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Title: Overheard: Fifteen Tales
Author: Stacy Aumonier
eBook No.: 2200141h.html
Date first posted: March 2022
Most recent update: March 2022
This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat
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2. The Fall
3. One Sunday Morning
4. The Dark Corridor
5. The Kidnapped "General"
6. The Friends
7. The Persistent Mother
8. When the Earth Stopped
9. William's Narrow Squeak
10. What Was She to Think
11. One Thing Leads to Another
12. The Mother of Carmen Colignon
13. Dark Red Roses
14. The Little Window of the Night
15. Freddie Finds Himself
The publishers have included in this volume The Friends. Although this story has appeared in book form before, it is one of Mr. Aumonier's earlier stories which obtained a great succés d'estime at the time, and was even proclaimed by The Spectator as one of the best stories they ever remembered to have read in English, and yet being an early story, it was not widely read. All the other stories appear here for the first time in volume form.
It was nearly two o'clock. The tea-shop was at its busiest. Clerks, salesmen, typists, shoppers from the suburbs, jostled against each other in the scramble for buns, tea, sausages, fried fish, ham or coffee. Everyone seemed hungry and hurried. The atmosphere reeked with the varied odours of cooked food. Some were eating greedily, others calling impatiently for their bills or grumbling at the slackness of the service, or about a draught which came from undiscoverable places. The slim girl who served some thirty odd customers in the annexe moved hither and thither with an overladen tray, which she had to carry twenty yards backwards and forwards to the serving hatch. Her movements were languid and listless, but her memory seemed surprising. She would take seven or eight orders of such varied nature as "large coffee, Cambridge sausages, roll and butter, and plum jam," to "poached eggs on toast and a small tea," and she remembered them all correctly and brought the refreshment to the right persons. She was of indeterminate age, somewhere round about the thirties, with fair pretty hair, and a face that at one time might have been almost beautiful.
"Hurry up with my scrambled eggs on toast, miss, I'm going to a matinee."
She was studiously polite to everyone, polite but inert. She seemed to be performing her duties as though mesmerized. Gradually the crowd began to thin. The clerks and typists had to be back at their offices, the lady had gone to her matinee, the salesmen to their clients. As they poured out, queuing up at the pay-desk, a few late comers straggled in. Among the latter came a young man of somewhat florid appearance. He was wearing a well-cut blue serge suit, with a yellow woollen waistcoat, and a felt hat He had a red, rather coarse face, a httle clipped moustache, and splendid teeth which flashed as he grinned And he grinned a good deal, as a man well-satisfied with himself and life in general. He found a seat in the corner of the annexe and sat down. The slim waitress came along with her heavily laden tray. She glanced round and her eye alighted on the young man. Her face betrayed no recognition, but she put the tray down on the marble slab of an adjoining table with an abrupt bump. She said "Sorry!" and as she handed plates and cups round she mumbled:
"Fried plaice, sir? Thank you, sir. Coffee, madam. Thank you, madam. Two hard-boiled eggs, sir? Thank you, sir," and so on till the table was served. Then she passed on to the table where the young man sat. She still carried her tray, for there were two people there waiting to be served. She put down her tray again and said:
"Tea, roll and butter, madam? Thank you, madam. Cold roast beef, sir? Thank you, sir."
The young man looked at her and grinned, but she did not look at him. Her lips were tight and drawn, and pale. A woman at the table exclaimed:
"Are my kidneys never coming?"
The young man said:
Without looking at him she said: "What do you want to eat?" To the lady she said: "Your kidneys will be ready in two minutes, madam."
The young man, a little sheepish at his reception, said quietly:
Oh, well. I'll have some cold tongue and coffee.
"Large or small?"
She moved away with her tray, collecting orders as she went, whilst the young man picked his splendid teeth with a tram ticket. After an interval she returned. The weary lines of her face seemed to be concealing the fires of tremulous emotion. She placed the kidneys in front of the lady, and the coffee and tongue in front of the young man. Quite mechanically she repeated:
"Large coffee and tongue, sir? Thank you, sir."
She took three more orders, and again vanished.
The young man devoured his tongue and coffee in silence. The grin on his face became sardonic. It was as though he were saying to himself: "Oh, well, I don't care." More people went out and fewer came in. The time was rapidly approaching that sparse half hour or so that is too late for lunch and too early for tea. The lady finished her kidneys, powdered her nose, and departed. The slim waitress was less occupied. She drifted up and down, her tense pale face expressing nothing. There was only one other person at the young man's table, a man at the further end reading an evening paper. At last she came to him. Bending over a cruet which she pretended to be adjusting she whispered hoarsely:
"Oh, why didn't you come last night?"
The uneasy grin flittered across the young man's face. He answered in the same key:
"I couldn't. I couldn't get away."
"What were you doing? Spending the evening with Lily?"
"No. I swear I wasn't."
"I had to go and see my uncle—"
"Miss Harrison, there's a customer over there asking for stewed prunes and rice." It was a tall angular manageress, in a black frock, speaking.
The mission in search of stewed prunes and rice occupied some time. And further time was wasted by a customer who said that his bill was wrong. It was quite true, bhe had charged eightpence-halfpenny instead of sevenpence-halfpenny for sardines on toast. The man with the newspaper disappeared. There was no one else at the young man's table. Once again she leant over the cruet.
"You don't love her, do you, Harry?"
The young man laughed self-consciously.
"Lord, no. I wanted to tell you, Florne. I've had a bit of luck. My uncle's coming to the rescue."
"How do you mean?"
"He's paying off that debt. And he's going to pay my fare to Canada."
She caught her breath, and scraped crumbs into a little pile with the end of a knife. "Canada! but you—"
"I'm going to start all over again."
"But don't you want me to go to Canada with yer?"
"You? How could you?"
"I could work my way out—stewardess or something. I'd go with You're not going to marry Lily, are you, Harry?"
"She's not good enough for you, Harry. Oh, God! I believe it's her what got you going wrong, mixing with all them racing chaps and that—"
"You're too good for me, Florrie."
"Hi, miss, order me a boiled egg. And look here, tell 'em it's to be soft—not more than three minutes."
While she was away the young man fidgetted with his moustache. He looked like a man eager to escape from an awkward situation. He gave a jaunty thrust to his hat, which he had never removed. He drew things on the marble table top with a spoon. At last she came back.
"You say I'm too good for you, Harry. P'raps in some ways I am. I go straight, in any case, which is more than yon ever do. But I don't put much stock by that. I love yer, and that's enough for me. I'm willing to go with yer—"
"Perhaps one day when I get on—"
"Oh, go on! Once you get out there, and you'll forget all about me. You never did reely love me—and now that Lily—"
"I tell you there's nothing in it about Lily."
"Oh, don't let her lead you astray, Harry."
"What do you mean—lead me astray?"
The tall manageress swept down the room.
"Now then, Miss Harrison, get them cruets together. We shall have the teas coming in soon."
The room seemed to get dimmer. A queer party of country people strolled in, the kind of people who demand eggs and bacon at a quarter past three in the afternoon. What meal is this? breakfast, lunch or high tea? What did it matter? Outside was the roar of traffic; inside the low hum of desultory talk. A big man was leaning across the table, shaking a fat finger in the face of a doleful individual with a sandy beard, and declaiming:
"I ses to 'im that's not the right and proper way to lay a floor joist."
Someone wanted to know the right time, and someone else the best way to get to the Horticultural Show. She thought suddenly of flowers...great masses of prize blossoms, purple, blue, and white, and the perfume of them and the memories...
"What fish have you got to-day, miss?"
"Only filletted plaice left, sir."
The young man was getting up, and stretching himself indolently. She left an order and went across to him. With a little catch in her voice she said:
"You're going then?"
"Yes. What's the good?"
"When will I see you?"
"I'm sailing Saturday."
"Saturday! That's only four days. You'll see me before you go?"
"Oh, yes," the young man whispered unconvincingly. "I'll either drop you a line or call in."
The promise was give in the same key.
"You'll want your bill. It comes to tenpence-half-penny."
"Thanks, so long, old girl."
There was a break in the wall half-way down the room. When he reached it they were comparatively alone for a brief moment. She said fiercely:
"Harry, I've loved yer all these years. Don t be cruel. When I was—when I was younger you did care for me a tiny bit. I've worked my fingers out for you. I've given you my savings. I wasn't bad-looking once before I came into this business. It hasn't done me any good. I get tired. The days seem long. You won't—you won't—"
The man holding forth indignantly about the right way to lay floor joists, called out:
"Hi, miss, bring me another cup of corfee."
"Yes, sir. Coming sir...You won't—"
The young man's grin struggled desperately to assert itself. He mumbled something like:
"There, there. It'll be all right. You'll see."
He walked self-consciously to the pay-desk. She went to collect her tray. Down below in the smoke-room could be heard the sound of youths noisily playing dominoes and laughing. "There's nothing to laugh about," she thought at random. The tray was filled with soiled plates, and cups and saucers, egg shells and sausage skins. When she emerged once more into the main room, the young man had gone. She vanished with her tray and in a few minutes returned with it re-laden. She went to the table where the country people were.
"Eggs and bacon, madam? Thank you, madam. Eggs and bacon, sir? Thank you, sir. Eggs and bacon miss? Thank you, miss."
The man of the floor joists bawled out:
"Hi, have you got my corfee, miss?"
She looked at him a little startled, the vexatious expression of one who takes'a pride in work and is found wanting. She said:
"I'm sorry, sir. I forgot. I'll go and fetch it."
"Damn these waitresses!" growled the man of the floor joists.
The city of Bordeaux is a city of broad avenues, open spaces, big blocks of commercial buildings, narrow alleys leading down to congested docks, great wealth, great poverty, great industry. It has a character widely differing from any other French city. Broadly speaking, it is a hard-working, thriving, sober place. People do not go there for pleasure; they go there to trade. Nevertheless as in the case of all large cities, especially when they happen to be ports, it is watered by a continuous social flux that is anything but hard-working, thriving or sober. It holds out endless temptation to the adventurer, the thief and the garrotter. The wine industry and the bourse attract the gambler and the speculator. The constant inflow of ingenuous sailors, blue-eyed and bewildered, who draw their pay and get lost in the mazes of the west side, attract the attentions of the more malignant characters. The cafés and cabarets abound with mysterious individuals, willing and anxious to introduce the new-comer to the most delectable and special attractions.
On the whole, Bordeaux is neither better nor worse than her sister cities of the South. Less sophisticated than Marseilles, she seems somehow more independent. Further removed from the nerve centres of France, she contrives to lead a life of her own. The depressing Landes country does not get on her nerves. She re-acts to it. And there is always Biarritz, and St. Jean de Luz and the gay little luxury towns within easy train journey. And there is the Spanish border and untracked regions of the Pyrenees—easily accessible places for the lady or gentleman who suddenly finds that the only people desirous of his or her company are the very efficient gendarmerie de Bordeaux.
Max Renault, alias Anton Sachs, alias Jules Destourney, was one individual who more than once found getting over the border at Irun, disguised as an old priest, a useful means of evading the just retribution of the law. On the second occasion he was away two years, wandering about the north coast of Spain. During that time his experiences must have been unenviable. He knew little Spanish and no Basque. The people he moved amongst were mostly beggars themselves, or poor fishing-folk, living from hand to mouth. He begged what he could, stole what he could but the conditions of fife were very hard. He made himself a weird instrument, a kind of piccolo, put of a cane stem. This he played somewhat unconvincingly outside cafés and eating-houses; but the Spaniards and Basques are musicians themselves, and his awards were negligible.
Once he stole a donkey, drove it into the hills, and sold it to some gypsies for a trifling sum. He travelled far afield after that, put up at an inn and drank much brandy.
4nd that night he dreamt about falling. We ah have our pet nightmares, and Jules' pet nightmare concerned falling. It was horrible. He never actually fell, but he was always just on the point of falling from some great height. Sometimes he would be on the roof of a very high building, looking down into the street below just losing his balance. On other occasions he would be seated on the front row of a gallery, very, very high up in a theatre. There was no rail in front of him. His knees were giving way. The floor below was attracting him. Sometimes he would be peering over the edge of an enormous precipice, lying on his face and looking down at the rocks beneath. He would try and edge away, but an overwhelming power drew him forward. At such moments he would try to scream, and be unable to. After an endless struggle he would awaken with a start, and find himsef clutching the bedclothes, making horrible noises in his chest, and his brow would be clammy with perspiration.
During those two years he did many reprehensible and desperate actions, but he always managed to escape detection. At the end of that time he found himself one day at the little fishing village of Fuenterrabia, looking wistfully across the bay at his beloved France. Surely the time was ripe for return. He had changed much in those two years. The police must have been very busy with other fugitive gentlemen. He though longingly of Bordeaux, with its rich merchants and stupid sailors, its familiar cafés and well-cooked food. Yes, he was a desperate man. Somehow or other he would return there.
Whilst gazing across the sea, he became suddenly aware of someone approaching him. Instantly alert, and prepared for flight, Jules turned. One glance satisfied him that the man was an English tourist. One of those absurd, comic Englishmen, as drawn in the French journals. Elderly, with drooping moustaches, rather fat, in a check suit with baggy knickerbockers and stockings, and thick brown boots. Round his shoulder was slung a leather strap with field glasses, and in his hand he carried a camera. The Englishman spoke to him in broken Spanish, but he seemed to know less Spanish than Jules. Jules replied in French, which the Englishman spoke tolerably well. He wanted to know how far it was to Pasaques across the hills, how long it would take to get there and what sort of place it was. But yes, of course, Jules smiled ingratiatingly, was he not himself a professional guide?
It would take perhaps two hours, two hours and a half to Pasaques. There was no road. It could only be found by one accustomed to the mountain path. An enchanting place—Pasaques, where the famous Victor Hugo lived for some time, and there was a café there built over the bay with passion flowers in profusion growing over the pergola. And the patron would draw you up oysters straight from the river bed in a basket—an enchanting place! Why, yes, he would guide the distinguished visitor that very afternoon and they would return in time for the Englishman's dinner at the Hotel Miramar. Excellent!
As they picked their way up the mountain path that afternoon, Jules was constantly thinking of Bordeaux. It was a steep climb. He was quite surprised that the fat, elderly Englishman stood it so well. Surprised—and angry.
Bordeaux? He wondered whether old Madame Lachaise still kept that little comestible establishment in the Place Duquesne. There were friends who would never give him away. There was no one to fear except the police. Inspector Tolozan? Curse fate! Spit on all these comfortable people to whom everything seemed to go right. This fat, prosperous Englishman!
Once on a broken plateau they passed an ox-cart laden with ferns and a peasant in a blue blouse. They passed no one else in a two hours' walk. They were cut right off from the world, amidst boulders of rocks, shrubs, thick masses of fern, distant peaks, some snow-clad.
"Bella vista, monsieur!" said Jules, pointing across an opening in the hills. The Englishman leant forward and looked in the direction Jules' stick was pointing. Bella vista, indeed! There was a sadden quick movement, and a knife was driven clean and truly between the Englishman's shoulder blades.
When the convulsions had ceased, Jules dragged the heavy body into a thick, high clump of ferns, and calmly went through the pockets. There were a lot of papers that annoyed him intensely, passports, letters of credit, bills, cheque book, things denoting wealth but quite un-negotiable. Nevertheless, Jules had little cause to complain. There were Spanish, French and English notes. There was a gold watch and chain, a gold cigarette case, loose silver and various light trifles. He flung the camera away and also the case of field-glasses, toofcompromising articles to be seen with—but stuffed the field-glasses into his breast pocket. Then he walked on hurriedly for half a mile, crawled under a dwarf oak-tree and counted the spoil. He rapidly added up the notes, calculated the total in francs, allowing for the rate of exchange, and the probable selling value of the watch and chain, etc., in his own market. He was the sudden possessor of approximately nine thousand francs!
He cleaned up his hands on some damp moss, buried the knife deep in the earth and covered that with moss and stones, and set out for San Sebastian.
Fortune at last had smiled upon him. He gave no further thought to the ridiculous Englishman, except as an inert piece of matter that might be compromising under certain circumstances.
He arrived in San Sebastian after dark, weary and footsore. He knew the town well, and he made for a humble quarter, where food and lodging would be procurable. He ate heartily, drank good red wine and much brandy until he fell into a heavy torpid sleep. He had, however, taken the precaution beforehand to see that he secured a room in the lodging with a door that locked. Fortune and security at last! Bordeaux at last!
He swung out into a glorious, rose-hued dreamland of happiness, only to find himself, after an interval of time, clinging to the flat surface of an enormous stone column above a square. The column seemed to be swaying in the wind. Down below tiny figures were just perceptible on the pavement. The old horror again possessed him. He was bound to fall—hundreds of feet—into that terrifying void below. It did not occur to him to wonder how he had got there. The fact that he was there was sufficient. If only the dread thing would keep still! If only there were any means of descending! But—no, he was on a kind of large projecting capital. The column beneath was narrower. He'peered lover the edge, and saw the narrowing flutes of the column vanishing into perspective, lost amongst the stone base hundreds of feet below. There was nothing at all to cling to. He was falling! He screamed, but the screams were stifled in his throat. This way! That way! Now he was off!...Oh, God! He was hanging over the edge of the bed, those choked, ugly noises coming from his chest.
