled Mr. Chickseed, "in th' opposite way, it's hunnuds of miles afore you'd meet anybody at all."
"Oh, how magnificent your courage must be!" exclaimed her ladyship with animation, "to live all those miles away from shops and civilization! How brave of you to go so far away from doctors and clergymen, too!"
Mr. Chickseed turned at once to stare stolidly at the archdeacon, for all the world as if he were wondering to what use that gentleman could be put, 'seven hunnud miles away.'
"But you are the splendid souls who make Australia great," declaimed her ladyship, raising her voice; "you are the backbone of the Commonwealth's prosperity. It is you who living in those lonely lands out-back make it possible for us in the cities to grow rich. Yes, you are the real makers of Australia. We here are only the froth upon the surface—you are the good liquor that lies underneath."'
Mrs. Bangs mopped her red face energetically. She was intensely gratified with the interest that Lady Fitz-Tootle was taking in her brother, but the metaphors were quite lost upon her, the allusions to froth and liquor only suggesting forms of refreshment cooler and more stimulating than cups of tea. She sighed deeply.
The archdeacon was pinching his leg very hard. Where, he asked himself, frowningly again, had he heard those very sentiments expressed just recently?
Lady Fitz-Tootle went on with great enthusiasm.
"Oh, how fortunate it is I met you. You must both now be introduced to Lord Sanderson at my 'At Home' on Friday evening. He will be delighted to talk to you, for you are the very people he has come out to see. And you must bring your husband, too, dear Mrs. Bangs, as representative of the commercial classes of the State."
But Mrs. Bangs now looked most embarrassed. "It's very good of your ladyship, I am sure," she faltered slowly, "but I don't know as 'ow we can both leave the shop. We keep open Friday evenings, you know, until nine o'clock."
"Well, you must come afterwards then," insisted Lady Fitz-Tootle emphatically, "when you've shut up the shop. I shan't take any refusal, for it will do you both good." She smiled most amiably at Mrs. Bangs. "You see, I know something about shops, for when I was quite a young girl I worked in one myself." Mrs. Bangs gasped, and the archdeacon stared as if he were turned to stone. "Yes, I served behind the counter at Fenton and Briggs, in Brisbane, for two years before I married and very tiring I know I found it."
She stopped talking and sniffed vigorously at her smelling salts. No one made any comment. The archdeacon seemed altogether too astounded to speak, and Mr. Chickseed, it appeared, was still ruminating as to what use the reverend gentleman could be put 'seven hunnud miles away.'
A moment's silence, and Mrs. Bangs glanced furtively round to see who among her acquaintances might be noticing the august company she was in, and she was at once considerably gratified to observe that at least one, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Huggins, was intently absorbing everything with an amazed expression in her eyes.
Lady Fitz-Tootle took another sniff at her salts and then hummed softly to herself.
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute
In a very charming manner—
She broke off suddenly and, picking up her lorgnette, stared intently into the crowd.
"I fancy," she remarked after a moment, "I fancy, my dear Mrs. Bangs, that a lady there is trying to attract your attention. She has passed here several times and upon each occasion I have noticed that she seems to be making signs in your direction. It is that lady in the many colours. Seven, I think the archdeacon counted, a little while ago."
Mrs. Bangs beamed with great delight. "Oh! that's my friend, Mrs. 'Uggins," she explained. "I borrowed her hanky a little while ago and I expect she must be wanting it back. That's her 'usband with her; he's the greengrocer in Rumble Street."
"Oh, do introduce me," exclaimed her ladyship enthusiastically. "There will be some more interesting people to introduce to Lord Sanderson on Friday. I know he wants to get as much insight as possible into our commercial life."
Mrs. Bangs felt most important. "Sophy, Sophy," she called out loudly, "come 'ere, will you? Lady Fitz-Tootle wants to speak to you, and bring Andy with you, too. There's plenty of chairs."
The multi-coloured Mrs. Huggins opened her eyes very wide. Lady Fitz-Tootle wanting to speak to her! It must be a mistake! No, no—it was no mistake! The great lady was smiling at her and motioning towards a chair!
Mrs. Huggins controlled her feelings with an effort and rose bravely to the occasion. Although her heart beat many times faster than usual, she gripped her husband tightly by the arm and advanced with serene aplomb towards the table.
But it was different with her lesser half, for Mr. Andrew Huggins, of greengrocery fame, was obviously very much overawed, and with most reluctant feet he dragged behind his triumphant spouse.
He had seen who was seated at the table, but it was not by any means of Lady Fitz-Tootle that he was the more afraid. It was Archdeacon Bottleworthy who was filling him with fear.
All his life long, Andy Huggins had been brought up in Church circles, and from his early days he had delivered cabbages and cauliflowers at church-goers' doors. As a small boy he had sung in church choirs, as a youth he had been a zealous attendant at church guilds, and as a grown man he had been wont to regard church dignitaries as different from all other persons, and as beings of a higher class. So it was bordering on the irreverent now, he thought, to approach the archdeacon on equal terms. It was penetrating into the holy of holies, it was almost like the uplifting of the veil.
But Lady Fitz-Tootle was quite gushing in her reception as they came up.
"I am so very pleased to meet you, Mrs. 'Uggins," she exclaimed.
"'Uggins with a haitch," corrected the lady promptly; "the 'Ugginses of Hunley Park."
"Oh yes, of course," exclaimed her ladyship brightly, after a pause. "How very stupid of me. I remember the name quite well now. The greengrocery and fruit emporium, just by the Unley Town Hall. I've often bought my tomatoes there."
Mr. Huggins blinked very hard. He did not at all know what an emporium was, but it sounded respectable and big, and it inspired confidence and importance accordingly.
"Yes," went on her ladyship impressively, as the two Hugginses shuffled into their chairs, "and you, Mr. Huggins, and Archdeacon Bottleworthy should find so many things to interest you both. He himself comes of good greengrocery stock, I understand, for he has just told me that his grandfather was a market gardener, but not by any means of course in such a big way as you. Indeed, he says his grandfather paid only a few shillings a week rent." She turned towards the archdeacon. "Is that not so, Archdeacon?"
All eyes were turned at once upon Archdeacon Bottleworthy. The latter's face had paled, and it was damp with perspiration. His mouth was drawn up as if he were in pain, and for a moment there was a look about his eyes as of a hunted animal at bay. He looked afraid, and glanced round as if wanting to hide somewhere.
Then suddenly, on the turn of a second, so it seemed, his whole expression altered. The blood of his curate father—the man who had starved himself so that his son might go to Cambridge—had stirred in him, and on the instant his courage all came back. He straightened himself sharply, the proud lines of his face reasserted themselves and his lips broke into a dry smile.
"Quite so," he said quietly, "my grandparents were only tillers of the soil." He shrugged his shoulders sadly. "But I am afraid, myself, I know nothing of those matters now, for as a clergyman I sow and reap only in the garden of souls, and there are unhappily more weeds there than fruit or flowers."
"Then it's that snake that's doing it," said her ladyship with great decision, "that serpent in the Garden of Eden, Archdeacon, that you referred to just now. He must be gobbling everything up."
The archdeacon refused to meet her eye. "Evil is tolerated now," he said coldly, "and the world has lost its sense of shame."
"But the serpent, Archdeacon," insisted Lady Fitz-Tootle earnestly, "you really must not blame us for being tolerant there. We have to be polite to him, you know, for he's quite one of the family now." She sighed plaintively. "No one, either, in these uncertain times, can afford to make any enemies unnecessarily, so we must all put down our little saucers of milk—and hope for the best. It's tactful, now, isn't it?"
The archdeacon looked scornful, but made no comment, and then suddenly her ladyship rose excitedly from her chair.
"But, oh look," she exclaimed. "I see Miss Evangeline Tubbs from The Key-Hole over there." She turned, all animation, to the little table. "Come now, quick, Mrs. Bangs and Mrs. Huggins. You must both have your names in The Key-Hole to-morrow and your hats and frocks described too."
The two ladies blushed crimson with delight. Fame and notoriety were descending avalanche-like upon them. What would their people say?
"Besides," went on her ladyship briskly. "I want to be introduced to all your friends. They must be invited to meet Lord Sanderson, too." She turned with a winning smile to Mr. Chickseed and Mr. Huggins. "Now, I'll leave you gentlemen to Archdeacon Bottleworthy. You won't mind, will you?" She laughed reassuringly. "He's quite entertaining, you know, and will tell you all about the Athanasian Creed or what's going to win the Melbourne Cup, whichever you prefer. So, good-bye, for the moment," and off she went, with the quavering Mrs. Bangs and the quivering Mrs. Huggins in her wake.
The archdeacon walked home very thoughtfully that afternoon, and he was so quiet afterwards at dinner that his wife asked him if he felt unwell.
"Oh, no dear," he replied with a smile, and then added evasively: "but I think, somehow, I must have got a touch of sun."
LADY FITZ-TOOTLE'S reception upon the following Friday evening to meet Lord Sanderson, the great and distinguished traveller, was in every way a most remarkable success.
There was no doubt about it, and even her severest critics, in spite of their annoyance and bewilderment at the very varying social positions of those who had been invited, had to admit that it was so.
The refreshments were perfect and the quality of the champagne excellent—likewise the quantity, too.
It is true that in the earlier stages of the proceedings the guests seemed much inclined to divide themselves sharply into two distinct parties, and that not a little embarrassment was observed on several occasions when certain of them met face to face.
Mr. Pipe-Smith, for instance, was naturally not over-pleased to rub shoulders with Mr. Puggs, the tailor, to whom he owed for nine suits of clothes, and Mrs. Chown thought it hardly nice to meet, socially, the young person who served her with paint and powder at the chemist's shop. Mrs. Spragget, also, was obliged to notice some poor relations she had not spoken to for years, and the Button-Browns were greeted—and actually drawn into a brief conversation—by individuals who lived in a much smaller house in the same street. Undoubtedly, too, things were trying in various ways for many others, and surprise was expressed that Lady Fitz-Tootle, of all people, should have been so indiscreet in the invitations that had been sent out.
But supper quickly proved a great leveller of all things, and when the champagne corks began to pop briskly, like a machine-gun in full blast, a great tolerance descended on all present; the restraint on all sides was relaxed and smiles everywhere began to take the place of frowns.
Lady Fitz-Tootle, herself, was gay and buoyant as a flapper maiden in her teens, and no one there was merrier or more bright than she. She had a word for everyone in turn, and with equal favour she beamed upon high and low alike.
Lord Sanderson was greatly impressed with everything.
Between fifty and fifty-five years of age, he was a tall, stout man with a big, important face and large, innocent blue eyes. He was square in the chest and round in the waist, and he carried himself stolidly, as became a member of the House of Lords. He evinced an almost child-like curiosity in all things appertaining to Australia, for he had come out from the old country to absorb all the information and knowledge of the great Commonwealth in about six weeks, with the intention, upon his return home, of writing a book, so that the great problem of colonial emigration might be solved, forthwith, at once and for ever.
And certainly, he thought, his investigations were beginning under the most auspicious circumstances conceivable, at the reception held that evening in his honour.
Hosts of interesting and important people had been brought up to him; the shining lights of the South Australian world, he had been informed.
He had been introduced to Mr. Chickseed, the great cattle expert, from hundreds and hundreds of miles out-back. He had conversed with Mr. Huggins, the great authority on all things vegetable and green, and he had been supplied with much and varied information by the celebrated Mr. Bangs, whom, he understood, was the last word in everything relating to defunct sheep and cows.
Everyone, too, had been most deferential to him and he could not fail to appreciate the interest and respect in which he could perceive so plainly he was held.
Altogether he was very satisfied, and in due time during the evening he expressed himself as such to his genial and lively hostess.
"Really, your ladyship," he began warmly, "I can never be grateful enough to you, for the great kindness you have shown me to-night." He raised his voice in his best parliamentary manner. "You have laid bare to me, all at once as it were, the great heart of Australia. I feel my fingers on its mighty pulse."
"But, my dear Lord Sanderson," laughed her ladyship, "it's stomach only you've been hearing about, up to now, the places where it gets its food!"
The face of his lordship clouded. His own metaphor he had thought to be a beautiful one, but its elaboration thus by his hostess struck him as unpleasant, and altogether too physiological to be nice.
"Well," he said after a moment, and he smiled genially, "everyone has certainly been most kind to me and most anxious to give me all the information possible. They are interested, I see, in my mission to a most remarkable degree."
"Oh, my lord," smiled back Lady Fitz-Tootle in great amusement, "but missions like yours are everyday occurrences to us over here. By every mail-boat, almost, we are over-run by good people who come to do Australia in half an hour, and that is no novelty to us at all." She looked up archly and tapped him on the arm. "It is you, my lord, who are the attraction to us to-night, because you are Lord Sanderson, a peer of the realm."
His lordship opened his blue eyes very wide. "But Lady Fitz-Tootle," he exclaimed looking very puzzled, "I thought—I thought you were all democrats here and that titles and class distinctions were of no account at all."
"Pooh! pooh!" laughed her ladyship. "Why, we dote upon a lord!" She nodded her head emphatically. "Yes, make no mistake about that, Lord Sanderson, a title or money and there's a halo for you at once over here." She lowered her voice significantly. "Poor—and we're most particular—money and no questions asked."
"Dear me, dear me!" said his lordship, looking very surprised, "but I quite thought that when I came to Australia I should find everyone, socially, on equal terms."
Her ladyship laughed merrily. "Now, don't you idealize us," she protested. "We are only just ordinary human beings here, and in our own community we have all the social vices of any little English provincial town." She waved her arm round. "Why, do you know, Lord Sanderson, that half the people who are eating and drinking together here, to-night, won't even nod to one another when they meet again in the street to-morrow? They'll turn their heads away or else pass by with, perhaps, a stony stare." She shook her head solemnly. "No, no, my lord, their lives can never mingle, for there are differences between them greater even than race or creed. They are separated by a great gulf of cash."
"Good gracious!" said his lordship. "You don't say it's like that?" He glanced round the room and then at once his face brightened. "Well, they look very sociable to-night, anyhow," he remarked. "It's all peace and good-will now, at any rate."
"All Moet and Chandon," corrected her ladyship quickly, "or else all Black and White. It's the tolerance of the animals in the ark. It's the peace of Noah, my lord. Yes," she went on after a moment, "and the really amusing part of it is—the most exclusive of us here have, many of us, risen from nothing at all."
Lord Sanderson looked very thoughtful, and she dropped her voice to a confiding whisper. "Nearly all the most important people here to-night—thirty years ago would have come round to my back door, if they had wanted to speak to me." She chuckled in great amusement. "And I, for one, should have come there myself."
A broad smile crossed over Lord Sanderson's face.
"Really," he exclaimed, "you are most delightfully candid in your revelations."
"And why should I not be?" retorted Lady Fitz-Tootle quickly. "I've been more fortunate in my life. That is all." She looked up gravely. "I worked myself, Lord Sanderson, as a young girl, in a shop for fifteen shillings a week, and my husband's father once cleaned and sold sheep-skins by the half dozen at a time." She shrugged her shoulders. "And we are most of us in the same boat, I tell you. Nearly all of us here."
"Very meritorious, then, of you all," said Lord Sanderson emphatically, "and you ought to be very proud——"
"Yes," interrupted her ladyship, "but we are all so ungrateful about it. That's the point." She sighed heavily. "We will not remember the little people we were once, and we pass our lives now trying to forget the common callings that have made us rich. But come, my lord," and she laid her hand ingratiatingly upon his arm, "I've lots more people to introduce to you yet, and there are lots more of our bush aristocracy that you have to meet. And besides, I want you, too, to help on a most interesting little romance."
"Romance!" ejaculated his lordship dryly. "Then even in these cold, pecuniary surroundings that you tell me of there is still—love in the air."
"There is always love, Lord Sanderson," said her ladyship sharply, "where young people are, and youth is always mocking at the sordid calculations of middle-age." She sighed. "A pretty face, a pair of sparkling eyes, and all this social cant of ours is barren of its power for ill." She dropped her voice again into a whisper. "A very nice young fellow here is in love with a very pretty girl, and the girl's father would like to spoil the romance. He's a dreadful old snob, the father. He's our archdeacon here. Now, if he sees you talking to the boy, he'll think a lot more of him, and it may go a long way towards unhardening his Pharaoh-like heart. You won't mind, will you, Lord Sanderson? It will be helping on a good cause."
"Mind?" said his lordship with enthusiasm. "I shall be delighted, I am sure. I'll be very nice to him, I promise you, but"—and the great man smiled slyly and held up one finger roguishly before her face—"look here, I've a great eye for beauty myself, and you must be sure to introduce me to the young lady as well."
"Certainly, I will," laughed Lady Fitz-Tootle, "and later you shall have another treat, too. We are going to finish up with a little dance and you shall lead off "—she appeared to think for a moment—"with Emma Bangs."
"Ah," exclaimed his lordship with great zest, "another beauty, eh?"
"Oh, you bad, bad man," said Lady Fitz-Tootle delightedly, "but you must judge for yourself there." She bit her lip. "You must wait and see."
They moved off together among the assembled guests, and all those people who thought particularly that they should be noticed edged close up to her ladyship, so that they might catch her eye.
"Alderman Simon Mullet," announced Lady Fitz-Tootle, introducing a fat man who had planted himself so squarely in front of her that by no chance could he possibly be passed by. "One of our most important citizens, my lord." The alderman looked red and swollen and Lord Sanderson shook him warmly by the hand. "An old colonial family," went on her ladyship sweetly, "that originally came out from the old country, from Seven Dials. His grandfather was one of the early settlers here, and opened a small public-house in Hindley Street." The alderman's jaw dropped sharply and his redness deepened to a dusky hue. "Very worthy family," smiled Lady Fitz-Tootle, "and his sons are now professional men."
"I congratulate you, sir," said Lord Sanderson. "Nothing could be more commendable than a rise from such humble beginnings. It must be most gratifying to you to think how you have got on."
But Alderman Mullet looked anything but gratified, and, the introduction over, he shuffled quickly off, with covert glances from side to side to note who among the other guests had been within ear-shot during his brief interview with the great man.
"Mrs. Stone-Robinson," said Lady Fitz-Tootle, introducing a tall and angular-looking lady who had moved up near to them. "One of the stoutest pillars of our social life here. No function in Adelaide is complete without her, and her name appears many times in every paper in the society columns. Her doings are of great interest to us all, and every journal at once records her briefest change of domicile. Melbourne, Houndsditch, or a trip abroad, it is all the same and into the newspapers it always goes."
The eyebrows of Mrs. Stone-Robinson twitched perhaps ever so slightly, but she held herself with importance and smiled with the reserve of one great personage being brought into contact with another.
"I am charmed, I am sure," said Lord Sanderson in his most gracious manner. "A native of Australia, of course, Mrs. Stone-Robinson?"
"Oh, dear me, yes, true colonial, Lord Sanderson," broke in Lady Fitz-Tootle with enthusiasm. "Her father was the policeman at Kapunda once. Wasn't he, dear?" An amazed and baleful light blazed into the eyes of Mrs. Stone-Robinson, and incredulity and fury struggled for the mastery in the glare with which she regarded her hostess. "Yes, and colonial, too, on her mother's side," continued Lady Fitz-Tootle quite unperturbed. "She was the cook on the Balgowrie sheep-station here." Her ladyship smiled in great amusement. "Another family, you see, my lord, who made money quickly."
"What, in the constabulary?" queried Lord Sanderson in great surprise. "Then is the Force so well paid over here?"
"Oh, no," laughed Lady Fitz-Tootle, "but her father left the police directly he was married, and with the little money that his wife had saved they opened a shop. They did very well and then speculated in land here in the city." She shrugged her shoulders. "The old story—they couldn't help getting rich."
A deep hush came over those standing near, and no graven image could have stood more still than did Mrs. Stone-Robinson. Her face was the picture of black anger, but Lord Sanderson smiled blandly at her as if waiting for her to speak.
Suddenly, however, Lady Fitz-Tootle touched him on the arm.
"Ah! here's young Mr. Grainger," she exclaimed, and she lowered her voice to a whisper, "the hero of the little romance I told you of. His father's got a provision store in the city, but he's well educated and is a very nice boy. Mr. Grainger," she said aloud, beckoning the latter to her, "Lord Sanderson wants to talk to you. You can tell him all about our dried fruits now, and why Australia doesn't fill the markets of the world." She laughed merrily. "Be stern with him, Mr. Grainger, and find out why everyone at home doesn't buy Australian raisins and currants, as they should."
Young Grainger came forward with a considerable fluttering of the heart, for, if he had been astonished at being invited to the reception, he was amazed now that he should be singled out particularly for an introduction to the guest of the evening. He could feel that he was getting uncomfortably red, but with all eyes upon him, as he knew, he pulled himself together, and outwardly, at all events, it was a very calm and self-possessed young man who shook hands with Lord Sanderson. His lordship was amiability itself, and for some minutes the two were engaged in earnest conversation. They were interrupted at last, however, by Lady Fitz-Tootle, who, like a great general, had planned all her campaign and had no intention of risking that his lordship should become bored.
"Archdeacon and Miss Bottleworthy," she announced—then in a whisper: "the girl I spoke to you about, my lord."
Lord Sanderson beamed. Margaret Bottleworthy looked pretty enough for any man to enthuse over and, remembering what he had just been told, his lordship smiled knowingly as he shook hands.
"The archdeacon is one of our notabilities," smiled Lady Fitz-Tootle, "and most important and influential in the spiritual sense." She clasped her hands piously. "When there's a drought on, confidence is established everywhere directly he is put up to pray for rain."
"Naturally, naturally," said Lord Sanderson most politely, "so I should expect," and he looked with curiosity at the archdeacon. "A most useful reverend gentleman to have, I am quite sure."
"Yes and he's sporting too," went on Lady Fitz-Tootle, her voice dropping into flippant tones, "he's——" She saw a nervous and half-frightened expression come into Margaret Bottleworthy's eyes, and appeared immediately to check her flow of words. "Well, he's a credit to us anyhow," she added after a momentary pause, "in everything he undertakes."
"Most pleased to hear it," said Lord Sanderson solemnly, and he bowed to the archdeacon. "As a new-comer to this beautiful country, sir, I note with pleasure the esteem in which the cloth is held."
The archdeacon, the expression of whose face had hitherto been nervous and disturbed, allowed his features to relax.
"Her ladyship is very kind," he said smiling, and he bowed towards his hostess, "even though, I am afraid, at the expense of extreme veracity. Indeed I am only a very humble and insignificant unit of the Church it is my privilege to represent."
"Nonsense," exclaimed her ladyship promptly, "you're by far the best-looking of all the clergy here, and you'd have been a bishop long ago if some of the old fogies were not so indecently long-lived;" and then, to the great relief of the archdeacon, she and Lord Sanderson moved away.
Many more people were brought up and introduced to his lordship, and of all of them Lady Fitz-Tootle had something piquant and interesting to say. It may be there was not undue enthusiasm everywhere at the comments of her ladyship, but everything was uttered with such innocent and child-like candour that no traces either of ridicule or malice could be detected in anything she said.
"Now, there's one more person I must introduce you to," she said at last. "Our most celebrated medical practitioner, the great Dr. Hoop-Brown. He's a perfectly wonderful operator. He can cut you to ribbons in five minutes, and then sew you up again in another ten."
"Dear me, dear me!" ejaculated his lordship, opening his eyes very wide.
"Yes," went on her ladyship, "and we are naturally very proud of him." She lowered her voice most impressively. "They say, you know, that he signs more death certificates than any man in Australia, and he's been doing it for years."
Lord Sanderson's eyes opened wider than ever. "And have you very many doctors in Adelaide," he asked with just the slightest suspicion of uneasiness in his tones, "besides this most remarkable man?"
"Many!" laughed Lady Fitz-Tootle merrily. "Why, we're just over-run with them." She became more serious. "But we need them all, every one of them, with all the new diseases that are being invented every day." A proud light came into her eyes. "Yes they're a splendid body of men, our doctors, and their post-mortem work brings home most clearly to us how really capable they are."
"Their post-mortem work?" gasped his lordship.
"Oh, yes," said her ladyship, "for the diagnosis is invariably confirmed then."
Lord Sanderson made a grimace. "Well, I'm leaving here on Monday," he exclaimed thankfully, "and I trust—I trust these remarkable qualities of diagnosis possessed by your medical gentlemen will not need to be exercised on my behalf."
"Of course not, of course not," promptly assented Lady Fitz-Tootle. "You look the very picture of an advertisement for some baby's food!" She smiled insinuatingly. "But still, still, if you did feel any little twinges of indisposition, now, I am sure you would appreciate their attention very highly. As I say, they're a fine body of men, and apart from their profession they're a great social asset, too." She laughed in great enjoyment again. "Years ago, when there were only twelve of them, they were known as 'the twelve apostles.' Then, when their number rose to forty, we spoke of them as 'the forty thieves.' Now that there are over a hundred"—she shrugged her shoulders—"well, they talk among themselves about 'the hundred best lives.'"
"Ha! ha!" laughed Lord Sanderson. "So the human touch comes in after all. I like them best there."
There were, indeed, many gay and festive moments that evening for the guests of Lady Fitz-Tootle, but surely the climax of all interest and excitement was reached when the great Lord Sanderson led off with the blushing Mrs. Bangs upon the ballroom floor!
His lordship was dignified, courtly and magnificent, as became a peer of the British realm, and Mrs. Bangs—well, never surely would North Walkerville send forth a more triumphant, fluttering heart.
From Lord Sanderson all recollection of that dance was speedily to pass away, but to his partner those burning moments were to be a memory inviolate for evermore, and generations of small Bangs's yet to come were to listen wonder-eyed to the recital of how at Lady Fitz-Tootle's reception their grandma or great-grandma achieved celebrity and fame.
That night Lord Sanderson wrote in his diary:
(Memo.—Lady Fitz-Tootle is of opinion that six weeks will not be long enough to obtain a thorough knowledge of Australia and suggests another fortnight or at least ten days.)
First impression of Australia. The Australians are really remarkable. They are most interesting people and the courage and resource of their fore-fathers must have been truly wonderful. They are most delightfully straightforward and candid in their speech and indeed seem rather to pride themselves upon their abruptness. They appear to get more enjoyment out of life than we do and are very pleasure-loving. They are a highly emotional people, and foreign singers, music-hall artists, great healers, travelling evangelists and overseas actors are always assured of good gate receipts. Socially, the possession of wealth is the first consideration and lack thereof is a graver misdemeanour even than at home.
THE next morning Lady Fitz-Tootle awoke with a splitting headache and there was a drumming in her ears that was insistently reminiscent of the popping of champagne corks. She dragged herself painfully to the mirror and was not surprised that her eyes looked tired and heavy and her face distraught and pale. She felt very sorry for herself and got back into bed. The maid came in with the early morning cup of tea.
"Take it away," exclaimed her ladyship petulantly, "and go and ring up Dr. Hoop-Brown. Tell him I'm not well, and ask him to come round at once. Bring me the morning paper, please. I'm not going to get up."
She lay back wearily and thought of the uncertainty of life. She believed almost that she was going to die, and wondered then how many wreaths she would get. What would the newspapers say about her in their obituary columns, too, and would they put it on the front page? She hoped to goodness, at all events, that they would have the hyphen in her name correctly. She was not sure there would be any lying-in-state, but she felt somehow that it would comfort her if she knew it was going to be so. She shut her eyes and tried to picture the exact pose her features would assume upon her decease. She felt really very ill.
Her meditations were interrupted by a knock upon the door. Her medical attendant had arrived, and he bowed gravely as he came into the room.
Dr. Hoop-Brown, as Lady Fitz-Tootle had correctly informed Lord Sanderson during the previous evening, was certainly one of the most fashionable surgeons in Adelaide, and of all members of his profession he was the one most generally consulted by the wealthy classes; indeed, in society circles, no one was considered beyond aid who had not 'called in Hoop-Brown.' A middle-aged bachelor, he was a typical professional man, and was attired always in the severest black. He had a keen intellectual face and rather cold and inscrutable eyes. He was not of a very sympathetic disposition, however, and was very seldom seen to smile. In manner he was always solemn and important, and he waited on his patients with the dignity of an archbishop and the diplomacy of an ambassador.
In the pursuit of his calling he was undeniably a man of exceptional ability, and his opinions always carried considerable weight with his professional brethren. Naturally he had critics among them, but these had little common ground of disparagement except, perhaps, where his use of the knife was concerned. There he was regarded as being altogether too hasty in his resort to the operating table, it being cynically averred that he held to the view there were always portions of the human body which, as a matter of routine, it was desirable to cut out.
He lived by himself, in a large pretentious mansion in one of the best parts of North Adelaide.
"I am very ill, Dr. Hoop-Brown," said her ladyship weakly. "Look at me—I'm a perfect fright."
The doctor gravely took out his watch and proceeded to feel her pulse.
"Nerves," he said solemnly, after a moment's pause. "Nerves and over-strain."