Ah, thank God! All a dream, all a dream! He would not sleep again that night. He sat up, drank some water, lighted the candle, counted his weath all over again, lay there, inert and watchful, till the light of dawn crept between the crevices of the shabby curtain. Then he slept quite placidly for several hours.
The sun was shining on San Sebastian when he went out. Everything was normal and gay. Along the front tamarisk trees with their soft, feathery outlines, blended into the warm haze above the bay. Women in black mantillas passed by him, and he did not resent the fact that their glances were not for him. He wandered about the town, and bought a ready-made suit, a shirt, a scarf, a new Basque cap and some canvas shoes. Then he returned to his lodgings, changed his clothes, paid his bill, took the old clothes away with him tied up in a paper parcel, and walked to the station.
In two days' time he arrived in Bordeaux, looking like a respectable Spanish workman. His hair had turned grey during those two years, and he had grown a moustache and a little stubbly beard. He made his way to the Place Duquesne, crept stealthily up the stairs of number seventeen and gave three slow taps on the door, the last tap being louder than the first. The door was opened a few inches, and there was a short interval of inspection, and then a voice exclaimed:
"Name of God! It's the Jackal!"
He was admitted. The room was occupied by two men. One was a thick-set, malevolent-looking, middle-aged man, with very dark eyes and a long scar running from just below the ear to the middle of the throat. The other was a frowsy old man, with swivel eyes, impossible to focus. It was the younger one who had admitted him. He turned to the elder, and said:
"Do you hear, Uncle Sem? It's the Jackal!"
The old man appeared to be searching the ceiling. He muttered:
"The Jackal—eh! Where have you been, my brave Jackal, all these years?"
"Over the border, Uncle Sem."
"What have you come back for, fool? To compromise us? Don't you know it's the Widow for you if they catch you?"
"I was bored. Uncle Sem. I had to come back. I was lonely—"
"He's all right," interjected the younger man, known as La Tonnerre. "Look at him, uncle! His mother wouldn't know her darling boy. The Jackal was always a good workman, Uncle Sem. How have the dice fallen, old boy?"
"Badly," answered Jules. "Pigs and stones. There's not a sou to be scratched from the vile, evil-smelling swine. Nothing came my way, until last week, when a fool of an Englishman fell into my mouth. See here!"
And he produced the field-glasses, the gold watch and chain, the cigarette-case and the other trifles. The older man's eyes regarded the objects obliquely.
"Only a few francs."
"Urn!" grunted Uncle Sem, suspiciously. "Travelling Englishmen usually carry more than a few francs upon them, especially when they boast such finery as this."
"Letters of credit, cheque books, if they're any good to you, Uncle!"
"Um. Let's have a glance. Where's the case to the field-glasses?"
"I threw it away."
"Imbecile! A Zeiss too."
Whilst the old man was examining the watch and cigarette-case, Jules inquired of La Tonnerre concerning their mutual acquaintances.
"Where is Barouche?"
"Barouche! He is spending a long vacation out in Cochin China. There was an unfortunate affair with the cashier of a bank at Bayonne. Clumsy work!"
"Dead. He died quietly one morning at dawn. The blade was too quick for him!"
"No one has seen her since you left. She was last seen walking on the quays looking into the water."
"They have sent him back to Silesia. They did not like his face."
"Yes, he is still working. But he becomes foolish. Women and absinthe do not agree with him. Labori died in the infirmary. There is no one left of our old company except Uncle Sem and myself. You are welcome, Jules. We want men of intellect and go."
It was not an inspiriting record. Jules felt a craving to escape from it all. He had been drawn back to Bordeaux by the nostalgia of old associations. He liked the place, the kind of food to be procured there, familiar places and people. But the life of crime terrified him. It was not conscience which troubled him. It was just the physical dread of—falling. It was in his blood that somewhere, at some time, in the prosecution of his nefarious craft, he would fall. The nightmare would materialize. And yet what was he to do? About his person he had concealed eight thousand francs. From the sale of the field-glasses, the watch and cigarette-case, he would be lucky if he got another two hundred. This was wealth, comfort and security for a few months. And then what? He could not afford to go back on his only two pals.
The old man was saying:
"Here, I will see what I can do with the watch and cigarette-case. You take these glasses, Jackal, and try your luck on the East side. You were an idiot to have taken these out of their case."
"The case isn't of much value, Uncle Sem. And it was clumsy, with a long leather strap attachment, difficult to conceal."
Uncle Sem said nothing, but he blinked vacantly at the ceiling, stood up, and shuffled towards the door.
"He's a marvel!" exclaimed La Tonnerre, when the old man had gone. "He must be seventy-two, and he has never made a slip. The police watch him like cats, and they've never sprung within a metre of him. I believe he could cast his shadow into the face of the sun."
Jules sighed. "Let's go and eat," he said. "I have a few francs, and that vile Spanish food wants forgetting."
They repaired to a quiet restaurant, of which the patron was a good fellow, not too inquisitive or squeamish about his guests. And they did themselves well. Soup, a bouillabaise, tripe stewed in oil with braised Spanish onions, Rockfort and radishes, and two bottles of good Burgundy. Oh, it was glorious to be back in Bordeaux!
And Jules kept on saying to himself:
"I mustn't talk too much. I mustn't let on to La Tonnerre that I have eight thousand."
There is a fascination about spending freely almost as intoxicating as any alcoholic material which may be the product of this action. Once he thought at random:
"Why, I've only got to sell those field-glasses to make enough to pay for this luncheon."
La Tonnere indeed was not unduly aroused. They both belonged to the school which taught that the great thing in life was to eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow—Ah! lots of nasty, unpleasant episodes might happen to-morrow. One might fall for instance. Clambering about on dangerous peaks there was always that sickening attraction—the law of gravitation. Bah! Another glass, old boy! Glorious to be back in Bordeaux.
The docks were alive with dear familiar sights—stately liners, the black hulls of old sailing ships, weather-battered smoke-stacks of tramps. There was the delicious odour of tar, oil, hemp, brine and the chestnut braziers on the quays. There were the familiar figures, wharfingers in blue blouses, foreign sailors, fat old fishwives with their booths, women selling flowers, stockings and gingerbread, port officials fussily conscious of their gold trimmings. This was the place to live in, to lose oneself in. No one took any particular stock of this respectable-looking man. What was he? a mechanic of some sort? a small shop-keeper? a ship's cook? Who cared?
Having parted from La Tonnere, who stated that he had to go and claim some "commission" that was due to him, Jules wandered luxuriously eastward. It was early afternoon and the sun was pleasantly hot. He walked up the Rue Fondaudege and then took two turnings, sharp to the left, then to the left again. He came to a narrow middle-class street of shops. Near the end of the street he stopped in front of an establishment, which bore the name of Francis Mossel. He entered and produced the field-glasses. A rather bored young clerk said: "Yes, what is it?"
"Do you want to buy some field-glasses, monsieur?"
"Field-glasses!" exclaimed the young man in a tone that implied that field-glasses were the very last thing that his employer would ever dream of buying. Nevertheless he took them in his hand and examined them.
"Where is the case?" he asked.
"The case is lost!"
The young man's face expressed bored indignation. However, he disappeared behind a wooden partition with the glasses. In two or three minutes an elderly Jew came in with the young man. He was wearing thick spectacles and a black skull cap. He looked hard at Jules and said:
"Where did you get these glasses from?"
"They belonged to my brother, monsieur, who died."
The Jew looked closely at Jules' face, his clothes, his shoes and his cap. He made no attempt to conceal his suspicion.
"Where is the case?"
"There wasn't a case. My brother must have lost it, monsieur."
"When did your brother die?"
"Last year, monsieur."
"This is a pair of new Zeiss field-glasses."
Jules flushed. What the devil business was it of the Jew when or where his brother died? Why didn't he hurry up and give him the money! Monsieur Mossel seemed to be meditating. He muttered to himself:
"Curious...a new pair of Zeiss field-glasses without a case."
Looking at Jules once more, he said in a melancholy voice:
"How much do you want for them?"
"Four hundred francs, monsieur."
The old Jew turned to his assistant with an expression clearly conveying the fact that he had long since given up being surprised at the insolent and extortionate demands made to him in his profession. He turned the glasses over and over and examined them more thoroughly. At last he said:
"I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you twenty-seven francs for them."
It was Jules' turn to express clearly that he had given up being surprised at the preposterous offers one was to expect from these money-lenders. He answered without hesitation:
What was the use? He felt a wild desire to be rid of the whole transaction. The atmosphere of this poky, furtive office frightened him. He mumbled:
"Leave the glasses here and come in later at half-past five, and you shall have the money. You must sign a written declaration."
Why? He didn't like this aspect of it at all. But something told him to clear out of that place at the earliest possible moment. A few minutes later he was thankful for this subconscious warning. He had just crossed the street when he saw an elderly distinguished-looking man turn the corner and saunter casually into Mons. Mossel's shop. It was the last person in Bordeaux he was desirous of meeting—Inspector Tolozan, chief of the gendarmerie de Bordeaux.
He never went back for his twenty-eight francs. On the other hand, he could not bring himself to tell the true story to Uncle Sem and La Tonnerre. He said he had sold the glasses for ninety francs, and he shared the spoil with them loyally. Uncle Sem declared that he was only able to raise two hundred and forty francs on the watch and cigarette-case. This was also divided.
Jules slept in an attic in the same house in the Place Duquesne where his two companions resided. He continued to lead a life of indolence and luxury.
At the end of a few weeks, however, he began to realize that there was something queer happening to him. His health was not all that could be desired. The fact was, that the sudden spasm of luxurious living, after the two years of semi-starvation, was seriously affecting his digestion. He suffered from attacks of vertigo. Lying in his attic at night, he would have an abrupt vision of the courtyard below. Some power seemed to compel him to get out of bed and go to the window and look down. He would stand there, clutching the window frame, his face bathed in cold sweat. The terror was unendurable. After two or three of these experiences he gave up the attic. He managed to secure a dingy room in the basement of the house next door.
So far as the prosecution of his criminal practices was concerned, he was entirely inactive. He had lost his nerve. He made up elaborate stories to Uncle Sem and La Ton-nerre of exploits about purse-snatching and confidence tricks. He even handed them the money as a share of the spoils, anything to buy peace. His small fortune would not last long at this rate.
Once he dreamt he was on top of a lighthouse, out at sea. A high wind was blowing, and he was clutching his few remaining notes and trying to hang on to the smooth stone surface. A sudden, fiercer gust came and carried the notes away. He looked over the edge, and saw the notes fluttering on the surface of an angry sea, a hundred feet below him. Again he tried to scream...
It was Uncle Sem's discovery—the fat Dutch ship-master, who went nightly to a little café in the Rue Muyens and got drunk. He appeared to have money. It was believed that he had on his person the cash to pay off a ship's company that was expected from Rio.
"Here is a neat little game we might play together," said Uncle Sem.
Jules shivered, but he knew there was no escape. They couldn't understand, these two; they couldn't understand this fear of falling. On a certain night he found himself entering the Café des Etoiles. Uncle Sem was whispering:
"This is the table."
They sat down, and ordered two anisettes. Uncle Sem was very garrulous. After a little while the fat Dutchman entered. He glowered at them, but took his usual corner seat, and ordered Schnappes. Uncle Sem bowed to him very politely, and continued to talk to Jules. After a few more glasses of Schnappes it was not difficult to engage the Dutchman in conversation, in spite of his villainous French. They discussed all kinds of subjects, and Uncle Sem was most entertaining and hospitable, ordering innumerable rounds of drinks. It was getting late, when La Tonnerre entered the café. He was very smartly dressed. He looked round the room, then, approaching Uncle Sem, he said diffidently:
"May I occupy this seat, monsieur?"
"But certainly," replied Uncle Sem.
In a few minutes La Tonnerre was drawn into the conversation, and somehow or other it got round to the Dutch East Indies. La Tonnerre said that he had often touched at Sumatra, when a seafaring man. Curiously enough, Uncle Sem, according to his own account, had once been manager of a tea plantation at Tebing Tinggi. Helped by a nudge, Jules said he knew all the islands intimately. This might have been all very well, except for the fact that Uncle Sem referred to Tebing Tinggi as being on the northeast coast of Sumatra.
"Tebing Tinggi!" exclaimed the Dutchman. "Why, it is in the interior, one hundred and thirty miles west of Pelembeng!"
It is invariably about insignificant trifles that men lose their tempers. The argument became heated.
"Considering I lived there for two years!" cried the Dutchman, banging his fist down on the table.
Uncle Sem was equally emphatic and so was La Tonnerre, who insisted that Tebing Tinggi was in the north. The argument became more and more acrimonious. At last Uncle Sem said:
"I tell you what, gentlemen. I'm willing to bet. I suggest we put up a hundred francs each. We all put the notes right down here on the table. Then we each in turn draw a plan of the island, indicating the position of Tebing Tinggi. That being done, we borrow our patron's atlas. I know he has one. And we compare. The one who has drawn the most accurate plan gets the lot."
"Done!" roared the Dutchman. "On one condition."
"That we make it two hundred francs."
"I agree," said Uncle Sem.
"Agreed," said La Tonnerre.
"Yes, I agree also," said Jules faintly.
The Dutchman produced a fat pocket-book. He took out two hundred francs and put the notes down on the table. The others followed suit. They drew lots for the order of performance. La Tonnerre drew the first plan. He picked up a menu card and carefully drew a plan of the island on the back, indicating the position of the disputed town. The Dutchman, who had drawn second place, snorted with contempt and was in a fever to get to work. Directly La Tonnerre had finished, he snatched up the pencil and pored over the back of another menu card. Very laboriously, with the tip of his fat tongue pouting between his lips, he made a careful and exact plan of the island. When he was half way through, La Tonnerre rose and said:
"I'll get the atlas in the meantime."
He got up and walked out. The Dutchman had nearly finished his drawing, when Uncle Sem exclaimed:
"What's the matter?" growled the Dutchman.
"The notes! the notes! That fellow has taken the the notes!"
The Dutchman's eyes bulged. He glared round the table gasped, put his hand in his breast pocket.
"God in Heaven!" he wailed. "My pocket-book! my pocket-book! Which way did he go?"
"Good God! he's taken my pocket-book too!" said Uncle Sem. "Curse him! the thief! the dirty thief! I believe he went out this way."
And he jumped up and dashed to the door. The Dutchman dashed after him. Jules was left alone. The thing had happened so quickly that the other occupants of the café had not time to take it all in. Besides, in that part of the world they are accustomed to quarrelling and gambling among seafaring men. It is advisable sometimes not to be too curious. A waiter came up to Jules and said:
"What's the matter?"
"That stranger who came in went off with my pal's notes," he replied.
The waiter shrugged his shoulders. Jules got up to follow the others. Just as he rose his eye was attracted by a face on the other side of the room. It seemed vaguely familiar. It was the face of a young man, talking to a girl. What was disturbing was that the young man was staring at him and quite patently talking to the girl about him. As he reached the door, he remembered in a flash that it was the young clerk to the Jew who had bought the field-glasses. Once through the door, Jules ran as fast as he could until he had put several abrupt turnings between himself and that sinister café. He was terribly frightened. His heart was beating against his ribs. The appearance of the young clerk from the pawnbroker's shop seemed to be a portentous climax to the sordid adventure. He must keep clear of that side of the river for some time. He went a long way round, and avoiding the Pont de Bordeaux, crossed the river by the railway bridge. His teeth were chattering when he rejoined the other two in that crazy room in the Place Duquesne. He found Uncle Sem feeding a fat moulting canary with lumps of sugar, and calling it endearing names.
La Tonnerre was stretched luxuriously on an old couch, eating sardines out of a tin. The evening had been a great success. The Dutchman's wallet had contained seven thousand three hundred francs.
"Nevertheless," said La Tonnerre, "Uncle Sem thinks a little change of scenery might do us all good. Scatter, Uncle, eh? Wait till the Dutch pig has had to return to his greasy country. I'm for the South, I. I know a pair of dark eyes at St. Jean de Luz that always welcome me, especially when I can slap my pockets, and throw a franc or two around at random."
"I have an urgent affair to attend to in Paris, my children," said Uncle Sem. "Some dear relations I must visit. They miss me dreadfully."
One eye appeared to be on the door, whilst the other was searching the opposite curtain-pole. "Tweet! tweet! There's a little darling! Tweet! tweet!"
Jules sat morosely apart. Where should he go? What should he do?
"Wherever I go I know that—the fall is not far off," he thought. The fall! He was high up now, and there was that courtyard down below. Oh!...He stood up and pretended to yawn carelessly.
"I shall stay in Bordeaux," he said, and stumbled towards the door.
"Imbecile!" hissed Uncle Sem, and then he appeared to chuckle with malevolent glee. "Tweet! tweet! There's a dear little bird for you!"
It was coming nearer. Ice-cold hands were clutching at his ribs, drawing him up, preparing to hurl him down.