"Nerves," snapped her ladyship with irritation. "More likely cocktails and champagne!"
Perhaps for just one second the doctor's eye-brows were elevated ever so slightly; perhaps his eyes stared just a little wonderingly, but his voice continued in its usual even tone.
"But you do too much," he said suavely, "and then, in your over-wrought condition, a little"—he dropped his voice discreetly—"a little stimulant exerts too great an influence."
"A little!" sniffed her ladyship contemptuously, "why I was drinking champagne all the evening. That old fool Lord Sanderson was a dreadful bore, and I had to make up for it somehow." She smiled faintly. "But, oh, it was funny to see him dancing with Emma Bangs. Ten years ago and my corsets would have burst to bits," and she chuckled now with a little more strength.
Dr. Hoop-Brown frowned. He had always a profound reverence for titles, and even from Lady Fitz-Tootle ridicule of the King's anointed was unseemly.
He took out his stethoscope.
"I should like to listen at your chest, please," he said quietly. "Now, say ninety-nine."
"I'd rather say 'when,'" sighed her ladyship. "I'm sure a brandy and soda would do me more good than anything. I ought to have had one before you came in."
Dr. Hoop-Brown made no comment, but a minute later he stood up and regarded Lady Fitz-Tootle with a most funereal air.
"You are upon the verge of a very serious breakdown," he announced solemnly, "and you must take at least three weeks of complete rest. You must remain in bed and you are to have a low diet of broths and milk. No alcohol of any kind, and no cigarettes."
Lady Fitz-Tootle groaned. "But aren't you going to operate?" she asked bitterly, stung to spitefulness by the dreary prospect he was unfolding. "Surely I have got something more you would like to take out. I've only had two operations so far, you know, and my friends tell me the scars don't match."
Dr. Hoop-Brown looked very grave. "You must have no visitors," he continued quietly, "and I had better send in a nurse."
"Oh! but am I really as ill as that?" wailed her ladyship, now looking very frightened. "Three weeks in bed! It will be worse than prison for me and I shall mope to death." She clutched the doctor by the arm. "I can't go through it," she sobbed. "No, I really cannot."
She stopped abruptly, noticing a strange expression on the doctor's face. He had suddenly grown pale, his eyes were bulging and he pursed his lips as though in pain. He placed his hand over his heart and dropped unceremoniously into an armchair.
"What's the matter, Dr. Hoop-Brown?" she asked sharply. "Are you ill yourself?"
The doctor appeared to pull himself together with an effort. "No, no, just a spasm," he replied weakly. He looked round in a very started manner. "Really, really, I don't know what's happened to me. I feel as if I've just had an electric shock. Dear me, dear me, I do feel strange."
He rose up and walked towards the window, and then turning round, suddenly began to laugh.
"How very stupid of me!" he exclaimed, passing his hand across his forehead. "By Jove! I must have caught something of your complaint." He made a wry face. "I must have had a thick night myself, I think."
But Lady Fitz-Tootle had shut her eyes and was not listening. "Oh, my poor head!" she groaned. "I feel as if it were going to burst."
Dr. Hoop-Brown's professional manner at once reasserted itself and he returned instantly to the bed-side and took hold of one of her ladyship's hands. "Now look here," he said kindly, "don't go and worry yourself at all. There's nothing wrong with you that a few days' rest and quiet will not put right. You must go easy for a time, that's all. You've been doing too much lately. That's what's the matter." He patted her hand in a fatherly way. "Why, think of the strain of last night. You were on the go, and talking the whole time."
"I said some very foolish things, I know," came a faint voice from the bed, "and it frightens me now, when I think of them. I must have been crazy, I believe."
"Not at all," said the doctor stoutly, "you were perfectly splendid and the life and soul of us all." He broke into a chuckling laugh. "The way you told off the Wopple-Smiths was as funny as anything could be, and when you picked out Mrs. Bangs to dance with Lord Sanderson—well, it makes my sides ache to think of it now."
But the humour of things seemed somehow to appeal no longer to Lady Fitz-Tootle, and she lay back weakly, with a frightened expression upon her face.
"Now," said Dr. Hoop-Brown, as he got up to go, "I'll send round some medicine at once, and I'll look in again this evening to see how you are. In the meantime," and he smiled benevolently upon her, "I'll relax my hard-and-fast rule, just for once, and let you have a brandy and soda. Now only one, mind, and not deeper than two fingers." Once more he patted her hand and then with an encouraging nod, he bowed himself out of the room.
Her ladyship had the prescribed brandy and soda, and in a few minutes, feeling considerably better, she took up the morning paper, and turned to the society news. There were three columns devoted to her reception and more than two of them were given to the names of the guests.
She glanced hurriedly down the list, and then a deep groan escaped her.
"Oh! what awful people," she wailed. "Whatever made me ask them?" Tears brimmed to her eyes. "Oh! what will people think?"
She heard the telephone bell tinkle in the passage and a moment later the maid knocked, and came into the room.
"A Mrs. Bangs is on the telephone, your ladyship," she said. "She wants to know what time you are expecting her and Mrs. Uggins to tea this afternoon."
Lady Fitz-Tootle quivered like a jelly and sought refuge beneath the bed clothes. The maid had to repeat the message.
"Oh! tell her I'm not well and have to remain in bed," panted her ladyship. "Say—say, I'll write and appoint another day when I'm better."
The maid retired, but was back again almost directly.
"Mrs. Bangs would like to know if she could come and sit with your ladyship."
"No, no," exclaimed Lady Fitz-Tootle hastily. "Tell her I'm very ill and it may be infectious. I'm to have perfect quiet, the doctor says."
The maid again retired and then ensued what seemed to the trembling invalid, a long and indeed almost interminable conversation on the phone.
Finally, she heard the ring-off, and then the maid returned once more.
"Mrs. Bangs is very upset to hear your ladyship is so ill. She is sending up some gravy-beef and Mrs. Uggins is bringing some oranges and flowers. Mr. Chickseed sends his kind regards. They are ringing up again presently."
Lady Fitz-Tootle shut her eyes and groaned.
In the meantime, Dr. Hoop-Brown had passed out of the house, into the garden. He stood still upon the path for a moment, and, throwing out his chest, drew in full, deep breaths of air. He looked up at the sun as if in great approval, and then sniffed vigorously at some roses that were growing near.
"Rootity-toot," he hummed——
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute
In a very charming manner——"
A highly amused smile came into his face and sauntering down to where his well-appointed car was parked at the bottom of the drive, he took in admiringly its fine lines and beautifully polished appearance. Then he stood regarding his chauffeur thoughtfully, and for so long a time that the man at last began to fidget and redden under his tan.
"Banks," said the doctor suddenly, and with a most decided frown, "you want a new set of teeth. Your present ones are a disgrace to my car."
"My teeth, sir?" exclaimed the astonished Banks, who could not believe that his ears had heard aright. "My teeth!"
"Yes, your teeth, Banks," said the doctor sharply. "They're too white and much too small. They're the wrong shape as well, and don't suit your type of face. They have worried me for a long while."
"Very good, sir," stammered Banks, staring hard at his employer. "I'll get some new ones."
"Yes, get a new set," said the doctor, as if greatly relieved. "I'll pay for them. Go to Twiggs, Montague Twiggs. He's by far the best dentist in all Australia."
"Yes, sir," replied the chauffeur, brightening up at once, and almost losing his astonishment in delight at his master's generosity. "I'll go about them this afternoon."
The doctor got into his car; he was now all smiles again. He took out his appointment-book.
"Ah," he exclaimed, "number five Hill Top Terrace, please. I've got an appointment there with Dr. Weeks, sharp at nine."
A few minutes later the car came to a standstill before a small house in an unpretentious street. Another car had pulled up just in front, and its occupant, a young and boyish-looking man, alighting quickly, hurried back to meet Dr. Hoop-Brown.
"Good man, Weeks," called out the latter cheerily, "we're both exactly on time."
"To the minute, sir," replied the younger man, with some deference, "and I'm sure it's very good of you to come upon such short notice. I didn't like to ring you up at all."
"Nonsense, my boy," said Dr. Hoop-Brown. "I'm always pleased to come at any time, when you want me. Now, what's the trouble. Pneumonia, you say?"
Dr. Weeks looked nervous. "Yes, sir," he replied. "Both lungs affected and the case quite hopeless." He went on apologetically. "I wouldn't have troubled you, for I know how busy you always are, but the patient's wife was so insistent you should come that, in the end, I had to give way. She says you pulled his mother through once, when everyone else had given her up."
"Condition quite hopeless, you say?" asked Dr. Hoop-Brown.
"Yes, the man's been temperaturing a hundred and five ever since Tuesday and I've been in already this morning and the respiration's over forty."
"Well, well," said Dr. Hoop-Brown sympathetically, "at all events I'm glad you've called me in, for it will comfort his people to think that everything possible is being done." He laid his hand upon the young man's arm and spoke very gravely. "You know, Weeks, it's a dreadful thing for any family when the breadwinner dies. It's a very earthquake in their lives." He ruminated for a moment. "How old's the man?"
"Twenty-six," replied Dr. Weeks, "and they've only been married a year. They have a child a few weeks old."
"Dear me, dear me," remarked Dr. Hoop-Brown, "how dreadfully sad!"
Dr. Weeks glanced curiously at him. He was surprised that any reference should be made to the personal aspect of this case. Qualified himself, only a few years back, from the Adelaide Hospital, he had a very lively recollection of Dr. Hoop-Brown there, both as a lecturer and a teacher, and certainly no one could have said then that the great man was ever disturbed over the feelings of any patients he was considering. They were only 'cases' to him.
"Well, let us go in," continued Dr. Hoop-Brown with a sigh. "I've a busy day before me and must hurry on."
A young woman opened the door and it was evident that she had been crying. She was not more than two or three and twenty, and was very pretty, with large, soft eyes.
"This is Dr. Hoop-Brown," said Dr. Weeks, and her face brightened at once.
"Oh! it is so good of you to come so quickly," she exclaimed, and a catch came into her voice. "My husband's dreadfully ill, but he's always talking of you. You saved his mother once."
Dr. Hoop-Brown patted her kindly on the shoulder. "Well, we must see what we can do for him now," he said gently. "One thing, he's got youth on his side."
With a strained white face, the woman led the way into the bedroom. A nurse was standing just inside and she made room for the doctor to pass.
The sick man was obviously desperately ill, and the labour of his breathing was eloquent of the straits that he was in. He was, however, quite conscious and he smiled faintly when Dr. Hoop-Brown came up to the bed-side. With an encouraging smile in return, but with no comment, the latter proceeded quickly and methodically to make his examination, with the sufferer watching him the whole time with the mute and pathetic expression of a sick dog.
The examination over, for a long while Dr. Hoop-Brown sat silently regarding the patient, and then, his eyes wandering, they fell thoughtfully upon the wife, who was standing by the other side of the bed. She was watching him in an agony of suspense, waiting, he realised, with a sharp pang, for the opinion that was to predict for her husband—life or death.
Dr. Hoop-Brown felt the nearest approach to a lump in his throat that he had experienced for many years, and he looked down quickly to mask the expression on his face.
What could he say to them, he thought dismally, to give them any hope? It seemed, almost, that death was already in the house. The poison-laden lungs, the dreadful respirations, the awful racing pulse—why, there was only one chance in a million that the man could win through!
His eyebrows came together with a jerk. "Ah!—one chance in a million. Well, what about that one?"
Suddenly, then, it seemed to him that he was lifted violently out of himself. A rioting idea surged through him. A reckless disregard of probability, a contempt for all the deductions of a scientific mind.
He bent forward and glared into the sick man's eyes.
"You're going to live," he exclaimed sternly. "You're going to get over this." He raised his voice and it was harsh in its insistence. "Understand, do you hear me? You—are—going—to—live."' His face broke into a convincing smile. "You are going to live and hold your children on your knees. You will be up again in three weeks. Do you hear me?"
The sick man's eyes opened very wide. He nodded weakly, and then looked hard at his wife. He smiled happily, and closed his eyes.
Dr. Hoop-Brown rose briskly to his feet and, with a motion of his head, beckoned the nurse to follow him from the room.
"Sister," he said sharply, "he's very bad, but we must not let him slip through. I've put some hope into him and you must keep it up." He took out his watch. "Within ten minutes I'll send round a bottle of particular old brandy and you're to rub it well into him, and all over his limbs. Don't be afraid, rub it in well."
The wife came into the hall. She was holding a purse in her hand.
"Oh, Doctor!" she exclaimed brokenly, "I'm so grateful; it's like coming into Heaven, out of Hell."
"Tut-tut," exclaimed Dr. Hoop-Brown stoutly, but looking, all the same, a trifle uneasy, "as I told you, he's got youth on his side and youth always tells."
Then with a nod and pleasant smile, he picked up his hat and made to leave the house.
"But your fee, Doctor," interrupted the wife. "I would like to pay you now."
Dr. Hoop-Brown looked down. Perhaps he was noticing that the linoleum was worn and shabby, or perhaps he was only absent-minded and was looking at his shoes; at any rate the wife had to speak again.
"My fee!" he exclaimed, as in great surprise. "Why, there's no fee, my dear young lady." He laughed good-naturedly. "I came here only as a friend for my old pupil, Dr. Weeks. Only as his friend, you understand," and he was out of the house and half-way down the garden path before she could thank him, or think of what to say.
Dr. Weeks was at his heels, and they halted for a moment at the gate.
"So you think he'll recover?" asked Dr. Weeks with some hesitation, "you think he'll pull through?"
Dr. Hoop-Brown looked hard at the younger man. "Why not?" he said sharply. "Don't you think so now, too?" His face broke into a whimsical smile. "Better err with Hoop-Brown, you know, than be right with lesser men."
Dr. Weeks looked away across the road. "You brightened him up anyhow," he said slowly. "You——"
"I gave him hope, Weeks," broke in Dr. Hoop-Brown solemnly. "He expects to live now and"—he laughed slyly—"in medicine the expected often happens. You remember that, my boy."
A minute later, and the great man was being driven swiftly homewards in his car. He leant back with a smiling expression on his face. He felt somehow rather amused, and, for some reason he could not explain, he wanted to laugh. Presently, however, he caught sight of himself in the little mirror that was suspended at the side of the car, and at once his appearance of amusement was changed into a frown.
"Now, why the deuce do I always want to dress like this?" he muttered crossly. "I look for all the world like some undertaker's tout." He scrutinized himself disgustedly. "There's the real smack of the cemetery about my clothes. Mourning coat and vest, funereal trousers and post-mortem tie. Bah! I must get rid of this black stuff and dress as if there were some hope in life." He sighed heavily. "Really my appearance must be most depressing to my patients."
He picked up the speaking-tube that communicated with the chauffeur. "Banks," he said sharply, "directly we've dropped that brandy at Hill Top Terrace, drive to Bungles' the outfitters. I'll look in there before I go to the rooms."
"Very good, sir," nodded the chauffeur, and the doctor leaned back again in his seat.
"Now I wonder," he soliloquized presently, after feeling in his pockets, "I wonder if Banks has got a cigarette."
About an hour later Dr. Hoop-Brown arrived opposite his consulting rooms in North Terrace, and jumping briskly from his car, almost collided with Archdeacon Bottleworthy, who, at that precise moment, was passing rather hurriedly along.
"Your pardon, my dear Archdeacon," exclaimed the doctor, all smiles and geniality, and with a sweeping bow; "but another six inches and one of us would have said 'Damn.'" He looked most innocently at the archdeacon. "Myself, I never go farther than 'Blow.'"
The archdeacon seemed not over-pleased with the encounter.
"You're in a hurry, Dr. Hoop-Brown?" he asked coldly.
"Always am, my dear sir," replied the doctor with great affability. "Bodies are not like souls, you know, and they have to be attended to at once." He struck an attitude and spoke unctuously as if almost he were preaching a sermon. "They are the trees in the Garden of Life, Archdeacon, and we poor doctors are always pruning and pruning at them to let them live." He lowered his voice solemnly. "I have four operations this afternoon."
The archdeacon eyed him curiously. "Then let us hope the patients will all recover," he remarked dryly, "and that the services of my calling will not need to be invoked to supplement those of yours." He pursed up his lips sarcastically. "With so much operating work, you must have many anxious moments, Dr. Hoop-Brown."
"Oh, I do, I do!" replied the doctor feelingly. "It's a most worrying time for me, for instance, when the bills go in. I'm never certain whether I'm going to get paid or not." He looked very solemn and shook his head. "We want a lot of Faith and Hope in our profession, Archdeacon, and we dispense quite a lot of Charity in quarters we never intend to."' His face brightened. "But there, there, we jog along somehow and enjoy ourselves between whiles. Oh! that reminds me! I'm dining with Lord Sanderson to-night and young Grainger will be there too." He looked slyly at the archdeacon. "Nice young fellow, Grainger, and I'm not the only one that thinks so either."
Archdeacon Bottleworthy made no comment. He was looking straight ahead of him and his eyes, it seemed, were fastened on something far away.
"Yes, very good-looking boy," went on the doctor, "and I know of one young lady, at least, who is not averse to him." He sidled up close to the archdeacon. "There's romance in the air, Archdeacon. Romance, my dear sir. I was watching Grainger with your pretty Margaret last night, and if in any way my profession has made me a judge of human nature—then I see a love-match there." The doctor shook his head knowingly. "But the girl will want some wooing, for she's proud like her father. She's——"
"Good-bye, good-bye," broke in the archdeacon suddenly. "I must be off at once. I've a meeting to attend," and with his coat-tails flying, and all the stately motions habitual to him thrown to the winds, he dashed precipitately away.
"Well, I'm damned!" ejaculated Dr. Hoop-Brown, staring after him in amazement. "I'm——" he swallowed and corrected himself hastily. "I'm blowed, of course, I mean." He looked up the road. "Goodness gracious! Bottleworthy running as if the devil or the bishop were after him! Now what on earth is it for?" A red-faced, horsey-looking man came hurrying by and the doctor's face broke into a grin.
"Ah! Bloxam, the trainer!" he whistled. "Of course, of course. He's going to give old Bottleworthy a tip. Now, what if I went after them and got it too? I could do with a win for next Saturday." He took out his watch and then solemnly shook his head. "No, no, Bartholomew Hoop-Brown," he muttered, "profession before pleasure, my boy. Tummies and not gee-gees are what you've to consider," and turning back, he walked quickly up the steps of the building where his chambers were.
"Anyone waiting, Nurse?" he asked, entering his consulting room.
"Mr. Poodlum, Doctor," was the response. "He rang up several times and says he must see you."
"Ah! He must—must he?" exclaimed the doctor and a grim look came into his eye. "Well, show him in at once, please."
A few moments later and the banker, Poodlum, shuffled into the room. He was puffing hard and looked white and seedy.
"Good morning, Doctor," he said with a sickly smile. "I'm feeling bad again."
Without replying, the doctor motioned him to a chair, and then, for a full minute, sat regarding him sternly and in chilling silence.
"Ah!" he exclaimed at length, "you do well not to excuse yourself. You've been at it again, Poodlum, at it again; over-eating and over-drinking." He raised his voice contemptuously. "You animal—you gastronomic thug!"
"Eh? What?" ejaculated the banker, astounded at the reception he was receiving. "What did you say, Doctor?"
"What did I say?" echoed the doctor scathingly. "What did I say?" He looked menacingly at the banker, and, pointing at him with his finger, went on in slow deliberate tones. "I saw you guzzling last night at Lady Fitz-Tootle's, Poodlum. Eating and drinking as if you were a slim youth of twenty, instead of an abdominal-rounded, prematurely-aged and enlarged-livered reprobate of over fifty." He leant back and pursed up his lips. "You disgusted me!"
The banker stared as if fascinated. There was no mistaking the viciousness of the doctor's words and they fell like a thunder-clap upon his ears. He could not understand it; it was incredible! This, from the polite and suave Hoop-Brown; this, from his courtly medical attendant, whose exorbitant bills he had been paying without question for years and years! This——
The doctor gritted his teeth together. "I shall operate at two-thirty to-morrow," he announced curtly. "There will be a bed vacant by then in Miss Mogrington's private hospital."
The banker looked alarmed. "But what do you think I've got?" he asked tremulously.
"A hundred guineas," purred the doctor very softly, and more as if speaking to himself.
Poodlum smiled in a strained and sickly manner. "But you don't know what's the matter with me yet, Dr. Hoop-Brown."
"Pooh! pooh! that's a small matter," replied the doctor in careless tone. "The post-mortem——"—he corrected himself hastily—"er—subsequent investigation will reveal that. I shall remove your appendix to-morrow."
"But you took that out two years ago," wailed the banker, "in the same month that you operated upon my wife and daughter."
"Ah! so I did," said the doctor reflectively. "Well, your tonsils will have to go now."
"Dr. Bunions took those out last August," said the banker, "when you were away."
"The poacher!" exclaimed the doctor indignantly. "He had no business to, then. He should have given you a gargle instead." There was a moment's silence. "Well, what about your teeth?" His face brightened. "Ah! that's it. You've got focal infection. We'll have Twiggs in and make a complete clearance there. Twiggs is the best dentist in all Australia."
The banker drew in a great breath of relief, and smiled; he felt on safe ground now. "They're all false," he exclaimed gleefully. "I've not got one of my own left," and he grinned in triumph at the doctor.
But Dr. Hoop-Brown looked graver than ever. "So, so," he muttered darkly, "then yours is indeed a desperate case, and I shall have to graft something on to you. You are very, very ill," and he reached out and laid his fingers on the banker's pulse.
Poodlum glanced apprehensively round the room. Fear and mistrust were gripping him like a palsy and he thought the doctor must be going mad. He seemed to be going through a dreadful dream.
For years and years he had had such implicit faith in Dr. Hoop-Brown. He had been wont, indeed, to regard the doctor's opinion as the very last word in all that concerned the erring human frame, but now—now it seemed the man was only bent on finding some excuse to cut him open; and, apparently with this end in view, there seemed no lengths to which he would not go.
He looked back at the doctor and, to his great surprise, saw that the latter was now laughing quietly.
"Poodlum, Poodlum," said the great man in quite kindly tones. "It was time I gave you a good fright. I've been much too lenient to you up to now." His face suddenly became cold and grave again. "Now, how many years have I known you, Poodlum?"
"About fifteen," replied the banker, with a catch in his voice. "Ever since I went to live in North Adelaide."
"Well, Poodlum," said Dr. Hoop-Brown solemnly, "in those fifteen years I've watched you grow old and I've watched you grow fat. I've watched your Little Mary become Big Mary and your skin grow as yellow as the fabled guineas of your bank." His voice became raised in its earnestness. "And I've warned you—I've warned you, Poodlum, all along. Now haven't I?"
"You've told me to diet," said the banker lamely.
"Diet, man! Diet!" exclaimed the doctor, beginning to grow fierce again. "I've told you to eat less, to drink less, and to sleep less. I've told you to take more exercise. I've told you—but you know well enough what I've told you. And all you've done"—he shrugged his shoulders—"has been just to guzzle on and on and treat all my advice with contempt."
"But, Dr. Hoop-Brown," began the banker tremulously.
"No, don't excuse yourself," broke in the doctor sharply, "for with my own eyes I saw you last night." He leant forward and tapped the banker on the knee. "Brandies and sodas, Poodlum—champagne, mayonnaised cray-fish, more brandies and sodas, and then jam tarts and cream." He laughed sardonically. "Yes, I noticed a good many of you guzzling tarts and cream last night, and I left the place early, on purpose to get a good night's rest for the heavy work I knew I should be having to-day." He sniffed. "The telephone began ringing before six."
The banker shivered. It was like the day of judgment to him, only it was his body and not his soul that was on trial. All his organs were being arraigned to testify against him, and his liver was a bitter witness to his dreadful life of dietetic crime.
Dr. Hoop-Brown eyed him very sternly and then, suddenly, he smiled again.
"Well, Poodlum," he said gently, "I'll give you one more chance, and if you don't obey me now—never, never let any message come to me from your house until I'm wanted to fill in the certificate of death." He spoke sharply. "Go home and fast. A Seidlitz-powder first, and then nothing but gruel and water for three days. You understand. No drinks but water and no rich foods. Now for your general rule of life. Never eat until your hungry, and walk six miles a day." He thumped his fist upon the desk. "Walk to the cemetery, Poodlum, every morning before breakfast. Count up the gravestones and breathe piously to yourself: 'There, but for the guineas I've got to pay Hoop-Brown, lies Richard Poodlum'"—the doctor's voice became low and menacing—"and add: 'His end was pain.'"
The banker took out his handkerchief and mopped a clammy face. Following upon a sleepless night, the interview was too much for him, and he felt upon the verge of tears.
The doctor rose from his seat. "Well, good-bye, Poodlum," he said briskly. "Come to me again in three weeks and you'll weigh quite a stone less." He threw out his chest. "Yes, I, Hoop-Brown, say it."
The banker crept out like a man who had seen his own ghost.
IT was in many ways an extraordinary Dr. Hoop-Brown that went down to the Adelaide Hospital the next day, and there was some excuse for the hall-porter when, for the moment, he failed to recognize him.
The whole appearance of the great man was altered in so many ways. Gone was the sombre suit of black, the coat of sober swallow tail, and gone also the tie that was all meet and ready for the burial of the dead. Gone, too, were the gloves that suggested the passing round of hymn-books, and the tall silk hat that spoke of partings and the tolling of church bells.
Instead—a natty suit of sporting grey—a suit that made one think of holidays, of honeymoons, of races, or of dainty luncheons at some crack hotel. The tie, too, suggested happy times, for it was delicately lavender-coloured, with shades and shadows in it like a pretty woman's eyes. Then the hat—well, the hat was Trilby-fashioned, grey, like a dove's wing, and jaunty as a cavalier's, and by no stretch of the imagination could its smiling owner be avowed as seeming burdened with the sorrows of the world.
Altogether, indeed, the whole attire was typically that of a care-free and happy man.
And it was not only that the doctor was altered in dress—he was altered in other ways, too. He looked so pleased and smiling, he carried himself so gaily; and his eye had a merry twinkle in it, as if he were thinking of some good joke.
Approaching the main entrance, he met two of the hospital sisters coming down the steps, and off came his hat with a grand flourish, as he beamed upon them with a warm, admiring gaze.
"Good gracious!" whispered one of them. "Did you notice that?"
"Yes, and how nice he looks, too!" replied the other. "Why, he's quite a young man in that suit!" Then very quickly, in some subtle way, it spread all round the hospital that something peculiar had happened to the senior surgeon, and when a little later he appeared in the operating theatre he was scrutinized with unusual interest by a hundred and more of very curious and puzzled eyes.
The theatre was well filled, as indeed it always was when Dr. Hoop-Brown was operating. The doctor himself was quite aware that he was always a good 'draw,' but on ordinary occasions it never appeared that he was in the very slightest degree interested as to whether his audience were large or small. To-day, however, it was evident that the contrary was the case, and he smiled with undoubted approval upon the tier upon tier of students who had crowded in to watch him. He regarded them paternally and with the benevolence that a great teacher might bestow upon his disciples.
"A very simple operation to-day, gentlemen," he announced, as the first patient was being brought in. "Just an ordinary gastrectomy, and one that I am compelled to do, because, in the opinion of my colleagues and myself, the trouble will not yield to treatment." He glanced round gravely at the students. "There is one thing, gentlemen, I would wish to impress upon you, now and for always, and that is—" his voice became very low and solemn—"remember, that as members of the great profession it will be your privilege one day to adorn, it must be always your endeavour to interfere, surgically, as little as possible with the human body. Just as the old Venetians inscribed upon their cannons, 'Ultima ratio regum'—the last resource of kings—so should you inscribe upon your scalpels—'the last resource of the medical man.'" His voice deepened in intensity. "The knife comes last of all."
A gasp of amazement escaped his audience. Could they believe their ears? These strange opinions from Hoop-Brown! From Hoop-Brown, the most notorious wielder of the knife! This urge of caution, from the mightiest exponent of cold steel and stitches!
What could have happened—could some brother surgeon have been suggesting operating upon the great man himself?
Dr. Hoop-Brown adjusted his rubber gloves. "Yes, gentlemen," he continued, "we live, indeed, in curious and enquiring times and with the advance of knowledge the veil of mystery is being lifted everywhere alike from sacred and profane things." He shrugged his shoulders. "These poor old abdomina of ours, for instance, are no bags of mystery to anyone now, and the ease and safety with which we can open them, breed in the lesser and the shallower minds a desire to be continually tampering with their contents.. .." He dropped his voice impressively again. "But remember, gentlemen, a great operator is not necessarily a great surgeon, and he who operates when there is no necessity—however brilliant may be his skill and however masterly his technique—sullies the honour of the profession to which he belongs, and becomes—a courtesan of the knife."
Two junior surgeons, four nurses and about a hundred medical students were sure it must be all a dream.
Later that afternoon young Dod Irons, a medical student in his fifth year, burst uproariously into the common-room of the hospital.
"I say, you fellows," he called out excitedly, "old Hoop's gone really dotty or he's had monkey-glands or something. Never known anything so extraordinary in my life! Been going round with him in the wards, and what do you think? He's been smiling at all the nurses and looking at them like a young cock-sparrow. Properly flirtatious, I tell you. Fancy! Hoop-Brown!"
"Get out," scoffed a sallow-faced youth who was busy checking his own pulse-rate with two very nicotined fingers. "We shan't believe that. Hoop's certainly surprised us this afternoon, but he's Brownus-intactus and he's got a virgin mind."
"Virgin mind!" sneered young Irons, disdainfully. "Well, its virginity was of the pater-familias variety just now. But no jokes, you fellows. Hoop's fair got his eye on all the females here. He told matron she wanted some colour in her cheeks and ought to get more fresh air, and he offered to lend his car any afternoon for her and some of the nurses to go down to the sea. You should have seen how astonished they were. Then he squeezed Sister Ruth on the arm and promised them all boxes of chocolates on Saturday. They were flabbergasted, I tell you, and so were we."
"And do you really mean to say," queried the sallow-faced youth, in slow and mock-judicial tones, "that these things actually happened, and that they are not the dreamings of your alcoholic mind"—he thumped upon the table and glared round—"that our Hoop so far forgot himself as to regard the female form in any other than an anatomical or pathological sense—that our senior surgeon——"
"Oh! shut up, Simkins," growled a third student. "You hum like a bad egg. Go on, Irons, tell us what happened next. Is that all?"
"No, by Jove, it is not," exclaimed young Irons, who had kept his most exciting piece of news until the last. "Now, I'll surprise you." He looked grinningly round the room. "Hoop's coming to the smoker to-night!"
"What, coming to the show?" yelled an astonished chorus.
"Yes, and what's more," went on Irons, his eyes widely distended, "he says he may perhaps give us a song. Young Boulton asked him to, just in fun, and, to our amazement, after a moment's hesitation, he winked and answered—'I'll see.'"
"Oh! Hoopy, my Hoop," gurgled the sallow-faced youth, "you are no longer the innocent that we thought. Someone has wronged you." He covered his eyes with his hand. "You are a fallen man."
Now there could be no doubt that from first to last everything at the students' smoking concert that night went with a swing.
Between the students themselves and the great teachers, lecturers and high hospital dignitaries who graced the occasion with their presence, there was a spirit of camaraderie and friendliness that was delightful and inspiring to behold.
They were all gathered there together upon the common ground of laughter and enjoyment, and from the first moment when an unknown benefactor, modestly and at his own expense, uncorked a flagon of particularly evil-smelling sulphuretted hydrogen in the body of the hall—to the last when it was discovered that all the cloak-room tickets had been changed, each and all shared alike in the hilarity and surprises of the evening.
The dean of the hospital was in the chair, and the concert was opened by one, Thomas Winkle, with a song—'The Maiden's Prayer.'
He was a short, thick-set young man and proved, as is not unusual in such cases, to be the possessor of a deep bass voice. Truth to relate, he was accompanied by far more than the piano in the rendering of his item, for doubt was expressed continually and in many quarters as to his fitness or otherwise to deal with the theme of his song. But the dean called sternly for order and 'The Maiden's Prayer' proceeded more or less decorously to the end.
Next followed a trombone quartette, and the volume of sound emitted here effectually drowned all unofficial assistance from the back of the hall. It was certainly hard there on Mr. Simkins that his mouth-organ, for which he had that very morning paid three-and-six, could make no headway in the way of noise against its larger and more expensive colleagues of brass; but promptly realizing the situation, like a wise tactician, he conserved his energies and retired temporarily from the fray.
A recitation was the next item, and Bill Adams won the Battle of Waterloo to a chorus of cat-calls and sounds that savoured more of the environment of the farm-yard than that of an historic field of strife.
The concert proceeded merrily upon its course, and with songs, grave and gay, there was quite as much vocal activity off the platform as on. Everyone, it seemed, was desirous of contributing individually to the success of the evening and all exhibited a lively appreciation of the endeavours of the various artists to entertain. Concrete evidence of this latter feeling was apparent at the conclusion of each item, when gifts of various kinds were showered upon the performers as they modestly, but hastily, retired from the platform.
Greengrocery of many kinds was apparently the most popular form of presentation, and carrots, turnips, potatoes and even onions, testified most eloquently to the warm and generous heart of youth.
Towards eleven o'clock, however, and just before the last item of the programme should have been rendered, a strange thrill commenced suddenly to animate the younger members of the audience. A thrill of great expectancy, a delicious shudder as of the coming of the miraculous, a weird shiver as of the imminent happening of some great event.
A whisper arose somewhere, like the far-off sighing of a wind. "Hoop-Brown, Hoop-Brown!—a song from Dr. Hoop-Brown!"
It was heard first on the back benches, then it took stronger sound in the body of the hall and finally it boomed like a thunder-clap from the throat of every student there.
"Dr. Hoop-Brown! Give us a song, sir. Dr. Hoop-Brown!"
All eyes were at once turned upon the occupant of a chair at the far end of the front row. A man there was leaning back and looking round at the excited throng behind him. He had a happy, smiling face and his eyes were twinkling in amusement. He looked benignly at the crowd and then shook his head several times. Then he frowned, but the frown was an amused one and it was plain to see that he was not annoyed.
"Dr. Hoop-Brown! Give us a song, sir. Dr. Hoop-Brown!"
The usually calm and severe face of the chairman was now seen to be relaxed in an expression that looked uncommonly like a grin. He leant forward and said something to the senior surgeon. A colloquy in pantomime followed, and then the chairman rose from his seat, and held up his hand. A deep hush fell over the hall.
"Gentlemen," announced the chairman, his face set in a grim smile, "an extra item is being added to the programme. Our senior surgeon"—roars of delight instantly from all parts of the hall, cat-calls and a perfect hurricane of clapping hands—"our senior surgeon, Dr. Hoop-Brown, will give us a song to his own accompaniment." The chairman looked very sternly round the hall. "But I hope, gentlemen, you will show your appreciation of the favour he is conferring upon us by refraining from noise or interruptions of any kind. I am sure it is a very great favour upon the part of Dr. Hoop-Brown, and a very unexpected one, too. I have known and worked with my esteemed colleague for over twenty years, and until this moment"—the chairman here shrugged his shoulders and laughed dryly—"have never even been aware that he could sing or play at all. Now, Dr. Hoop-Brown."
Amid renewed loud cheering, the doctor rose leisurely from his chair and, mounting the platform, seated himself nonchalantly at the piano. Instantly the cheers subsided and a deep and breathless silence gripped the hall.
But the doctor was evidently in no hurry to begin. He hummed something to himself and then he turned round and faced his audience.
"Now, you're bad boys," he said laughingly, "to make an old fogey like me sing a song. It'll have to be a very short one, at any rate, for my memory's very bad." He shook his head sadly. "Why, it must be thirty years since I've touched a piano." He sighed heavily. "I'm sure I shall play a lot of wrong notes, but here goes, I'll do my best." He smiled knowingly. "But no greengrocery, gentlemen, if you please, when I've finished."
He struck a few chords and then, with his face animated and his eyes twinkling, in quite a clear and pleasant voice began to sing:
"In my youthful days I knew what's what,
And many naughty ways I'd got,
Heigh ho!—as a laddie!
I used to know my way about,
And take the charming creatures out,
Heigh ho! as a laddie!
A pair of nice blue eyes I'd see
Were the finest stars in the world for me,
Heigh ho! as a laddie!
A pretty face and a figure neat,
Dear little hands and shapely feet,
Heigh ho! as a laddie!
Heigh ho! as a laddie, but I was a bad boy then,
I'm older now but I'm nearly as bad,
For I can't forget the time that I had
When I was a gay young laddie—
Heigh ho! as a laddie!
Heigh ho! as a laddie!"
A great roar of cheering rolled round the hall and there were vociferous demands for an encore.
"No, gentlemen," laughed the doctor, "that's all. I can't give you any more. I'm sure I've shocked my colleagues enough already." But the students were not to be denied and continued to demand insistently another song.
The doctor shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and finally frowned, but still the cry was everywhere—"Encore, Dr. Hoop-Brown—encore."
Suddenly, however, the door-keeper was seen by everyone to hurriedly mount the platform and whisper something in the doctor's ear. The doctor thereupon held up his hand for silence, and announced that an urgent call had come for him and that he must go at once.
With no attempt then to hinder him, the great man departed upon his errand of mercy. But he had not far to go. He was, indeed, only led into the adjoining cloak-room, where he found the attendant there unconscious upon a heap of many coats that had been thrown down to cope with the emergency.
The sufferer was breathing heavily. His eyes were closed and, upon being shouted at, he did not answer or indeed seem to know his name.
Endeavouring to elicit something of the history of the case from those standing round, the doctor was informed that the attack had been quite a couple of hours coming on. From all accounts it appeared the attendant had not been quite up to the mark earlier in the evening. He had been heard to tell several persons that he was feeling 'chippy' and 'run down.' Thirst, too, had been another of his symptoms. He had wanted someone to 'save his life,' he had explained, and he had felt both a desire and an ability to 'keep one down,' as he expressed it. Also he had complained that both his mouth and his throat were inordinately dry.
A young medical student of great promise had thereupon promptly suggested a gargle of malt liquor, and most obligingly had procured a couple of bottles of beer. Another young gentleman in the same walk of life had prescribed two doses of rum.
This, then, was all the information that could be elicited, and with no more ado, the doctor, with quick and deft fingers, proceeded to unloose the sufferer's garments.
The poor fellow's jacket was buttoned up tightly to the chin, so tightly indeed, that it took quite a few moments to undo.
Then a gasp of astonishment arose from all those standing by, for a most extraordinary sight met their eyes. Upon the waistcoat of the unconscious man was pinned a large sheet of paper, and upon this paper in big characters was inscribed:
"Please do not operate upon me for appendicitis for I am only drunk."
Dr. Hoop-Brown frowned angrily. He muttered a short, sharp ejaculation of annoyance and then—suddenly, he smiled.
"Gentlemen," he remarked to those standing by, "quite a reasonable request, for I believe"—he felt the patient's pulse—"I believe the diagnosis to be quite correct."
THE following evening a few minutes before eight o'clock a company of about fifty to sixty persons could have been found gathered together in the small hall of an unpretentious building in one of the back streets of Adelaide, the beautiful city of the plains.
In appearance, for Press purposes, they would have been described as 'earnest-looking,' that is to say they were for the most part commonplace and uninteresting. The women were middle-aged or old and mostly angular in form, and the men were nearly all bald-headed, or grey and scant of hair. The few younger men present were all mere youths, pale-faced and insipid-looking as in the pimpled days of adolescence, but very grave and serious in demeanour.
It was the monthly meeting of the Society for the World's Regeneration, a society that was much esteemed and applauded in certain small and peculiar circles of the city. Its energies were devoted to the unmasking of evils that it believed to abound on every side, and it accordingly delved and dug everywhere for the wickedness that it was certain underlay most of the seemingly innocent happenings of life. Its admirers held that it was a great and important instrument for the social purification of mankind, but its detractors averred it was nasty-minded, and consisted only of interfering busy-bodies, who were of no service at all to the community.
The company assembled was split up into little groups, and, either sitting or standing, they conversed together in low tones.
Presently a tall and rather mournful-looking man with long grey whiskers, advanced to the foot of the platform and took out his watch.
"Friends," he said loudly and in rather theatrical tones, "it is now three minutes past the hour and, as your chairman, I think it is expedient to commence the proceedings."
Amid a thin clapping of hands, he mounted the platform and was followed there by two men and a woman. They took their seats upon some chairs behind a small table and then, with a few preliminary coughs, the tall man rustled a bundle of papers with an air of great importance and rose to his feet to address the meeting.
"Friends," he began pompously, and with a comprehensive survey of the room over the tops of his glasses, "this is the ninth monthly meeting of our Society and, as a result of our activities since our first gathering, we are duly giving birth to projects of momentous import to the community. Although our labours are so vital to the interests of mankind, we have not, for financial reasons, deemed it advisable as yet to meet here more than once a month—still you may rest assured that in the interim the good work is being always energetically carried on by the executive committee, in whom you have placed your trust. (Hear-hears and clapping in several parts of the hall.)
"These last weeks, indeed, we have been very busy. Letters have been written to the newspapers about the moral depravity we see all around; a watch has been kept upon the bathing beaches for scanty and indecent attire, and loyal workers have been everywhere scouring the park-lands after dusk, to report upon all suspicious things that they might see and hear. (Clapping and more cheers.) As a concrete instance of the good work we are doing—a bad case of ginger-beer selling on Sundays was reported to us from Unley, and upon our bringing the matter under the notice of the Borough Council there, the tenant of the shop, a widow with five children, was proceeded against and fined £5. She has since had to give up her business and, with her children, gone on the Destitute Board." His voice was cheerful. "Let that, I say, be a warning to others conniving at the perpetuation of evil." (Hear-hears and great clapping of hands.) "To conclude my report, I have much pleasure in informing you that since our last meeting we have become affiliated with the 'Strict Reformists' of Mount Gambier, the 'Pointing Hand Crusaders' of New South Wales, and the 'Nosey Parkers' of Brisbane."
Loud and prolonged applause greeted these last items of news, and the chairman took a long sip of water and thoughtfully consulted his notes, until the excitement had died down.
"Well, my dear friends," he went on, "we are met together once again in the great cause of Humanity." He raised his voice. "We are soldiers in the great army of Reform, we have nailed our banner to the mast and we are stretching out our tentacles in all directions." He paused a moment in his best oratorial manner. "And it is not for nothing that we have called ourselves 'The Society for the World's Regeneration.'" (Cheers and clapping of hands.) "No, we have not minced matters, we have disguised nothing and we have hidden from no one our true objectives." He thumped suddenly upon the table. "We aim straight at the very root of evil, and in plain and simple tongue we trumpet our challenge to the sins and evil of the world." (Hear-hears and cheers again.)
He now assumed a most fierce and bellicose attitude, and thundered with the light of battle in his eyes: "There shall be no shrinking either from the foul hosts of sin. We shall not cringe before the massed forces of the devil and we shall blazon our message, like a sun for ever on the rise, before the visage of the earth. Encounter opposition we may, obstruction upon obstruction may clog our path, but as I was saying this morning to a distinguished professional man, my medical adviser in fact—ah! that reminds me." He took out his watch and frowned. "I was hoping—I was hoping to have brought at least one new adherent to our cause to-night, for when speaking to the eminent Dr. Hoop-Brown"—a murmur of intense interest ran round the room—"and I told him of our movement, he was sympathetic, most sympathetic, and so much so indeed, that he promised he would, if possible, be with us in person to-night and would, moreover, endeavour to bring some of his young friends from the hospital with him."
He looked at his watch again. "I am disappointed, I am disappointed"—he suddenly held up his hand—"but hark! They may be coming even yet."
Everyone looked round. There was the sound of subdued laughter outside, the tramp of footsteps in the passage, and the door opened to admit quite a number of new arrivals. A tall and smiling man led the way, followed closely by about a dozen or so of merry-looking young fellows, who pushed and jostled one another to get in first.
"Ah! here they are," exclaimed Mr. Muffins delightedly. "Dr. Hoop-Brown and his young friends."
The doctor advanced briskly into the hall and with a smiling bow towards the platform, prepared to seat himself unobtrusively upon one of the back benches.
"No, no, Doctor," called out Mr. Muffins heartily and beckoning with his hand. "We must have you up here. The platform for you, sir. Now, up you come."
But with a gesture of great unworthiness, Dr. Hoop-Brown shook his head. "No, really, Mr. Muffins," he exclaimed, "I am here as a private individual to-night." He smiled round at the audience. "I am a very humble person, you know."
But the grey-whiskered Mr. Muffins was insistent and would take no denials, and so in a few moments, finding all protests unavailing, the doctor was installed upon the platform and seated next to the chairman himself.
A loud clapping of hands showed unmistakably that the arrangement met with the approval of everybody present, and Dr. Hoop-Brown bowed smilingly in appreciation, no doubt, of the esteem in which he could see that he was held.
In the meantime the medical students who had seated themselves at the back of the hall were busy taking stock of everyone present, and the feminine portion of the audience, in particular, was interesting to them. They craned their necks this way and that to see what the ladies were like and then, all suddenly, they looked at one another, as if unexpectedly they had opened a bad egg.
"Virgins," hissed the sallow-faced Mr. Simkins, elevating his eyebrows to an acute angle of surprise, "and tough 'uns at that!"
"Rough stuff," whispered back his neighbour, a round and rosy-cheeked youth, "rough stuff, of ancient birth."
But the chairman was again starting to address the meeting. "Friends," he said smilingly, "I am sure we are all most gratified at the presence of Dr. Hoop-Brown amongst us to-night." (Hear-hears from all parts of the hall.) "We are very glad, too, that he has brought with him so goodly a company of young gentlemen from the hospital."
Everyone here turned to stare hard at the medical students, and the latter, dropping their sotto-voce observations, composed their features to the stern and grave lines becoming the great and solemn profession to which they had dedicated their lives.
"It is a very significant thing," went on Mr. Muffins impressively, "that we should be attracting young men of their class to our meetings." ("I wish the devil I hadn't come," whispered the rosy-cheeked youth. "Where's all that youth and beauty old Hoop-Brown told us were sure to be here?") "Very significant," continued Mr. Muffins, "for it proves conclusively that we are making headway against the forces of evil that encompass us. Our aims are beginning to be understood." He took off his glasses and wiped them vigorously with a silk pocket handkerchief. "Well, as I was indicating a few minutes ago, we have dared openly to proclaim that our Society is mainly one for the suppression of the worst kind of evil, which to use a convenient term, I will describe as of the 'naughty' kind, and favouring naughty ways." He paused a moment and looked significantly round the hall with the interest of the students now brightening considerably. "Naughty ways! Now what are naughty ways and how shall we discern those who practice them? What does it say of naughtiness in the Book of Proverbs?"
Again he paused, and then his words, now stern and impressive, came very slowly. "'The naughty man, he winketh with his eye. He winketh with his eye.'"
A flutter of intense excitement thrilled through the feminine portion of the audience. Apparently then the unmasking of the naughty man was strangely easy, and so with great expectancy the ladies, almost without exception, turned and looked this way and that to see if there were any winkers at that moment present in their midst. But the other sex sat staring stonily before them, and so with no discoveries, in a few seconds the excitement all died down.
"But why does he wink?" pursued the relentless Mr. Muffins from the platform, in loud and strident tones. "I will tell you why." A breathless hush descended upon the hall. "He winks to lure a partner for his base, degraded joys. That is why he winks."
A gasp of thrilling horror filled all present. The speaker with unerring skill was plumbing to the very depths of human frailty.
"Oh, yes, we live in dreadful times," he thundered. "Morals are in the melting pot, virtue has become as a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, vice has been sculptured in the whitest marble, and evil in every form has got its grip upon the world."
A long and prolonged burst of applause greeted this great oratorical effort and none there was more enthusiastic than Dr. Hoop-Brown and his little band of medical students. The great doctor, from the pleased and happy expression of his features, was undoubtedly in entire accord with all the sentiments of the speaker, and from the elated demeanour of the students it was obvious that they, too, were cognizant of the wickedness he had exposed so ably. They cheered and cheered with a great vehemence, and the sallow-faced Mr. Simkins cleared his throat preparatory to starting: 'For he's a jolly good fellow.'
But Mr. Muffins raised his hand majestically for silence and when quiet had been reluctantly conceded announced that he himself did not intend to occupy their time any longer. He had touched, he said, upon the objects of the Society, and he would now call upon the great social reformer, Mr. Soaker Ram, to deliver an address.
"Mr. Ram, friends," he concluded, "for many years a worker with the 'Shining Beacons' of Victoria, has come to speak to us to-night at some little personal inconvenience and as an expert in social reclamation he will explain to us the exact nature of the forms of wickedness we have to combat." He waved his arm. "Mr. Soaker Ram."
A short, thick-set man, who had been sitting next to him upon his right, rose slowly to his feet and advanced to the edge of the platform.
He was gloomy and truculent to look upon, with a square and heavy face. His eye-brows were big and bushy and his eyes were very deep set. His arms were long in proportion to his body and he had large, sinewy, red hands. He was dressed very severely in deep black and he wore a semi-clerical collar, fastened high in the front.
For a few moments, he stood with a hard, impassive face, looking coldly round upon his audience, and then in a harsh and unemotional voice he commenced to speak.
It was soon apparent that, like the previous speaker, he was very dissatisfied with the existing order of things, for he at once started to fall foul of everybody and everything in particular.
All the world, it was his convinced opinion, was on the downward path, and with a perfect wealth of alliteration he proceeded to depict the exact methods of its decline.
Men and women were dancing to the devil, they were cock-tailing to crime, they were racing to their ruin. The dancing hall was the vestibule of Hell, for there women doffed their modesty; there they hung up their purity, and there they left behind their souls.
No men and women could dance together with clean thoughts. The close contact of their bodies, the rhythm of their swaying limbs, the touch of their hands—all—all provoked the animal, and called up the dreadful evil of desire.
Then, there was wine. The man who drank wine was drinking poison, the woman who sipped it was sipping shame. Beer, too, was as dangerous as strychnine, and they who partook of it were drugging themselves down to disease and death.
The picture palaces, too, were of evil tendencies. They were houses of the devil for they portrayed sin and gave to it a setting of rare jewels and silken clothes. They created false values of life and made virtue dull and uninteresting, with vice an adventure for the enterprising and the brave to undertake.
Then there were motor-cars, and they also were deadly and most harmful in their tendencies. They weaned men and women from spiritual things and they fostered, too, an unhealthy desire for continual change and novelty in everyone's life, pandering to that restless spirit of excitement that was now ruining all mankind. And there was even a darker side to the evil of the motor-car, for it made so easy an access to lonely places. His eyes glowered balefully. Who had not seen the hidden car among the trees, the silenced engine and the switched-off lights, the lowered hood and the close-curtained sides? Who had not guessed what was going on? Some man, perhaps, was bartering his hopes of Heaven, and some woman laughing in the very sight of Hell!
Then there was the telephone and that, too, had its dreadful possibilities, for it so facilitated the guilty assignation, without the danger of the written word.
The speaker paused here to take a deep draught of water, and in the hushed silence there were no eyes in all that hall that were not fixed intently upon the squat and solid figure on the platform.
It was obvious that he had captured everyone's imagination, and also that he had stirred everyone's emotion, although it might be, in the latter respect, in very different ways.
The ladies of the audience were thrilled to ecstasy at his cold and ruthless unveiling of the sins of the younger generation; the elderly men were ruminating and thoughtful, and a cynic might have ventured that they were deploring the omissions of their lost youth; the pale-faced adolescents were shivering plaintively at the temptations that were everywhere surrounding them, and it was only the medical students who were without regrets, and unafraid.
"Hot stuff," whispered one of the latter, jerking his head in the direction of the water-absorbing Mr. Ram. "The old bean knows a thing or two, you bet."
"We ought to get him to show us round," whispered another. "He knows all the right spots!"
"I shall take up dancing at once," muttered Mr. Simkins darkly, "and I'll hire a motor-car for the week-end."
But Mr. Soaker Ram was resuming his address and he went on to denounce all pastimes, sports and amusements as the temptations of the devil, indeed according to him, temptations lurked everywhere, and he was withering in his contempt for the frailty that made the weak ones fall.
He rose to his greatest heights in invective, however, when he touched upon the subject of the female dress.
Then, it seemed to his audience, that he was more inspired than at any time during the evening, as with biting sarcasm and a perfect wealth of picturesque detail, he proceeded to describe some of the toilets that had recently caught his eye in the streets of Melbourne.
The girls and women in that city, it appeared, were attired in less even than when they were born, and, compared with them, Eve herself must have been an extravagantly over-dressed young lady.
"But they do not always go unrebuked," he thundered. "They do not always escape the word of scorn. I'll tell you what I myself saw happen the other day in one of the parks of Melbourne. A young girl was walking unconcernedly among the crowd. She could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen, and, both in face and form, she was what the world would have called beautiful to look upon. Outwardly, she had all the charm and grace of young maidenhood but—her attire"—he paused for a moment and raised his hands in horror—"her attire was scandalous!"
Once again a thrill of great excitement ran through the hall. All held their heads well forward, so that by no chance should one single word of the great reformer be lost.
"Yes, her attire was scandalous. There is no other word to describe it. Her dress, flimsy and almost transparent in its texture, was attenuated, and scanty to a degree. Every line, every curve of her lithe young body could be most plainly discerned. Her arms were bare to the shoulders, her neck was bare to——"
But a loud and resounding crash came from the back of the hall, where in the intensity of his excitement one of the medical students had overbalanced himself and fallen out of his seat. Everyone looked scowlingly at the interruption and audible comments were made in many quarters about his clumsiness. It was some moments before Mr. Ram could resume.
"Well, this young girl walked on through the crowd and at first it seemed that, with all their disgust, no one there would yet dare to say a word. But suddenly, a man stood out in front of her and barred the way. He laid his hand upon her——"
"Lucky beggar!" ejaculated Mr. Simkins, in a voice that, in his absorption, he forgot could be heard plainly all round the hall.
"Lucky!" snorted Mr. Ram savagely at the interruption, and then suddenly his expression changed and his face broke into a warm, approving smile. "Ah! I get you. I see your meaning, my young friend." He raised his voice emphatically. "Yes—lucky! Fortunate that he was there to administer a rebuke, fortunate that he was there to tell her to return home and cover her nakedness from the world." He shrugged his shoulders. "I do not know what he said to her, but it was no doubt very much to the point, for without a word, she allowed him to escort her away, and I saw her no more."
His audience sighed deeply. Was it that they were grieving over the scantiness of the young woman's attire, or was it that they were disappointed at the lack of further details of the youthful anatomy that had been left bare? Who knows?
Mr. Ram spoke on, but it was very evident now that he was tiring, and after producing voluminous statistics to show how many people had gone to dances and afterwards been put in prison, followed by another fierce denunciation of the general depravity of mankind, amid loud cheers and hand-clapping he resumed his seat.
The chairman, Mr. Muffins, beaming with great delight at the swing with which everything was going, allowed what he considered a decorous interval to elapse in order that the gratitude of the audience to Mr. Ram might be in no wise cut short, and then, rising to his feet, with a bow of great gallantry, motioned to the only lady on the platform to step forward and address the meeting.
"Miss Jane Meddlin Brimstone," he announced with unction—"another star in the great firmament of reform."
The lady indicated, rising briskly to her feet, bowed right and left with quick, jerky movements to acknowledge the clapping with which she was received.
Her personality, like that of the preceding speaker, was decidedly an unusual one. She was tall and gaunt in figure, with a long face and prominent, high cheekbones. Her eyes were large and fierce in their expression, and the colour of her hair and face was red. She was of middle-age and looked weather-beaten, but full of energy. She started at once to speak very rapidly and in high-pitched tones.
It must have been with great pain, she rattled out, that they had all listened that evening to the speeches of Mr. Henry Muffins and Mr. Soaker Ram.
Shame and disgust must have filled every heart at the terrible portrayal that had been made of the lives of the men and women of to-day.
But everything that had been said, as they all knew, was true. There had been no exaggeration and no straining for effect, and no picture that had been painted had been too black, or of too dark a hue. Undoubtedly, a blight of wickedness had descended upon all classes of the community, and acts of sin and wrong-doing were now jested at in all quarters, as if they were the smart and clever things to do.
She proceeded fiercely. "But now let us realize it straightaway. It is we women who are the temptresses, it is we who lead the men astray." (Sighs of sorrowful but gratified approval from the ladies, and faint murmurs of 'Help, help' from the young friends of Dr. Hoop-Brown.) "Therefore we must concentrate our efforts upon the women of this city." ('Hear, hear,' from a pale-faced youth, and immediate jealous and angry glances in his direction from all the medical students.) "We must go where women are"—(storm of applause from the back benches)—"for it is with their co-operation alone that wickedness can be put down."
She paused and took a sip of water.
"Well, we cannot fight against the unknown. We cannot grapple with the ways of the wrong-doer, until we know exactly what these ways are. So what must we do?"
She became now most slow and deliberate in her speech. "We must send one of our members, as did the Israelites of old, to spy out the land. One of us must descend into the pit and one of us for the moment must act as one of the wrong-doers themselves."
A deep 'Ah' of intense interest at the very audacity of the proposal rolled round the hall! The audience were electrified. Their Society was indeed going to be a moving force in the world! Truly they were destined to be actors on the great stage of Life and without doubt they would be makers of history indeed!
Jane continued in matter-of-fact and business-like tones. "Now it had better be in Melbourne where our investigations should begin, for it is so notoriously a wicked city, and it must be one of the gentlemen of our Society who must go. A man can move the easier among the crowd, so that temptation will at once be dangled before his eyes." (A loud audible sigh came here from the medical Mr. Simkins, and muttered inquiries from his companions followed, as to whether it might not yet be too late for them to join up with the Society and help on with the good work.)