Three days had elapsed since Uncle Sem and La Tonnerre vanished from Bordeaux. His pockets were well-lined with notes and silver. He drifted from restaurant to restaurant, from café to café, consuming quantities of rich food and wines, which gave him no satisfaction. The richer the repast the more violent the reaction. That morning he had seen the young clerk again with the same girl. They were going out of a café where he was seated. He thought the girl looked at him, but he could not be certain. He felt too apathetic to leave. He sat there drinking absinthe, and watching the door. He was waiting.
But no one came, and after a while he went out. All the afternoon he wandered about the docks. The familiar scenes had lost their attraction. He felt impatient for the crisis. This could not go on indefinitely. It was now early evening. He was seated at another café in the Rue Maille. The hour when one dines. But no, he had no desire for food. Even the sight of a glass of absinthe nauseated him. The thing was too near.
The café was dimly lighted and almost deserted. He was still watching the door. A few seafaring men passed in and out. Soon it would be quite dark. Why didn't they light up the café? Lights...
Two sturdily-built men entered together. One had a paper in his hand. They glanced round, whispered, and came up to him. The one with the paper, said:
"Monsieur Max Renault, alias Anton Sachs, alias Jules Destourney?"
Jules did not answer. He lay in a heap, staring at the well-filled glass.
"We hold here a warrant for your arrest."
Well, what was it? The Dutchman, or—?
"You are arrested on an extradition warrant from the Spanish Government, charged with the murder of an Englishman, John Watson, five kilos from Fuenterrabia, on the afternoon of the 17th August. Have you anything to say? Anything you say will—"
The scream came at last. There were none of the choked gaspings of a dream. The fuddled mists cleared away. He experienced a moment crowded with the pellucid vision of the onrush of a huge steel knife! It had come—the ghastly end. Then the room swung into darkness, filled with shouts and screams—his own. Followed a period of impenetrable blackness, discomfort, and terror. Frightened to focus...But it came at last. Where was this? Where was it? He was lying in a bed. A dim light at the other end of the room revealed other beds—five of them. A figure in blue was walking by, clanking a bunch of keys. The air seemed to be filled with a pornographic roar. Snoring. The other five beds seemed to be occupied by men determined to snore their way to hell. His heart was still behaving queerly, but bit by bit the true position was dawning on him. A gaoler! This must be the prison infirmary. They had him at last. How did they discover it all? Vultures! The Englishman, John Watson, an inert piece of matter! The field-glasses.
"Why did you throw the case away? Imbecile!"
Where was Uncle Sem? Why wasn't he here? He deserved everything and always escaped. Liar, thief, seducer, murderer, property receiver...Tweet! Tweet!
What a satisfaction to wring that fat canary's neck! Crush it under foot! Where was La Tonnerre?
But they had him. That was the fact to be faced—they had him at last, Jules Destourney. The Englishman, John Watson? Ah, God, if he were the only one! The long relentless arm of the police, the cold, relentless logic of the courts, the calm, inevitable chain of evidence prepared by Inspector Tolozan, who had been watching him for years—what chance had he to stand against it? It couldn't be faced. Something must be done. Some exit must be found. He lay there, with eyes half-closed. A figure in a white overall passed through, other figures, vaguely occupied.
It must be the middle of the night, The man in blue clanked by once more. He went to the end of the room and talked with someone behind a screen. The door had been left ajar. Yes, there was one thing he could do. Escape!
He slipped out of bed, and was surprised at the ease and silence with which he glided through that door...like a ghost. In a flash he was along that corridor, and turned down two others. The place was all in darkness.
Here and there were piled-up trestles, and planks and short ladders. Pails of size and lime-wash were lined along the wall. This must be one of the Superintendent's quarters, being re-decorated. Without any hesitancy, he opened a door and entered a room. It was bare, except for more planks and trestles and lime-wash. The room was lighted by the light of the moon. He crept to the window. His heart beat violently. The window was not barred. Across a narrow alleyway was a low stone building, all in darkness. It must have been the Governor's house. This room was level with the roof. On one side of the building was an iron spiral staircase—a fire emergency staircase. This led to the Governor's private grounds. As far as he could see on the farther side was a wall not too high to scale.
But now this alleyway between the room and the roof opposite? It could be little more than three metres to the stone parapet. He quickly calculated the length of the painters' planks. One was at least three metres and a half, or four.
Someone would be coming! He listened at the door. There was no lock. It had got to be done boldly. He gripped the plank and thrust it through the open window. Good God it barely reached! He could not see how far on it was, but not more than the length of his first finger, he could swear.
It had got to be done. No time to lose. Again he was surprised at his own agility and nerve. He slipped quickly from the window-sill on to the plank. Crawl slowly across on hands and knees, that was the idea. He almost chuckled to himself as he swung carefully forward.
"They won't get me! They shan't get me!"
He had gone a metre and a half, and then he looked down on to the stone floor of the alley beneath.
In that brief instant he realized that he had reached the culminating terror of his life. It was predestination. This was no dream. He was going to fall! He lay there, completely paralysed with the certain knowledge of what was to happen. He was actively visualizing the whole experience. He was half-way across, and he could go neither backwards nor forwards. The ground beneath held him pinioned. The stone floor seemed to be sucking him towards it. He shook with an ague of terror, and at the same instant the plank seemed to be imperceptibly moving, as though he were rocking one end off its support. If anyone came they could not save him. Nothing could save him. He was going to fall!
He wanted to scream again, as in his dreams, but, curiously enough, the sounds were throttled in his breast in just the same way. And then the plank distinctly swayed. He fell forward on his face and clutched it. It turned up on one side. He flung his arms round it, and fell free, hanging by its narrow edge. And still he could not scream.
During the horrific instant that followed when he realized that his strength was feebler than the suction of the ground beneath, he was still perplexed with the problem of why it was he could not scream.
The plank slipped from its support on the wall opposite at the same moment that he lost his grip. His body seemed to drop and leave his heart where it had been, and his hands clutching the air. Some part of him was racing madly through space, and the ground was rushing up to strike the heart which he had left above him. His consciousness seemed to split up into a variety of vital activities. There was something rushing through his ears, like the roaring of a steam engine going through a tunnel. He was falling!
There was a sudden whirling vision of his mother stepping off the gangway of a boat and saying: "Come on, my little one. Are you tired then?" There was a hiss of water, the vision of a girl he had known once at Bayonne, named Lisette. She was weeping into an apron and crying out:
"No, no, not that! not that!" Other visions crowded simultaneously—his brother eating ginger-bread, Uncle Sem, and the canary which seemed to have reached vast dimensions, filling up a whole room. There was a fat man in a tweed suit lying on his face amongst some bushes, and coughing horribly. There was a half-vision, half-realization, of something bursting, blowing up to the sky in a horrible explosion of unbelievable violence. A crystallized instant in which all the anger, all the feral passions, crashed in an agony of blood...
"You think, then, Doctor Lancret," said Inspector Tolozan, as the two men entered the solemn mortuary, "that there will be no need for a post-mortem examination of the body?"
"None at all, Monsieur Tolozan," replied the doctor. "The cause of death was perfectly normal. The deceased passed away quietly in his sleep as the result of cardiac failure, probably due to the shock of his arrest and the nature of the charge against him. Such cases are not at all uncommon, as you know, not at all."
"You yourself were on duty. Monsieur le docteur?"
"Yes, Monsieur Tolozan. When the—er—deceased was brought in at 8.20 p.m. he was in a state of coma. We tested the heart and found it to be in a very bad condition, very bad condition indeed. He slept soundly until 3.20 a.m. when the attendant called me to say that number 107 was showing signs of collapse. I arrived, but we could do nothing. He sank rapidly and passed away at three minutes past four. Um—yes, that was how it was. Are you going to Madame Lombard's reception to-night?"
"No," answered Inspector Tolozan. "No, I am not going."
"You will excuse me, Monsieur Tolozan? I have much to do before..."
"But, certainly, Monsieur le docteur, and thank you." The doctor bustled out, and Inspector Tolozan turned once more to the body covered with a white sheet. He raised the cloth and regarded the features of the criminal, now immutably set in calm repose.
And there crept into his eyes an expression of pity and wonder. This analyst of human frailties, this solver of human problems stood meekly in the presence of a mystery beyond his powers to solve.
With a reverent gesture he replaced the cloth and went out quietly.
The iron fingers of habit probed his consciousness into the realization that it was seven-thirty, the hour to rise. He sighed as he pushed his way to the surface through the pleasant obscurity of tangled dreams. And then, oh, joy! his conscious brain registered the abrupt reflection that it was Sunday. Oh, happy thought. Oh, glorious and soporific reflection! He sunk back again, like a deep sea monster plunging into the dark waters of its natural environment. There passed a long untroubled passage of time, in which his sub-conscious mind dallied with ecstatic emotions. Then slowly and reluctantly he blinked once more into the light of day and knowingness. This re-entry was accompanied by the pleasant sound of running water. His wife was in the bathroom, already getting up. Her activity and the sound of her ablutions added a piquance to the luxury of his own state. Oh, Sunday, glorious and inactive day!
His mind became busy with the anticipations of his own inactivity.
Breakfast in bed! When he won the Calcutta Sweep-stake he would always have breakfast in bed. There was something irresistibly luxurious about sitting up snugly in the warmed bed, eating toast and bacon and drinking hot tea that someone else, pottering about in the cold, had had to prepare. And when one had had breakfast one was a man, fortified for anything, even to the extent of getting up.
His wife came back into the bedroom, wearing—oh, those funny things that women wear underneath deceptive frocks. He had been married for sixteen years and the vision of his wife in these habiliments did not produce in him any great manifestation of interest. He realized that he wanted his tea, and his interests were more nearly concerned with the estimate of how long it would take her to finish dressing and go downstairs and make it. And after breakfast—oh, that first cigarette and the indolent stimulus of reading the Sunday newspaper from cover to cover His wife was chatting away about the cook-general, who was ill, and he boomed out a lethargic yes or no according to the decision which he believed that she expected. Oh, luxurious and delicious indifference!
She bustled away at last, and he listened entranced to the distant sound of rattling plates and tea-cups. A pity that Jenny had to get the breakfast herself, but there I she didn't have to go to the city every day in the week, and besides—if was the woman's sphere. His conscience was serene and satisfied, his senses aroused almost to exultation by the sudden and insidious smell of frying bacon.
When she brought the tray he roused himself valiantly to say the gracious thing, for he realized that the situation was a little dangerous. His wife was not in too good a temper over this affair of the fool of a cook. If he was not careful, she would want him to do something, chop wood or bring up coals, some angular and disturbing abrasion upon the placidity of his natural rights. However, she left the breakfast tray without any such disquieting threats.
He stared at the tray, when she had gone, as a cat may look at a mouse which she has cornered, realizing that the great charm of the situation lies in the fact that there is no hurry. At last he poured himself out a large cup of tea, and drunk it in gulps. He then got busy on the bacon and the toast. He ate up all the bacon carefully and thoughtfully, cleaning up the liquid fat with a piece of bread. He began to feel good. He drank more tea, and ate slice after slice of buttered toast, piled up with marmalade. At last he sank back on the pillow replete. Then he reached out and took his cigarette case out of his coat pocket. He lighted a cigarette and opened the Sunday newspaper. Then indeed did he reach the culmination of all his satisfactions. Strange how much more interesting and readable a Sunday me wspaper is than a daily paper. A daily paper is all rush and headlines, designed entirely for the straphanger. The Sunday paper was conceived in the interest of breakfasters in bed. It is all slow-going and familiar. You know just where to look for everything, and you almost know what will be printed there. He first of all read carefully the results of all the previous day's football. Queer that he should do so, for he had not played football for twenty-five years, and then very indifferently. But he had sneaking affections for certain clubs and he looked eagerly to see how they were faring. Then he read the General news. Everything seemed interesting; even political speeches were not too dull, but divorce and criminal cases were thrilling. He took no interest in literature, drama or music, but sayings of the week, police court news, foreign intelligence, even Court chat, absorbed him. He read the advertisements and then the football news again, knocking the ash off his cigarette into the tea-cup. Sometimes his arms would get cold holding the paper, and he would put it down and tuck them under him. He would stare around the room, and glow with proprietorial delight. Then he would pick up the paper and start all over again. His splendid reveries were eventually disturbed by the voice of his wife calling from below:
"Jim, are you going to get up to-day or to-morrow?"
Dear, oh dear! Disturbing and alarming creatures, women. No sense of repose, no appreciation of real tranquillity. However, it must be getting late, and the morning constitutional to give one an appetite for lunch must not be disregarded. He devoted another ten minutes to an inert contemplation of the function of rising and dressing, and then rolled out of bed. He went into the bathroom, and lighted the geyser for his weekly bath. When the water was hot enough he drew off some for shaving, and returnedjto the bedroom for his new packet of safety razors. He caught sight of himself in the long mirror which his wife used. The reflection was so familiar that it produced in him no emotion whatever. He felt no misgiving about the puffy modelling of the face, the dishevelled strands of disappearing hair, the taut line made by the cord of his dressing-gown where it met around his middle. He was just himself, getting up. Besides, no man looks his best first thing in the morning.
When he returned to the bathroom he was in gay spirits. During the operation of shaving he made curious volcanic noises meant to represent the sound of singing. Running water always affected him like that. The only disquieting element in this joyous affair was the fact that steam from the bath kept on clouding the mirror. He kept on rubbing it with a towel, shaving a little bit, then rubbing again, to the accompaniment of many damns and confounds. When that was over he pondered for some moments on the question of whether he should clean his teeth first, or have his bath. As the room was beginning to get full of steam, he decided on the latter course. He got in and let himself down slowly, for the water was very hot, and though his legs could stand it, other portions of his anatomy were more sensitive. He let in some cold water and settled down with a plomp. He soaped himself, and rubbed himself, and lay on his back, splashing gently. Glorious and delightful sensation. If he had time he would like to have a hot bath every day, but how could you expect a fellow to when he had to be in the city every day at nine-thirty? He got out of the bath, hot and pink and shiny. He dried himself, and cleaned his teeth. There! all the serious side of getting up was accomplished. During the performance of dressing he smoked another cigarette. He dressed very slowly, and deliberately, putting on a clean shirt, vest, socks and collar. Golly! he felt good. He puffed out his chest, opened the window, and brushed his hair. He was rather pleased with his general appearance of respectability.
Now came the dangerous moment. He had to go downstairs. Would he be able to escape without being ordered to perform some unpleasant task by his wife? He went down, humming soulfully. In the sitting-room the fire was burning brightly, but Jennie was not there. He could hear her bustling about in the kitchen, already preparing the solemn rites affecting the Sunday joint...no insignificant ritual. He wandered about the room, touching things, admiring their arrangement. He picked up two letters, which had come by the last post the previous night, and read them again. One was from his wife's sister at Ramsgate, full of details about the illness of her husband. The other was from a gentleman offering to lend him any sum of money from £5 to £10,000 on note of hand alone, without security. He tried to visualize £10,000, what he could do with it, the places he could visit, the house he could rent on the top of Hampstead Heath, a few dinners at the Savoy perhaps, a month in Paris (he had never been abroad). Then he tore the letter up and went into the kitchen.
"Er—anything I can do, my dear?"
"No, except to get out of the way."
She was obviously on edge. Women were like that, especially first thing in the morning...curious creatures. He picked his teeth with a broken match, which happened to be conveniently in a waistcoat pocket. Anyway, he had done his duty. He had faced the music.
"Well, I'll just go for a stroll round," he murmured ingratiatingly. He had escaped! A pallid sun was trying to penetrate a nebulous bank of clouds. The air was fresh and stimulating. A muffin man came along, ringing his bell. He passed two anaemic women carrying prayer books. At the corner of the road "was a man with an impromptu kiosk of newspapers. He hesitated as to whether he should buy another newspaper. His wife wouldn't approve. She would say it was extravagant. Well, he could read on a seat on the top of the heath, and leave it there. But still—he resisted the temptation and walked on. The streets had their definitely Sunday look. You could tell it was Sunday in a glance...milk, prayer books, newspapers, muffins, wonderful! Dear England! A crowd of hatless young men on bicycles came racing along the Finchley Road, swarms of them, like gnats, and in the middle a woman riding behind a man on a tandem. They were all laughing and shouting with rather common voices...enjoying themselves though, off to the country for the day.
"The woman looks like the queen gnat," he reflected. "They are pursuing her. The race to the swift, the battle to the strong." He was pleased with the luminance of this reflection. A boy asked him for a cigarette picture. He shook his head and passed on. Then he wondered whether...well, he had several in his pocket, but somehow he felt it would look silly to be giving cigarette pictures to a boy in the street. He didn't like that kind of thing. It made him conspicuous. Passers by might look at him and say: "Look at that fat man giving a boy cigarette pictures." And they might laugh. It was all very curious, foolish perhaps, but there it was.