"Yes," exclaimed Miss Brimstone fiercely, "in the great cause of brotherly love for all the world our missioner must, I say, descend into the pit of wrong. He must frequent the dancing halls and mingle there with the puppets of vice and sin. He must go to the picture-palaces and note intently all that follows upon the lowering of the lights. He must visit the race-courses and see the poor fools gambling with the embezzled money of their employers. He must sit in the lounges of the big hotels and see the cocktails sipped, and he must tolerate the glances of desire that will be flung upon him." ("O, corks!" from Mr. Simkins, "if we'd only known of this Society before!") "He must make friends of wickedness of all kinds and, in the furtherance of his great cause, he must wink the naughty eye."
Again the audience gasped, and a mighty spirit of self-sacrifice seared like a burning iron through all the men.
"Now, who will assume this burden?" cried Miss Brimstone shrilly. "Who amongst us is prepared to toy with sin and shame?"
With dramatic suddenness then, she turned, and her right arm shot out like a piston. "I know the fitting one! Our Henry Muffins is the man!"
A moment's breathless silence, a bravo from a lady in the front row, and then great cheering, in which it was obvious the voices of the female portion of the audience predominated.
"Mr. Muffins! Mr. Muffins!" exclaimed the ladies. "Our chairman!" piped the pale-faced adolescents. "Good old Henry!" roared the medical students. "Muffins for ever!"
Mr. Muffins paled visibly. He was touched by the trust and the enthusiasm of the meeting, but it was apparent that for the moment he was undecided and unprepared. He rose to his feet and bowed.
"Friends, my friends," he exclaimed with emotion, "I must think, I must think. I am unworthy, I am unprepared."
"No, no," urged Jane Brimstone, "you alone are the man."
"Henry to do the trick," shouted Mr. Simkins. "Muffins for sin and shame!"
Still, however, Mr. Muffins stood hesitating. He looked this way and that and it was obvious he could not make up his mind. Suddenly, however, his face hardened and his eyes became very stern. He held up his hand for silence.
"Very well, friends," he said with decision. "If you so wish it, I will go. I will investigate the whole matter fully." He threw out his chest defiantly. "I will tread the paths of evil and I will descend into the pit of wrong. I will go where vice flourishes and nothing shall escape my eye." He buttoned up his coat, as if to dispose of the whole matter. "I will be off at once. I will go to Melbourne to-morrow."
The cheering was renewed in great strength and indeed was only stayed when it was observed that Mr. Muffins was expostulating earnestly with Dr. Hoop-Brown. The doctor was smiling, but at the same time shaking his head. Mr. Muffins turned to the meeting.
"Friends," he announced, "we really cannot disperse without a few words from Dr. Hoop-Brown. We are all aware of the high reputation that he enjoys in this State, and as a practitioner of long standing and great experience he will be able to speak to us of the medical aspect of our crusade." He turned round smilingly to the doctor. "No, sir, we can take no denial from you. We are waiting."
Dr. Hoop-Brown, with an expression partly of amusement and partly of annoyance, rose slowly from his chair, and advanced to the edge of the platform. He looked round at the meeting and then a broad smile spread over his face.
"Really, ladies and gentlemen," he exclaimed, "it is not much good asking me to make any kind of speech for I confess frankly I can contribute little to the experiences—I might almost say to the suspicions—of the evening." He shrugged his shoulders, and assumed a very sad look. "From all that has been said to-night, I am inclined to think I must have missed a lot in my life. A lot of evil, of course, I mean," he added hastily. He smiled whimsically. "I have done no dancing now for thirty years, and my chauffeur is always with me when I go out in the car, also it is my butler who takes all my messages on the phone."
The little band of medical students laughed and clapped delightedly, but the others in the hall looked coldly at the doctor and did not smile. Mr. Muffins had rather a pained expression on his face, and Mr. Ram had all the bored appearance of a man who was trying to suffer fools gladly.
The doctor went on. "We have certainly had some very eloquent speeches to-night, and I have no doubt that the speakers were perfectly sincere and honest in all they said, but still—still—we are all of us very liable to make mistakes, and possibly at times to see harm and evil in things, where actually none exists." His eyes twinkled merrily as he looked round the hall. "You must not forget, ladies and gentlemen, that it is perfectly natural for every healthy, normal man to admire every pretty woman that he comes across." (Great stamping and cheers from the medical students.) "Why, even I at my age am not averse to the attractions of physical beauty. A pretty girl always takes my eye. Dainty ankles, shapely—er—er"—the doctor coughed hastily—"well, a nicely proportioned figure—every time appeals to me."
The back benches were uproarious in their delight. They clapped and cheered and stamped and cheered again.
Mr. Muffins rose majestically to his feet and, with the gesture of an archbishop, imposed silence and endeavoured to quell their enthusiasm.
"This is not a tavern," he announced scathingly, "and in order that we may continue our meeting, it is well there should be, at least, some intervals of quiet and order." He took out his watch and turned coldly to the doctor. "Continue, Dr. Hoop-Brown, but it is getting late, I would remind you, and——"
"Oh! I don't want to say anything more," laughed the doctor, "except just one word of congratulation to you that you are now going to see things for yourself. Perhaps then——"
"You come with me, Dr. Hoop-Brown," interrupted Mr. Muffins very sternly. "I should be glad of a companion."
But the doctor shook his head smilingly. "I am sure I should like to immensely, Mr. Muffins, but unhappily my professional work here will not allow me to spare the time. Still—I wish you every"—he laid his hand upon Mr. Muffins' arm—"I wish you"—his voice trailed suddenly away to nothingness, and a strange bewildered look came into his eyes. Like a stone statue, he stood staring straight before him; like a graven image, he stood rooted to the floor.
Mr. Muffins coughed violently; he was choking, it almost seemed. Something had gripped him by the throat. He sat down and leant heavily upon the table. His face was very white. Then, to the great relief of everyone, his breathing quietened and he lifted up his head. Shakily, he felt in his pocket for his silk handkerchief, and then—he broke into a hearty laugh.
"Great Scott," he exclaimed, "but it was like an attack of colic in the head." His hand shot out and he poked Dr. Hoop-Brown jovially in the ribs. "Now, how's that for a new disease, Doctor? Something to get your name up in the newspapers, eh?"
But the doctor did not respond to his jocularity. Instead, the great man sat huddled up and as if quite oblivious to everything that was going on. He was frowning, and it was noticed he was now looking very pale.
Mr. Muffins turned smilingly to the meeting. "Now, where were we," he asked, "when that unfortunate cough of mine interrupted things? Ah! I remember. The good doctor was just in the middle of the charming little speech, and he was telling us how greatly he was influenced by the beauty of the fairer sex. It was most interesting to us all and indeed, friends, I can tell you that anything that the doctor says will always be most interesting. We are indeed fortunate to have enlisted his sympathies on our behalf, and I intend to personally propose him as Vice-Chairman of the Society. It is the very least we can do." He turned round to the doctor. "Now, Dr. Hoop-Brown, if you will kindly resume your speech."
But the doctor was already standing up and had got his hat in his hand. "I am sorry, Mr. Muffins," he replied coldly, "but I have no further remarks to make. Also, as it is getting late and I have some patients to attend to, I beg you will pardon my leaving you."
He bowed formally to the meeting and then, without another word, descended from the platform and passed down the hall.
He looked neither to the right nor to the left, and had all the bearing of a man who was in great trouble.
The following afternoon, a few minutes prior to the departure of the Melbourne Express, a gentleman of smart and imposing appearance shot hurriedly out of the saloon bar of the South Australian Hotel. He was attired in a light suit of very large checks, lavender-coloured tie, and bowler hat of rakish cut, and he was carrying a travelling-bag of large dimensions. He sported a small red rose in his buttonhole, and across his shoulders were suspended a pair of excellent binoculars of the latest type.
The gentleman was smiling jauntily to himself.
"Rootity-toot," he hummed gaily:
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute
In a very charming manner,"
and with quick, jerky step he kept time with his engaging melody.
He crossed the street in a direct line for the main entrance of the Adelaide Railway Station, but turning interestedly to regard two young ladies who were standing on the kerb, he narrowly escaped impact with a passing motor omnibus. The driver of the bus inquired coarsely and with some heat as to his precise and exact intentions, but Mr. Henry Muffins, for the pedestrian was he, uplifted his hand reprovingly and disdaining any reply, proceeded smilingly into the station entrance and down the steps into the hall.
Then suddenly the smile faded from his face.
"Damn," he ejaculated angrily, "Jane Meddlin Brimstone! And damn again, old Soaker Ram!"
A little knot of people were gathered at the foot of the steps, and they bravoed delightedly upon the appearance of Mr. Muffins.
"Exactly!" whispered the latter very softly, fumbling quickly in one of his waistcoat pockets. "Now I knew I should want those peppermints, somehow. It was an inspiration—nothing less."
Hastily, and with great dexterity then, he abstracted two small white lozenges from his pocket and thrust them into his mouth. Then—smiling more broadly than ever—he advanced blithely to meet the little band awaiting him.
But it was as if some chilling wind had all suddenly swept down upon those whom he approached. They stared hard and curiously, as if the closer view of him were disquieting. Their faces lengthened and they looked uncomfortable. Miss Brimstone and Mr. Ram even frowned.
"Ha!" muttered Mr. Muffins, "Ram's jealous! I thought so last night. He's jealous of my clothes now."
"We hardly knew you, Mr. Muffins," said Miss Brimstone severely. "Indeed, if we had not been expecting you, we should have let you go by."
For a few moments Mr. Muffins looked very embarrassed, but, clearing his throat, he rose with great aplomb to the situation.
"Ah! friends," he exclaimed sadly, "glorious as my mission is, it has, you see, its mournful side." He lowered his voice darkly. "You notice my attire." He looked round furtively. "The loudest checks in all Adelaide, and in cut and fashion of the most debauched design! I could find nothing worse in the whole city! It was the most dreadful suit that any shop had."
In turn, he took in every member of the little band with a firm commanding eye. "It's a disguise," he went on exultingly, "and no one now will ever guess my mission from my attire."
For a moment they looked startled, and stared with incredulous eyes. Then all simultaneously, they drew in deep breaths of relief. Of course, of course, they could see his object now. It was a subterfuge on his part and they at once smiled knowingly, and nodded delightedly at one another.
"Not only that," went on Mr. Muffins proudly, "but I have booked my room at the Hippodrome Hotel under an assumed name. My identity as your missioner will be hidden then. I am leaving nothing to chance. I am taking the enemy unawares." He tapped his binoculars significantly. "Notice even, my equipment to cope with the dreadful race-horse evil! I am all prepared."
His followers, quite at their ease now, chuckled admiringly at his astuteness, and in their enthusiasm crowded the closer round, so much so indeed, that Mr. Muffins thought it prudent to insert at once yet another peppermint.
Suddenly, however, the loud clanging of a bell was heard, and the gay crusader at once picked up his bag.
"Good-bye, friends," he exclaimed cheerily, moving away. "Good-bye! In three minutes we shall be off. I must take my seat now," and, smilingly waving his farewells, he hurried through the barrier.
"Wonderful man!" ejaculated Jane Meddlin Brimstone enthusiastically, as the Melbourne Express steamed out of the station. "Who would have thought he could so look the part? It was thrilling! It was realistic!"
"Yes—'um, realistic!" commented Mr. Ram very slowly, and then he added thoughtfully, "even to the peppermints and—the need for them, too."
IN the meantime, Dr. Hoop-Brown had passed a very troubled day. After a night of heavy dreaming he had awakened much earlier than was his wont, and then for an hour and more, had lain uneasy, and tortured with his thoughts.
Something, he realized, had recently occurred, something the import of which he could not grasp or understand.
Into the calm and even habits of his life, a great happening had been thrust and with all the preciseness of a trained and scientific mind he endeavoured now to trace that happening to its source.
With memory that was as disconcerting as it was distinct, he probed into his recent actions, as he would have probed for a foreign body in a wound. He dissected all his conduct as coldly and dispassionately as he would have dissected a corpse.
But it was all to no purpose, and when his man came in to call him to his bath he was as mystified as ever. No feasible theories had suggested themselves and he could account for nothing at all.
His eyes fell suddenly upon some neatly pressed and folded clothes that his man had lain upon a chair, and immediately his face clouded.
"Bring me back a black suit," he said frowning, "a morning coat and vest."
"I beg your pardon, sir," replied his man, who in manner was as cold and stately as the doctor himself.
"A black suit, James," repeated the doctor testily. "One of those I said you might have. One of those I always used to wear."
James looked at his master gravely. "You gave them, sir, you will remember, to Mr. Banks and myself on Tuesday. You——"
"I know that," interrupted the doctor sharply, "but I've altered my mind. I'll buy them back from you, now."
James coughed with some embarrassment. "I am sorry, sir, but as they were not exactly our style, Mr. Banks and I"—he hesitated a moment—"sold them on Wednesday."
Dr. Hoop-Brown expressed no surprise. His face was quite unmoved. "Very well," he said carelessly, and he moved off to his bath.
Half an hour later, he unfolded the morning paper, and at once, prominent on the middle page, he caught sight of his own name. Intuitively, he composed his features to tranquillity to meet some annoyance—and annoyance he certainly found.
In triplicate headings he read:
"Dr. Hoop-Brown and the World's Regeneration.
Excellent Speech at Meeting.
Proposed as Vice-President."
He read very carefully through the report of the meeting that followed and then, looking up, stared thoughtfully, very thoughtfully, out of the window.
What indeed had come over him, he asked himself, and by what malign influence had he been brought publicly into contact with these dreadful people? He—a man of culture, a man of scientific attainment, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, and they—the very scum and dross of intellectual thought. Theirs was the creed of ignorance and bigotry and from constant contemplation they were themselves mired with the very nastiness of the vices they imagined they were suppressing. Their minds were unclean and unhealthy.
He whistled softly and his eyes grew frightened. A sudden thought had come to him. Unhealthy? Yes, but what about his own mind? Was he in a position to throw stones there? His face paled and his forehead grew damp!
Leaving his breakfast untasted, he rose up and for some minutes paced restlessly up and down the room. Then he sat down at his desk and leaned his head upon his hands.
"I must think," he muttered hoarsely. "I must think. Now have I any mental taint anywhere in my own family? My father? No. His brothers—his sisters?"—he ticked them all off on his fingers. "No. My mother?" His face softened and he sighed deeply. "No—a thousand times, no. Her brother, the clergyman?" He hesitated a moment, and then he shook his head. "No, he was a shrewd man, that uncle. He was always at loggerheads with the other clergy about doctrine and besides, he made money on the Stock Exchange. No, he was all right."
He stood up and mopped his face. "It was a phase," he muttered assuringly, "just a passing phase, due perhaps to the heat. At any rate, it is gone now and I feel none the worse. My memory, too, is perfectly clear about everything and that certainly is a good sign!" He shrugged his shoulders. "I did some foolish things, perhaps, but nothing very bad. I was more familiar and less dignified than I should have been and I certainly paid some attention in certain quarters, that must have surprised everyone." He frowned. "Ah, of course, of course, I have arranged to take Sister Ruth and Sister Dora out again in the car this afternoon, and I suppose I must go through with it." He smiled grimly. "At any rate, I chose two pretty ones, especially Sister Ruth.. .. That evening in the car—did I actually kiss her?" He blushed hotly and then smiled again, but this time no longer grimly.
Still smiling, he sat down to resume his breakfast, and then suddenly his face took on a worried look again.
"But my work," he exclaimed anxiously, "my profession—have I done anything foolish there?" He pursed up his lips. "I have enemies," he muttered, "I have detractors, I have colleagues that do not always wish me well. Bunions is jealous, and Sawberry would love to see me make a slip." He thought rapidly. "No, all my operations have gone well, my nerve has not failed me, and I have been as quick and confident as ever. No, nothing wrong there. Nothing." He sat up with a start. "But my consultations?" he stammered. "Now, what about that case with Weeks?"
He hesitated for a moment and then, with a quick motion, reached over to the phone.
"Central eight seven five, please," he said sharply, and then followed a minute of hard suspense.
"Oh, that you, Weeks? Hoop-Brown speaking. I have a hysterectomy coming off on Thursday and wondered if you would care to give me a hand. No, not at all. I shall be very glad if you will. Well, that's settled—at the Calvary Hospital on Thursday. How are you? But, of course, you ought to be at your age. So am I, but hard work keeps you young, you know. By the by, that pneumonia I saw with you last week. Oh, you rang up, did you? Well, I've been away a lot lately, and they must have forgotten to note the message. Getting on splendidly? Well, that's good. Never looked back, eh? No, no, Weeks, he saved himself. Once the thought that he was going to live and—as I told you, the battle was well on the way to being won. Good-bye, my boy. Thursday at eight-thirty a.m."
Dr. Hoop-Brown hung up the receiver and on his face there was an expression of great relief. "Well," he smiled grimly, "my brain could not have been so very clouded, if I could go plumb to the correct prognosis there." He shrugged his shoulders. "Really I can hardly remember a more hopeless-looking case and yet—I said, I said emphatically, he would get well."
He returned to his breakfast in quite a cheerful mood. "Now, I see what I must do," he remarked thoughtfully. "I must only return very gradually to my old self. No abrupt change anywhere in my demeanour. No hasty repudiation of any of my recent acts. Just a slow sliding back to the man I once was." He frowned. "I shall have some annoyances to contend with, of course, but if I put a good face on them they will soon pass, and, thank goodness, people's memories are very short." He shook his head. "But it's going to be a trying day for me to-day."
And a trying day it certainly was. At the hospital he was met everywhere with smiles, from the students who mobbed him almost affectionately the moment he appeared, from the matron who fussed over him the whole time he was in the wards, and from his colleagues who all made an excuse, somehow, to come and have a word with him.
But he forced himself to give back smiles and pleasantry to everyone, and, if he were not quite the free and easy Hoop-Brown of the immediate days before, he was at least very far removed from the cold and haughty senior surgeon whom they had all at one time known.
"I see you are becoming quite a public reformer, Dr. Hoop-Brown," grimly remarked Dr. Bunions, who stopped him in the corridor. "That new society you have joined must be an interesting one, judging from the report."
"Interesting," laughed Dr. Hoop-Brown, and to his interrogator's astonishment in no wise abashed. "Why, my dear Bunions, that's not half the word for it." He looked round mysteriously and lowered his voice. "You take it from me, it's the finest field for the study of morbidity I have ever met and, as a society, it's unique. There are most extraordinary people in it. Why, there are men and women there who are cocksure they've got the Almighty in their waistcoat pockets. They blow their little tin whistles and believe they are making more noise than the last trump."
"And you've become their Vice-President," sniffed Dr. Bunions. "You've become one of the inner circle of the elect!"'
Dr. Hoop-Brown laughed lightly. "They may certainly do me the honour to propose me, but between you and me, Bunions, I'm not going to accept."
He passed out of the hospital with a great sigh of relief. "Now that's the worst over," he muttered, "and I don't really think it's been too bad."
He was just getting into his car when a short, fat man, travelling at a great rate, shot along the pavement. The man was very red of face, and the perspiration dripped from him profusely. His arms moved like a flail to keep time with his legs, and he was puffing hard.
"Poodlum!" ejaculated the doctor. "Gone mad on taking exercise now!"
The banker saw the doctor and smiled exultingly.
"I can't stop," he exclaimed, panting. "I do four times along the terrace, in twelve minutes, night and morning, and I'm twenty seconds now behind my schedule time. Feeling grand, I am—thirty years younger; never better in my life. See you next week," and he was off round the corner in a whirl.
"Bull's eye number two!" muttered Dr. Hoop-Brown, elevating his eyebrows. "Really, it seems I did quite a lot of good!"
At half-past one, according to arrangements, Sisters Ruth and Dora were picked up on North Terrace, and driven down to Glenelg for a breath of sea-air, in the doctor's luxurious limousine.
The doctor had been greatly dreading the excursion but, strange to say, once embarked upon it, he seemed to lose all his apprehension and quite enjoy it. Certainly, as he had remarked to himself that morning, Sister Ruth was very pretty. She was sweet and dainty-looking, with a clear-cut profile and large grey eyes.
"Old enough to be your father, my dear," he whispered softly, when an hour later he squeezed her hand in saying good-bye, but he was delighted, all the same, when she gave him an arch look and squeezed his hand in return.
"Am I really getting so old?" he murmured sadly when, a minute afterwards he was being driven to his consulting rooms. He sighed deeply. "Young enough, every day, to be the arbiter of life and death upon the operating table but—to make love—I am esteemed too old!" He sighed again. "Really, when love and passion leave us, Nature intended us to die."
Shortly before five he was walking briskly in the direction of the great Boodle Club, for his usual afternoon cup of tea.
Arriving almost at the club entrance, however, he hesitated, and then suddenly his intention changed.
"No, not there, to-day," he muttered frowningly. "I'll go somewhere quieter, where I can be alone," and he turned off to some small tea rooms in the basement of a big building close by. He had been to the place before and he knew of a little alcove in a corner where he would be able to sit unnoticed and undisturbed.
The entrance into the room was dark and after the bright sunlight everything seemed very dim. The place appeared to be quite deserted, and threading his way quickly between the tables, he gained the corner he had chosen for himself.
He sat down with a great sigh of relief, for he was feeling tired, and then to his disgust he heard his sigh echoed from a chair close near him. He turned round sharply to encounter the astonished stare of another occupant of the alcove. For a moment, in the semi-darkness, he did not recognize who it was, and then his jaw fell.
"Bottleworthy," he ejaculated, "the archdeacon!"
The other visitor was equally as surprised, but he recovered first. "Good afternoon, Doctor," he remarked rather coldly. "I didn't know you came here."
Dr. Hoop-Brown inclined his head stiffly. "I was passing," he said, "and by chance I came in."
They both ordered tea and bread-and-butter and then, with half-hearted interest, proceeded idly to discuss the varying topics of the day.
Presently, however, the conversation languished and finally came to a full-stop altogether. They both of them seemed too tired, or else too preoccupied, to talk.
Quite a long silence followed, and then Dr. Hoop-Brown took out his watch. "But I must be off," he said briskly, "I have a lot to do yet before my day is over."
Perhaps it was that the archdeacon imagined there was a note of superior importance in the doctor's tones, or perhaps it was only that his nerves were jagged that afternoon, but at any rate he at once observed almost, it seemed, with a trace of malice in his tone:
"Going to another meeting to-night then, Doctor? I read about you in the papers, of course, this morning."
Dr. Hoop-Brown frowned in annoyance, but he answered carelessly enough: "No, I have no meeting on to-night," and then he added dryly: "Going to the races on Saturday, Archdeacon?"
Archdeacon Bottleworthy stirred uncomfortably. "There is a college cricket match on Saturday," he said quickly, "and it is necessary that I should be present."
"Oh! I see," remarked the doctor. "Duty before pleasure, of course," and, picking up his hat, he made to rise from his chair. But the archdeacon suddenly gripped him by the arm.
"Dr. Hoop-Brown—Doctor," he said hesitatingly, "I should like to ask you a question, if I may."
The doctor stared curiously at him. The words were quite ordinary, but his professional instinct sensed a note of trouble and anxiety in the voice.
"I have something on my mind," went on the archdeacon rapidly, "and I thought perhaps you might clear it up."
Dr. Hoop-Brown smiled kindly. "Very pleased to, I am sure, if I can." He added gravely: "You know, Archdeacon, the absolution of my profession may be sometimes quite as far-reaching as that of yours."
Archdeacon Bottleworthy put his head close down. "It's like this, Doctor," he whispered, "it's like this—I want to know one thing." He hesitated for just a moment and then went on quickly. "Can a man, for no apparent reason whatsoever, suddenly and violently change all his habits and mode of life and yet—be a sane man? Can he for a few days think and act like quite a different person, and then as suddenly again go back to his old self? Can he do this and yet not be on the verge of a mental breakdown?" He seized the doctor roughly by his coat. "Come now, Dr. Hoop-Brown, surely you ought to know."
The face of Dr. Hoop-Brown was a study. From kindly sympathy for the trouble of the archdeacon and mild curiosity as to what that trouble might be, it had passed abruptly to a condition of outraged self-respect and burning anger. His eyes blazed with indignation.
"Mind your own business, sir," he replied harshly. "It is a piece of impertinence, Archdeacon, for you to speak to me like this."
"Mind my own business!" exclaimed Archdeacon Bottleworthy, almost in a wail. "But it is my business. Can't you see, man, the worry of it is unnerving me?"
"Unnerving you!" sneered the doctor, "and what pray has my state of mind to do with your nerves? Come, we're not such friends as all that!"
"Oh, don't fence with me!" exclaimed the archdeacon bitterly. "You know what I mean. Of course you saw the change in me. Everyone saw it. I was supposed to have taken drugs."
Dr. Hoop-Brown had put his hat down again and was leaning back in his chair. His lips were parted and, with an amazed expression, he was regarding the archdeacon as if bewilderment had quite bereft him of all powers of speech. His forehead was damp with perspiration.
Archdeacon Bottleworthy made an effort to pull himself together, but there was little of the old imperious manner in his tones.
"I ask you, Doctor, can a man for ten days act in every way contrary to his natural mode of life and then in the space of, say, ten seconds revert again to his own self—and yet be sane?"
Dr. Hoop-Brown spoke with an effort. "Tell me exactly what you mean," he asked slowly. "I don't understand you at all."
The archdeacon wetted his lips. "Three weeks ago last Saturday," he said weakly, "something happened to me and my actions at once became strange."
"What happened to you?" asked the doctor sharply.
"That's what I don't know," replied the archdeacon, his voice beginning to shake again. "That's the dreadful thing to me. It was like this, Doctor. I was walking along North Terrace, I remember, and suddenly I felt ill and rather faint. It was only for a few seconds, however, and then I felt quite well again and began to laugh. I was exhilarated as if I had drunk champagne." He laid his hand impressively upon the doctor's arm. "From that moment, for the next ten days, I was not myself."
"But what did you do?" asked the doctor quickly. "What was the change?"
The archdeacon shrugged his shoulders. "I was irresponsible. I was like a man who didn't care what he did or said. I hummed a ridiculous rhyme beginning 'Rootity-toot.' I had no respect for public opinion, and behaved not as a clergyman should." He passed his hand over his forehead. "Almost the first thing I did was to go to the races and advise people to back various horses that were running there. I joined in argument everywhere and was very different in my behaviour at the college. Not that I always did foolish things, however"—he smiled sadly—"for I can see that for some reason I am rather popular at St. Benger's now. I am closer to the boys and I seem to understand them better, too. But the fact remains that all this time I was not my normal self. I was like a man whose mental balance was upset. I seemed to be acting a part." A note of fear again crept into his voice. "What does it mean, Doctor? I ask you—what does it mean?"
"It lasted exactly ten days, you say," said Dr. Hoop-Brown thoughtfully, "and then the ending was abrupt?"
"It ended as suddenly as it had begun," replied the archdeacon decisively, "and I can recognize, within a few seconds, when the end came. It was at the bishop's garden party and I was talking to Lady Fitz-Tootle. I was——"
"To Lady Fitz-Tootle?" gasped Dr. Hoop-Brown, and his eyes opened very wide.
"Yes, yes, and I remember I was being very discourteous to her, for I had recalled to her that she had once served in a shop. I had spoken tactlessly, too, of lots of things, and I—I——" he commenced to stammer—"I had mentioned intimate and uncalled-for details about myself." He winced. "But it was not I who had spoken, I feel now. It was someone else." His voice shook. "Then I laid my hand upon her arm and instantly I was my old self again."
He paused and looked to the doctor for sympathy but it seemed now that the latter was not listening. Instead, Dr. Hoop-Brown was staring hard into vacancy and from the expression on his face it was evident that his thoughts were very far away. The archdeacon took out his handkerchief and mopped his forehead.
Quite a long silence followed and then the doctor drew in a deep breath, and with a curious look of relief upon his face turned to his companion.
"Now," he said briskly and in a precise, professional manner, "I am going to ask you a few questions and it will help me materially if you are very exact in your replies."
A quarter of an hour later Dr. Hoop-Brown laid his hand assuringly upon the archdeacon's shoulder.
"Well," he said emphatically, "one thing I am quite convinced about. You need not have the slightest worry about your mental condition. You are in every way as sane as I am"—and he added with a smile—"or perhaps, indeed, even saner. All that has happened to you has probably arisen from some small condition of mental irritation, and is a condition some of us often get." He shrugged his shoulders. "The hot weather, or your liver, perhaps, upset. Just a small matter that you have taken too seriously. You brooded over it until you lost the right perspective and it became an obsession with you. That is all."
"And you think I shall always be quite right again?" asked the archdeacon anxiously.
"As right as you've ever been," said the doctor emphatically, and yet repressing a smile. "I am certain of it. You have nothing to worry about. The whole incident is closed."
"No, not quite," said the archdeacon, shaking his head. "There are the consequences still to be faced. I have become mixed up with a lot of racing people now, and I know my name is up for membership for at least two of the racing clubs." He smiled mournfully. "I believe I have given my consent."
"Well, well," said the doctor laughing, "then you will be able to give me the latest about the Melbourne Cup."
They parted with a friendly nod at the top of the stairs.
"I must live things down," muttered the archdeacon. "Thank heaven people soon forget."
"I must interview Lady Fitz-Tootle," remarked the doctor under his breath. "It is vital for my peace of mind now."
The archdeacon looked up from his paper at the breakfast table next morning.
"I think, my dear," he said, addressing his daughter, "that you might call on Lady Fitz-Tootle to-day, and see how she is getting on. The telephone there is so unsatisfactory just now. The maid who answers it always seems to be hesitating, as if she were being prompted by someone behind her, and the reply is invariably the same—'Still weak, but improving.'" He coughed slightly. "You might inquire, too, if my services would be in any way acceptable to her." He assumed an air of resignation. "The Church has always its obligations you know, and the well-to-do should be as much our concern as the very poor."
His daughter suppressed a smile. "Very well, Father," she said dutifully, "I'll go soon after breakfast." She blushed slightly. "I have to do some shopping to-day."
Margaret Bottleworthy was looking unusually pretty that morning. Indeed, as her father had remarked more than once to himself, she had never before looked quite so pretty as in these last few days. Her eyes were bright and sparkling, there was a gentle flush upon her cheeks, and about her lips were curves of tenderness that only dreams and happy thoughts could have placed there.
It was just before eleven o'clock when she walked briskly up the drive leading to Fitz-Tootle Hall. Contrary to the custom prevailing at that time of year, the front door was closed, and following her ring, a long period elapsed before she heard any movement in the hall. Then the door was opened, very stealthily it seemed, and part of a face peered round to see who the visitor was.
"Her ladyship is not at home to anyone," said a voice. "She is not well, she is——"
"I'm Miss Bottleworthy," broke in Margaret, recognizing the parlour-maid. "It's all right, Susan, I shan't bite you."
There was a sound of low voices in the hall, the door was opened a little wider, and Margaret was whisperingly invited to walk in.
Very mystified, the girl did as she was bid, and then the door was quickly closed again behind her. Lady Fitz-Tootle was standing by the parlour-maid, and she was holding her finger to her lips.
"Come into the dining-room, dear," she whispered, and, laying her hand upon the girl's arm, she almost dragged her from the hall.
"You were quite alone, Margaret?" she asked, nervously. "There was no one else waiting outside?"
"Oh! no, I came by myself, but whatever is the matter?"
Lady Fitz-Tootle ignored the question. "There was no man waiting in the drive, was there?" she asked sharply. Margaret shook her head. "Not a tall, big man, with stooping shoulders, and a very sunburnt face?"
"No, really, there was no one there at all, but whatever has happened?"
"It's Andy Chickseed," groaned her ladyship. "Oh! Margaret, I'm in such trouble," and she almost burst into tears.
"But tell me, what is it?" asked the girl.
"He wants to marry me," groaned her ladyship. "He haunts the house."
"Who?" The girl opened her eyes very wide.
"Andy Chickseed," replied her ladyship plaintively.
"That man you were talking to at the reception—the man with Mrs. Bangs?" exclaimed Margaret incredulously.
Lady Fitz-Tootle nodded. "He's Mrs. Bangs' brother," she said, "and just because I was friendly, and interested in him, he wants me now to be his wife." She looked as if she was going to cry. "Oh, Margaret, you needn't laugh. It's too serious for that. I can't get rid of him. He calls here three and four times every day, and won't go away, and I get letters from him by almost every post."
"He supposes them to be," sighed her ladyship, "but they're mostly about cows and the price of beef. His sister's encouraging him, I am sure. She calls here continually, too, and they're always sending up presents of meat. The larder is full of meat. We are having much too much, and the house is getting unhealthy. The cats won't catch any mice, either. Oh! what am I to do?"
There was a knock at the door and the parlour-maid entered. "If you please, your ladyship," she said, "Mrs. Bangs has sent up a sucking pig with her kind regards. She says to-morrow——"
"Go away, go away," exclaimed her ladyship with great irritation, "and don't let any more meat into the house. I won't have it. You understand?"
"Very well, your ladyship," replied the maid. "A case of apples has arrived, too, and——"
"Go away," almost shouted Lady Fitz-Tootle. "I don't want to know anything about them. Give them away to your friends."
The maid retired and Lady Fitz-Tootle turned despairingly to Margaret Bottleworthy. "That's Mrs. Huggins," she explained. "She's another of them. They mean to be kind, I know, but they're so persistent they get on my nerves."
"But what's it all for?" asked Margaret very puzzled. "Why do they do all this?"
Lady Fitz-Tootle sighed wearily. "It's all my fault, I know. I encouraged them. They're common people, of course, but I started to make great friends of them. I told them they were every bit as good as most of the Society folk here. I said we had nearly all of us risen from nothing and it was only a bit of money that made us seem different from them now. I promised I would get them into Society and they would see for themselves exactly what we were. Then, as you know, they came with their friends to the reception that I gave to Lord Sanderson. I introduced them to everyone and made a fuss of them and now"—tears welled up into her eyes, and she began to dab them with her handkerchief—"and now—I can't shake them off."
Margaret Bottleworthy laughed merrily. "But really, Lady Fitz-Tootle, I don't see why you should worry at all. They'll soon get tired of coming if they don't see you, and then the whole matter will drop." She nodded her head sagely. "You know, you were so nice to them that you can't expect them to forget you all at once."
"Your father introduced them to me, Margaret," said Lady Fitz-Tootle rather resentfully, "or I shouldn't have met them at all."
"Oh yes, father has known them a long time," replied the girl calmly, "and I think he rather likes Mr. Bangs. But I mustn't forget," she added smilingly, "father sent me up specially this morning to inquire if he can do anything for you. If you would like to see him, he means."
Lady Fitz-Tootle shook her head. "Thank you, Margaret, but the dear bishop has been up here twice already. He is so sympathetic and so practical. He has given me such splendid advice about my corns."
Margaret smiled in amusement and her ladyship, after a moment's hesitation, smiled too. The hard lines of her face softened and her worn eyes suddenly took on a gentle look.
"Oh! it's well to be young, child," and she sighed deeply, "for there's nothing so glorious in life as youth." She patted Margaret affectionately upon the arm. "Make the most of every moment of it, dear, for it goes so very soon, and it's only when you've lost it that you realize the treasure that was once yours." Her eyes took on a far-away look. "Remember, I was young like you once, years ago. I was fresh and pretty, and I had dreams and longings, too, such as I know you must have." She sighed again. "I was poor then and worked for my living, but I see now I lived in the joy of life. Yes, I gulped down happiness in big deep draughts then instead of sipping it, as I should have done, slowly, drop by drop." She smiled very sadly. "Now I am old, dear. I'm a painted old harridan and the only interest I have in life is to imagine that I'm important and mix with people who have money, too." She shook her head savagely. "Money is everything to us over here, and we who have it herd ourselves together like fat cattle at a show. The rich toady to the rich with gifts and offerings that are not needed, and the unmonied folk are of different flesh and blood to them, every time."
"But Lady Fitz-Tootle," protested Margaret, "you're——"
"No, child, I know exactly what I am. I've been thinking a lot about these things lately, and besides"—she sniffed grimly—"your father was good enough to mention them to me, as well. No, Margaret," she went on, "it's notoriety so many of us live for. The craze to be talked about and to stand big in the public eye. To get our names in the newspapers and to have every stitch of clothing we've got on, described. With some of us it's our religion to get noticed, that's all."
Margaret laughed gaily. "Well, marry Mr. Chickseed, and start the reformation of things at once."
Lady Fitz-Tootle shook her head. "Marriage is not for me, child." She smiled suddenly. "But what about yourself?"
Margaret flushed uncomfortably. "No one has asked me yet. I'm going to be an old maid, I think."
"Not with those eyes, Margaret," said her ladyship decisively. "You're going to give some man an idea of Heaven soon. What about young Grainger now? Hasn't your father come to his senses about him yet?"
"Mr. Grainger and my father are good friends," replied Margaret, "if that's what you mean."
"No, it is not," snapped her ladyship, "and you know it, quite well. Does your father let you see the boy when you want to? That's what I mean."
The girl smiled happily and gave a little bow. "I'm over twenty-one, your ladyship, and can do as I feel inclined."'
Lady Fitz-Tootle regarded her very thoughtfully for a few moments. "Well, about your father," she said at length, "yes, upon second thoughts I should like to see him. It's very kind of him, I'm sure. Any day when he can spare the time. Give him my kind regards."
A bell burred loudly in the hall. Lady Fitz-Tootle looked startled and then she smiled. "Really, Margaret," she whispered, "I shan't mind so much now if it is one of those people. My talk with you has somehow done me a lot of good."
The maid entered. "Dr. Hoop-Brown, your ladyship," she said. "I have shown him into the morning-room."
Lady Fitz-Tootle frowned. "I am almost inclined not to see him," she muttered, "but still, still for my own sake, I must." She nodded to the maid. "All right, Susan, tell him I'll be with him in a minute."
Margaret Bottleworthy rose up to go. She held out her hand to Lady Fitz-Tootle, but to her astonishment the latter pulled her forward and kissed her affectionately on both cheeks.
"Good-bye, dear," she said, "and don't forget what I've told you. Make the best of your young days, while you have them," and regardless now of any lurking visitors outside, she herself accompanied the girl to the front door.
With Margaret gone, for a long minute Lady Fitz-Tootle stood irresolute in the hall and then, with a curious expression upon her face, opened the door of the morning-room and walked in.
Dr. Hoop-Brown was looking out of the window, but hearing her enter he immediately turned round. He bowed gravely and advancing towards her held out his hand.
But Lady Fitz-Tootle waved him back.
"No, Dr. Hoop-Brown, I'm not friends with you," she said curtly. "I'm not pleased with you at all. You've not been near me for a whole week."
The doctor was quite unperturbed. "It was not necessary," he said calmly.
"Why not," she snapped. "Didn't you say I was ill?"
"All that you required was rest," he replied, "and I was sure that you would send for me again, if you were not getting on."
Lady Fitz-Tootle's face expressed her surprise. "So you didn't come simply because I didn't send for you, Dr. Hoop-Brown?" Her medical adviser inclined his head. "Then," exclaimed her ladyship triumphantly, "why, pray, have you come to-day? I didn't send for you. Why, now?"
In spite of his habitual self-control, Dr. Hoop-Brown looked uncomfortable. He frowned. "I deemed it advisable to call to-day," he said stiffly, "to see if you were sufficiently recovered to be able to go out."
Lady Fitz-Tootle regarded him sarcastically. "The explanation is not good enough, Dr. Hoop-Brown, and I tell you frankly"—her voice was hard and resentful—"I would not have seen you at all if I had not been curious." She laughed suddenly as if she were amused. "Yes, I am curious about you, as curious probably"—she nodded her head—"as you have been about me."
Dr. Hoop-Brown regarded her intently. He had recovered himself, and the expression on his face was now one of perfect dignity and repose.
Lady Fitz-Tootle moved up nearer to him. She was smiling animatedly now and there was no trace at all of the annoyance of a few moments before.
"Sit down, please, Doctor. I want to have a talk with you." She laid her hand upon his arm. "And I want to have a good look at you as well."
Dr. Hoop-Brown was very puzzled and, although he did not show it, very angry too. He had called expressly to determine the state of Lady Fitz-Tootle's mind, and now, instead—she was bent upon the investigation of his. However, he regarded her quite calmly, as if he took everything as a matter of course.
For a full minute she sat facing him, without speaking a word. It was a most intent examination that the doctor felt himself undergoing, every particular of his appearance being subjected to a critical regard.
At length she relaxed her attention, and then slowly shook her head.
"I am disappointed," she said reluctantly. "I thought—I thought I should be sure to notice a great change." She sighed. "But you look just the same. Your clothes are different, of course. Your hair is shorter, too, and you are smarter in several ways, but still—still you are the same Dr. Hoop-Brown I used to know." Her voice trailed to a low murmur. "The same cold, fish-like individual, the same precise dissector of people's bodies, the same pompous, consequential, middle-aged old fo——" She broke off suddenly. "Oh, I beg your pardon," she exclaimed in contrition. "I was thinking aloud."
"No matter," said the doctor with great politeness. "The analysis was interesting"—he smiled grimly—"and no doubt in the main quite correct."
"Look here, Dr. Hoop-Brown," went on her ladyship quickly, "I am not trying to be rude to you, and I'm not crazy, at any rate at the present moment. I have a reason for speaking to you like this. A reason, please understand, that concerns myself."
The doctor bowed. "I am at your service. I have plenty of time. Pray go on, Lady Fitz-Tootle."
"Well, what's been the matter with you lately?" asked her ladyship bluntly. "You've been acting as if you were not quite in your right mind."
Just a little tremor passed over the doctor's face, and there was just a slight hurried intake of breath, but he faced the situation calmly and there was no emotion in his voice as he spoke.
"Explain, your ladyship," he said. "I shall be interested to know what you mean."
"You joined that awful Society the other night, for one thing—the Society for the Regeneration of everything."
Dr. Hoop-Brown smiled grimly. "I attended as a visitor," he corrected. "I was there in a professional way, so to speak."
"Why did you go?"
Dr. Hoop-Brown shrugged his shoulders. "Why should I not have gone?" he asked. "As a professional man, I am interested in all morbid conditions of the mind."
Lady Fitz-Tootle frowned. "Then you have been rude to your patients, right and left, so I understand."
"Particularize," said the doctor quietly. "Give chapter and verse, please."
"You insulted Mr. Poodlum. His wife told me so and you refused to give him any advice."
"On the contrary, I gave him the best advice possible, and I happened to meet him only yesterday and he said he had never felt better in his life."
"Then, you refused to operate upon young McTavish on Tuesday when two other doctors had said an operation must take place instantly to save his life."
Dr. Hoop-Brown smiled. "The young man was playing cricket yesterday, and I understand he made more runs than anyone else on his side."
Lady Fitz-Tootle spoke with less conviction. She felt the ground slipping from under her feet.
"Then you said the lady doctors were not all ladies, and they were not all doctors, either."
It was Dr. Hoop-Brown's turn to frown now. "A foolish gibe," he said, "and one which I regret. I should not have said it, whatever I thought." He shrugged his shoulders again. "But it was bad taste only, at its worst."
Lady Fitz-Tootle smiled sourly and tapped him on the arm. "You've been going out with the hospital nurses, Doctor," she said. "You've been taking them to Glenelg in your car, and you can't deny it."
For the first time during the interview, Dr. Hoop-Brown looked angry. "And why should I deny it?" he asked sternly. "Am I responsible to everyone for the conduct of my private affairs?" His lips curved sarcastically. "And is it any evidence, pray, of my not being in my right mind, because I take two ladies for a ride in my car?"
"It was unusual, Dr. Hoop-Brown," said her ladyship sharply. "You will admit that."
"Unusual," agreed the doctor, "but—insanity!" He looked very reproachful. "Well, I hope it was a long way from that."
Lady Fitz-Tootle was suddenly on the verge of tears. "Oh, but I'm so frightened, Doctor," she exclaimed brokenly, "and so disappointed too. I expected such relief of mind, after seeing you." She leant forward and spoke very rapidly. "You know I have found out I was partly mad myself a few days ago, and I believed when I saw you that I should recognize the same symptoms of this madness in you. There has been a madness going about lately, and it has been passing from one to another, I am sure." Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "The archdeacon was mad for a time and then he got rid of the malady, by passing it on to me. Then, for some days I was not responsible for what I did, and I hoped, I believed from all I had heard, that I had become sane again by passing the madness on to you. When you came in just now, I expected to see you were still affected, and then I should have been quite sure that I was free, but now—now, I see the whole idea is wrong. I may still have this madness hanging round me, and I may become mad again any time."
She stopped abruptly, her breath came sharp and hurried and then she burst into tears.
And all the time, with a cold, impassive face, Dr. Hoop-Brown had sat listening. Not a muscle of him moved, not an eye-lid quivered, and he was just the calm, serene professional man. Apparently, from his demeanour, it was only the very commonplace recital of some very ordinary experience that he was receiving, just a tale of symptoms such as he was accustomed to receive many times each day, and yet—yet, in reality, the story he had been hearing was one which stirred him to his very depths. His brain was working like an engine at full speed, and every faculty that he possessed was being called upon to grapple with the problem that lay before him.
So he was not alone in his conjectures! The idea that had gripped him had seized also upon another victim! They had both, it seemed, been playthings of some mysterious and unknown force, even as the archdeacon had been, and all in turn, had been the bond-slave of some vampire of the mind! It was incredible, it was unthinkable, but it must be true!
But this woman must not know it. It was too dangerous a secret for her to hold. She would betray everything. She would tell everyone and in the telling his own reputation would be involved.
He spoke very quietly. "You are imagining things," he began. "You are——"
"No, I am not," she snapped at once, angrily suppressing her tears. "It's all as plain as day. The archdeacon was mad—that is, if he had been sane before. Then everything went a mental somersault with me. Then in come you, with your light suits and your jaunts with nurses—your——"
But Dr. Hoop-Brown imperatively held up his hand. "Now listen," he said brusquely, "and take care you don't let your imagination bring you to the very state of mind you are now dreading to-day. No—no, hear me first," for he could see that she was about to break in, "hear what I've got to say. Look round this room, Lady Fitz-Tootle, ordinary furniture, ordinary table, ordinary chairs. Look out of the window there; ordinary trees, ordinary sky and ordinary sun." He spoke very sternly and there was contemptuous anger in his tones. "And do you mean to tell me, as an educated woman, as a woman of intelligence, that in all these ordinary and everyday surroundings you can, for one moment, believe such nonsense as madness passing from one person to another, like the deal in a game of cards?" He raised his voice emphatically. "Have you ever heard of such a thing before? Have you ever read of such a thing?" He almost sneered. "Because if you have, I have not."
"But, Doctor," faltered her ladyship, undoubtedly a little overpowered by his vehemence, "how else do you account for all that's happened to us?"
"Nothing's happened to us," said the doctor sharply, "except what's happening to thousands of people every day. We threw off some mental indigestion, that's all. The archdeacon got a brain-wave of common sense. He forgot he was a proud and sanctimonious ecclesiastic and became a natural human being for once. You threw off the sickening snobbery of your class and the pretence that you were of different flesh and blood from everyone else, and I—well I came suddenly to the conclusion that I was an old fool and missed quite a lot of the enjoyment of life." His face broke into a smile. "Now, to change the subject, I'll ask you something. I'll come to your ladyship for some advice. Do you think"—he hesitated for a moment and looked a little sheepish—"do you think I'm too old to get married, now?"
Lady Fitz-Tootle looked incredulous. "You get married, Doctor? You're not really thinking of it, are you?"
Dr. Hoop-Brown looked very serious. "But I am. I certainly am."
She beamed upon him. "Oh, do tell me all about it. I'm so interested. Fancy you getting caught!"
It was then quite an animated Lady Fitz-Tootle who a little later herself showed the great doctor out of Fitz-Tootle Hall. All her thoughts had been switched off into quite a new direction. She was all smiles and brightness now, and very different from the care-worn and depressed woman of but an hour ago. Margaret's visit and the subsequent friendly confiding with her medical adviser had all in a flash, as it were, dispelled her forebodings. Her mental condition had no longer any terrors for her and she was even prepared now to dismiss the whole matter, as indeed the doctor had intended that she should, as a foolish imagining, and one the sooner forgotten the better for all concerned.
"Really, Doctor," she laughed in parting, "you may be a bad surgeon, but you are certainly a great physician of the mind. I shall have the car out and do some shopping now." Her face sobered a little. "Whatever I've said or done, I am still Lady Fitz-Tootle, and, with a cook like mine, I shall always be a power in the land."
Dr. Hoop-Brown laughed gaily in return, but once out of sight of the house his eyes grew grave and stern.
"The impossible," he muttered, "the fantastic, in this cold prosaic world! Bottleworthy, this woman, and then me!" He clenched his hands together. "Now to find the beginning and the end of the trail."
Lady Fitz-Tootle had one more visitor that day. The archdeacon called in the afternoon, and his mien was as important and as dignified as ever. He was, perhaps, in just the slightest degree uneasy when they first shook hands, and perhaps for just one moment her ladyship, too, averted her eyes. They talked quite casually of nothing in particular for awhile, and then Lady Fitz-Tootle abruptly brought the conversation round to his daughter.
"How pretty Margaret looked this morning," she remarked, and then she added, with a note of challenge in her tones: "But then, every girl does look her best when she's in love."
The archdeacon made no comment. He was looking out of the window and her ladyship, as if expecting no reply, went on carelessly:
"By the by, I am taking away the legal business of my estate from Rise and Cost's and giving them over to young Grainger, instead. He's a nice young fellow and deserves to get on. They'll make a very good-looking pair, Archdeacon." She smiled graciously, and laid her hand upon his arm. "I may tell you, although it's a great secret of course—I am giving them my house at Glenelg as a wedding present." She shrugged her shoulders and sighed. "At my age, one house is quite enough for me."
The archdeacon opened his mouth in astonishment. Her Glenelg residence was one of the most beautiful houses at the Bay and was worth a lot of money, he knew. The generosity of the proposed gift took his breath away. His hands shook and the colour rose to his face.
"Really, your ladyship," he stammered, "your generosity is magnificent. It would be a queenly gift." He passed his hand across his forehead, and his voice broke. "Between the lot of you, you are too much for an old man. I am getting weak and full of years, I see."
"Nonsense!" said her ladyship stoutly. "You are getting sensible, that's all—and you'll be 'my lord bishop' yet, before you die. I'm certain of it."
THE days subsequent to the departure of their esteemed chairman, Mr. Henry Muffins, for Melbourne, were ones of intense interest and expectancy for the members of the Society for the World's Regeneration.
They felt that they were now surely on the eve of great events, for following upon the investigations of their appointed representative in Melbourne their society would soon be lifted up into the limelight, and they would all enjoy the notoriety and publicity for which they craved.
Mr. Muffins had promised that daily reports of his progress should be received at headquarters, and sure enough, less than forty-eight hours after his departure from Adelaide, Miss Jane Meddlin Brimstone received the first bulletin. It was written on a postcard and was signed, simply 'M.' It was very brief and ran:
"Arrived. Like Daniel have descended into the den of lions. P.S.—The food is excellent."
The eyes of Miss Brimstone scintillated with animation as she read.
"How brave he is," she ejaculated admiringly, "and how practical too! 'The food is excellent.'" She nodded her head. "And he will want it, too. He will need good nourishment to keep up his strength."
The postcard was shown all round to the members of the committee, and with great excitement they awaited the advent of further news.
The next day a second postcard came.
"Things worse even than expected," they read. "Temptations everywhere. Scented syrens in the lounge. Pregnant happenings possible any moment now. Have winked the naughty eye," and it was signed this time 'St. Augustine.'
"Oh, how thrilling!" enunciated Miss Brimstone, powdering the perspiration from her nose. "A real Sir Galahad! He will unmask them all!"
The second postcard was read and re-read a hundred times that evening and discussed even to its minutest details. The lady members speculated animatedly as to what particular scent was being used and the gentlemen debated with intense vigour as to the probability of the tempting syrens being either tall or short and dark or fair.
The third day brought a third postcard, this time of much greater length. It was of mixed metaphor and the interpretation of it was obscure, but to its recipients it suggested dark mystery and hinted of the underworld.
"Enemy advancing in great strength," it recorded, "but all defences secure. Am swallowing the bait. Shall follow trail to wheresoever it may lead. If lured a lamb to the slaughter, in the end the sheep may yet turn out to be a Ram. More anon," and it was signed, 'Creme-de-menthe.'
A thrill of horror ran through the committee.
What was happening? they asked one another, and why, with all his nobility of mind, could not Henry Muffins have been more explicit? Now they would have to wait in apprehension and suspense until another pennyworth of postal matter should tell them all was well.
But alas!—no further communication of any nature reached them. No postcard, letter or any lightning message over the wires! Nothing the next day—the day following, and the day after that!
They were filled with fears. It was so unexpected, it was so incomprehensible. It was as if night had fallen suddenly, blotting everything from sight. It was as if the silence of the tomb enveloped them and as if the black waters of oblivion had closed for ever over Henry Muffins's devoted head.
And then, gradually as it were, waves of movement began to quiver through from Melbourne, unmistakable intimations that something there was going on. Happenings that did not touch their Society directly, and yet which in some way suggested to them that Fate was pulling strings of which they were at one end. It was certainly very curious!
To begin with Mr. Soaker Ram received, at his private residence in Tiddle Street, a visit from a short, thick-set, bull-necked individual, who had just arrived by the Melbourne Express. He, the gentleman of bovine characteristics, was, it appeared, desirous of purchasing a public-house in Adelaide and he had come to Mr. Ram as being, he understood, the best man to deal satisfactorily with the matter.
Mr. Ram was aghast, and at first was seriously inclined to order the visitor, as an intoxicated practical joker, peremptorily from the door; but finding the man perfectly serious and devoid, moreover, of all traces of alcoholic aroma, he thought better of the matter and proceeded trenchantly to expand himself upon the whole question of the traffic of drink in general. Unhappily, however, the licensed-victualler-to-be was very deaf and, upon Mr. Ram producing statistics as to the number of families which had been ruined by the consumption of stout and beer, he waved them all contemptuously aside, believing them to be only tables of the amount of commission expected by Mr. Ram, in the event of a sale. He announced gruffly that he was prepared to pay full commission on the scale as recognized always by the Trade.
After much bawling and shouting, it was brought home to him at last that Mr. Ram did not deal in public-houses, and then explanations, or at least partial explanations, ensued.
Mr. Ram indignantly wanted to know who had told his visitor to come to him, and the man thereupon produced a dirty piece of paper that had been given to him, he said, by a stranger, in a place of refreshment in Melbourne. Upon it, in straggling characters, was inscribed:
"Mr. Soaker Ram, Toshem Villa, Tiddle Street, Adelaide."
The stranger, it appeared, had suggested Mr. Ram as knowing more about the outsides and insides of public-houses than any man in South Australia, and had moreover averred that he, Mr. Ram, had an intimate acquaintance with every good-looking barmaid in the beautiful city of the plains.
Mr. Ram carefully scrutinized the hand-writing upon the paper, and was startled to find that in several ways it was familiar to him. For one thing, he could distinctly remember having somewhere seen the tail of the m in Ram.
Mr. Ram and the public-house proprietor-to-be parted on very distant terms, and the same evening the former brought the whole matter before the assembled committee of the Society for the World's Regeneration. To everyone's astonishment, Miss Jane Meddlin Brimstone then immediately capped the experience with something that happened to her, less even than two hours before the meeting that night.
She also, she announced, had had a visitor, and that visitor, as in the case of Mr. Soaker Ram, had come off the Melbourne Express. It was a middle-aged woman who had called upon her, and she had come over from Melbourne purposely, she said, to seek Miss Brimstone's advice. She had been married, she explained, for over ten years, but no babies had come to her. Now—and Miss Brimstone was quite cool and made no attempt to hide anything, or gloss over the matter—she wanted one, badly. She had been informed in Melbourne, she said, that Miss Brimstone was a specialist in such matters, and indeed had practised with such success that she had become known in Adelaide as 'The Stork Queen.'
Pressed by Miss Brimstone, who had dissembled her disgust, to disclose the source of her information, she had reluctantly admitted she was not in the position to be able to furnish any names. It appeared, however, that a few days previously, her husband had encountered a gentleman in the bar of some hotel in Melbourne, and in the course of conversation had happened to mention his fondness for children, and the loneliness of his home without any. Thereupon, the affable stranger had at once suggested the assistance of Jane Meddlin Brimstone, and had forthwith obligingly furnished her address. This was all the information Miss Brimstone could elucidate and no description at all of the informant could be obtained.
The committee had listened with profound astonishment to the experiences of both Mr. Ram and Miss Brimstone and then they regarded each other in a very puzzled way. That it was more than a coincidence that two of their number should have been singled out for insulting communications from Melbourne they were sure, and that being so, from whom could they possibly have come? From whom, also, had the private addresses of Mr. Ram and Miss Brimstone been obtained?
Then, too, why was Henry Muffins silent now, and could there by any chance be any connection between his silence and the visits of these two persons from Melbourne?
Melbourne was a notoriously wicked place, and was it possible that Henry Muffins had met with some mishap? Had he been shot or sandbagged or drugged and subsequently his papers stolen from him? If that were so, then to be sure, everything was very easily explained, for undoubtedly he would have been recording in black and white the impressions of every single happening since he had left home, and, of course, his memoirs would contain many references to his affectionate regard for both Miss Brimstone and Mr. Soaker Ram.