He knew he was going to walk up to the top of the heath, and along the Spaniards' Road, but he never liked to make up his mind to. He walked there by instalments, sometimes almost deciding to turn back, but he invariably got there in the end. Besides, what else could he do? Dinner was not till half-past one. He couldn't go home, and there was nowhere to sit down. Going up the hill he was conscious of the disturbance of his pulmonary organs...heart not too good, either, you know. The day would come when this would be too much for him. He enjoyed it when he got there. Oh, yes, this was a joyous place...heartening. He liked the noise, and bustle, and sense of space and light. Nearly every Sunday for twenty years he had walked up here. It was where the Cockney came to peep out of London, and regard the great world, the unexplored vista of his possessions. He was a little shy of it. He didn't look at the view much, but he liked to feel it was there. He preferred to watch boys sailing miniature yachts on the round pond, or to listen to a Socialist lecturer being good-humouredly heckled by a crowd. Every Sunday he had pondered an identical problem—why these public lecturers always chose the very noisiest spot on the whole heath, near the pond, amidst the yelping of dogs, the tooting of motor horns, the back-firing of motor bikes, and the din of a Salvation Army band. But there it was! This was England, perhaps the most English thing in all England. There were the young men in plus fours, without hats, old men with their dogs, red-cheeked women riding astride brown mares...cars, bicycles, horses, dogs, even yachts! There were the fat policemen in couples, talking lazily, their mission being apparently to see that the fiery gentleman by the pond was allowed free speech...There were boys with kites, and boys with scooters, boys with nursemaids. Oh, a man's place this. Many more men than women. Did not the predominance signify something vital, something pertinent to the core of English life—the Sunday joint? It was only the women with cooks who were allowed to adorn this gay company. And even then—could a cook be trusted? Wasn't the wife's or mother's true place basting the sirloin, or regulating the gas-stove so that the roast shoulder should be done to a turn?
These reflections caused him to focus his attention upon the personal equation. What was to be the Sunday joint to-day? He was already beginning to feel those first delightful pangs of hunger, the just reward of exercise in fresh air. The Sunday joint? Why, yes, of course, he had heard Jenny say that she had ordered a loin of pork. Pork! delicious and seductive word. He licked his lips, and visualized the set board. It was not entirely a misfortune that the cook was ill, for Jenny was a much better cook. The pork would be done to a turn, with its beautiful brown encasement of crackling. There would be apple-sauce, Brussels sprouts, and probably lovely brown potatoes. He would carve. It was only right of course that the master of the house—the breadwinner—should control this ceremonial. There were little snippy brown bits—and that little bit of kidney underneath—that—well, one didn't give to a servant for instance.
He passed the orator once more, and overheard this remark:
"The day is coming when these blood-suckers will be forced to disgorge. They will be made to stew in their own juice. Look at Russia!"
Nobody appeared to be looking at Russia. With their pipes in the corner of their mouths they were looking stolidly at the speaker, or at the boys and their yachts. Dogs were barking furiously, and motor horns drowned any further declamation till he was out of hearing. The two fat policemen were talking about horse-racing. Oh, wonderful and imperishable country!
He had heard men talk in that strain before—but only in the city or in stuffy tea-shops. They spoke with fear in their hearts. Something was always going to happen. They didn't quite know what, but it was always something awful, and the country was just on the eve of it. But up here, amidst these dogs and bikes and horses you knew that nothing could ever happen to England. Everybody just went on doing things, making the best of things. The air was sweet and good. There was the Sunday joint in the offing, and the Cup Final next Sunday to be discussed.
He looked at his watch and proceeded to walk slowly homewards. It cannot be said that he thought about anything very definite on the way back, but his mind was pleasantly attacked by fragmentary thoughts, half-fledged ambitions to make more money, anticipations of a masonic dinner the following week, the dim vision of an old romance with a girl in a tobacconist shop at Barnes. But at the back of his mind there loomed the solid assurance of the one thing that mattered—pork! He played with the vision, not openly but secretly. After the pork there would be pudding. He didn't care much about pudding, but there was a very good old gorgonzola to follow, and then a glass of port. After dinner a cigar, and then the Sunday newspaper again until he fell into that delightful doze in front of the fire. Oh, blessed day!
His timing was superb. He arrived at The Dog and Dolphin at exactly one o'clock, in accordance with a time-honoured tradition—the gin and bitters to put the edge on one's appetite for dinner. The bar was filled with the usual Sunday morning crowd, some who had risen just in time for the bar to open, other stalwarts like himself, who had earned their appetiser through walking.
He was just ordering a gin and bitters when a voice said:
"Hullo, old boy, have this with me."
He turned and beheld Beeswax, a fellow city man. They had known each other for fifteen years, meeting nearly every day, but neither had ever visited the other's house. He said:
"No, go on, you have it with me."
They went through the usual formula of arguing who should pay for the first drink, both knowing quite well that the other would inevitably have to stand another drink in return. They stood each other two drinks, making four in all. In the meantime they discussed old so-and-so and old thingummy, trade, dogs, tobacco and females. Then he looked at his watch again. Just five-and-twenty past—perfect!
"Well, old boy, I must be off or I shall get into trouble with the missus."
He walked quite briskly up the street, feeling good. Life wasn't such a bad business to a normal man, if he—looked after himself, and on the bright side of things. Pork, eh?
He knocked his pipe out against the parapet in the front garden, walked up the steps, and let himself in. He hung up his coat and hat, and was about to enter the sitting-room, when he became abruptly sensitive to disaster. It began in the realization that there was no smell of roasting pork, no smell of anything cooking. He felt angry. Fate was going to cheat him in some way or the other. He did not have long to wait. His wife came screaming down the stairs, her face deadly white, her hair awry.
"Jim! Jim!" she shouted, "rush to the corner quick. Fetch a policeman!"
"What?" he said.
"Fetch a policeman!"
"Moyna. She's dead. I went upstairs an hour ago and found her lying fully dressed on the floor. The gas-stove was turned on. She looked awful, but she wasn't quite dead. I dragged her into our room, and fetched a doctor. He did what he could, but she died. She's lying dead on our bed. The doctor's up there now."
"Don't argue. Fetch a policeman. The doctor says we must."
He fumbled his way out into the hall, and put on his hat and coat again. He knew it was no good arguing with his wife when she was like that. Damn! How wretched and disturbing and—inconvenient. He walked slowly up the street. What a disgusting and unpleasant job—fetching a policeman—beastly! He found a ripe specimen at the comer, staring at nothing. He explained the situation apologetically to the officer. The latter turned the matter over in his mind and made a noise that sounded like: "Huh-huh."
Then the two strolled back to the house at the law's pace, and talked about the weather. He found his wife in the sitting-room, sobbing and carrying on, and the doctor was there too, and another woman from next door.
"I believe these women rather enjoy this kind of thing," he reflected, the fires of hunger and anger burning within him. They all went upstairs and left him to ruminate. What a confounded and disgusting nuisance! Anyway, what did Jenny want to carry on like that for about a servant. Who was she? She hadn't been there long, about two weeks. She was an Irish girl, not bad-looking in that dark way. He seemed to remember that Jenny said she was married or something. Some man had been cruel to her, cruel and callous, she had said. She used to cry. Confound it! Why was it so difficult to get a good servant? But there it was. Jenny would carry on and be hysterical all the afternoon. There would be no dinner. Perhaps a snack of cheese or something on the quiet. Women were absurd, impossible. You couldn't cope with them. They had no reasoning power, no logic, no sense of fatality, no repose. It was enough to make one boil...pork, too!
When the iron door of the cell clicks to, and the convict is shut in for the night, it is not often that the sound produces in him a sense of elation. But to them all there is perhaps one occasion when it does so—the night before release.
At the sound of that familiar click the mind of Raymond Calverley instinctively registered the phrase, "The last time!"
When the door was opened again he would be free. The price would have been paid. Till now he had hardly dare visualize this moment. There had been whole days, whole nights, whole years when he could not persuade himself that it would ever come to pass. He felt sick with agitation. He sat upon the bed and buried his face in his hands. Free, really, really free! He had been a good sleeper, but to-night he would not sleep. Memories, fears, anticipations raced through his brain. In a few hours more he would be facing the outside world. There was something terrifying in the thought—facing the unknown. His sympathies quickened towards some of those old prison "lags" who, after serving twenty years or so, preferred prison life. It was, in any case, familiar and understandable. The outside world to them was completely bewildering. They didn't know how to cope with it.
But he—he was only forty-six, and he had only served five years and three months. Only! Five years and three months! Five thousand years and three hundred months. There had been moments during the first year when he thought he would go mad, when half an hour seemed like an eternity, and he would think:
"That's half-an-hour. Now there's to be another half-hour. Then another and another and another, and then eventually a whole day, and a whole night. Then all over again and again and again till a week passes. Then all over and over again till a month passes. Then the seasons change. It will be winter again, and then summer, and then winter again and then summer, and so on and on and on five times. And I'm changing all the time. The outside world is changing. All the things I desire are cut off from me. I shall never endure it. Oh, God!"
But he had endured it. The reality had come to pass. In a few hours...Of all the manifestations of Nature that which is called human is the most adaptable. As the years passed he found himself adapting himself to prison life, creating a life within a life. There were times when he even persuaded himself that he was happy. This was largely the outcome of a sense of physical well-being. Prison life suited him. He had been forced to work out in the open several hours a day, on the farms, and in the quarries, fourteen hundred feet above the sea on Dartmoor. The air itself was a tonic. He had been plainly but adequately fed. He had to retire for the night at five o'clock. He had been cut off from alcohol, which had been partly the cause of his undoing. During the last two years he had been allowed to smoke for half-an-hour twice a day, but that was all. Everything was regular, ordered, and methodical. He had no responsibility. He was physically fit, much fitter than he had been at any time since he left school. For part of the time he had worked in the carpenter's shop. He had come to like the smell of wood, and the sense of creating something which was going to be used. There had been odd moments when the whole atmosphere of the prison seemed friendly and satisfying. Some little concession would be magnified into a great act of kindness. He had had opportunities for reading, and greater ones for reflecting. And his dominant reflection had been: "I must so manage my mind that I do not eternally regard myself as a criminal." His struggle for self respect had been acute. To foster this he took all the trouble he could with his personal appearance. A wise provision of recent years allows the convict a safety razor and the liberty to wear his hair as he likes. Raymond took advantage of this. He shaved every day, and brushed his grey locks carefully, sometimes even lubricating them with a little of His Majesty's butter! His skin was tanned with sun and wind. He would return to the outside world a better specimen physically. But mentally and morally? here were greater difficulties. His mind said: "I was guilty. I let things drift. I was weak and foolish. I saw an opportunity to make a great sum of money easily. I was dishonest. I was found out. They punished me. I have paid the price. To this extent I am purged. I see things more clearly now. I shall not be dishonest again. I have no desire to be. I have lost the desire in the same way that I have lost the desire for alcohol. I just want my chance to be a decent citizen again. But will they let me? What will be their attitude towards me? Above all—how can I face my son?"
At this point in his reflections he would groan aloud, for his son was the mainspring of his life.
Raymond had been an importer of chemicals, with offices in Fenchurch Street. At the age of twenty-two he had married the daughter of a wealthy shipbroker. After their first passionate attachment he and his wife found that their interests did not dovetail. Had it not been for the son who was born the following year, it is possible that he and his wife would have agreed to separate. Not that there was any serious breach between them. It was simply that familiar cleavage of little things. It took years to discover that they had little in common, and when the discovery was made each prepared to make the best of it—not an unusual marital position. They had remained on perfectly friendly terms, and it was only over the upbringing of the boy that they came into conflict, and even then the contest was conducted without bitterness.
His wife was a Society woman, with Society interests. She rode, hunted, played golf, took the waters at fashionable places abroad, went to church, and backed horses. Raymond liked books and rambling in the country, and that Society spelt with a small "s" which one meets in country inns or London taverns. When his wife condescended to come to London they shared the same house, but they made all their arrangements independently by mutual consent. But when it came to the arrangements about the boy, Ralph, they were forced to compromise. If he wanted the boy in London, she would want him in Yorkshire. If he wanted to take him for a holiday to Cornwall, she would want to take him to Trouville. If he wanted him to go up to Oxford, she would insist on Cambridge. And so the ding-dong race went on, with Kathleen usually a neck or two ahead.
With his wife usually abroad, and his son at college, Raymond would have led a lonely life in the large house in Russell Square. Only there are clubs. He belonged to several and he was a good club man. Many considered him an ideal club man, being genial, lavishly hospitable, and a good raconteur. He drifted into the habit of lunching in clubs, dining in clubs, and calling at clubs between meals. Like many men of his kind, without being a drunkard, he drank considerably too much, in the sheer exuberance of social intercourse. He could afford to be generous, as his business was successful, and his wife had a large private fortune of her own. But one day he was tricked by some Argentine gentlemen, and lost a very large sum of money over a deal in nitrates. The bitterness of this acted upon him disastrously. He was worried by the complications arising from it, and he drowned his distress in the accustomed way. He visited more clubs, and pubs. And unfortunately in one of these expeditions he met Max Rawle. Max was one of those people of no determinate age, nationality or profession, who nevertheless seem to embody all the vices of every age, nation, and profession, and to wrap up the same in a cloak of irresistible charm. He was a natural swindler. People knew he was going to swindle them, and they couldn't help it. They would even forgive him after the deed was done, so plausible and charming was he.
And under the influence of Max Rawle Raymond became as clay in the hands of the potter. They lunched and dined together, played billiards, and went to night clubs. Max was a brilliant talker, and had lived in strange lands and mixed with strange people.
The trouble had occurred soon after he and his wife had disagreed about whether Ralph should go up to Oxford or Cambridge. As usual she had had her way, and Ralph had gone up to Trinity. Kathleen went off to Biarritz and had no intention of returning till the end of the term. Raymond followed the easy path and found himself getting into debt, and his moral fibre slackening. He was too proud to apply to his wife for money to stabilize his affairs. And one mad evening Max dangled before him the lure of a mighty opportunity. It could hardly fail. So ingenious and yet so simple did the scheme appear that Raymond was astonished that it had never occurred to anyone before. It concerned the transference of certain blocks of interests backwards and forwards between two different companies at the opportune moment, thus giving an inflated appearance to both. It hardly seemed dishonest in the way that Max devised it. They were to go shares. But a few days after he had completed his part of the bargain, Max had disappeared, and nothing had been seen of him since. Raymond was left in the air. He was unable to explain his position. A long and involved commercial trial resulted in his being condemned to seven years penal servitude for fraud. With a good conduct record this had been reduced to five years and three months.
But how was he to face his son? His wife had taken the matter better than he had anticipated. She had even written to him regularly every three months, formal little letters about the boy and family affairs. She had upbraided him for not appealing to her when in financial straits. And had hinted that she would set him on his feet again when released. The boy had written him chatty school-boyish letters ignoring his father's crime; his only resentment being apparently that he had had to leave Cambridge before he had been up a year. He had been spending his time partly with his mother, who had settled abroad, and partly with a tutor in a remote village in Suffolk.
His son! Raymond would lie in his cell bed at night and groan. He would think of the boy at all the stages of his life. When he was a toddler and would lie in his arms, when he began to lisp and talk. When he would run to him and throw his arms around him. He could hear the sound of that baby voice: "Daddy, daddy!" And then he taught him all the simple things, and Ralph went to school. How proud he had been when the boy came home and asked his advice and help. He would see the little sturdy figure come swinging along the street, a satchel strapped over his scarlet jersey. His handsome eager face would light up with pleasure when he saw his father. And they would go for walks together, holding hands, and talking about birds, and trees, and games. And the boy loved and respected him. He also loved and respected his mother, and he could not understand any differences between them. And so the parents compromised and patched up a union of sorts, but they were jealous of each other.
Raymond had loved to watch the unfolding of the boy's mind. He had loved the steady growth of their greater intimacy. He had searched fearfully for traces of his own failings and weaknesses. His greatest desire had been that the boy should be a better man than he. And everything pointed to his desire being fulfilled. Ralph was a good boy, unselfish, affectionate, easy-going, and considerate. He was intelligent, but he did not distinguish himself very notably at school either at work or play. But what did that matter? It is often the slow starter who wins the race. Besides, he would always be well provided for. Raymond knew that his mother had left everything to the boy in her will, and he did not resent one penny of it. They would never have any more children. This sense of security contributed largely to his own undoing. There was no need to make efforts. As the boy had become more independent, and his wife more occupied with her own affairs, Raymond became more detached and irresponsible. His business had run smoothly, requiring no great personal strain, and it didn't seem very important whether it succeeded or not. There was no great need for him to labour, neither did there appear any great call on him to set an example, when Ralph was at college. The boy had been launched. He had been handed health, security and good precepts. Raymond had felt that his obligations to society at large were not impressive. And he had begun to drift. The weakness was inexcusable, but it had taken the cold stern experience and suffering of prison life to make it clear to him. The price had been paid. He had so managed his mind that he would leave the prison feeling that he was no longer a criminal.
When the crash had come and he had stood in the dock at the Old Bailey, and listened to the suave voice of the judge condemning him to seven years imprisonment, there had flashed before his mind the image of Ralph's eager young face exclaiming:
"What's all this about, Dad?"
The boy would never believe he was a criminal. He simply could not understand. It had not been indeed a simple case to understand. He had been able to make the excuse, but not the defence, that he himself did not understand. He had muddled things up, signed the wrong papers. The excuse satisfied the boy of course. But the law is more explicit. The law gave him every opportunity, left him every loophole, but was relentless in the logic of its ordered facts.
But since that tragic day the boy had had five years to study those facts. He had come to man's estate. People would have told him, and explained to him, doubtless made things as unpleasant as possible—some of them. And he would have wanted to know—oh, so eagerly! He would not be likely to exclaim now:
"What's all this about, Dad?"