The pity of it was—-they could not communicate with their chairman. They were quite aware, indeed, that he had intended to stay at the Hippodrome, but they knew also that he was there under an assumed name, and what that name was going to be, in the hurry of his departure, he had omitted to disclose.
They discussed the whole matter with great thoroughness, but no conclusion was arrived at as to what action, if any, should be taken, and finally the meeting terminated with no course of action resolved upon.
The next morning, Mr. Ram himself received an anonymous postcard from Melbourne. It featured a sunny day upon the St. Kilda sands and depicted a most pretty and well-proportioned young woman in an alluring bathing costume of attenuated design. The girl was lying in about six inches of water at the margin of the waves and the sea was lapping caressingly about her shapely limbs. The picture was entitled: 'Now WHAT are the wild waves saying?'
Mr. Ram gasped with horror when after a moment's hesitation he snatched the postcard from the postman's reluctant hand. It was animalism, pure and simple, he groaned. It was a beast-like picture and would appeal only to a beast-like mind. For some minutes, so animated with disgust was he, he could not take his eyes off it, and then, then—for a long time he scrutinized the hand-writing on the addressed side.
But he was plainly baffled there, for the hand-writing was disguised and the letters, all in Roman characters, effectively masked the identity of the monster who was thus outraging the unearthly purity of the great reformer's home.
Still Mr. Ram was thoughtful, very thoughtful about something, and that evening, just before the shops shut, he slipped out and bought a sixpenny copy of 'Handwriting and What It Tells.'
Four days more passed, with no further tidings of the chairman of the Society, and then upon the fifth day Fate hurled a dreadful bomb into the tabernacle of the faithful. A bomb that burst in the very holy of holies and rent the veil of mystery in twain.
Henry Muffins was unmasked! He had exceeded all limits! He had sold his soul to the devil on the time-payment system, and the great Cause was betrayed!
The news came to them in a curiously roundabout way.
A Miss Bloggs, an obscure member of the Society, received a letter from a cousin of hers in Melbourne. This cousin, much to Miss Blogg's disapproval, worked in the office of the Hippodrome Hotel in that city. She did not often write to Miss Bloggs, because they were not on particularly friendly terms, and indeed Miss Bloggs was surprised to receive any communication from her at all. The letter was dated only the previous day and read:
"MY DEAR EMMA,
"I hope you are well, and Maggie too. I am writing to you for information, because you always know everything about everybody in Adelaide. There is an extraordinary man staying here, at our hotel. He makes out he is a foreigner and comes from Italy, but we don't believe him, and think he comes from Adelaide, for the chambermaid says his pyjamas were bought there. He calls himself Henrico Muffino. Do you happen to know anything about him? He is about fifty years of age and tall and rather pompous-looking. He had long iron-grey whiskers when he first arrived, but he has cut them off since, and now wears his hair very short, too. He dresses in very loud style, and always has a lot of young girls hanging round him. They make a great fuss of him and call him 'Poppa.' He has been here quite a short time, but he seems to know everyone, and I don't wonder, considering the money he throws about. He must be very rich, for he is a great racing man and bets heavily. It is said he won a fortune last Saturday when Wet Kisses won the Cup at Moonee Valley. At any rate, there have been dances and champagne suppers ever since. He dances splendidly and he is very daring when a 'Twilight Number' is posted up. He makes out he is single, and he is an awful flirt. His greatest favourites here are two pretty girls, known as Flossie and Di. They are both always with him, and everyone is wondering which of them will get him in the end, that is, of course, if he marries either of them. Everyone is very interested in the man, but he rather shocks us sometimes, and if he is, as we all think, an importation from wicked Adelaide, then we don't wonder you have to have a society there for stopping such things.
"Well, so long, Emma, until I see you again.
"Your affectionate cousin,
Emma Bloggs, snorting in disgust, had put on her hat and run round to Miss Brimstone at once.
One afternoon, in a most luxurious hotel in Melbourne, a gentleman of gay and debonair appearance might have been observed occupying the largest and most comfortable armchair in the lounge.
He was a happy-looking man of middle age and it was evident, from his surroundings, that Fate and Life were dealing kindly with him.
He was expensively, if peculiarly, attired, his light suit being of a decided chess-board pattern. Indeed, to an enthusiast of the ancient game the pattern of his coat, together with his buttons and its button-holes, might very easily have suggested the opening moves of the Allgaier Gambit or the French Defence. He sported a large diamond in his cravat, and a larger one, even, in his ring. His shoes were of patent leather and tapered to very fine points.
He was evidently a man of some importance, for all the staff of the hotel were particularly deferential to him, from the manager, who smiled at him with the cordiality always extended to a good customer, to the waiters who watched for the crook of his little finger, as lackeys wait upon the order of a king.
He was not alone, this gay and festive-looking man, indeed quite the opposite was the case, for five very pretty girls were close in attendance on him, leaning over and hanging upon his every word.
"Well, girls," said the happy man, "and what is it to be?" He shook his finger reprovingly. "No, not cocktails yet. It's too early. Ice-creams now, or glasses of milk."
A vivacious-looking dark girl laughed merrily. "Why, Signor Muffino," she exclaimed gaily, "you know we all agreed to be teetotal till dinner, and then you promised us oceans and oceans of champagne. You remember, you promised us, didn't you?"
"Tut, tut," replied Mr. Muffins loftily, for of course it was he. "Men promise anything, my dear, so most likely you will only get ginger-beer in the end."
"Oh, Poppa," said a fair girl reproachfully, "you would not deceive us for anything, now would you?"
Mr. Muffins beamed delightedly upon his pretty interrogator. "Not in the matter of liquids, certainly, Miss Flossie, but in other matters"—he shrugged his shoulders—"well, does not the psalmist say 'men are deceivers ever'?"
"I don't believe it was the psalmist who said it at all," broke in another girl. "It sounds like Dean Inge or Bernard Shaw."
"Well, it was said," replied Mr. Muffins with dignity, "and consequently it will hold good until it is officially contradicted in the proper quarters."
"Oh, Signor," exclaimed the girl with admiration, "how clever you are!" Then she added inquiringly: "And do you speak any other languages as beautifully as you speak English?"
"Many, Miss Flossie," replied Mr. Muffins grandly. "French, German, Scandinavian, Simian and Majong."
"Then you have travelled all over the world, Signor?" asked a fourth young lady with great interest.
"Not quite all over," said Mr. Muffins with becoming modesty. "I appear to have no recollection of visiting either the Sandwich Islands or Bow Bells."
"You must be very rich," suggested the dark girl, "to have travelled to so many places."
Mr. Muffins patted her hand. "I am rich always when you smile upon me, dear," he replied, "and poor only when you turn those eyes away."
The dark girl laughed. "And do you know Adelaide too?" she asked, with a studied expression of innocence in her voice.
Mr. Muffins coughed. "I have heard it spoken of," he replied evasively, "indeed, I believe I have once passed through." He appeared to consider for a moment. "Yes, now I come to think of it, I have stayed there—just for a few days, some time ago."
"It's a wicked place, isn't it?" asked the girl, with a sly look round to her companions. "At least, that's what we are told over here."
Mr. Muffins leaned back and assumed a strictly judicial air. "Adelaide, my child," he announced pompously, "is a city of class, culture, and—but there, I hate alliteration. It is the coin of a shallow mind." He beamed round at his audience. "No, Adelaide is very harmless, although it loves to be told it is a wicked place. It contains very many charming people, but many others also "—he made a wry face—"who ought never to have been born."
"Have you ever heard, Signor," asked Miss Flossie, "of a man there called Ram? A great missioner, they call him. We read about him in the newspapers last week."
Mr. Muffins raised his hands in horror. "Missioner!" he exclaimed indignantly. "Why he is a man of sick and dreadful mind! Missioner!" he snorted. "Yes, I know him," and his voice vibrated with contempt. "He is a blot on every cause that he espouses. He is a killer of the joys of life. He is a poker-nose, he is an interferer in everybody's business, he is——" Mr. Muffins dropped his voice despairingly, and then shook his head with great sadness. "Why, he would see evil even in your smile, my dear."
"Oh, Signor," exclaimed the girl, "you talk like a clergyman"—she laughed delightedly—"and I do believe you are one."
"There!" ejaculated Mr. Muffins with a gesture of mock embarrassment. "I knew I should be found out some time. My garments are too sacerdotal and I was sure they would give me away in the end."
"Well," said Miss Flossie, when the laughter had subsided, "and what is our programme for the evening? What are you going to do with us?"
"If you all honour me with your company," said Mr. Muffins carelessly, "it'll be a theatre"—his face broke into a sly smile—"but, if only one comes, then it'll be a motor ride."
"Oh! you wicked man!" exclaimed one of the girls in great delight. "You make us quite afraid of you."
At that moment the glass doors revolved, and a smartly dressed, clean-shaven man walked briskly into the lounge. His appearance was the signal for quite a diversion of interest.
"Markem, the trainer," whispered someone. "He trains Pet-me and Pickled Pork."
For a few seconds the new-comer searchingly regarded all the occupants of the lounge, and then, with an amused smile upon his face, he made his way over to where Muffins and his party of young girls were seated. He shook hands cordially with Mr. Muffins and then, responding to the latter's invitation, subsided into an adjacent chair. He bowed gallantly to the young ladies.
"So, Signor Muffino," he remarked in envious tones, "you are still the lucky man, I see. You back all the winners at the races and now I find you captivating the youth and beauty of our city. How do you manage it?"
"Oh, it's a gift," replied Mr. Muffins loftily. "Just judgment and personality." He waved his hand towards the girls. "The best is good enough for me."
The trainer leant over towards him. "I fixed up that deal all right for you," he whispered quietly. "I got Ginx's Baby for the five hundred guineas. They haggled a bit at first, but they let me have him in the end."
"Good," replied Mr. Muffins, in equally low tones. "I'm very pleased about it."
"With all engagements," whispered the trainer, "and, as I look at it, he has more than an outside chance for the Melbourne Cup."
"We'll get a hundred to one?" queried Mr. Muffins.
The trainer nodded. "We may," he replied, "if we get on at once."
"Well, I'll speculate a couple of hundred," said Mr. Muffins, "and I'll give it you now to get on for me straightaway. You might kindly arrange the commission and remit to me afterwards, if we collect."
"Certainly, Signor," agreed the trainer. "I'll see to it to-night."
A few minutes later, and Mr. Muffins was again alone with his pretty companions. He smiled indulgently as they complacently puffed at their cigarettes.
"Well, Poppa," said the fair girl who was known among her companions as Di, "and what is going to win the Cup? You seemed pretty thick with Mr. Markem just now and he's supposed to have 'the goods' up his sleeve as a rule."
Mr. Muffins frowned. "Don't be slangy, my child," he reproved. "Slang in a pretty woman is like an onion flavour in an egg." He cleared his throat and went on in grave paternal tones. "You see, children, if you are to make a success of your lives in this world—if you are to have motor cars, live in fine houses and dress so expensively that you will appear to have no clothes on at all, you must set yourselves to exercise tact from the very outset of your predatory careers. You must regard Man—not as the bold hunter that he believes himself to be, but as the timid quarry, to be enticed for ultimate dispatch within reach of the weapons you employ. Yours must be the victory and not his—and so the ambush must be prepared with all due consideration for the habits and peculiarities of your prey." He regarded them all very solemnly. "Of course, I am speaking now as if life were a serious undertaking, and not just as a flippant adventure to end nowhere, and last"—he shrugged his shoulders—"just as long, only, as your freshness and prettiness are pleasing."
The dark girl laughed vivaciously. "Good gracious," she said, "but what more can we do to please you men now? We copy you faithfully in everything, so surely you have no right to complain?"
"A mistake, my child," exclaimed Mr. Muffins emphatically, "a great mistake, and for your purposes the very worst one you could possibly make." He leant back and relapsed again into solemn and paternal tones. "You see, young ladies, in some ways men most admire in woman those very qualities that are exactly opposite to the ones they possess themselves. The lover of experience for example, the connoisseur of sex, has no cravings for his own shortcomings to be mirrored back from the soul of his adored. He may be coarse and rough of thought himself, but she must be refined and gentle in all her ways. He may be bold and forward in his wooing, but she must be coy and begrudgingly reluctant in all she gives. For example"—and the face of Mr. Muffins became all twinkling smiles—"one of you will no doubt remember the other night, when she and I were sitting alone together, in the garden, under the palm. It was pitch dark and we——"
"I don't remember," broke in Miss Flossie with marked decision.
"Nor I," said Miss Di, with equal emphasis. "Nor I, nor I," exclaimed the others, until denials had passed all round.
Mr. Muffins sighed. "Well, it must have been a dream then," he said sadly; "still, still, I thought——"
"Tell us your dream," interrupted the dark girl very hurriedly. "We know you quite well enough now to be able to bear it."
For the moment Mr. Muffins looked pained, and then he smiled slyly. "Well, I was holding her hand," he said slowly, "and I remember it was a little warm, soft hand. I pressed it tenderly and the pressure was not unreturned. I put my arm round her waist and pulled her to me. Her head came to my shoulder, and I bent and kissed her forehead. Then"—he paused here for effect—"then I sought for other favours, another, and a greater one."
"Oh, how thrilling," exclaimed Miss Di, with enthusiasm. "How I wish I'd been there, with a torch!"
"But I was denied," continued Mr. Muffins ignoring the interruption, "I was denied—and yet believe me, the denial was more entrancing even than would have been the granting of the favour." He spread out his hands. "And what, pray, was the result?"
"You promised her a pair of silk stockings," suggested Miss Di innocently, "or else you asked her for her address."
Mr. Muffins frowned majestically. "I was immediately impressed with the value of the privilege she was withholding from me. I realized her favours were no light trifles to be thrown away and"—he bowed gravely—"my estimation of her rose accordingly."
"Dear me," said one of the girls demurely, "and what happened next?"
Mr. Muffins sighed. "Nothing," he said resignedly, "for at that moment all the others of you came into the garden and we had to get up and move away." He sighed heavily. "And I have had no opportunity since of pursuing the adventure."
"It was a dream, of course," suggested Miss Flossie, looking from one to another among the company, "only a dream."
"Of course, of course," replied Mr. Muffins carelessly, "a dream, as you say."
"And I suppose," said the fair girl, "that this is intended to be a lecture for us? You are instructing us in deportment?"
"Exactly," replied Mr. Muffins with a smile. "You didn't know I was a moralist, now did you?"
"No," exclaimed Miss Flossie, "we thought of you rather as an immoralist. Didn't we, girls?"
Everyone laughed, and Mr. Muffins himself looked highly gratified at the bad character he was receiving.
"Well," he said, "give me one of the newspapers there and I'll see what I can do with you all, this evening."
One of the girls bent down to the rack and tossed over the first paper that happened to come to hand.
"Ah," said Mr. Muffins, after a moment's silence, "this is no good. This is an Adelaide paper and two days old at that," but he opened it interestedly all the same, and proceeded to run his eye down the middle page.
Suddenly, then, he frowned. He contracted his eyebrows as if very puzzled, and then stared hard at a paragraph in the personal column.
"Mr. Montague Twiggs," he read, "the well-known dental surgeon of North Terrace, is still in the same condition. If no improvement, however, is manifest before Saturday, we understand it is the intention of Dr. Bunions to perform a cranial operation then, in the hope of restoring Mr. Twiggs to consciousness. Dr. Sawberry has been called into consultation, and he is of opinion that it is the only step to take."
Mr. Muffins's face grew furiously red, he bit his lip, and his eyes almost started from their sockets.
"Oh, he is, is he?" he muttered hoarsely. "That's Sawberry's opinion, is it? Sawberry and Bunions, a pretty combination anyhow! Damn them! They'd operate upon their own mothers for coughs and colds if they got the chance. Sawberry and Bunions!" he reiterated angrily to himself. "They're brigands, cutthroats," and his lips curled to a sardonic laugh; "they're courtesans of the knife."
He looked up, to find his young friends regarding him with great amazement. Indeed, they seemed almost frightened.
"Why, whatever is the matter, Signor?" asked Miss Flossie sharply. "Are you taken ill?"
"No, no," replied Mr. Muffins with a reassuring smile. He tapped the newspaper he was holding. "Just bad news of a friend of mine. He is very ill."
"But you were swearing," said Miss Flossie. "We heard you say 'damn.'"
"Oh! a habit of mine," said Mr. Muffins, "when I'm worried."
"Well, you frightened us," said the girl. "You gave us quite a turn."
"And wouldn't it give any of you a turn," asked Mr. Muffins warmly, "if you heard suddenly that your head was going to be cut open. If you knew that two unscrupulous ruffians——" He checked himself suddenly. "But goodness gracious, what am I doing? I am wasting time. I must be off. I must go to Adelaide at once."
He snatched his watch from his pocket and stood up.
"Thirty-five minutes," he exclaimed breathlessly, "to settle up everything and catch the Adelaide Express. Good-bye, my children. Pardon my abruptness. I shall be seeing you again on Monday," and with his coat-tails flying and no longer happy-looking, he flew out of the lounge and vanished into the lift.
"I believe he read his wife is after him," said the dark girl.
"No," said Miss Di, "he saw he'd got another baby. Give me the paper, quick."
NOW it is natural that a spirit of subdued restraint should pervade all hospitals, for they are monumental alike to the despair and to the hope of humankind. To despair, because they whisper always to us of the grim reaper who crouches ready for his harvest at all seasons, and to hope, because they symbolize the myriad victories of Life over impatient Death.
A new arrival feels all the senses of the body called instantly to the alert. The eyes are intrigued with the strange garments of the nurses, the ears hear the voices that are lowered and the footfalls of muffled sound, and the nostrils are assailed with odours that have no place or being in the ordinary and everyday world.
In effect, the whole place is suggested as being in some subtle way an arena where strong and energetic forces are grappling manfully with the dark spectres of disease and pain.
But it is the operating theatre which excites the imagination most, for it is there that, in the stage of climax, Life is at battle royal with Death and within its dread precincts, the exact progress of the conflict can so often be observed, moment by moment, to the very end, when victory is either lost or won.
The anaesthetist bends over with his deadly vapour, the surgeon drives his scalpel deep into the flesh that errs, and within the passing of a few minutes almost, the issue is decided once and for all.
The hopes of the sufferers are buoyed up with tales of triumphs that have been, and they know that the sum of all knowledge tempers the weapons that their champions wield, but still, still, as they lay themselves down upon the operating table, their hearts beat with a chilling fear, their breathing comes in quickened impulse, and in their thoughts the valley of the shadow is never far away.
But one Saturday morning there was an exception to this rule in the operating theatre of Miss Mogrington's Private Hospital in North Adelaide, for there was a patient there who had no such qualms, or, indeed, any fears at all. In fact he had no thoughts of any kind, and all the world might have come and gone without his being the happier, the sadder or the wiser.
Poor Montague Twiggs was outstretched upon the table, and as oblivious to all his surroundings as he had been at every moment of the preceding six weeks, or, to be exact, for six weeks all but thirty minutes. It was only just eleven o'clock, and the two and forty days would not expire until half past.
He had just been brought into the theatre, and the adventurous Dr. Bunions was intending to trephine him in the hope of restoring consciousness. The great operator himself was now bending over him, and the matron and two sisters were in close attendance.
Presently Dr. Bunions looked up at the clock and frowned. "Dr. Sawberry is late," he remarked. "I told him a quarter to. Has he rung up, Matron, do you know?"
"No, Dr. Bunions," said the matron, "but I think I hear him coming now."
The door opened and a tall, ginger-haired man walked briskly in. "Sorry, Bunions," he said, in rather high-pitched tones, "but I couldn't help it. It was an accident. A woman had a baby." He handed a bag to one of the sisters. "If you please, Sister. It's ether I'm giving," and he bobbed out again.
He was back very quickly in his coat sleeves, and a minute later was robed like Dr. Bunions in the regulation theatre-gown. He walked up to the operating-table and laid his fingers on the patient's pulse. "Quite all right," he remarked, after a pause. "I needn't examine him. I did so on Tuesday. All ready, Bunions," and with a quick survey he saw that all he would require for the anesthesia was at hand.
Dr. Bunions gave a last glance over his instruments in the tray and was upon the point of signifying to his colleague that the anesthesia might begin, when a third sister came hurriedly into the theatre and whispered to the matron. The latter shook her head emphatically but turned immediately to Dr. Bunions.
"Someone wants to speak to you, Doctor," she said, "only for two seconds, he says, and the matter is very urgent."
Dr. Bunions scowled. "Speak to me!" he exclaimed irritably. "Well, tell him he can't. But who is he?" he asked, as an afterthought of the sister.
"A Mr. Henry Muffins, Doctor," she replied. "He has just come off the Melbourne Express."
"Pooh! Muffins!" sniffed Dr. Bunions. "I won't be interrupted. Tell him I'm engaged for an hour—or perhaps two," he added. "I don't really know how long I shall be," and the sister at once disappeared.
"Like people's colossal cheek," went on the doctor to his colleague. "They expect they can get hold of you at any time, and this fellow's not even a patient of mine. Start the ether. I'm all ready now."
"Oh! one moment!" exclaimed Dr. Sawberry. "Confound it! I've left my glasses outside. I shan't be a second. They're in my coat," and he bustled hurriedly out of the theatre.
The sister who had interrupted them returned at the same moment. "The gentleman won't go, Doctor," she said, looking rather frightened. "He says the matter is of vital importance, and he wanted to force his way in."
"I'll speak to him," said the matron importantly. "I'll make him go away," and she sailed majestically from the theatre.
Dr. Bunions, standing waiting for his colleague, began to fidget with his feet. One minute passed—two—three—nearly five, and all the while he was frowning in annoyance.
"What the devil's up with Sawberry?" he muttered. "We shall be here all night!"
The matron returned to the theatre. She looked flushed and rather upset.
"The man gone?" queried Dr. Bunions. The matron nodded. "And where's Dr. Sawberry? What's keeping him?"
The matron hesitated. "He's walking down the drive with that Mr. Muffins," she replied, in a manner as if she hardly dared to impart the information.
"Walking with him down the drive," ejaculated Dr. Bunions incredulously, "and keeping me waiting here!"
"Y-e-s," said the matron, in a tone which suggested that she did not understand it herself. "The gentleman saw Dr. Sawberry in the passage and went up to speak to him at once. They had some conversation and then I heard him ask Dr. Sawberry if he were giving an anaesthetic for you. Then he took hold of him by the arm."
"Took hold of Dr. Sawberry!" exclaimed Dr. Bunions, the more and more dumbfounded. "Dragged him away, do you mean?"
"Oh, no," replied the matron, "there was no violence used, although I certainly thought Dr. Sawberry went very white. They were talking quite friendlily together, and then they both began to walk towards the gate." She turned to one of the sisters. "See if Dr. Sawberry is coming, Sister Bates."
But there was no necessity for the sister to leave the theatre, for at that moment Dr. Sawberry appeared. He was smiling broadly.
"He's gone," he announced in a chuckling voice, "and really I don't know what he came for. He buttonholed me at once, as if I was his greatest friend, and he was deuced inquisitive as to what we were doing here. I let him have it, of course, and he departed like a rabbit in the end. Ha! ha! he was very funny though, and possessed of quite a sense of humour." He burst suddenly into a loud guffaw. "He'd got you sized up to a T right enough, Bunions, for he asked me—he asked me"—his voice choked and his eyes filled with tears—"he asked me if you and the coroner always worked in co. Ha! ha! ha!"
Dr. Bunions stared as if he were faced with an apparition. His jaw dropped and he held his breath.
Dr. Sawberry took out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "I had to laugh," he apologized; "he was so candid and came so coarsely to the point. He said if you got the chance you would operate for a cold in the head upon your grandmother."
Dr. Bunions spoke in icy tones. "I am waiting," he said sternly, "for you to commence the administration of the anaesthetic."
Dr. Sawberry composed his features to seriousness again. "Oh! ah! the ether of course." He moved over to the operating table and stood thoughtfully regarding the recumbent form.
"Good dentist, Twiggs," he remarked musingly, "the best in all Australia, Montague Twiggs!" He looked round at his colleague. "Need you really operate, Bunions? Do you think it absolutely necessary, now? To me it seems perfectly unnecessary."
Dr. Bunions glared balefully at him. "Get on, with the anaesthetic," he said angrily. "You are playing the fool. I believe you are mad."
"Mad?" queried Dr. Sawberry, his eyes flashing on the instant, "and a fool as well, eh?" He sneered scoffingly. "And all because my diagnosis happens to differ from yours?" Then with a swift movement he tore off his gown. "And that's what I think of you, Adolphus Bunions," he shouted. "That's my candid opinion." He stamped his foot. "I refuse to administer the anesthetic, for the operation is quite unnecessary, I say." He pointed to the recumbent Twiggs and began to shout louder than ever. "That man there has got nothing the matter with him. He's as healthy as a trout."
Dr. Bunions looked really frightened, and the matron and the two sisters had turned quite pale.
"Healthy as a trout," shouted Dr. Sawberry truculently—he looked up at the clock—"and in less than five minutes, I say, he will be sitting up and talking to us as well as he ever was in his life before. There's nothing the matter with him, except that ringworm patch where they've shaved his head."
Dr. Bunions had, in part, recovered his equanimity.
"Matron," he said calmly, "I require another anaesthetist. Is there likely to be any other medical man in the premises, do you know?"
"There may be," replied the matron hesitatingly. "Several are visiting this morning and it's about their usual time. I'll find out at once, Doctor."
"Do, please," said Dr. Bunions with dignity, "for if not, I must get on the telephone with no delay."
"The more the merrier," drawled Dr. Sawberry when the matron had gone out, "and I shall be glad to have my diagnosis confirmed, whoever comes," and leaning back against the wall he proceeded to hum casually:
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute
In a very charming manner—
Pinketty-pong, she patters along
On the keys of the grand pianner."
A very tense two minutes followed and then voices were heard outside. The theatre door opened and the matron, with a most relieved expression upon her face, ushered in Dr. Hoop-Brown.
"Damn!" swore Dr. Bunions under his breath—but he dissembled his annoyance.
"Most opportune!" he exclaimed. "Now could you possibly spare time to give an anaesthetic for me, Dr. Hoop-Brown?" He pointed to the operating table. "I'm trephining here and the case is urgent." He glanced defiantly at Dr. Sawberry. "Sawberry, here, was to have administered, but he apparently is not too well."
"Not too well, not too well!" burst in Dr. Sawberry in thundering tones. "I'm deuced well, too deuced well to please you. That's what's the matter. My mind's normal and healthy, and my judgment, too." He turned angrily to Dr. Hoop-Brown. "Don't give it, Doctor. Don't be mixed up in this business at all." He glanced up at the clock and began to chuckle in amusement. "Besides, you're too late now, unless you're going to strap the beggar down."
The clock struck the half-hour.
"Dr. Hoop-Brown," began Dr. Bunions pompously. "I beg of you——"
A renewed chuckle from Dr. Sawberry, that died suddenly to a sort of gasp—a sharp cry of warning from one of the sisters, and all eyes were focused upon the operating table!
The patient was beginning to raise himself up!
Then—not a sound stirred in the theatre, not a movement anywhere except upon the operating table, as slowly, and breathing heavily, Montague Mackerel Twiggs was coming out of his trance!
With an effort he raised himself upon one elbow, with a further effort he slipped his legs over the side of the table and sat up. Once, twice, he blinked his eyes and then slowly, very slowly indeed, he turned his head this way and that and stared at his surroundings. He eyed the sisters curiously, and the doctors with a puckered frown. He looked down at the side of the operating theatre and the shining instruments in the tray caught his eye.
Then suddenly he sniffed, and on the instant he found speech.
"Ether!" he cried, "ether!"—and his voice rose to a wail. "This is an operating theatre and they have been operating upon me! Oh! what have they done, what have they done?"
In his emotion, it seemed that he was about to fall back, and the matron—the first to recover her self-possession—darted forward to support him.
"Oh, what have they done?" he reiterated with a dreadful catch in his voice. "What part of me have they cut away?" and, spurred on to action by his terror, he began vigorously to feel himself all over to determine where he was minus anything.
"Hush! hush!" exclaimed the matron. "Be quiet, you're quite all right!"
"Quite all right, eh?" exclaimed Mr. Twiggs, whose manual investigations had, in part, removed his fears. "Quite all right, you say!" He pointed to the doctors, and his voice began to quaver again. "Then what are they doing here?" He glanced up at the clock and light seemed suddenly to illuminate his face.
"Eleven-thirty-two!" he exclaimed. "Oh, I know! I know!" he went on exultingly. "I have been saved by the time-limit." He shook his fist at the doctors and his voice rose to a great shout. "Saved by the time-limit! Saved from the courtesans of the knife!"
MR. MONTAGUE TWIGGS, dental surgeon of North Terrace, was back at his consulting rooms again. He sat moodily before his desk and there was a very troubled expression upon his face. He looked whiter and thinner than before, and on one side of his head was a baldish patch, upon which the hair was just beginning to grow. He was going through a pile of letters, and that the task was not a happy one was evident from his deep and heavy sighs.