Even his voice would have changed. Oh, God!
He dozed fitfully until the morning light crept between the prison bars, when, strangely enough, he slept soundly, only to be awakened by the familiar click of the cell door.
"The last time!"
He dressed carefully, washed, and had his breakfast. He was led to a room where he filled up many forms. Then his clothes were given him. There was much clanking of chains and keys. Crossing the yard in charge of a warder he passed a working party on its way to the farriers. All of the convicts were familiar to him. Many of them would be there for ten years or more, and in two minutes he would be free! He shuffled along feeling a little ashamed, as though he were taking something from them which they had a right to share. As they neared the outer gate, the warder, a fat elderly person of the old school, said:
"Well, good luck, son!"
A lump came in his throat at this unexpected friendly gesture, and he could not reply. A great wave of pity flooded him, pity...oh, for all the world.
The gate opened. He stepped through into the sunshine. He heard it click behind him. He was free. He stood for a moment bewildered. Then he walked a little way up the road. There was no one about. He stood by a wall and wept, for no palpable reason. He felt curiously sick, like a man surfeited with rich food.
He had half expected...someone would meet him at the prison gates. But the street was utterly deserted. His wife knew of the day of his release and she had sent him money, but no hint of where she was or where the boy was. It was like starting life all over again. He was startled by the approach of a tall figure emerging from a house. His instinct was to run. It was a familiar figure coming to recapture him. A deep booming voice said:
"Well, Calverley, you're out, then!"
It was the prison chaplain. Raymond blinked and the chaplain held out his hand. As he held it he realised that this was the first human hand he had touched for five long years.
"Well, my good fellow, I trust you now to keep straight."
He resented this. Straight! What right had this person to lecture him—Raymond Calverley, the man who was no longer a criminal? Nevertheless he said weakly:
"I shall try, sir."
He wanted to get away. The chaplain made a few more unctuous remarks, but he did not hear them. He hurried away and walked to Princetown Station. He had a pass to London, and he sat in the corner of the waiting-room. The train did not go for nearly an hour. People regarded him furtively. In Princetown everything is known. Every porter on the station would know that he was a released convict.
The journey up was occupied with dreams. Dreams, and hope and fear, and wild anticipations. Where should he go? His wife had no house now in town, and he didn't know where she was, nor where the boy was. Oh, if he could only find Ralph!
He arrived at Paddington late in the afternoon and wandered around the streets adjoining the station. Everything seemed incredibly noisy and bewildering. Newspaper placards were announcing: "Fall of French Government." How futile and unimportant! Didn't they realize that the only important thing was: "Release of Raymond Calverley!" He would have been forgotten by now, although at one time his name had been very much in the public eye. At last he found a dingy little hotel in an obscure street, where he engaged a room. Then he had some tea and wandered the streets again, haunted by the vague idea that he might find Ralph. He went up to the West End and strolled down Regent Street, Piccadilly, and Mayfair. At the corner of Jermyn Street he met a man with whom he had done a lot of business in the past, an old club-fellow. He touched his arm and said:
The man turned and looked at him. An extraordinary scared expression came over his face. His eyes distended, as though he were staring at some strange and dangerous animal. He managed to say:
"Ho—yes, it's—Calverley, isn't it?"
"Yes. How are you?"
"All right. And you? You—er—"
"Yes, I'm free again."
He tried to smile, but the other man's terrified mien froze the smile upon his lips. His expression seemed to say:
"How on earth am I to escape from this awful predicament?"
They exchanged a few banal remarks, and parted, without any reference to the past, or suggestions for the future. As he walked away Raymond winced.
"So that's to be it, is it!" he thought.
The restaurants were crowded with gay diners. If he cared to, he could enter any one of them. He was free. He could mingle with his fellows, and buy rich foods and good wines. But he felt no such inclination. It was too late. He was not accustomed to feeding after five o'clock. He did not feel hungry, and drink he knew would upset him. Moreover, his experience with his old business colleague damped his enthusiasm for social life. He might meet others who would treat him in the same way. How could he expect them to know that he was no longer a criminal? that his mind had been purged of its weakness and self-indulgence?
He wandered about till nine o'clock when a great sense of melancholy and exhaustion overcame him. He went back to his hotel, and to bed. They had given him a room at the end of a dimly-lighted corridor on the second floor. He slept soundly till dawn, when he emerged through a tangled skein of dreams to consciousness. It was as though his own dreams were happy ones, but that they were eternally interrupted by the evil dreams of others. He washed and dressed, and finding that it was too early to obtain breakfast in the hotel, he went out to a coffee stall. He stood there drinking hot weak coffee, and eating hard-boiled eggs, and listening to a slightly inebriated gentleman in evening dress talking to two cabmen about God. The cabmen were laughing, and the coffee stall-keeper was joining in the argument earnestly. The morning air had a tang of hope and defiance. He took a hand in the argument and found himself laughing too. In this company he was happy and at home. No one knew him or cared. In the old days of his prosperity he had spent many a happy hour at a coffee stall. Here was something that had not changed...flotsam and jetsam seeking good-fellowship at the board of abstract argument. When the inebriated gentleman and the cabmen had departed he felt fortified to face his day's campaign.
In the uncertainty of his position he found one tangible spot—his wife's lawyers. They would know of her whereabouts and probably of Ralph's. He had been informed of "their address, and of the fact that they were empowered to pay him twenty-five pounds a month until further notice. He wandered the streets again till ten o'clock his eyes wistfully seeking, and his heart aching for his son. At ten o'clock promptly he presented himself at the office of Tidworth, Bates and Mashie in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He was kept waiting three-quarters of an hour before being shown into the office of an elderly red-faced man, in a white waistcoat, who said curtly:
"Yes, what is your business?"
"I want to know if you can tell me the whereabouts of my wife, Mrs. Raymond Calverley?"
The lawyer looked up quickly, his face expressing a kind of greedy morbid interest. It had something of the expression of his business friend of the night before, only less furtive. The lawyer was in no panic to get away. He had power on his side, and he was prepared to take a certain amount of cynical-enjoyment out of it. He coughed and said:
"Oh, so you are Raymond Calverley. Will you please show me your discharge? I understand that I am to—er—make you a remittance. What is your address?"
Raymond was patient during the formalities. When they were completed he repeated his first question. The lawyer took a long time to say:
"I'm afraid I am not empowered by my client to give you any such information."
Damn the man! Why did he call her "my client" and not "your wife"? Was the stigma of prison life to rob him for ever of even the social amenities? Not even to know where she lived? There flashed through his mind a sudden vision of a night when the nightingales sang in a Devonshire garden and the swift avowal of love passed from lip to lip. Could love like that die utterly? Could passion vanish upon the wind, like the skeleton of a dead leaf? He repeated inanely:
"Your client. Your client. I see." Then with greater vehemence:
"Perhaps then you can give me the address of my son?"
The lawyer was enjoying the spectacle of his helplessness. He shrugged his shoulders.
"I'm afraid I cannot even give you that information."
Raymond saw red.
"Damn you!" he screamed. "He's my boy. He's as much my boy as hers—more, I tell you. Who the devil are you to hold my son from me?"
"You are a little unstrung, Mr. Calverley."
"Unstrung! If you had been five-and-a-quarter years in prison—five thousand years in prison—your heart aching all the time for your boy—and the day you are released some stranger tells you that he will not tell you where he is—wouldn't you be unstrung?"
The lawyer replied in dead level tones:
"I cannot tell where your son is, because—I do not know."
"You do not know!"
"No, sir, I do not know."
Raymond gave a whine, like a dog that has been struck. He groped for his hat upon the table. As he did so his eye alighted on a pile of correspondence. One letter was projecting a little from the rest. It was headed: Hotel Marguerita. Pau. Just below was the top of a capital D. He recognised it as the way Kathleen formed this letter. His face betrayed no recognition. He stumbled from the room.
He would telegraph to Kathleen. Would she still be there? The world seemed terribly harsh. His mind was constantly irrupted by visions of Dartmoor, and strangely enough they were not unfriendly visions. Dolling, who was serving twelve years for manslaughter, and with whom he had had many whispered chats in the carpenter's shop—Dolling would be missing him. Two young warders, Garrod and Purvis, both had done him innumerable petty services. The moors would be grand under this mottled sky...some queer pull about the place...when you're utterly lonely.
He went to a post office and sent a telegram to his wife at Pau. He said:
"Am at Bond's hotel Paddington where is Ralph."
He tried to think of any friend he could go to in the meantime. He reviewed his old life and it seemed to reflect—clubs and pubs! He could never get into a club again, and pubs did not attract him. The illusory nature of friendships made in this way became clear to him. He would have to go abroad—America perhaps. If only he could find Ralph!
He waited for three days, and no telegram came from Kathleen. He wandered the streets and sat in public libraries, reading the newspapers and magazines, and trying to adj ust his mind to the social question. Human activities as recorded in these productions appeared to him complicated and futile. In the old days he had not seen them in this light. Perhaps he had not troubled to think about them. He had just accepted things as they were. Upon one matter he made up his mind definitely—he would find work. He would not go on accepting his wife's money in this ignominious manner.
On the third day he decided to go down to Ashtree, the village in Suffolk, where Ralph spent part of his time with the tutor. It was strange that the boy had made no effort to see him.
He arrived at Ashtree at dusk and left his bag at the local inn. He then asked for the house of Mr. Flanders, the tutor. With considerable difficulty he found it. It was over a mile from the village. His heart was beating violently when he rang the bell. A servant opened the door.
"Is Mr. Flanders in?"
"Yes, sir, what name?"
She looked at him a little queerly, but showed him into a sitting-room. In a few moments a thin elderly man entered the room. He started at sight of his visitor, and exclaimed:
"Oh, I thought it was—"
Then he stopped and scrutinized Raymond keenly.
"I came to ask after my son."
The elder man appeared very surprised. He stammered slightly.
"Your son? Your son? Yes. Yes, of course, your son. But he went up to London. He went up to—er—meet you, I understand."
"To meet me! but I haven't seen him. I expected him."
"H'm. Very strange, Mr. Calverley. I'm afraid I can't help you."
This respectable tutor, whom only poverty had driven to accept the tutelage of the son of a convict, was obviously anxious to be rid of the dilemma. With a few formal expressions of regret they parted. Raymond returned to the inn, and found that there was no train back to London that night.
He slept fitfully. What had happened to Ralph? Fear gripped him. He visualized all kinds of terrible things happening to the boy—accidents. The cup and the lip...oh, the grim irony of it! After living that eternity and then on the very day of his release—a skidding car perhaps, a train smash, a fall. At that moment Ralph might lie groaning in a hospital, calling for him. There was only one gleam of brightness in his sombre reflections—Ralph had meant to meet him. The tutor had said that hepiad gone to London on purpose. Freedom is a fine thing, butlove is greater than freedom. Indeed, freedom without love is a negative endurance. Before the dawn broke he had designed plans to find his son. He would enquire at the police stations and hospitals. He would put an advertisement in the agony column of the Times.
And when he arrived in London that was the first thing he did. He inserted:
"To Ralph Calverley. Am at Bond's Hotel, Paddington. Father."
He then rang up the police stations and hospitals. No, no one answering to the description of his son had been heard of.
He walked the streets disconsolately. London suddenly became a city of menace and despair. The people appeared hard-featured and cruel, beasts of prey stalking their victims, utterly indifferent to the feelings and passions of each other. The drone of the traffic was like the whirring of some great machine, grinding the bones and blood of men and women into a colourless pulp. He had never felt so lonely in his cell at Dartmoor.
Backwards and forwards between his hotel and the police station he walked for several days. No answer came to the advertisement in the Times.
One afternoon passing down a meagre street off the Edgware Road, he saw a poor bedraggled woman weeping on another's bosom.
As he passed he heard her say:
"The y 'im 'cause 'e was out of work and stole for us. And now they're turning us out—me and the five kids. What are we going to do? Oh, my Gawd!"
And he heard the other woman, who was also poorly but rather flashily dressed, one who wanders the streets, glancing obliquely—he heard her say:
"Sorl right, Annie, don't you worry. I'll earn money for yer. I'll keep yer goin' till things get brighter."
Without a second's hesitation Raymond dived his hand into his pocket and drew out all the money he had on him, nearly two pounds. He thrust it into the hands of the weeping woman.
"Go on with this, mother," he said huskily.
The woman stared at him, too amazed to speak. The other said:
"Hullo, who are you?"
And they looked into each other's eyes, this ex-convict and this woman who wandered the streets glancing obliquely, and the former said:
"I'm like you. I'm one of the lonely ones."
And he hurried away. Back in his hotel, he went up to his room and sat on the edge of his bed, as he had sat on the edge of his bed in that cell at Dartmoor, pondering, pondering...It was dusk. The working parties would be returning from the quarries. There would be whispered talks together, glints of light from the governor's house, the drone of the organ in the chapel...someone practising for to-morrow's service.
"Lead Kindly Light
Amidst the encircling gloom."
Oh, the weariness of it all! the injustice! His heart throbbed to the beat of that haunting melody. In a grey vision he seemed to see an endless procession walking, two and two, to the slow measure of that hymn—all the unhappy in the world, the outcast, and the weak. His breast was choked with sobs. He gripped the coverlet of the bed and muttered:
"Ralph! Ralph! oh, my boy, my little boy!"
The room grew darker, outside the traffic still roared relentlessly. He was about to throw himself on the bed, when the door opened quietly. A figure glided in and stood with its back to it. He peered forward, and saw a white ghostly face with hollow eyes, regarding him fearfully. He tried to stand up but fell back weakly on the bed. The figure said:
"Is that you, father?"
He stretched out his hands and groaned. The figure came nearer, and then shrank back again to the door. Raymond forced himself to rise. He beat the air with his arms, as though fearful that there were forces at work trying to keep him from his son.
"Ralph! Ralph! oh, my boy, my little boy!"
And as he advanced so did the other shrink back further.
His voice, husky with passion, called out:
"Ralph! Ralph! you're not ashamed of your old father?"
And still the figure cowered furtively by the door. He went close up and peered into his son's eyes.
"What is it, Ralph? What's the matter? My God! you look as though it was you who had committed a crime and not I."
The figure still seemed to be warding him off and the voice said faintly:
"It is I who have committed a crime."
And then the tension broke. The boy sobbed, and the father held him in his arms at last.
"What is it, Ralph? Tell me. Tell your father, boy. Who should not hear of it if not I?"
"For God's sake let me sit down. I'm so tired. I've been wandering all night. I saw your advertisement this morning. And even then I could not make up my mind to come. I'm so ashamed."
"Ashamed! Am I so pure? Am I likely not to forgive—not to understand my son?"
The boy buried his face in his hands and spoke between his fingers.
"I've been living foolishly, father, oh! for years now. Mother spoilt me, gave me lots of money. I got into a funny crowd—betting, drinking, women. She paid my debts again and again. Last Tuesday Lcame up from Ashtree. I had meant to go down to Dartmoor and meet you at the prison gates. But in the afternoon I met Reggie de Tourneville. He was staying at the Grand Eclipse Hotel He asked me to dine with him; then we went up to his room and had a few drinks. Afterwards we went on to some funny joint at Knightsbridge and played cards. There were a crowd of people there and we played baccarat, I won a hundred pounds in about twenty minutes With the excitement of that and the wine I had drunk I simply went off the deep end. I thought I couldn't lose. I plunged wildly. I loved the excitement, people watching me, pretty women, you know, and all that kind of thing. Then of course I began to lose. My luck varied but at about one in the morning I had lost four hundred pounds. I hadn't got it in the world. I had borrowed a hundred and fifty from Reggie. I didn't know where mother was. Besides, she had helped me out so often. She had left Pau. I think she was on her way home. I hadn't enough left to pay my hotel bill or the fare down to Dartmoor. I woke up the next morning feeling awful I wandered about the streets wondering what to do. And then I—I—"
The father's breath was coming in little stabs.
"Yes, Ralph, what did you do, boy?"
"Oh I mucked the whole day away. I hadn t the the courage. It was the next day I did it, the day you came out of prison, and I never met you Reggie had treated me badly, I think. He woifldn t lend me any more. I'm not sure the whole thing wasn t a plant. They got me there. There were other young chaps, too Any way, I kept on thinking of Reggie's room at the Grand Eclipse. When he lent me the money he had gone to a box which he kept locked up in a trunk. It was stuffed with notes. Late in the evening of that day I yielded to temptation. Reggie had gone out to dinner. I went up to one of the clerks downstairs and said casually:
"'Key of Number 141, please.' You know what those big hotels are. Nobody knows anything about anyone. There are dozens of clerks. He gave me the key. I went up by the stairs, and into his room. I forced the lock of the trunk with a poker, but I couldn't force the lock of the box. So I simply wrapped it up in paper and took it away. I took it back to my hotel. Then I borrowed a screwdriver and some pincers. I got it open somehow. Oh, God! what have I done? There were bonds and papers and all kinds of things and nearly three hundred pounds in cash. I never meant to take all that. I just wanted enough to carry on with."
"What have you done with it?" whispered the hoarse voice of the father.
"I've spent some of the money. All the other things I ve kept. I left the hotel, of course, and have gone to another one South of the river."