"Seven people writing for money," he muttered ruefully, "two gas bills and two electric light, ditto! Demand for rent and subscription to the Dogs' Home! A sample of Slink's Shaving Soap and some sticky stuff to keep up artificial teeth when they don't fit! A prospectus of a new company for finding oil on the Victoria Park race-course, and the programme of Miss Schreecher's concert at the Town Hall, and two accounts I sent in, returned through the Dead Letter Office and marked 'unknown.'"
He eyed the correspondence with great disgust and then sighed more heavily than ever. He shook his head gloomily. "A deuced awkward state of things! Funds deadly low and weeks and weeks before me until I shall get fairly going again! The practice is stunned and Fangles will be spreading it about all round that I am not O.K.! Curse that yellow idiot!" He grinned suddenly. "But, ye gods, what a time I had, especially towards the end! It's a good thing certainly that Mrs. Montague will never know, or Mother Muffins either." He shook his head again. "But it was Muffins more than I, every time. There was no holding the beggar in, when once he got his head. It was the pent-up inclinations of years and years finding their natural vent directly they got the chance. He could reach the grapes then, and, by James! he didn't find them sour."
Mr. Twiggs leant back in his chair and with brooding eyes stared into vacancy. "I'd like to see Flossie, again," he muttered very softly, "and of course Di, and Maudie and Berenice and all the others." He sighed gently. "But it was Flossie all along that I liked. Oh, that night in the garden, under the palms! I shall never forget it! How she nestled to me! It was instinct that told her it was someone else and not Muffins who was there. Dear little Flossie, and how bravely she fibbed later, when I pretended to the others that they had come just in time to spoil all the sport." His eyes moistened. "I do hope Flossie will get a nice boy. Nothing wrong in her, nothing wrong. Only a little butterfly out for the sunshine of Life"—he suddenly screwed up his face and gave a low whistle—"but I say—I say, old Muffins must be having a dreadful liver on him now. All that champagne and stuff would be much too much for a middle-aged man. And Hoop-Brown too—he had a festive time! Not a bad sort, Hoop-Brown! Quite a sport when I had gingered him up a bit! Now I wonder—I wonder if he's going to marry Sister Ruth."
A note of indignation crept into his voice. "He ought to, I'm sure he ought to, anyhow. That last ride in the car should have made things certain. When I kissed her—when Hoop-Brown kissed her—er, er—when we kissed her, how tenderly she responded, and how shyly she dropped her eyelids, too. It quite thrilled us, through and through. Really, really, I shall be most disappointed about Hoop-Brown if we don't hear of the engagement soon."
"Then there was Lady Fitz-Tootle." He sighed again. "I couldn't do much with her. She didn't give me enough time. I really couldn't put up with the headache she had the day after. Her constitution, too, couldn't stand up to all the fizz." He laughed suddenly. "But hadn't she got a tongue on her and couldn't she be sarcastic and sharp! Poor old archdeacon—she gave him a bad time. And Bottleworthy—how delicious when he was humming Rootity-toot! Well, I put some sense in him, anyhow, and preached two jolly good sermons as well. Margaret will marry young Grainger now, but, of course, I'll never get any thanks."
He went on. "No, no one will ever thank me for anything I did and yet—what money Muffins made! Two hundred pounds on Wet Kisses at twenty-five to one and a cool thousand on Red Wine at fives." He whistled again. "Whew!—what a bundle to pick up, and here am I embarrassed now for the want of twenty quid." He shut down the lid of his desk with a bang. "Yes, yes—it was a hectic time, but I've now got to foot the bill." He snapped his teeth viciously together. "And I can't afford it. That's flat."
The door opened and the nurse came in.
"A gentleman to see you, sir," she said. "He won't give his name, but I remember he's been here once before."
"A patient," queried Mr. Twiggs dubiously; "not any tradesman with a bill, eh?"
"Oh! no, sir," replied the girl. "He's a patient and I think you took a tooth out for him once."
"Then show him in, please, Nurse," said Mr. Twiggs, looking very relieved, "but if any people come, except patients, say I'm too busy to attend to them to-day."
A moment later and the caller was ushered into the surgery. Mr. Twiggs stood by his green plush chair and bowed in the usual stereotyped professional manner.
"What can I do for——" he began politely, and then, as the door of the surgery closed, he started violently. His face paled and he trembled visibly—for it was the Asiatic, the cause of all his troubles, who was now standing, meek and calm, before him!
"You!" exclaimed Montague Twiggs excitedly, when he got back his breath. "You!" His voice grew deep and hoarse in its intensity. "Oh! I wonder now how you dare to show your face!"
But the dark man smiled, in a quiet and gentle manner.
"It was ordained that I should see thee," he said softly. "It was written in the Book of Fate that we two should meet again."
"Oh! it was—was it?" exclaimed Mr. Twiggs truculently. "Then it may turn out to be a very bad thing for you, let me tell you. A bad thing, you understand?"
"Thou dost remember me," said the Asiatic placidly. "My face has not then passed out of thy mind?"
"Remember you!" ejaculated Mr. Twiggs, passing his hand excitedly through his hair. "Remember you!" He grew a little calmer but there was still a catch in his breath. "Yes, I was thinking of you not two minutes ago, and"—he spoke with deep earnestness—"I was wishing you were dead."
"Lo! Death is peace," said the dark man softly. "Peace, always, if thou hast deserved well. Rest for thy tired limbs and balm for all thine ills."
Mr. Twiggs was mesmerised by the very quietness of the stranger's tones and, his excitement passing, he sank wearily into a chair and held his head between his hands.
"Look here," he said weakly, after a long silence, "you've done me a deuced bad turn—in fact, as far as I can see, you've just about ruined me."
The dark man eyed him keenly. "Did I not give thee rest and change?" he asked.
"Heavens! it was change enough," replied Mr. Twiggs feelingly, "but I don't know about rest. I was gadding about the whole time and that Henry Muffins quite ran me off my legs. There was no holding him when he got going, and there was certainly no rest there."
The stranger spoke in soft, purring tones.
"But thou hadst remission from thy labours here. For forty days and two, the yoke was lifted from thy neck."
"But you oughtn't to have done it," burst out Mr. Twiggs almost in tears. "You oughtn't to have forced that holiday on me, for I couldn't afford it." His excitement began to rise again. "Yes, you've put me in a nice hole, I tell you, and I don't see how I'm going to get clear." He tapped the desk viciously. "No money coming in, rent unpaid, accounts owing everywhere. The wife wants a new frock and it's one of the kids' birthdays next week. The position is desperate, you see. Desperate—and it's all through you!" A thought seemed suddenly to strike him. "Great Scott!" he exclaimed, "but I believe it's actionable. I could get heavy damages in a court of law. Here, I say, my friend," and he took out his fountain pen in a most business-like manner, "you'll have to give me your name and address. I should like to know where you live, please."
The stranger regarded him dreamily and with a far-away look in his eyes. "Thou shalt lose nothing in the end," he said. "Thy reward shall come in due time."
"Lose nothing in the end!" echoed Mr. Twiggs, with a touch of sarcasm. "I wonder! Now look here," he went on impressively, "you don't seem to understand. You haven't got the hang of things at all." His voice rose to a shout. "I'm hard up, I tell you. I'm short of L.S.D. You put me away for six weeks, with good intentions I've no doubt, but—look what you've done. The practice has all gone phut. Fangles is bogeying the focal infection stunt on my patients, and Blowitt, I know for certain, is making sets of teeth that ought to have been mine." A lump came into his throat. "Now, what's going to happen to me and my wife and the kids? That's what I want to know."
The dark man spoke very slowly. "Didst thou do no good," he asked, "in the wanderings of thy spirit?"
"Good?" queried Mr. Twiggs, as if in great surprise. "Too right, I did. Look at the money I made, for instance, for Henry Muffins. He's a rich man now."
"Riches are not everything," said the stranger.
"Ho! ho!" countered Mr. Twiggs. "It's plain you've not been in Australia long." He thumped again upon the desk. "Why, money is everything here."
The stranger shook his head. "Riches are not everything," he repeated sadly. "Riches——"
"Oh!" interrupted Mr. Twiggs contemptuously, "I've heard that said tons of times before"—his lips curled into a sneer—"but, funnily enough, it's never been told me by a rich man yet. Never once."
"Peace," said the dark man after a long pause. "Thou shalt not suffer because the wanderings of thy spirit led thee from thy hearth. Riches of this world shalt thou now have, but lo!—I warn thee, never shall fulfilment taste so sweet as hope." He lifted his hand solemnly. "So, thou shalt have riches, as thy wish, but see thou to it that thy life be good."
"Certainly," replied Mr. Twiggs with an attempt at jocularity, "everything then shall be A.1 and true to label." He sniffed rather dryly. "But what about some of this money on account? A few pounds would come in very handy just now."
"Hast thou no trust?" said the dark man reproachfully. "Was not everything I told thee fulfilled?"
"Er, er, yes, it was," admitted Mr. Twiggs rather hesitatingly, "but still——"
"Peace unto thee, Montague Mackerel Twiggs," exclaimed the dark man suddenly. "I go, The Masters call," and, giving Mr. Twiggs one long intent look, he raised his hand as if in benediction. Then, turning upon his heel, in one moment—he was gone.
Mr. Twiggs started to his feet and made to step forward. But an invisible force chained him to the floor. He endeavoured to cry out, but his voice choked within him. He strained hard, but ineffectively, and then—with a shrug of resignation, he sank back into his chair and gave vent to a long-drawn sigh.
Some minutes later, there was a knock upon the door and the nurse entered.
"Do you want anything, sir?" she asked, looking round the surgery, and then her eyes opened in surprise. "Oh! I didn't know that gentleman wasn't here. I didn't hear him go."
Mr. Twiggs found his voice. "Yes, he's been gone some time, Hypatia," he said faintly. "He wasn't a patient. He had a message for me. That was all."
"Oh, by the by, Hypatia," he went on sarcastically, "I'm coming into money, I understand."
"How very nice, sir," said the girl, pausing in her work. "Is it a surprise?"
"It will be," remarked Mr. Twiggs dryly. "I've only been promised, so far, and it has not been eventuated yet. Perhaps I'm only going to draw Tatt's. Ah!" he started up in his chair and an excited expression crossed his face. "Now, did you order that ticket for me, before I was taken ill? I asked you to go out that very morning, you remember."
"Yes, sir," replied the girl, "and it came about a week later. There was another letter, too, from Tasmania. It came about three weeks ago. I didn't open that. They're both together in the top drawer."
"The result-slip, Hypatia," exclaimed Mr. Twiggs excitedly, "the winning numbers of the draw! Quick, let's have them."
The girl found the envelopes at once and Mr. Twiggs, with trembling fingers, drew out the ticket first.
"Number 42975," he muttered. "Funny! The number of days I was ill, forty two, and my telephone number here, nine seven five. Poof!" he went on scornfully, "a coincidence! Nothing more," but his heart nevertheless beat uncomfortably as he opened the second envelope.
A moment's scrutiny of its contents and his face went white as chalk. "I've drawn a runner," he gasped. "Ginx's Baby, the horse old Muffins bought. Great Scott!" He passed his hand across his forehead. "Hypatia," he said shakily, "this may mean I win the £20,000 prize in the Melbourne Cup. If Ginx's Baby comes in first, I'm a rich man, and I shall give up this darned dentistry business and go on the land. I'll buy a share in a sheep station. I'll have an eight-cylinder motor-car. But, no, no, it's impossible." He smiled wanly. "Ginx's Baby has no earthly hope. No hope, no hope, unless"—he looked through the window at the bright sunshine outside—"unless it pours and pours with rain, just before the race."
"Then I hope it will, Mr. Twiggs," said the nurse smilingly. "It would be very nice to win £20,000."
Mr. Twiggs strode across to the telephone. "Prospect, one-seven-three-two, please," he demanded briskly. "Oh! is that you, Marion? Yes. I'm feeling quite well, thank you, dear, and there are a few patients coming in. Now listen. I sent for a ticket in Tatt's the very morning I was taken ill, and what do you think? I've drawn one of the horses in the Melbourne Cup! Actually drawn a horse! No, not much of a one, Ginx's Baby, but still, I've drawn a horse and that means about £100 for a starter, at any rate. No, no, quite an outsider but not a chance in the world unless the course is like a swamp on Tuesday. Yes, a week to-day. No. Oh, yes, he has won one race, about a year ago. It was pouring hard then and he ran away from everything else in the mud with quite a good field behind, too. Yes, it may be our luck's really going to turn. Good-bye, dear, see you at the usual time—about half-past six. Mind you don't have the beef too well done."
He hung up the receiver and turned round. "Hypatia," he began, but the girl had left the room and he heard her talking to someone in the hall. "Well," he remarked cheerfully to himself, "a hundred pounds is not to be sneezed at, anyhow." He nodded his head. "Yes, I do believe my luck's really beginning to turn."
The door opened and the nurse returned. "Dr. Hoop-Brown to see you, sir. He wants to speak to you for a minute, he says."
"Dr. Hoop-Brown!" ejaculated Mr. Twiggs numbly, and he felt a cold shiver run down his spine. He turned round, so that the nurse should not see his face. "All right," he said, after a moment. "I'll ring when I'm ready," and the girl went out.
He took out his handkerchief and mopped his forehead. "Hoop-Brown!" he muttered, "now what in Heaven's name does he want?" A frightened look came into his eyes. "Great Scott, if it should ever be found out! If anything should ever be traced to me. My word! but wouldn't there be a rumpus all round." He thought hard for a moment and then his face cleared. "No, no, quite impossible," he chuckled to himself. "The laugh is on my side. I know and they don't."
He touched the bell. "Show Dr. Hoop-Brown in," he said when the girl appeared, "and if he's here longer than five minutes, come in and say there's someone waiting for me. I don't want him to think I've got nothing to do."
"Good morning, Doctor," he said carelessly, when the great man entered. "And what can I do for you, now?"
Dr. Hoop-Brown eyed him intently, so intently indeed, that with all his sang-froid Mr. Twiggs felt uncomfortable.
"I've called about a patient I'm sending to you," said the doctor, smiling. "But how are you feeling now, Mr. Twiggs?"
"Fine," replied the dentist hurriedly. "I've never felt better in all my life."
"Wonderful case, yours," went on the doctor. "Quite unique in the experience of all of us here, I should say. You've no weakness, headache, or bad after-effects at all?"
Mr. Twiggs smiled nervously. "I feel as fit as a fiddle, Dr. Hoop-Brown. Just as if I'd been away for a holiday or a rest."
"You had no premonitory symptoms of your trouble, I understand," asked the doctor after a moment's pause, "nothing to warn you that it was coming on?"
Mr. Twiggs shook his head. "I just felt a little giddy and, I remember, I lay down."
"And after that?" queried the doctor. "You remember—what?"
"Nothing," said Mr. Twiggs, but the doctor noticed now that he was turning away his eyes.
"What was the very first thing, then, to strike you?" asked Dr. Hoop-Brown, and he reached over and laid his fingers on the dentist's pulse. "I mean after you had once fallen into the trance."
Mr. Twiggs forced himself to speak calmly. "The smell of the ether," he replied, "as I was coming round." He shuddered. "It gave me quite a shock."
"But the ether oughtn't to have upset you," pressed the doctor, "for as a dentist you would be well acquainted with the smell."
"But it did," nodded Mr. Twiggs, "for I guessed somehow that it was intended for me."
Dr. Hoop-Brown regarded him as if he were searching him through and through. He had relinquished the pulse. "And you remember nothing of anything during those six weeks?" he asked thoughtfully. "Nothing that happened at all?"
"Nothing," said Mr. Twiggs, and he looked down on to the ground.
A long silence followed.
"He suspects me," thought the dentist—"his eyes have a nasty look."
"He's lying," thought the doctor—"his pulse is going much too fast."
There was a knock on the door and the nurse entered.
"A gentleman waiting to see you, sir," she said to Mr. Twiggs, "and he hopes you won't keep him long."
Dr. Hoop-Brown at once got up to go. "Well, take things easy for a little while," he remarked. "Remember, that poor brain of yours has been through a strenuous time," and, with a smile, he passed out of the door and was gone.
"He's afraid of me," he muttered. "Yes, for some reason he's afraid. There's no one waiting, of course. The nurse would have given the patient's name, if there had been. Also, I heard no bell ring, and my hearing's quite good. Besides," and he smiled grimly, "I know how I get rid of awkward callers myself." He frowned. "Yes, he remembers something, but I wonder—I wonder how much."
IN the meanwhile, Mr. Henry Muffins had put himself to bed in no very comfortable or enviable frame of mind.
For four days, following upon his return from Melbourne, he had refused to see anyone, and only his wife had been allowed into his room. He had consumed vast quantities of liver pills and his diet had consisted mainly of dry toast and barley-water. He had refused to have a doctor and had insisted that he was only suffering from a chill, but his wife was frightened because of his unusual quietness and meekness of demeanour.
He had hardly spoken at all, but had lain quite still, with his eyes widely open and staring into vacancy. He appeared to be most worried about something, but to all his wife's inquiries he declined to give any explanations.
The news of his return had soon become noised abroad and quite a number of callers had come to the house, the most persistent of whom being Mr. Soaker Ram. This last gentleman, indeed, had called every morning in the hope of getting speech with the invalid, and upon each occasion, with a sinister smile, he had fingered a small scrap of paper that he was carrying in his waistcoat pocket.
But like everyone else, Mr. Ram had been sent empty away, and in no case had any specified date been mentioned as to when it was probable that Mr. Muffins would be visible again.
Upon the morning of the fifth day, however, to the great relief of his family, Mr. Muffins announced his intention of getting up and proceeding to the office to resume his routine of daily work. He appeared at breakfast at the usual time, and seemed to be quite cheerful and easy in his mind; indeed from the expression on his face it might readily have been gathered that he had come to some resolve about whatever had been troubling him, and was now sure that he was going to take the best course.
The family at breakfast consisted of his wife, a pleasant motherly-looking woman, his daughter, a slip of a girl about fifteen, and his son, a shy, lanky youth, nearly three years older.
Mr. Muffins gazed thoughtfully at the boy. "Goodness, gracious," he exclaimed presently, "how Charles grows! He seems taller even than a couple of weeks ago."
"Yes," added his mother proudly, "and he'll be eighteen next week. You remember that, Henry."
"Eighteen," said Mr. Muffins, and he smiled kindly on his son and heir, "and what does he want for a birthday present, eh?"
Charles got very red and glanced furtively at his mother. He was in many ways afraid of his father, and it could never have been said that the two at any time were on confiding terms. Birthdays, too, were not a strong point with Mr. Muffins, being more often forgotten than remembered. So it was no wonder now that the boy felt both embarrassed and surprised.
"Well, what about a motor-bicycle?" went on Mr. Muffins genially. "It would be a good thing, I think, to give him confidence and make him resourceful and self-reliant."
Mrs. Muffins at once got even redder than her son. She was amazed at her husband's proposed generosity, and the very suggestion, too, of a motor-bicycle astonished her. It had been always so well understood in the family that privately-owned motor contrivances of any kind were to be considered as carnal in their tendencies, and as detracting from the seriousness of spiritual minds.
"Well," continued Mr. Muffins carelessly, and as if taking the matter for granted, "find out what the best one will cost, Charles, and I'll get it for you, straightaway." He turned to his wife. "I shall walk up to the city, my dear. The exercise will do me good, and besides, I want to look in and see Mr. Twiggs on my way. I've had a twinge of toothache in one of my back teeth."
It was a truly astonished household then that put their heads together and discussed motor-bicycles when the master of the house had gone.
Mr. Muffins walked leisurely along and it might certainly have been said that his attitude was a challenging one. He held his head high in the air, and if, from time to time, he glanced covertly from side to side to determine if he were in proximity to anyone he knew, only his eyes and not any movement of his head would have betrayed him.
Arriving without recognition or adventure on North Terrace, he was just about to mount the steps to Mr. Twiggs' surgery when he suddenly encountered that very gentleman himself.
"Ah! good morning, Mr. Twiggs," he exclaimed smilingly, "a most fortunate meeting! Now, can I see you for two minutes? I shan't keep you long."
But for the moment Mr. Twiggs made no response. He just stared hard at Mr. Muffins, as if he had encountered an apparition, and his face was white and set.
"I've got toothache," explained Mr. Muffins, "or I wouldn't have troubled you so early. Now, can you manage to see me for a minute, please?"
"Certainly," stammered the dentist, finding his voice at last. "I'll see you straightaway," and he opened the hall door and led the way into the consulting room.
In less than two minutes, Mr. Muffins was seated in the chair and receiving attention. Mr. Twiggs, now quite at his ease, was smiling to himself.
"A cavity in the wisdom tooth," he announced after a short investigation. "I'll put a dressing in and give you an appointment for one day next week."
The operation over, Mr. Muffins thanked him and rose up to go.
"What day shall I come back?" he asked. "Will next Tuesday do?"
"No-o, not Tuesday," replied Mr. Twiggs hesitatingly and bending over his appointment book. "That's Melbourne Cup day and I don't want too many—I don't want"—he looked up suddenly and blurted out: "So, you own Ginx's Baby, sir, running in the Cup?"
Mr. Muffins started as if he had been stung and his eyes literally bulged from his head. He stepped back as if he were expecting a blow.
"What!" he gasped hoarsely, "who told you that?"
"I heard it—I heard it from Melbourne," replied Mr. Twiggs feebly, and looking now as embarrassed as Mr. Muffins himself. "A friend of mine wrote to me about it."
"But I purchased him under an assumed name," gasped Mr. Muffins again. "No one could have known possibly that it was me!"
"Oh! but they could," said Mr. Twiggs, now beginning to smile. "Henrico Muffino was a very thin disguise, wasn't it?"
"Well, I'm going to stop him from running," said Mr. Muffins, sullenly, after a moment's pause. "I'm going to send a telegram and get him sold. I'm not going to have him run."
"Not have him run?" gasped Mr. Twiggs in his turn. "Why, sir, I've drawn him myself in Tattersall's sweep!"
"You've drawn him in the Tasmanian lottery," frowned Mr. Muffins. "Well, what does that mean?"
"What does it mean?" exclaimed Mr. Twiggs, wringing his hands. "Why, it means that if he wins I shall get £20,000." He sprang over to his desk and, snatching out the Tattersall's ticket and the result slip, thrust them both under Mr. Muffin's nose. "Look, number 42975, and that Ginx's Baby's number. See." His voice took on a pleading tone. "You mustn't scratch him, sir. It may mean all the world to me."
Mr. Muffins scrutinized both the ticket and the result slip, and then shook his head dubiously. "Yes, you may have got the ticket right enough, but"—and he looked cunningly at Mr. Twiggs—"will they pay you if he wins? That's the thing."
"Will they pay me!" almost shrieked Mr. Twiggs. "Will they pay me, if he wins!" His voice was most confident and assured. "Of course they will. Why, Tatt's is like the Bank of England over here. It's as safe as judgment day and guaranteed by the Government as well. No one ever doubts Tatt's."
Mr. Muffins shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I'm not a racing man and I don't understand these things." He coughed embarrassedly. "It was quite by chance, quite by accident, as it were, that in the way of business I acquired the animal." A thought seemed suddenly to strike him. "Now, what should I get if the horse won?"
Mr. Twiggs sighed plaintively at so much innocence.
"You would get, Mr. Muffins," he said calmly, "about £10,000 in cash and a beautiful gold cup besides"—he looked at Mr. Muffins very intently—"besides the money coming in from bets, if you happen to have made any."
"But does the horse stand any chance at all?" asked Mr. Muffins thoughtfully. "I understand from the papers lately"—he looked embarrassed again—"I have been going through them, curiously—that the animal is of no account."
"Sit down, Mr. Muffins," said Mr. Twiggs in a business-like manner, "and I'll explain everything to you."
"Really, I shall be glad if you will," replied Mr. Muffins, taking the proffered chair, "for I tell you, frankly, I know nothing about racing." He looked hard at Mr. Twiggs. "But I suppose you do."
"Everything," replied Mr. Twiggs confidently. "I know the whole swindle, from A to Z." He drew a chair close up to Mr. Muffins and lowered his voice to very impressive tones. "Now look here, sir, when you bought Ginx's Baby for five hundred guineas, it was a sort of spec. Oh, yes, I know that's what you paid for him," for he had seen Mr. Muffins start. "My friend in Melbourne mentioned the amount. Well, as I say, it was a speculation on your part but—knowingly or unknowingly—it wasn't a bad one under certain conditions.
"Under what conditions?" broke in Mr. Muffins, whose eyes had never left Mr. Twiggs's face.
"If it rains," said Mr. Twiggs promptly, "for if it rains I believe Ginx's Baby to be a good thing. You see, Ginx's Baby is what is known, in racing terms, as a mud-lark—that is, he is only seen at his best when there has been heavy rain and the race-course is like a swamp. Therefore, in fine weather there's not much chance, but given bad weather—real heavy weather, with the mud above your ankles and the creeks running bankers down the hills—then Ginx's Baby will romp away where other horses can almost only toddle."
"Then we're gambling on the weather," said Mr. Muffins thoughtfully, "banking on plenty of rain."
"Exactly," said Mr. Twiggs triumphantly, "and from the look of things we're not unlikely to get it." He snatched a newspaper excitedly from the table. "Look what the Fremantle weather correspondent, wiring last night, says! 'Threatening weather approaching overseas from the West. Heavy rains expected within twenty-four hours.'" Mr. Twiggs thumped the desk with his fist. "And what does that mean? To-day is Friday, four days only to the running of the Cup. Rain in Western Australia, say, to-day then, the wind holding, we get it here on Sunday and it reaches Victoria somewhere in the twenty-four hours that follow." His voice took on a most emphatic tone. "I've often noticed, Mr. Muffins, that at this time of year bad weather here follows automatically upon bad weather in Perth, and that in turn it is then passed along to the Eastern States."
Mr. Muffins seemed much impressed. "Well, supposing," he said hesitatingly, "supposing I had made a big bet in Melbourne about my horse, would they pay me, do you think, if he won?"
"Oh, that depends entirely with whom you made the bet," replied Mr. Twiggs, grinning covertly to himself. "Some bookmakers are all right up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Now, with whom did you have your bet?"
"Well, as a matter of fact," said Mr. Muffins very slowly, "although I did lay out some money, £200 to be exact, I didn't make the bet directly with anyone myself. I gave it to someone to put on for me at a hundred to one, and he gave me no receipt. To be perfectly frank with you, I gave it to the horse's trainer to put on."
"To Markem!" exclaimed Mr. Twiggs as if greatly surprised—"to Bob Markem of Rising Downs?"
"Yes, that is the man," replied Henry Muffins, looking very astonished. "You seem to know everyone. Now do you think he is to be trusted?"
"Trusted!" almost shouted Mr. Twiggs—"why, he's the straightest man in all Australia! Bob Markem is known to everyone! He's safer than a bank, and if there's fifty thousand of yours to come, you can count on it to the last penny."
They discussed things for quite a long time and when finally Mr. Muffins got up to go, it was plain from the expression on his face that in no small degree he was sharing both the confidence and the enthusiasm of Mr. Twiggs himself.
"It's a good thing you mentioned the horse to me," he said laughingly, in parting, "for I had intended wiring Mr. Markem this morning to tell him to get rid of the animal straightaway, for any price he would fetch." He shook Mr. Twiggs warmly by the hand and lowered his voice mysteriously. "Now what about having a bit of lunch with me at the South Australian to-day, say at one thirty, sharp. I shall be glad of a companion and we might"—he half-closed one eye—"we might crack a small bottle to bring us luck."
"A large one," corrected Mr. Twiggs beamingly and closing one eye completely, "for I think the occasion is well worth it."
Mr. Muffins proceeded along North Terrace in quite an extraordinarily cheerful frame of mind. From the terrible depression of but a few days ago, from the depths of humiliation following upon his return from Melbourne and his restoration to his own proper self, he had passed now to a condition of philosophical complacency and complete mental calm.
The previous Saturday he had been stunned by the realization of the possible consequences of his Melbourne adventures and he had been frightened to his very marrow at the bare idea of what his friends and associates would now say of him. He had been certain of speedy exposure, if, indeed, everything were not already known.
His mind was not an analytical one, like that of Dr. Hoop-Brown, and he made no attempt to ascribe his recent activities to any outside or abnormal influences. He just took them all for granted, as being what he supposed would not have been unnatural at any time, had the circumstances been presented to him.
He had not been able to think, either, of any possible explanation that he could offer to the friends and associates of his own circle, and it had been absolute torment to him to ruminate over the sneers and scoffings to which he would be now subjected.
Then, suddenly, it had come to him that there was one way that would end it all, a way that would deliver him from all his troubles and perplexities at once.
He must cut himself altogether adrift from the people he had been accustomed to associate with! He must meet them no more, he must consider them no longer and then—their power to wound and humiliate would be gone forthwith and for ever!
Yes, that was it, he told himself—that was the course to follow and it was, besides, the only right and proper one, too. He had been an ass, he told himself emphatically, a fool, a bigot and a fanatic, but—he had become converted now to saner and more reasonable views of life.
Yes, it was to be good-bye for ever, to the hysterical nonsense of Jane Meddlin Brimstone, to the mental beastliness of Soaker Ram, and to the whole nauseating bag of tricks so beloved by the members of the Society for the World's Regeneration.
So Mr. Henry Muffins, as becoming his great resolve, adopted a devil-may-care, come-what-may, swagger as he marched along. He held his head now still higher, for his interview with Mr. Twiggs had greatly heartened him, and already he saw himself the possessor of many more thousands of pounds and drinking his wine or what not—out of the golden depths of the Melbourne Cup.
Arriving at the offices of Henry Muffins and Co., Exporters and Importers, of Waymouth Street, City, he was greeted respectfully by the staff and was soon immersed in the consideration of ledgers, invoices and correspondence of varying kinds.
"You appear to have carried out everything most satisfactorily in my absence, Watkins," he remarked presently, to his head clerk, "and I shall show my appreciation of you all on pay-day this week. I will look over the wage-sheet this afternoon and see where any increases in salary can be given. Bring it to me after lunch."
"Very good, sir," replied Watkins, almost upon the verge of an apoplectic seizure in his astonishment. "I was very glad to be able to report to you that everything had gone well."
Towards the end of the morning, and just when Mr. Muffins was thinking it would soon be time for his lunch appointment at the South Australian Hotel, one of the clerks entered and announced: "Mr. Soaker Ram to see you, sir."
Did Mr. Muffins pale somewhat or was it only a shadow on the blind? Did his hands tremble or was it only the vibration of a passing tram-car, in the street? At any rate, his voice was steady enough and there was almost a lack of interest in the careless tone in which he replied: "Show him in, please." Then his eyes fell again upon the paper he was perusing.
A few moments later, a heavy tread in the passage, the opening of a door, and Mr. Ram was in the room. He stared hard and curiously at Mr. Muffins, he wetted his lips like an animal before his food and then a cold and sinister smile flickered into his face.
"Take a seat, Ram," said Mr. Muffins carelessly, and without lifting his eyes, "and excuse me, just a moment, will you, please? I'm checking some figures, and I want to finish them straight away."
"I can wait," replied Mr. Ram grimly. "There is all the day before me."
Mr. Muffins nodded his thanks and went on with his figures. "Twenty-seven, thirty-five, sixty-one," he murmured, and then gradually his voice became inaudible and it was only by the movement of his lips that it could have been presumed that he was counting at all.
Presently, with a great sigh of relief, he put down the paper and looked up over his glasses at Mr. Ram, to note that gentleman regarding him with a malevolent and steely glitter in his eyes.
"Oh, by the by, Ram," he announced gravely, "in my absence from the office a most terrible piece of depravity has been brought to light." He paused for a moment and noticed with satisfaction that, in spite of his undoubted appearance of animosity, Mr. Ram was now intently pricking up his ears. "Yes, a terrible piece of depravity, I say."
He paused again and then went on most impressively. "The office cat, Felicity, has become a mother and the identity of her betrayer is unknown." Mr. Ram tightened up his features to a nasty scowl, but Mr. Muffins continued sonorously: "Yes, unknown, but still, from the colour of the progeny, and there are six of them, the charwoman of the building is of the opinion that the father of them should be of ginger hues." He thumped here so suddenly upon the table that Mr. Ram oscillated in his chair. "Put the Society on it, Soaker, straight away, and let them find out who is the perpetrator of this dreadful deed. Fiat inquisitio—let a search be made." He raised his voice loudly. "Morals are in the melting pot—virtue has become as a sounding brass and tinkling symbol, and premeditated depravity has descended even to the lower animals."
Mr. Ram eyed him furiously, and with great contempt.
"You think it funny, I suppose, you——"
"Funny!" ejaculated Mr. Muffins indignantly, "and pray would you think it funny to suddenly become the mother of six little ones, with no income provided and no adequate arrangements made." He shook his head sadly. "A box in the back kitchen and scraps over from the office lunches are all that poor Felicity has." He glared angrily. "Now would that content you?"
"Are you mad?" asked Mr. Ram, shaking with anger, "or inebriated, perhaps?"
Mr. Muffins leant back wearily. "Inebriated, my dear Soaker," he exclaimed, "as a word of expression is entirely out of date, and its employment thus by you is indicative, most clearly, of your mouldy state of mind. Shickered—sozzled, canned, or shot, are the words that are now used in the circles of the aristocracy and the well-to-do, and—as poor commoners ourselves—it would be an impertinence for us to speak otherwise." He smiled most pleasantly. "No, Mr. Ram, I am, at present, more sober than the proverbial judge."
"Are you coming to the committee meeting to-night?" asked Mr. Ram fiercely. "It has been specially convened to receive your report. Are you coming?"
"No," replied Mr. Muffins promptly. "I am not."
Mr. Ram retained command of his temper with an effort. "Then, what are your intentions?" he asked sharply. "With you, the president of the Society, we have a right to know."
"Quite reasonable, Ram," replied Mr. Muffins, and for the first time speaking in serious tones. "And I'll tell you in five words what my intentions are." He paused for a moment. "I have done with you." He raised his voice emphatically. "I am sick of you all. I am sick of your ignorance, your humbug, and your hypocrisy. Sick of your pornographic minds, your ravings and your shoutings, and your fever to get yourselves into the public eye." He leant over his desk and shook his finger menacingly. "Now, you understand that, Mr. Soaker Ram? My intentions are quite clear to you now?"
The face of Mr. Ram was furious and he clenched his fist, as if it were almost in his mind to strike a blow.
"Renegade! apostate!" he shouted, "you have sold your soul to the devil."
Mr. Muffins held up his hand. "Quieter! quieter! if you please, Mr. Ram. No bad language is allowed in this office. My clerks are respectable young men."
"You are a scoundrel," retorted Soaker Ram bitterly. "You have deceived us all along." A look of triumph came into his face. "But you are unmasked, already. We know all about your conduct in Melbourne, and your association with vice and sin."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Mr. Muffins, "then there will be no grieving if I make no report."
"You have imbibed intoxicating liquids, you have gambled," went on Mr. Ram furiously, "and you have taken young females about."
"Very charming girls, too," commented Mr. Muffins smilingly, "although not nearly so responsive as I had been given to understand they would be." He sighed. "But perhaps that was because of my age."
"Bah!" snorted Mr. Ram, "you have been a defiler of the purity of the world, a poisoner of the stream of life."
Mr. Muffins sat up instantly, with a jerk. "Now, don't you talk about the stream of life, Ram," he said fiercely. "Don't talk about that. You know no stream of life. Life to you is a sewer—a sewer of guilty passions and subterranean sin." He laughed scoffingly. "You know no stream of Life, you never see the sunshine, or hear the birds, or smell the flowers." He banged upon his desk again. "You are bending over a drain all the time. You are a moral rat, sir, a sewer rat, Ram."
"Very pretty," sneered Mr. Ram, "and most eloquent too. But then Henry Muffins always was verbose and windy, always a man of froth."
Mr. Muffins rose majestically to his feet. "Good morning to you, Mr. Ram," he said icily. "There is no need to prolong our interview. We each believe we can understand each other, I see."
Mr. Ram rose to his feet, too. "But you don't escape us like this," he cried, and the fury on his face changed suddenly to a mocking smile. "I have an account to settle with you, myself—a little slip that happily brings you within reach of the Law." He whipped out a small piece of paper from his pocket, and held it out with both hands, about ten inches away from Mr. Muffins's eyes, "Now do you know what this is?" he hissed.
"'Mr. Soaker Ram, Toshem Villa, Tiddle Street, Adelaide,'" read Mr. Muffins slowly. "Your name and address. An impromptu visiting card, I suppose! Well, what of it?"
"What of it?" mimicked Mr. Ram, with a sneer and then his face hardened vengefully. "Well, who wrote it, pray, who wrote it?"
Mr. Muffins took another look at the paper. "You did it yourself, didn't you?" he said slowly. "It looks like your hand-writing, anyhow, although maybe it is a bit disguised."
"Liar!" shouted Mr. Ram furiously. "You wrote it and you grossly libelled me at the same time. I'll have the Law on you. You told that man——"
"Mr. Ram, Mr. Ram," interrupted Mr. Muffins sternly, "I will not have such language here." He moved to the door. "I tell you—our interview is at an end."
"All right," said Mr. Ram savagely, and picking up his hat. "Leave it at that. I shall go and find a solicitor at once."
"Yes, and find a good one, when you're about it," boomed Mr. Muffins significantly, "for I'm sure a man of your type will need one, soon." He looked very gloomy. "You'll be in the Courts for something, before long. I'm certain of it, for your mental balance stands on a razor edge." He shook his finger warningly at the great reformer. "A little, a very little, and you'll go wrong. A pair of girl's stockings, seen in some back garden upon the clothes-line, a minute too long before the window of a draper's shop, and"—he shrugged his shoulders—"Another scandal in Adelaide. Grave charge against a man called Soaker Ram. No, no, don't get foul-tongued again. I'm only telling it you for your own good. But there, further conversation is quite unnecessary." He opened the office door and smiled most politely. "Good morning, and remember me to them all to-night. Watkins, show this gentleman out."
"Really," he muttered to himself, when a few moments later he was brushing his hat, "really, I ought to go into parliament, my views are so adaptable, and I feel so sincere about them, too." He nodded smilingly. "Yes, certainly I am wasted in private life."
That night when in the sanctity of his own home, Mr. Muffins was again in the bosom of his family, he remarked casually to them all:
"Oh! by the by, about that motor-bicycle for Charles. I've altered my intentions somewhat and instead of the boy getting a motor-bicycle"—the face of Charles paled desperately, and his jaw dropped almost until it touched his waistcoat—"I intend to invest in a motor-car myself. I shall buy one next week. Charles shall learn to drive and we'll all go for an extended tour to Sydney and through New South Wales." He leant over and placed his hand caressingly upon one of his wife's. "We are getting old, my dear, and I seem to think somehow that we are not getting all the best out of life." He coughed slightly. "I shall renounce all my social work—for the time being, at all events, and take a long holiday, to grow young again. We shall motor straight to Sydney, I think."
Mrs. Muffins and Charles were too overcome to speak, but the daughter so far forgot her awe of her father that she clapped her hands.
"Oh! how lovely," she exclaimed, "and shall we go through Melbourne, Father?"
"No-o-o, Evangeline," replied Mr. Muffins hesitatingly, "I think we shall not touch Melbourne. We shall go the other way."
THE days that follow, as can easily be imagined, were ones of great anxiety for Montague Mackerel Twiggs. He was playing for high stakes, and his nerves were strung up almost to breaking point at the consideration of all he might win—or lose.
For many years a puny flutterer upon the racecourse, he had a very clear perception of the remoteness of the chance of Ginx's Baby in the great Melbourne Cup, and imbued as he was with the sanguine temperament of the little punter, he could not yet persuade himself to believe that the Baby's prospects were anything but very poor.
Still, still, he was buoyed up somehow with a great hope, for he could not shake off the memory of the Asiatic's prophecy that riches were to come his way.
A thousand times, he told himself, he was a fool to think of the man at all, and then a thousand times again he remembered how every word, hitherto, of the dark-skinned stranger had come true. One minute, therefore, he was all buoyancy and hope, and the next—with bowed head and dejected mien he believed almost that everything was already lost.
But, if Mr. Twiggs had alternating moments of hope and despair, and if at times every atom of his experience and commonsense told him most unmistakably that he was a foolish, sickly dreamer—Mr. Muffins, the partner of all his fortunes, had no fears or misgivings at all.
Not for him were doubts and improbabilities, not for him the hazards and uncertainty of the race-course side, not for him the thousand and one happenings that might take place at any moment to remove the prize for ever from his reach—for he knew nothing of any of these matters, and in his mind he had the cup already won.
He was a champion, was Ginx's Baby, for had not Mr. Twiggs said so, over the third glass of champagne, and with the coming of the rain the animal's success was quite assured! No other horse would be able to get near him, and he would just romp along in the soft ground and win how and when he liked.
This optimism on the part of Mr. Muffins was, however, wholly the outcome of his almost hourly communications with Mr. Twiggs, who both as a meteorological and racing expert, had gained his most profound respect.
Had not Mr. Twiggs put the whole matter before him beyond question? Ginx's Baby would win, he had said, if heavy rain should arrive, and he had added with every confidence, that from all signs heavy rain would come.
Well, heavy rain had come exactly as Mr. Twiggs had predicted, and the first half of the prophecy being realized, fulfilment of the second half would follow as a matter of course. Mr. Muffins was sure of it, because undoubtedly Mr. Twiggs was sure of it, too!
And if, in reality, the convictions of Mr. Twiggs fell somewhat short of Mr. Muffins's estimation, certainly, however, he had reason to be greatly elated at the rain.
A cloudless and almost perfect Friday had been succeeded the next day by a strong and hourly-freshening West wind. 'Heavy rain in Western Australia' had been the burden of the weather report, with confident prognostications of rain in South Australia within twenty-four hours.
And sure enough the rain had come, and with a vengeance, too!
In the early hours of Sunday, Mr. Twiggs had been awakened from a fitful sleep by the pattering of the raindrops upon the roof, and jumping feverishly from his bed his heart had thumped like a piston-rod at the vista of black and lowering clouds that he could see from the window. All day it rained—a heavy soaking rain that swept furiously across the State, a rain that was hurled onward by the boisterous Western wind.
Mr. Twiggs rubbed his hands gleefully many times during the day, and towards evening, for the fourth time, he telephoned Mr. Muffins.
"Well, what do you think about it now?" he asked. "Didn't I tell you so?"
Mr. Muffins was very guarded in his reply, for evidently the family were within ear-shot.
"Excellent! excellent!" came his comment, and there was no mistaking the elation in his voice. "Just what the farmers are all wanting, and it will do everyone good. I suppose, I suppose, you are sure the wind now is in the right direction to benefit the pastoral industries in Victoria as well, say towards Melbourne way? Oh! you are, are you? What! an inch and a half; well, well, that is first rate! By the by, what about an appointment with you to-morrow, at the same time and place as last Friday? Yes, yes, at half-past one and we'll both be punctual, too. Good-bye."
Monday was a fine day and, all signs of the storm having passed over, Mr. Twiggs waited with great impatience for news of the weather conditions in Melbourne, but it was not until the evening papers appeared that he was able to obtain any news.
Then—he whistled gloriously to himself. There it was, in big head-lines on the first page.
"Nearly Two Inches of Rain," he read. "Melbourne Receives a Soaker. Going at Flemington Very Heavy To-morrow."
"Gee-whiz!" he ejaculated, "and now for the sporting news!" He turned breathlessly to the second page and here he was more gratified still. The odds against Ginx's Baby had shortened, precipitately, from fifty to ten to one!
He was at the telephone on the instant, and he caught Mr. Muffins just as the latter was about to leave the office for home.
"Ah! no," replied that gentleman interestedly, "I have not seen the evening paper yet. No—is it so? But just wait a moment, will you, until I shut the door, for the trams are making such a noise that I can hardly hear you at all. Now, that's better, Twiggs. I can speak now. What, the bets are only ten to one! That means then that everyone else thinks it'll win, doesn't it? Of course it will, too. Really, you are a wonderful man, Mr. Twiggs, and everything is turning out exactly as you said. Oh! by the by, one thing I shall insist upon. I am going to give you a motor-car. I am buying a Jehu for myself to-morrow, and I shall bespeak one for you, too. No, win or lose, my boy, I can afford it. I'm not a poor man and—er—my investments lately have been quite profitable ones. So don't worry about anything. What! The start is not often long delayed and we shall know for certain by ten minutes past three! Goodness gracious! as soon as that! Well, good-bye, my boy. You and I will go to Melbourne on Thursday, to bring back the Cup. Yes, I'm quite sure of it. Good-bye, good luck."
We will draw a veil over the hours of that momentous Tuesday morning, for there be times in all lives when no kind-hearted chronicler is anxious to probe too deeply. It is sad, however, to contemplate that whereas the joys and happiness that come to us pass on at whirlwind speed, the pains and sorrows of this world flap by on leaden wings. We measure the realization of our hopes by seconds, but our suspense and agonies—by hours.
So, suffice to say that poor Montague Twiggs drank deeply of a bitter cup that morning, and three o'clock in the afternoon found him in a state of nervous tension, almost bordering upon collapse.
The race for the Melbourne Cup is by far the greatest sporting event in the Commonwealth, and the interest taken in it is probably eclipsed by no other race in the world.
On the afternoon of the first Tuesday in November, all the thoughts of Australia are turned to that long stretch of turf at Flemington and, as the starting hour approaches, the inhabitants of every town and city begin to look impatiently at their watches, while far away, out-back, in lonely places hundreds of miles from any railway track, men pause in the work they are engaged upon and wonder how their particular fancy is getting on. The broadcasting stations vie with one another in the efficiency of their services, and long before the race has actually started, the minutest happenings upon the race-course are being thrown upon the air.
Mr. Twiggs was attending patients as usual that day, for he had realized it was the only way to keep himself from absolutely breaking down, and just before three o'clock, it so happened, several patients were waiting to be seen, and among them Lady Fitz-Tootle. Her appointment was for 3.15, but she had come early, telling the nurse she hoped Mr. Twiggs would not keep her waiting long.
At two minutes to three Mr. Twiggs showed out the patient he had been attending, and then when the nurse would have stayed to tidy up the surgery, he expressed the wish to be left alone for a few minutes.
"But there are five patients waiting, sir," said the nurse, looking very surprised, "and her ladyship said expressly that she did not want to be kept long."
"All right," replied Mr. Twiggs wearily, "it will be only for a few minutes, but don't come in, please, until I ring for you."
The surgery door closed, he darted over to a cupboard and from under a heap of newspapers abstracted a small portable wireless set that he had that morning smuggled into the room. He proceeded instantly to turn it on, making its volume, however, so weak that no sound of it would reach outside.
Bending down to listen he was so overcome with emotion that he could hardly get his breath. He was only just in time, for the horses were lining up at the barrier, with the starter having some trouble to induce them to take up their allotted positions.
Eric Welch, the crack racing-broadcaster of Australia, was at the microphone and with his finely modulated voice he was making every second of his broadcast a thrilling one.
"Broken Nose won't go into line," he cried, "and O-o-oh! he's kicking out at Beery Boy and trying to bite Pimpled Peter. Now, Black Bertie has turned the wrong way round and he's bumping into Podger. Mouldybones is giving trouble, too, and he's lashing out at Dirty Face. Fish and Chips won't go in next to Onion Queen. Now's a chance! Yes, yes," his voice rose excitedly, "they're off and the race for the Melbourne Cup has begun. It looked a good start and Pigstein is the first to show up and he——"—but Mr. Twiggs's heart was palpitating so violently that he could not listen any longer and he switched off.
With a red mist before his eyes he looked at his watch and saw it was six minutes and twenty seconds past three. "Three minutes and twenty-two seconds," he murmured brokenly, "is the record for the two miles, but in this heavy going, I reckon to-day it will be at least ten to fifteen longer, so I'll switch on again at nine and a half minutes past, and then"—he could hardly get his breath—"they'll not be far off the two-furlong post."
Then suddenly the front-door bell rang and he heard voices in the hall. He opened his eyes very wide. "Bottleworthy!" he ejaculated excitedly, "so they're gathering to be in at the death!"
He looked down at his watch again. Three minutes had gone by and he held his breath. Slowly, slowly, the little second-hand jumped on, seeming, however, that it would never reach to half-way round its little dial. Twenty, twenty-five—it had touched the thirty at last, and with a convulsive jerk of his fingers he switched on again to learn his Fate.
". . . . and passing the three-furlong post," came the clarion voice at the microphone, "Broken Nose is just clear of Gilbert Larose, with Mouldybones, Onion Queen and Beery Boy all in a line just two lengths behind; then come Dirty Face and Ginx's Baby, with Podger making a fast run on the outside. At the two-furlong post Gilbert Larose has headed Broken Nose and Onion Queen, but—oh! oh! Ginx's Baby has now run into third place. Yes, yes, Ginx's Baby is flying and at the distance he is level with Gilbert Larose! He passes him and is drawing right away from the field! Yes, yes, Ginx's Baby has got the race won! He's three lengths in front now! It's all over and he passes the winning-post a good four lengths in front of Gilbert Larose. Then come Onion Queen, Mouldybones, Broken Nose and——" but Mr. Twiggs had switched off and was lying back almost fainting in the armchair, his face white as death and clammy with perspiration.
Then all at once he smiled, a smile that commenced nervously, but quickly became one of pride and strength as he remembered he was now a rich man. He stood up and squared his shoulders. He planted his feet firmly upon the consulting room floor. He was as good as anybody now!
"Rootity-toot," he began to hum delightedly to himself,
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute."
He opened the consulting room door and stepped into the passage, whereupon the nurse immediately came out of the waiting-room, leaving the door wide open behind her.
She regarded him very anxiously.
"Lady Fitz-Tootle says she won't wait any longer, sir," she whispered, "and there's Archdeacon Bottleworthy here now, to make an appointment."
Mr. Twiggs snapped his fingers. "The deuce take them all," he said, tossing his head. "I'll see no more patients to-day." He waved his hand with a gesture of complete indifference. "Send them all away, Hypatia. Say Mr. Twiggs—Mr. Montague Mackerel Twiggs—has drawn the winner of the Melbourne Cup," his eyes sparkled, "the inimitable Ginx's Baby."
"Tell Lady Fitz-Tootle that?" asked the startled girl.
But Mr. Twiggs had turned back into his surgery and the girl, in spite of her instructions, stood hesitating as if she were not exactly sure what she should do.
The hall was very quiet. From the waiting-room, however, came the subdued hum of quiet conversation, in which the deep voice of Archdeacon Bottleworthy could be distinguished every now and then. He was talking in low tones to Lady Fitz-Tootle about his daughter.
"Yes, they will be married before Christmas," he said. "Margaret is twenty-two and there is really no need for them to wait. Young Grainger is, as you say, a very fine young fellow, and I was most happy to give my consent."
Lady Fitz-Tootle smiled approvingly. "She is a dear girl, Margaret, and they will make an excellent pair."
The conversation languished and her ladyship looked at her watch. "Really," she began, "I shall have to——"
But the archdeacon suddenly interrupted her. "Did you hear anything?" he asked, and she noticed that he looked shaky and that his face was pale.
"Hear what?" she asked, and then she, too, felt emotion surge through her.
There was the sound of gaily-tripping footsteps in the next room, and someone there was singing quietly:
"Rootity-toot," they heard quite plainly, and together their eyes opened and their jaws dropped:
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute
In a very charming manner—
Pinketty-pong she patters along
On the keys of the grand pianner!"
"I can't wait," muttered the archdeacon thickly.
"And I'm late, too," said her ladyship all in a twitter. She trembled and dropped all pretence. "Quick, Archdeacon, or we shall catch it again. Quick!"
There was a simultaneous rising from their seats, a rush together to the door, and in a moment they were out together upon the terrace.
Montague Mackerel Twiggs was still chortling his 'Te Deum.'
Dusk was just falling that same evening, and Margaret Bottleworthy and Harold Grainger were strolling slowly through the park lands. Eventide was in the sky, and Heaven was in their hearts. They walked very close together and, from time to time, their hands touched. Then a mighty thrill surged through them, for they were in the supreme intoxication of love.
They were not speaking, but thoughts more wonderful than anything in life were telling them of the great secret passion holds.
Their expressions were quite natural, but when they looked at one another the face of each one, to the other, was transfigured and they sighed from a very ecstasy of happiness.
Presently, a man came striding by. He was humming to himself, and he walked with springy, joyful steps. He carried many parcels under his arm. Approaching the lovers, he raised his hat smilingly and passed on.
"That's Mr. Twiggs," said Margaret softly. "You don't know him, do you? Father was going to him for an appointment to-day."
Young Grainger looked down into her eyes. "Don't talk to me of Twiggs, darling," he said fervently. "Tell me only of yourself." He added carelessly: "Twiggs is nothing to me."
Sister Ruth was sitting up in bed. She was brushing her hair and talking to her mother.
"Yes, you'll want at least six nighties, dear," remarked the latter, "and I should have three pink and three light blue, if I were you."
The girl blushed. "And I must get that tooth done, too, this week, Mother," she said. "I think I'll go to Mr. Twiggs."
"No, not Twiggs," said her mother; "he goes to races, so I've heard. Mr. Fangles will be the best for you. He takes round the bag in church for us now."
It was towards midnight and Dr. Hoop-Brown was sitting in his study. He was gazing meditatively at a large photo he was holding in his hand.
"Beautiful eyes," he murmured, "and a face as good as gold! Sweet and gentle, too, with just that trace of weakness in it that a woman's should always hold! And to think that in less than three weeks now she will be all mine." He sighed happily. "I wonder if we shall have a child. If we do, and it's a boy"—he smiled as if he were amused—"I really think we ought to call it Montague." His face hardened a little and he shook his head. "Yes, it's an uncanny world, and with all our knowledge we are only just beginning to lift the veil. Twiggs was our vampire, without doubt, and he knows it, too—at any rate in a partial way. He lied most distinctly to me the other day, and he remembers far more than he is willing to admit. He knows that absurd rhyme, too, for I heard him singing it the other evening as I passed him in the park."
FIVE years have rolled away since that memorable Tuesday afternoon when the chestnut son of Workhouse and Unwanted won the Melbourne Cup.
Ginx's Baby has long since acquired babies of his own, and it is not improbable that one of them may soon repeat his father's successes on the Turf.
Time has dealt kindly with most of the characters of our story. Mr. Montague Twiggs—no, I beg his pardon, M. Mackerel-Twiggs, Esquire—is part owner of a flourishing sheep-station in the North-East and, with the prosperity in the wool industry, he draws a substantial income from his possession. He has long since left the dental profession, and long-winded patients and bad debts are now only an unpleasant memory to him.
In partnership with his great friend, Mr. Henry Muffins, he is an important patron of the Turf, and when their black gelding 'Rootity-toot' for the third time in succession won the Adelaide Birthday Cup, it was agreed on all sides that the fortunate partners were among the most popular owners in the State.
Mackerel-Twiggs, as becoming one upon whom Fortune smiled, has many friends, but perhaps none closer than Dr. and Mrs. Hoop-Brown. The doctor was indeed at first inclined to be a little jealous of the undoubted partiality of his charming wife for his young friend, but with the coming of the first baby, a bouncing boy, it was evident this cloud had disappeared, for Mackerel-Twiggs, at the express desire of the great doctor himself, stood as god-father, and the babe was even baptised Montague, after him.
Mr. Henry Muffins has every appearance of being a most happy man. "A fine old boy," so everyone calls him, for nothing more delights him than the companionship of young people. With the youthful members of the opposite sex, particularly, he is always a great favourite, and in their troubles and anxieties his advice is often sought. He is most broad-minded and charitable in all his opinions and, if truth were only known, many a trouble has been smoothed over or averted by his advice and timely help. To a psychologist he would seem a man who had been through many experiences himself. His family adore him.
Lady Fitz-Tootle is altered. She is much less of a snob than she used to be, and much more humble about herself than in old times. She is an important person in Adelaide Society still, but—for the upstart who forgets, for the crawlers and the climbers who would disavow the soil from which they sprang—she has always the sharp sword of her good memory and bitter tongue.
The archdeacon is as important and dignified as ever. Greyer and a little stouter, perhaps, but with the same proud mien and pontifical air. He is immensely proud of his two little grandchildren, who delight to sit across his knees whilst he hums to them their favourite melody:
"Rootity-toot, she plays the flute,"
accompanying each note with a rise and fall of the ecclesiastical extremities.
The bishop of a neighbouring State is old and ailing, and in racing circles in Adelaide it is an odds-on bet that upon his decease the See will be offered to the archdeacon.
Margaret is just as sweet and pretty as ever. She worships her husband, who is rising rapidly in his profession and who has recently been elected to the City Council.
Dr. Bunions is not so fond of the knife as he used to be. He swallowed his false teeth one day and they had to operate upon him to get them out. He never quite got over the shock.
Mr. Chickseed married Susan. She answered the door of Fitz-Tootle Hall to him so many times that in the end they got to know each other so well that they became sweethearts.
They were married at the Cathedral by the archdeacon and now live 'hunneds and hunneds' of miles out-back. One of their most treasured possessions is a big photograph of Lady Fitz-Tootle set in a thick silver frame and given to them by the great lady herself. When Andy is not by, Susan tells everyone it is one of husband's old flames, but he did not marry her because she, Susan, cut her out.
They have a fine handsome little son and he was christened Tootle Chickseed.
Mr. Huggins is having one of his boys educated for the Church and one of Mrs. Bangs's is going to become a doctor.
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