"What was the money in?"
"Treasury notes and fives, tens, and twenties."
"Have you changed any of the big notes?"
"I've changed one ten."
"They'll trace the number. Where did you change it?"
"At Cook's. I've taken a ticket for Paris to-night."
"Would anybody at the hotel be likely to identify you?"
"That's what I'm not sure. There are over a thousand passing through every day."
"Reggie will suspect you, of course."
"He's bound to, after what happened. Oh father what can I do? I'm terrified. It means—"
"It was my fault, boy, my crime which led to it. I should have been here to look after you."
"No, no, I've no excuse. I'm finished. And oh, father, I've been so yearning to have you back."
The young man broke down and wept. Raymond pulled himself up. He paced the room for several minutes in silence. Then he said tensely:
"Ralph, boy, go and fetch me that box."
"Fetch it! Why father?"
"Listen to me, carefully. This happened on the night I came out of prison. Fetch me that box. You did not steal that box, Ralph!"
"What do you mean?"
"These old criminals! It's the same story. It's in the blood. You can do nothing for them. Directly they are released they start all over again—the very same day sometimes. You'll read all this in the papers in two days' time."
He laughed bitterly, and the young man looked up amazed.
"You don't mean to say you'd sacrifice yourself for me like that? Oh, I couldn't let you do it, father."
"Why not? If you strolled into an hotel and asked for a key and got it, why should not I, an old ex-convict? Besides, I am strong now. I could endure it. I have nothing more to live for. Your life is just beginning. But, oh, Ralph, boy, promise me—"
"No, no, no, father, I should go mad with remorse. I couldn't let you...oh!"
He gave a low scream of fright for at that moment there was a crisp tap on the door. When the door opened the father was standing as though at attention on parade, the son was cowering against the further wall. In the doorway stood Kathleen. They looked at each other, but no one spoke. Then she turned and shut the door quietly, and stood with her back to it. Her face was pale and drawn, and it suddenly flashed through Raymond that in this company of his wife and his son, he was the only one of flesh and blood. In the crisis which was about to spring on the three of them, it would be he—the ex-convict—who would have to hold the balance. Strangely enough she turned to him first, and her voice was gentle. She said:
"You are free, then, Raymond. I saw your advertisement, and I came to find out what it's all about. I arrived in England yesterday."
He bowed his head.
"I am free," he answered, "but I'm afraid not for long."
"What do you mean?"
"I have already got into mischief again."
The boy jumped up.
"It's a lie, mother. He is trying to shield me. I stole some money the day he came out, and he wants to make out it was he."
Kathleen's eyes glittered and a tear came into them.
"Ralph! Ralph! don't tell me this is true."
The boy swept to her and flung his arms around her.
"Oh, mother, save me. What am I to do? They'll catch me. I know they'll catch me. I've taken a ticket for Paris, but there'll be a man waiting there. He'll tap me on the shoulder. I've seen it all a hundred times these last few days."
"Why did you do this, Ralph? Have I not helped you before? I prayed to you to be less extravagant, but you know I would have helped you again rather than—"
She buried her face in her hands and wept.
"Oh, dear God! My husband and then my son, both—"
Raymond went to her and grasped her shoulders.
"Kathleen, it is only through the eyes of suffering that one sees things clearly and sees them whole. I have suffered and I have learnt to see. It is the life of ease that dulls one and breeds temptation. Give this boy a chance. You have given him everything else, but they have always been the wrong things. Don't let him go to Paris, let him go to where there are great open spaces, and life is a battle to survive. As for this money, what does it matter to me? I have accustomed myself to prison life. I shall be an old 'lag' in time, one who probably prefers prison life to freedom."
A queer expression crept over Kathleen's face as she regarded her husband. She said simply:
"You have changed, Raymond."
They were summng up in each other the toll of those five years. His hair had turned quite grey, but his figure was firmer and more erect, his eye clearer, and his skin healthier. She had become more fragile, her face paler, but she was still a beautiful woman. She turned suddenly to Ralph and said:
"Whom did you steal this money from?"
"Reggie de Tourneville."
Kathleen started, and her figure appeared to sway.
"Reggie de Tourneville!"
She put her hand to her bosom.
"Wait...wait..." she muttered. "Reggie de Tourneville! Indeed!"
She seated herself and pondered. At last she said:
"Ralph, do you love your mother?"
"Mother, how can you ask?"
"Kiss me, dear."
Ralph flung his arms around her and kissed her. She sighed contentedly.
"Now," she said, "you wait here, you two. I know Reggie de Tourneville. I have an idea I can settle this affair with him."
"No, no, mother, you mustn't demean yourself to that swine. He will only snub you, be rude to you. He has an awful reputation in every way. He's rich too, you can't buy him off."
"I can try. Wait for me, I may be some time. Do not move from this room."
And before they could protest she had gone.
The night was cold, and the wind and rain battered against the window panes of the little room. Father and son sat, one on the bed, the other on a chair, listening and waiting. There seemed to be nothing to say in this fateful interlude, or there was so much to say that their strained voices would make it seem unreal. The boat train to Paris went, and the dinner hour came and went. It was nine o'clock and Ralph said:
"She's a long time, father."
"Yes...yes, she's a long time."
Raymond was indeed restless and nervous, and sometimes he would jump up and pace the room. Ralph lighted a cigarette and offered his father one, but the latter would not take it. The room got colder and colder. At a quarter past ten Ralph said peevishly:
"What's she doing, father? She's an awful long time."
And Raymond replied a little hysterically:
"She's settling up! She's settling up!"
And about every ten minutes Ralph would exclaim:
"I wonder where she is. What is she doing, father? Why doesn't she hurry up?"
And Raymond had no response to make.
Came eleven o'clock, half past, a quarter to twelve, midnight, and still the two men sat there feverishly waiting. The ghosts in this meagre hotel had all retired. At a quarter past twelve Ralph was repeating his litany:
"What is she doing? Why doesn't she come, father?" when the latter suddenly exclaimed irritably:
"The parents sacrifice themselves for the children. And then the children grow up and sacrifice themselves for their children and so it goes on. The story of life is an epic of suffering and sacrifice. Birth is the tyrant." Then he lapsed into silence.
At a quarter to one Ralph exclaimed: "Listen."
There were footsteps in the corridor outside. The door opened and Kathleen stood once more before them. Her face was pale except for a spot in the centre of the cheeks, as though they had been slightly rouged. Her eyes sunk in their dark hollows, had an unnatural glitter. She sat down limply at the foot of the bed. The boy, his voice sounding reedy and thin, called out:
Speaking quietly and with perfect control, Kathleen said:
"To-morrow morning, Ralph, you will send that box back to Reggie de Toumeville, with all the bonds and papers. The money I have settled about. I think your father is right. I think it would be good for you to go away for a time, to Canada perhaps."
"I have been thinking about it, coming back in the cab. All these years that your father has—has been away, I have treated you too indulgently. I have perhaps been too indulgent myself. One's moral fibre slackens."
She gave a little sob, and the son threw his arms around her.
"Oh, mother, I will do anything you tell me."
She stroked his hair and whispered:
"There, there, dear, let us forget all about it, and start again. Now go. I want to speak to your father alone."
The boy embraced them both, then picked up his hat, and stumbled from the room.
Raymond waited for his wife to speak, but she sat there looking down at her hands upon her lap. At last he said:
"Well, Kathleen, what have you to say to me?"
"I'm very, very tired, Raymond."
He went up to her and kissed her lightly on the temple.
"Is that all, my dear?"
"No, can't you feel there's something more?"
He gripped her shoulders firmly.
"Kathleen, is it possible...would you after all—take me back?"
She whispered almost inaudibly:
"If you think I'm worthy of you."
The ex-convict laughed bitterly.
"We all have things to regret, Kathleen...Ralph and I and even you, perhaps. The fiercest joy is to know that one has someone to suffer for, someone who can make one suffer. During the last few days I have experienced the appalling loneliness of the crowded streets. But if you put your ear to the ground you hear the eternal rumble of pity passing from heart to heart. Only to-day I heard a woman offering to sacrifice herself for another. Even in prison I found this. It is the only Jhing that makes life worth while."
"Oh, Raymond, I was terrified of you returning from prison. I thought you would look criminal and bitter, but somehow you look finer. Come, give me your strong arms. I am so weary."
He crushed her to him and murmured:
"I will come for you to-morrow, dear."
For several minutes they clung to each other. Then he led her to the door, and opened it.
"The corridor is dark," she whispered.
He took her hand and whispered back:
"Yes, it is dark, but there is a light at the end. And if we hold each other's hands tightly we will find a way."
Jim Parker and I climbed a stile, walked a hundred yards along a sandy road, and came out on to a glorious common. The common was dotted with clumps of furze, gorse bushes, and beeches. Here and there a sandy pit broke the normal level of the landscape.
The origin of these weekly rambles of ours had been a mutual antipathy to golf. Paying the usual physical penalties of men who lead sedentary lives, we had each been advised by different doctors "to take up golf." Now golf may be an excellent game—
I'm not going to argue about it. We did experiment, and lost an enormous number of balls in an incredibly short space of time, but the insistent admonition: "Ah, old man, what you ought to do is to play golf," got on our nerves. We met in solemn conclave, and vowed that we would not be bullied into playing golf. Eventually we decided to absorb the benefits of golf without undergoing the nervous strain of chasing that absurd little white ball.
We rambled far afield. On this occasion we were just over the border in Buckinghamshire. Jim Parker sighed.
"I wonder they haven't turned this into one of their beastly golf courses," he said.
"Touch wood," I answered. "We're not across it yet." But no, there was no golf course on this nameless common. It was a delightful and deserted spot. We walked across it for half a mile, when we came to a kind of dingle formed by the opening into a long, narrow sand-pit. We were just passing it when Jim remarked:
"There's a queer habitation for you!"
I looked in the direction his stick was pointing, and beheld lialf-way up the dingle an odd-looking shanty in red and white.
"Um," I answered. "Let's go and have a look at it."
We entered the dingle and approached the rustic dwelling. At first it appeared to be a double-storeyed cabin painted rather gaily, with pots of flowers hanging from a balcony. On closer inspection the truth became apparent. On the lower part of the dwelling, dim but quite perceptible, was the word "General." It was an old converted "General" motor-bus! The owner had certainly been rather clever about it. The wheels had either been removed or were buried in the sand. The lower part remained practically intact, except for a surrounding wooden platform. The upper part had been roofed in with timber, and a balcony built out, supported by wooden posts. The woodwork was painted white; there were chintz curtains at the windows, and flowers in profusion in pots and tubs. A gay little dwelling. It was, I suppose, deplorably bad manners for Jim Parker and me to stand there and laugh. But there was something about the association of the "General" with this obscure and picturesque retreat that was irresistible. We were still laughing when a man came out on to the lower platform and regarded us. He was a tall, strongly-built man, with a neat, pointed brown beard, close-cropped hair turning grey, cold blue eyes, and the skin of a man who lives in the open. He bowed to us gravely, and said:
"Good morning, gentlemen."
We pulled ourselves together and responded. Then he added:
"I presume they have sent you from the inn to hear the story of the kidnapped General?"
It was the time of day when it was pleasant to hear that there was an inn in the offing, but we explained that we had come from the opposite direction, and that we were merely explorers, trying to escape from the tyranny of social custom. We had no intention of invading his privacy, but nevertheless the story of the kidnapped Generabpromised an entertaining diversion.
"Come and sit on this bench in the shade," said the sturdy individual. "I regret I have no liquid refreshment to offer you, other than water. My medical advisers—" He waved his hand in the direction of the dwelling as though the position explained itself. We all sat down and lighted our pipes.
"My name is McGregor," he said quite simply—"William McGregor, but the story of the kidnapped General circles round the character of one Ronny Skinner—Captain Ronald Skinner of the Royal Engineers. Skinner his name was, but the boys called him Grinner. He was that—essentially. He was a man who grinned through life. He grinned through triumph and through disaster. He grinned through battle and when things went wrong. He grinned even when he was bullied or betrayed. He was an irrepressible grinner. A stocky, merry, jolly chunk of a man who never had any luck, except that he always managed to escape with his life. His war record would probably bore you, it was like so many others. He was up to his neck in it the first week, temporarily attached to the R.F.A. as a motor-bike despatch rider. He was a wonderful chauffeur, and could drive any car. You may remember at that time they sent the despatch riders out in couples, one without lights carrying the despatches, the other lighted up as a decoy. Ronny was always the decoy. The war had only been on for five weeks when one night a shell blew his front wheel to pieces. He was captured by the Germans. He spent nine months in a concentration camp at Cassel. I believe he even grinned there. And then one day he and another man escaped, and got across the border into Switzerland. He reported and went back into the line. Does this bore you?"
"Not at all—most interesting," Jim Parker and I both interjected.
"He was over a year in Belgium, and he grinned when they removed a piece of shrapnel from the fleshy part of his thigh. 'Dashed lucky it didn't hit the bone,' he said. He grinned when they sent him to Salonika, and kept him hanging about for nine months in a fever-stricken marsh, playing football and cracking lice in his shirt. He even grinned in Gallipoli when the flood came and carried all his kit away, and he was eaten up by savage flying things and poisonous growing things. He didn't grin much when he really got the fever because he was unconscious most of the time. But he grinned when he found himself in a clean bed at Imbros. 'Golly! this is fine!' he said, and he hurried up to get well. He wrote to his girl in England. Did I tell you there was a girl? She was a pretty girl, the daughter of a wealthy provision merchant living quite near here. They were not officially engaged. He had very little money, and he had only just started his career when the war came. The father would not sanction it, and there was no mother. I can't tell you what he wrote to her, or what she wrote to him. But when her letters came he used to grin contentedly, so one assumes the girl was staunch. They sent him off to Egypt after that for another sixteen months and then back to Blighty. Jemini! didn't he grin when he saw the old white cliffs again! But that wasn't for long, mind you. In another month he was in France again.
"The fellow went through everything, right up to the retreat in March, 1918, and then the turn of the tide in July. Except for that one wound in his thigh he was never touched. When the end came he was in the army of occupation on the Rhine, grinning at the Boche housewives, and helping them hang out their clothes to air. And then they demobbed him and sent him back to England. In the meantime his father, who was an architectural sculptor, was ruined by the war. The old man had gone bankrupt, and was living with a married sister, not much better off than himself. There was no one to help the boy.
"When the war started Ronny was nineteen. He was now nearly twenty-five, and he had had no training. He could do nothing except drive a car. London was flooded with unemployed ex-service men who could drive cars. He had to get a job anyway, and he went about grinning into all kinds of offices and warehouses. Nobody wanted him. The war was over, and the great need now was economy and retrenchment. The girl was still writing to him, and so he went on grinning and hoping. But the girl's father forbade him to enter the house. He had made a lot of money during the war, and he wasn't going to have his daughter thrown away on a penniless, out-of-work loafer. His God, no, he wasn't.
"I don't know how Skinner eventually managed to get the job he did. Things must have been getting pretty desperate, but one day he blossomed out into a beautiful blue uniform with white piping and large black buttons. He was a driver on a London General motor-bus. And there he was sitting up in his box, grinning for all he was worth, responding to the clang of the bell, swerving through the traffic in a most skilful way. The company recognized that he was a good driver, and he was very popular in the yard among the other men. One day he received quite a promotion. There was a special motor-bus that used to leave South Hampstead at five minutes to nine in the morning and run express to the City—no stop. They charged a shilling per skull for the trip, and it was very popular amongst stockbrokers and City merchants. The 'bus was always full, and the men were allowed to smoke inside. There was an express return journey in the evening at five-thirty. To Ronny Skinner fell the great honour of driving this 'bus. The conductor was a man named Eyles, and they were great pals."
Mr. McGregor paused and looked at us, as though anxious to check the impression of his story on our faces. The impression apparently satisfied him, for he proceeded.
"I am now coming to the amazing crisis of this affair, which, although not kept secret, was never satisfactorily treated, or truthfully chronicled in the Press. It is not altogether surprising. Accounts varied, and when reported they usually appeared so incredible that cautious subeditors were afraid of their papers'being ridiculed. I was one of the few people who knew the truth, and even I never knew the whole truth. I have already told you that there was a woman in the case.
"Ronny Skinner drove that 'bus every day for just on four months. Every day there was almost identically the same crowd of men. They rushed up a few minutes before it started, with their newspapers and despatch-cases and pipes. They scrambled for the best seats, talked to each other or read their newspapers all the way down. They paid their shillings to the conductor but no one took the slightest notice of the driver. I don't think any of them would have recognized him. The 'bus always started to the minute and arrived to the minute. There was never a hitch or an accident of any sort. And yet one day during the first week of July Skinner received a week's notice. No reason was given. The notice merely stated that his services would not be required after the following Friday. The truth was that one of the directors of the company had written to the manager to say that a job had got to be found for a chauffeur who was in his employ, and whom he wanted to get rid of. This story got round. When Ronny heard it, he grinned and said: 'Oh, well, I'll have to look out for something else. That's all!' He'd been through the war, you see...Now, one thing which affects this story is a letter he received a few days later. It will be better if I don't tell you about this till later on. All that week Ronny grinned, and grinned, and grinned. There never was such a grin. And one night after the last trip he took Eyles out, and they went down town and did themselves well. The morning of his last day was a glorious summer's day, just like this, gentlemen. The 'bus was there outside Finchley Road Station twenty minutes before its time, with Skinner and Eyles already aboard. The stockbrokers and City merchants began to assemble. It was a very full load, and not only was it full inside and out, but there were five standing up.
"Five minutes to nine—clang went the bell! Grrh! Grrh! went the starter. She was off. The stockbrokers started their usual early morning badinage, papers rustled, cigar smoke curled upwards. Everything was delightfully as usual. The 'bus went along at its usual pace past Swiss Cottage. A little farther on it took a turning to the right down-hill.
"How provoking!" said the manager of a chain of tea-shops. "I suppose the road is up.' Several of the others looked equally provoked, but no one was unduly alarmed. At the end of a few minutes, however, a curious sense of misgiving crept over the company. The 'bus had taken another turning to the right and was going back in the direction from which it had come!
"Exclamations were flying around. 'What's the matter?' 'Why is he doing this?' 'Here, ring the bell.' Eyles was appealed to, but he only looked bewildered. He rang the bell. No notice was taken of it. Some of them tapped on the glass, but all they could see was Skinner's face, grinning furiously.
"In five minutes' time they were nearly a mile out of their course, and making for somewhere west of Golder's Green. The stockbrokers and City merchants began to get seriously alarmed. It was not only that the bus was out of its course, but it was being driven recklessly. It hardly slackened pace to go round corners. When impeded it dashed along on the wrong side of the road; it lurched through the traffic regardless of consequences. At one corner a policeman held up his hand to stop it, but the bus swerved past him, and at the last second he succumbed to the popular slogan of 'Safety First' and leapt out of the way. After that the 'bus went off the beaten track. It raced along side-streets, and was already getting out into the country. Now, I want you to get firmly fixed in your mind's eye the picture of that company of gentlemen being whirled away from their lawful occasions. I could give you the details of several specific cases. There was for instance, the chief cashier of a banking establishment in Lombard Street. He had the keys of the strong-room on him. It meant that the bank could do no business until he turned up. There was a barrister who had to defend a fraudulent company promoter at the Old Bailey at eleven o'clock. There was another man with six hundred and fifty pounds in cash in a bag. He had to pay off a ship's company down at Tilbury Docks at ten-thirty. The manager of the chain of tea-shops had to meet his directors at Cannon Street Hotel at ten, and render his annual report. There were innumerable board meeting appointments, business appointments, urgent affairs to be settled that morning, stocks to be disposed of, shares bought, certainties to be acted on, not even bookmakers to be overlooked, and here they all were rushing out into the country captive to the bow and spear (or shall we say wheel and lever?) of a madman!
"Englishmen as a rule have the reputation of taking this kind of adventure philosophically, but there was an element of outrage about this performance which infuriated them. Liberty of the subject indeed! It was the sudden realization of their utter helplessness which led to a condition of pandemonium. All they could do was to ring the bell furiously all the time, bang on the window, and yell out. 'Stop! Stop!' The men on top were no better off. They tried to get at the driver, but he is protected by a solid canopy. They could not even see him. They began to yell out to the passers-by, but the noise was so uproarious and confused, the passers-by merely thought it was some picnic or excursion party cheering, and they cheered back in response and waved their hats. The mad thing got right away into the country. Eyles was being bullied and badgered, but he merely continued to look bewildered and to mutter, 'I don't know what's the matter with the chap. I can't stop him.' Some of the passengers crowded the back-board with the idea of leaping off if the 'bus slackened its pace at all, but it never went slow enough for that. There was nothing to do but bawl, and yell, and argue. Jagged nerves led to internal dissensions. One man wanted to smash the window and knock the driver over the head, and when it was pointed out to him that such an action would almost inevitably lead to a wreck of the 'bus, or in any case to a very bad accident, he wanted to fight his opponents, and was only prevented from carrying out his project by being held down on the floor.
"The 'bus was scheduled to carry twenty-two passengers inside and twenty-four out. In addition to this were the five straphangers inside, making a total of fifty-one, of whom only three were women, one being the secretary to the editor of a financial paper, another a clerk in the Admiralty, and the third a lady with a summons to serve on a jury The three women were neither better nor worse than the forty-eight men. The behaviour of the whole crowd of them can only be described as deplorable.
"I do not propose to weary you gentlemen with a detailed chronicle of the journey. Once well out into the country the grin of Skinner became broader, the venomous expression of the passengers more menacing. All their business and other appointments had gone by the wind They were collectively buoyed up by the anticipation of some sort of feral vengeance. They gave up hope of any immediate release and simply waited for the mad journey to end, as end it must. They rushed along the country roads, up and down hills, across commons, through little villages, scattering all before them. They ran over three fowls, a cat, and two geese. In one village the left mudguard struck the wheel of a milk-cart and hurled seventeen gallons of good milk into the roadway. These were the only tragedies of note. In other respects it was a perfectly successful and triumphant ride, reflecting the utmost credit on the man at the wheel. Nothing happened, I say, until they reached—this common. Coming round the bend where you gentlemen came, the car began gradually to slow up. When it reached the entrance to this dingle it was travelling at rather less than six miles an hour. Suddenly it turned, swerved to the left, raced up the dingle, and ran nose on into the sand with a pretty considerable bump. And there it stuck, and there it remains to this day."
Parker and I uttered an exclamation of astonishment, and Mr. McGregor paused and critically examined the stem of his pipe.
"And then?" I asked, breathlessly.
"Hats fell off, some of the men were jerked on to the floor, but no one was seriously hurt. When they realized that the tension was over, they scrambled off that 'bus like madmen. In a body they rushed round and bore down on the chauffeur. Then an unpleasant surprise awaited them. Skinner had already dismounted. He was standing clear of the car, with an insolent grin on his face. In either hand he held a six-chambered revolver. As the crowd approached, he called out: 'Stand back!'
"Now, a panic-stricken crowd is liable to do all kinds of unreasonable things, but there is something about the glitter of a shiny little revolver that will steady the most rampageous. The stockbrokers and City merchants, armed with walking-sticks, newspapers, and despatch-cases drew back and wavered. A white-whiskered City accountant with heavy gold chains hanging over his pendulous stomach bawled out: 'What the devil is the meaning of this outrage?' Skinner called out: 'Corporal Eyles, get all these men and women into line!' There was then another disconcerting discovery. Eyles appeared from the rear of the 'bus also carrying a six-chamber. He drew himself up and saluted Skinner. Skinner acknowledged the salute, and then, turning to the crowd, he said, 'There are fifty-one of you to two of us. With a little cohesion it would be possible for you to overcome us, but I assure you before that happened eighteen of you gentlemen would surely die. My friend, Corporal Eyles, who was with me during the first battle of the Marne, will now get you into line. I will then address you from the top of the 'bus.' A more remarkable sight has surely never been seen on an English common. One of the women became hysterical and ran away, and she was allowed to go. The rest, under cover of Eyles' revolver, were drawn up in two lines of twenty-five. There they all stood, the oddest collection of sizes, and ages, and figures, in top-hats, and bowler hats, and Trilby hats, with newspapers tucked under their arms, holding bags and despatch-cases, and sticks and umbrellas. And the birds were singing overhead, just as they are to-day, gentlemen, and the bees were humming above the gorse. And there was Skinner, still in his driver's uniform, standing commandingly on the top of that ridiculous red 'bus. There was a clamour of angry protest from those fifty throats, not unmixed with jeering and even a little laughter. It became necessary for Skinner to flash one of the horrid little revolvers to obtain complete silence. When this desirable condition had been obtained, he spoke in a loud, ringing voice:
"Ladies and gentlemen, let me relieve your minds at once of what I know is the dominant fear that possesses you. Eyles and I have not brought you here to rob you. You shall return with all your property intact. Our exploit is rather a spiritual than a material one. We are doing it for your good. If we had not kidnapped you in this way you would now all be grinding and grubbing away in the City, making money, losing it; planning to make it, planning to lose it; contributing nothing of any real importance to the human commonweal. And now here you are on a lovely common with all the day before you, and the sun above your heads. You do not see enough of Nature, you do not learn to live, you do not see facts as they are. You never give yourselves a chance. Your idea of visiting Nature is to motor down to some such place as this, and then create for yourselves a miniature arena of all the petty, fidgeting conditions of your City lives. You stoop over a little white ball. Isn't that the expression you use: 'Keep your eye on the ball?' I ask you, gentlemen, don't keep your eye on the ball, but keep your eye on the stars above you. Soften your hearts, and, when you travel, think of the people who drive you; when you labour and profit and play, think of the people who minister to your necessities. I have mentioned that there are fifty of you to two of us. Well, that represents roughly the percentage of the non-combatant element in the Great War. Have you already forgotten that there was a great war, gentlemen? Have you already forgotten Eyles and me? or will you forget us to-morrow? Go, then, all of you, wander the fields and commons, and look into your hearts. Go, and be damned to you! And without the slightest hesitation, he turned his revolver on to the crowd and fired point-blank into it!
"The panic that ensued is indescribable. The old man with the white whiskers leapt sideways, jumped, and fell into a gorse bush, shot through the heart. No, that is not true, but that was the immediate impression. As a matter of fact he did fall into a gorse bush, but that was only because he caught his foot in a rut. With a wild yell the whole company fled helter-skelter out of the dingle and across the common, followed by shot after shot from three revolvers. None of them was to know that the three revolvers were only loaded with blank cartridges. Was there ever such a sight? Top-hats fell off and were not reclaimed, bags and sticks and newspapers were scattered hither and thither. Someone with experience yelled out: 'Scatter! Open out!' They did scatter, they did open out. Younger men were racing like the wind. Fat old gentlemen were tumbling into sand-pits. The two women were screaming and holding on to the men. The common was dotted with black figures, ducking, doubling, and yelling. No one turned to look back at the assailants. No one saw the broad grin on Skinner's face."
Mr. McGregor again paused, and then he remarked casually:
"We've shifted the position of the old 'bus a little since those days, and removed the wheels."
"We?" said Parker faintly.
Mr. McGregor seemed hesitating how to shape the crisis of his story.
"I have mentioned the letter," he continued. "I cannot tell you the exact contents of the letter. You see, it was one of those sacred missives—a love-letter, and not written to me. But this I know. It came from the girl—this girl of Skinner's. Her father had died suddenly, and forgotten to make a will. The daughter inherited his fortune. I think there was something in it about a special licence, something about Paris, something about the Italian Lakes. It may seem ironic that a man of Skinner's character should accept money left by a war profiteer. On the other hand, it seemed not altogether unfair that this money should go back to a man who went through it all. I think the girl must have pointed it out to him in the letter. He grinned so happily."
"But what happened when the stockbrokers scattered?" I asked.
"Everything was so easy after that. A parcel of clothes—two suits—was produced from beneath the front seat of the bus. The two men went behind some bushes in the dingle and changed. You see, the reason why Skinner had come to this particular common was because the girl lived at that little Georgian house just beyond the pine trees over there. You can't see it from here, but it is less than ten minutes' walk away. Thither they both went."
"But we are still mystified, Mr. McGregor," said Parker, noticing that our informant seemed inclined to leave off. "How is it that the 'bus is still here? Why are you living here? What action did the passengers take? and the company? Did Skinner get away?"
McGregor sighed pleasantly.
"Ronny Skinner is not the kind of man to go back on a pal. It may simplify things to you, gentlemen, if I tell you that my name is not McGregor—it is Eyles! Skinner did not have the slightest difficulty in getting away. No one recognized in the handsome young man who arrived at Cathay House any resemblance to the driver of the General. They had not even got his photograph, you see, to put in the Daily Mail. No one had noticed him very much. That is the advantage of being a nonentity. There was a halfhearted law case between the passengers and the company, but, as I have said, the majority were only too anxious to escape the ridicule which the case brought upon them. As for the 'bus itself, lawyers argued about it for nearly a year. It was so damaged that the company was not overanxious to have it back. The local Commons Committee tried to make them. In the end it was found that Cathay House estate—that is to say, the girl—had certain rights over this particular dingle. The argument went on so long that the whole thing petered out. About a year later Skinner said to me: 'Eyles, old boy, here is a hundred pounds. You go and make that 'bus into a snug little retreat, and live there when you want a change.' And Skinner allows me two hundred a year to live on, for helping him in the exploit. And here I am!"
"You seem a very educated man for a corporal and a 'bus conductor," I remarked.
"My experience was almost identical to that of Skinner," said Eyles. "When the war broke out I was just leaving Charterhouse. I joined up as a private. When it was over I was twenty-four, with no training, and my people had all been ruined. There are lots of others, too, in our position."
Parker stood up and shook himself.
"Well, Mr. Eyles," he said, "I'm sure we are much obliged to you. It's a most amazing story, and it's delightful to know that it has a happy ending."
"Yes," answered Eyles. "It has a happy ending. I hope I haven't bored you. You'll find the inn a quarter of a mile past the cross roads."
We thanked him profusely and departed. The kidnapped General I It was a most amazing story. As we tramped along the road we discussed and dissected the details of it.
"There's one thing that strikes me as queer," said Parker. "He said he was leaving Charterhouse when the war broke out. Say he was eighteen. When the war was over he would be approximately twenty-three, so now he should be about twenty-seven. He looks much older."
"Yes," I answered, "he does, but that may be partly due to the fact of his hair going grey. A lot of men went prematurely grey during the war. He looks very wiry and fit."
"Do you believe it's possible that there wasn't a lot of talk about it in the newspapers?"
"There may have been some. But you know what it is—one often reads some fantastic story of that sort, and one simply does not believe it. It's like freak dinners and explorers' yams. One thinks, 'Yes, yes,' and then you turn to see who won the semi-finals at Wimbledon. It may be true. And then there is a lot in what he says about ridicule. The majority of people would rather be robbed than made to look ridiculous."
A little farther on we came to the inn. It was a pleasant lime-washed building set back from the road, and called "The Harvester." A few carters and field labourers were drinking beer in the public bar. We entered and called for bread and cheese and beer. The landlord, a fat, melancholy-looking man in corduroy trousers and a slate-grey flannel shirt, insisted on our having our repast in a little room called a "coffee-room." He seemed friendly but not inclined to be very discursive. This may have been due to the fact that his pulmonary organs were obviously in need of repair. He wheezed, and gasped, and panted as he toddled hither and thither in the prosecution of his good offices. It was late and we were hungry, and is there anything in such circumstances so completely satisfying as bread and cheese and good brown ale? We munched in happy silence, both, I believe, still ruminating on the bearded man's strange story.
When we had finished, we called the landlord to settle our reckoning.
Having done so, and come to complete agreement with him that it was a fine day, one of us—I think it was Parker, said:
"That's a queer customer you have out there, living in the motor-'bus on the common."
The landlord blinked his eyes, wheezed through the contortions of his breathing apparatus:
"No," one of us answered. "Mr. Eyles, the man in the shanty built on the remains of an old General motor-'bus."
The landlord's face twisted into a form that was probably the nearest thing it ever did in the way of a smile. When in control of his voice more more, he said:
"Eyles? Oh, so that's what he calls himself to-day, is it?"
At this surprising remark we both looked at each other questioningly. Before we had had time to frame any query, however, the landlord added:
"What story did he tell you about the 'bus to-day?"
As briefly as possible Parker recounted the story as told to us. When it was finished, we listened patiently to the landlord's lungs. At the end of a few minutes the bellows appeared to give out.
"Oh, so that's the story to-day, is it? A good one, too. He always tells a different story."
"What!" I exclaimed. "You mean to say the whole thing is made up?"
"I wouldn't go so far as that," said the landlord. "There is a story right enough, but it has never been told. I've heard tell that if the true story was ever told—"
He stopped and blinked at a small canary in a diminutive cage in front of the window.
We waited for the landlord's version, but it seemed never to be coming.
"Did you say that his real name is Ormeroyd?" I asked at length.
"So I've heard tell," answered our host. "They say he is a very clever fellow. He's a very nice fellow, anyway. I've nothing against him. They say he used to be a writer before the war. You know, story-book stuff, tales and so on—made quite a big name, I believe, and lots of money. Now all the stories he invents concern the old 'bus."
"But—why? What is the cause?"
"I believe there is a story that, if told, would leave the story you heard to-day not worth mentioning. D'you remember during the first weeks of the war they sent a whole lot of London motor-'buses out to help transport the troops? Well, Mr. Ormeroyd was a skilful shuvver, and he volunteered, and got the billet to drive one of these 'buses.
"I don't rightly know the details. He was only out there six weeks. There was some awful incident—I believe he was the only one of a company saved—he on his old battered 'bus. There was a score of them 'buses, men and drivers, and all blown to pieces. It was somewhere in Belgium. He got away back to the lines. But—well, it's kind of—what do you call it?—you know, got on his nerves, never thinks of anything else. He can still invent his stories, but they always concern the old 'bus. When they discharged him, I believe he went to one of these dumps and bought an old battered 'bus. He says it was his. It may be, for all we know. People up on the common there gave him permission to buildjhis shanty. He lives there, thinkin' and writin'. A clever fellow, they all say."
"But—hasn't he any friends? Can't they make it better for him?"
"Oh, yes, he's got plenty of friends. The people at the house, for instance—you know Cathay House—they look after him. There's a girl there. They say it is better for him to live as he does—a kind of rest-cure. He's getting better. They say he'll get all right in time. He's got money and his health is otherwise middlin' good. He's a clever fellow. He'll get it all back, they say. His stories get better, you know. I've noticed it. That one about the stockbrokers! Oh, dear! He, he, he!"
"There is a girl, you say?" Parker almost whispered.
"A very nice girl, too, the daughter of Colonel Redding, who owns Cathay House. Why, yes. Oh, I do like that about the stockbrokers!"
The landlord was still chuckling as we took our departure.
When we were once more upon the road, I remarked:
"So this story, also, may have a happy ending, Jim."
"I hope so," answered Parker. "I liked that fellow. I liked the rude things he said about golf."
And borrowing a match from me, he lighted his pipe; and we continued our pilgrimage.
White and Mapleson often tried to recall the occasion when their friendship began, but neither succeeded. Perhaps it had its origin in some moment when the memory was to some extent blurred. Certain it is that they drifted together across the miasma of commercial London, and founded a deep and lasting friendship that found its chief expression in the chinking of glasses in the saloon and luncheon bars of various hostelries off Oxford Street and Bloomsbury.
White acted as an agent for a firm of wire-mattress manufacturers in Old Street in the City, and as his business was conducted principally among the furnishing and upholstering outfitters in the West End, and as Mapleson was the manager of the brass-bed department at Taunton's, the large furnishing emporium in Bloomsbury, it is not surprising that they came in contact, and that they had many interests in common. There is, alas! no doubt that the most absorbing interest of both was the consumption of liquid refreshment, and there is also, alas! no doubt that the friendship was quickened by the curious coincidence of their mental vision when stimulated by alcoholic fumes. And it is here that one or two curious facts relating to the personalities of the two men should be noted. During the day it would be no uncommon thing for either man to consume anything between ten and fifteen whiskies and sodas, and sometimes even more; yet of neither man could it be said that he was ever really drunk. On the other hand, of neither man could it be said that he was ever really sober. White was a man of medium height, rather pale and slight.
He had a dark moustache, and was always neatly dressed in a dark blue suit, with well-fitting boots and gloves. He was extremely quiet and courteous in manner, and his manner varied but little. The effect of alcohol upon him was only to accentuate his courtesy and politeness. Toward the evening his lips would tremble a little, but he would become more and more ingratiating. His voice would descend to a refined gentle croon, his eyes would just glow with a sympathetic light, and he would listen with his head slightly on one side and an expression that conveyed the idea that the remarks of the speaker were a matter of great moment to him. Not that he did not speak himself; on the contrary, he spoke well, but always with a deferential timbre, as though attuning himself to the mood and mental attitude of his companion.
On the other hand, Mapleson always started the day badly. He was a large, florid man, with a puffy face and strangely colourless eyes. He wore a ponderous frock-coat that was just a little out of date, with a waistcoat that hung in folds, and the folds never seemed free from sandwich crumbs and tobacco-ash. He had an unfortunate habit with his clothes of never being quite complete. That is to say, that if he had on a new top-hat, his boots were invariably shabby; or if his boots were a recent acquisition, his top-hat would seem all brushed the wrong way. As I say, he always started the day badly. He would be very late and peevish, and would fuss about with pills and cloves. He would complain of not being quite "thumbs up." Eleven-fifteen would invariably find him round at the Monitor, leaning against the mahogany bar and asking Mrs. Wylde to mix him "a whisky and peppermint," or some other decoction that between them they considered would be just the thing for his special complaint that morning. "In the way of business" he would treat and be treated by several other pals in "the sticks," as this confraternity called the furnishing trade, It would be interesting to know what proportion of Mapleson's and White's income was devoted to this good cause. When Mapleson would arrive home sometimes late at night, breathing heavily, and carrying with him the penetrating atmosphere of the tap-room, he would say in response to the complaints of his tired wife:
"I hate the stuff, my dear. You have to do it, though. It's all in the way of business."
A sociologist might have discovered, if he were searching for concrete instances, that White and Mapleson spent on each other every year very nearly eighty pounds, although the business they did together amounted to rather less than thirty, a somewhat unsound premium.
As the day wore on, Mapleson would improve. And it was one of the assets of the White-Mapleson friendship that they usually did not meet till luncheon-time. Then the two friends would chink glasses and stroll arm in arm into Polati's, in Oxford Street, for, as Mapleson would say, "When a man works hard he needs feeding," and White would agree with him deferentially, and they would secure a seat not too near the band, and after thoroughly considering the menu, they would order a "mixed grill," as being "something English and that you can get your teeth into." During the interval of waiting for the mixed grill, which took fifteen minutes to prepare, Mapleson would insist on standing White a gin-and-bitters, and of course it was only right and courteous of White to return the compliment. The mixed grill would be washed down with a tankard of ale or more often with whisky and soda, after which the friends would sometimes share a Welsh rabbit or a savoury, and it was Mapleson who introduced the plan of finishing the meal with a coffee and liqueur. "It stimulates one's mind for the afternoon's business," he would explain, and White flattered him on his good sense, and insisted on standing an extra liqueur, "just to give value to one's cigar." Under the influence of these good things, Mapleson would become garrulous, and White even more soothing and sympathetic. This luncheon interval invariably lasted two hours or two hours and a half. They would then part, each to his own business, while making an appointment to meet later in the afternoon at the Duke of Gadsburg.
And here a notable fact must be recorded: for an hour or two in the afternoon each man did do some work. And it is a remarkable point that Taunton's, the great house in Bloomsbury, always considered Mapleson a good salesman, as indeed he was. The vast lapses of time that he spent away from business were explained away on the score of active canvassing. His "turnover" for the year compared favourably with that of the other managers at Taunton's. While of White strange rumours of the enormous fortune that he was accumulating were always current. The natural reserve of the wire-mattress agent, and his remarkable lucidity on matters of finance, added to the fact that he took in and studied The Statist, gave him a unique position in the upholstering world. Men would whisper together over their glasses and say, "Ah, old White! He knows a thing or two," and grave speculations would go on as to whether his income ran into four figures, and in what speculations he invested his money. Considerable profundity was given to these rumours by the fact that White always had money and that he was always willing to lend it. He carried a sovereign purse that seemed inexhaustible.
Mapleson, on the other hand, though natively lavish, had periods of "financial depression." At these periods he would drink more and become maudlin and mawkish, and it was invariably White who helped him out of his troubles. The two friends would meet later in the afternoon "to take a cup of tea," and it often happened that Mapleson felt that tea would not be just the thing for his nervous constitution; so White would prescribe a whisky and soda, and they would adjourn to a place where such things may be procured. It is remarkable how quickly the time passed under these conditions; but just before six Mapleson would "run back to the shop to see if any orders had come in." With studious consideration White would wait for him. It was generally half-past six or seven before Mapleson returned, thoroughly exhausted with his day's work.
It was then that the suavity and charm of White's manner was most ingratiating. He would insist on Mapleson having a comfortable seat by the fire in the saloon, and himself carrying across the drinks from the bar. Mapleson soon became comforted, and would suggest "a game of pills before going home." Nothing appealed to White more than this, for he was a remarkable billiard-player. Young Charlie Maybird, who is a furniture draftsman and an expert on sport, used to say that "White could give any pub marker in London forty in a hundred and beat him off the mark." He had a curious feline way of following the balls round the table; he seemed almost to purr over them, to nurse them and stroke them, and make them perform most astounding twists and turns. And every time he succeeded, he would give a sort of self-depreciatory croon, as much as to say: "I'm so sorry! I really don't know how the balls happen to do all this." And yet it is remarkable how often White lost, especially against Mapleson.
Mapleson was one of those players who give one the impression of being an expert on an off-day. As a matter of fact, he never had an "on" day. He was just a third-rate player; only he would attempt most difficult shots, and then give vent to expressions of the utmost surprise and disgust that they didn't come off.
The billiards would last till eight o'clock or half-past, when a feeling of physical exhaustion would prompt the arrangement that "a chop would be a good idea." They would then adjourn once more to the dining-room at the Monitor, and regale themselves with chops, cheese, and ale, by which time Mapleson would arrive at the conclusion that it wasn't worth while going home; so an adjournment would be made once more to the bar, and the business of the evening would begin.
It might be worth while to recall one or two features of the Monitor bar, which was invariably crowded by salesmen and assistants from Taunton's, and was looked upon as a sort of headquarters of the upholstering trade at that time. It was a large room, fitted in the usual way with glittering mahogany and small glass mirrors. Two long seats upholstered in green leather were set about a cheerful fireplace of blue tiles. There were also four small circular tables with marble tops, and on each side of the fireplace two enormous bright-blue pots of hideous design containing palms. On the side facing the bar was a florid staircase with a brass hand-rail leading up to the dining and billiard-rooms.
The only difference that a stranger might have felt between this and any other place of similar description at that time lay perhaps in its mental atmosphere. There was always a curious feeling of freemasonry. In addition to Mrs. Wylde there were two other barmaids, Nancy and Olive, who was also sometimes called "the Titmouse." Both were tall, rather thin girls, with a wealth of wonderful flaxen hair. They seemed to spend a considerable amount of time, when not engaged in serving, in brewing themselves cocoa and hot milk. Olive was a teetotaller, and confessed frankly with regard to alcohol that she "hated the muck," but Nancy would occasionally drink stout.
To be served by Mrs. Wylde was a treat that only occasionally occurred to the more favoured devotees of the Monitor. She was a woman of enormous proportions, with a white-powdered face and also a wealth of flaxen hair. She invariably wore a rather shabby black dress, trimmed with lace, and a huge bunch of flowers, usually lilies and carnations.
Now, everybody who came into the bar or the Monitor seemed not only to know Nancy and Olive and Mrs. Wylde by name, but everybody else by their name or nickname. For instance, this sort of thing would happen: a pale, thin young man, with pointed boots and a sort of semi-sporting suit, would creep furtively in and go up to the bar and lean across and shake hands with Nancy, and after a normal greeting would say:
"Has the Captain been in?" Nancy would reply:
"Yes, he was in with the Rabbit about four o'clock." Then the young man would say:
"Oh, didn't he leave nothing for me?" and Nancy would say:
"No. I wouldn't be surprised if he came in later. 'Ere, I tell you what—" and she would draw the young man to a corner of the bar, and there would be a whispered conversation for a few moments, and then the young man would go out. All of which would seem very mysterious to a casual visitor.
Of this atmosphere White and Mapleson were part and parcel. They had their own particular little round table near the fire, where, despite Mapleson's daily avowal to get home, one could rely on finding them nearly every evening. And they gathered about them a small colony of kindred spirits. Here they would sit very often till nearly twelve o'clock, when the Monitor shut, drinking whisky and talking. As the evening advanced, Mapleson expanded. One of his favourite themes was conscription. On this subject he and White were absolutely in accord.
"Every man ought to be made to serve his country," Mapleson would say, bringing his fist down with a bang on the marble table. "He ought to be made to realize his civil responsibilities and what he owes to the empire. Every man under thirty-five should serve three years."—Mapleson was forty-four—"It seems to me we're becoming a nation of knock-kneed, sentimental women."
And White would dilate upon what the Germans were doing and would give precise facts and figures of the strength of the German army, and the cost and probabilities of landing ten army corps on the coast of Suffolk.
Another favourite theme was the action of "these silly women," and Mapleson would set the bar in roars of laughter with a description of what he would do if he were Home Secretary.
Mapleson was very fond of talking about "his principles." In conversation it seemed that his actions must be hedged in by these iron-bound conventions. In effect they were virtually as follows: Business comes first always; never fail to keep a business appointment; never mix port and whisky; never give anything to a stranger that you might give to a pal.
He had other rules of life, but they were concerned exclusively with questions of diet and drinking, and need not concern us here.
Thoroughly exhausted with the day's business, Mapleson would leave the imperturbable White just before twelve o'clock, and not infrequently would find it necessary to take a cab to Baker Street to catch his last train to Willesden Green, where he lived, and where he would arrive at night, having spent during the day a sum varying between twenty and thirty shillings, which was precisely the amount he allowed his wife every week to keep house for a family of five, and to include food, clothing, and washing.
White lived at Acton, and no one ever quite knew how he arrived there or by what means. But he never failed to report at nine o'clock the next morning at Old Street, with all his notes, orders, and instructions neatly written out. It was remarkable how long the Monitor remained the headquarters of this fraternity, for, as one of them remarked, "the licensing business is very sensitive "in the same way that a flock of crows will simultaneously and without any apparent reason fly from one hill to another; it will be a sort of fashion for a group of men to patronise a certain establishment and then suddenly to segregate elsewhere. It is true that there were one or two attempts at defection—Charlie Maybird once made an effort to establish a headquarters as far away as the Trocadero even—but the birds soon returned to the comforting hostelry of Mrs. Wylde.
And then one summer Mapleson was very ill. He got wet through walking to Baker Street one evening when, after having started, he found he had only three coppers on him. He travelled home in his wet clothes, and next day developed a bad chill, which turned into pneumonia. For days he lay in a critical state, but, thanks to the attention of Mrs. Mapleson, who did not go to bed for three nights, and a careful doctor, he got over the crisis. But the doctor forbade him to go back to business for a fortnight, and suggested that if it was possible to arrange it, a few days at the seaside might set him up. White called several times, and was most anxious and solicitous, and assured Mrs. Mapleson that he would do anything in his power to help his friend, and sent a large basket of expensive fruits and some bottles of very old port wine.
Mapleson's illness, however, was of more troublesome a nature than appeared at first. After a rather serious relapse the doctor said that his heart was not quite what it should be, and it was nearly a month before the question of moving him could be considered. Taunton's treated Mapleson very well over this, and his salary was paid every week; only, of course, he lost his commission, which in the ordinary way represented the bulk of his income, and it became necessary for Mrs. Mapleson to economize with the utmost skill, especially as the invalid required plenty of good and well-cooked food on regaining his strength. The rest of the family had therefore to go on shorter commons than usual, and matters were not helped by the fact of one of the children developing glands and being in an enfeebled condition. White called one evening, and was drinking a glass of the old port with the invalid, and they were discussing how it could be arranged for Mapleson to get a week at Brighton.
"I think I could travel now," said Mapleson; "only I don't see how the missus is going to leave Flora."
It was then that White had an inspiration. If it would help matters in the Mapleson family he would be pleased to take a week off and go to Brighton with Mapleson. Mapleson hailed this idea with delight, and Mrs. Mapleson was informed, on entering the room a little later, "You need not bother about it any more, my dear; White has been good enough to offer to go to Brighton with me." Mrs. Mapleson was a woman who said very little, and it was difficult on this occasion to know what she thought. In fact, her taciturnity at times irritated Mapleson beyond endurance. She merely paused, drew in her thin pale lips, and murmured, "All right, dear," and then busied herself with preparing Mapleson's evening broth.
The friends were very lucky with the weather. Fresh breezes off the Channel tempered the fierce August sun and made the conditions on the front delightful. It might be hinted that perhaps the weather might have been otherwise for all the interest that they took in it.
For the first day or so, finding his vitality returning to him, Mapleson persuaded his companion that the choicest spot in Brighton was the saloon bar of the Old Ship. And he could not show his gratitude sufficiently. White was given carte blanche to order anything he liked. But White would not listen to such generosity. He knew that the expenses that Mapleson had had to endure must be telling on him, so he insisted on paying at least twice out of three times. Mapleson acknowledged that it was "a hell of a worry and responsibility having a family to keep. They simply eat up the money, my dear chap."
The week passed quickly enough, and both were soon back at their occupations in town. The friendship pursued the even tenor of its way, and it was fifteen months before any incident came to disturb it.
Then one day in October something happened to White. He fell down in the street, and was taken to a hospital. It was rumoured that he was dead. Consternation prevailed in the upholstering confraternity, and Mapleson made anxious enquiries at the hospital bureau. It was difficult to gather precise details, but it was announced that White was very ill, and that a very serious operation would have to be performed. Mapleson returned to the bar of the Monitor harbouring a nameless dread. A strange feeling of physical sickness crept over him. He sat in the corner of the bar, sipping his whisky, enveloped in a lugubrious gloom. He heard the young sparks enter and laugh and joke about White. It was a subject of constant and cynical mirth. "Hullo," they would say, "heard about old White? He's done in at last." And then there would be whisperings and chucklings, and he would hear: "Drunk himself to death. Doesn't stand a dog's chance, my dear chap. My uncle had the same thing. Why, he's been at it now for about twenty-five years. Can't think how he's lasted so long." And then they would come grinning up to Mapleson, hoping for more precise details. "Sorry to hear about your friend, Mr. Mapleson. How did it happen?"
Mapleson could not stand it. He pushed back his half-filled glass, and stumbled out of the bar. He was not aware of an affection for White, or of any sentiment other than a vast fear and a strange absorbing depression. He crept into the saloon of a small house off the Charing Cross Road, where no one would be likely to know him, and sat silently sipping from his glass. It seemed to have no effect upon him. The vision of White lying there, like death, and perhaps even now the doctors busy with their steel knives—Mapleson shivered. He ordered more whisky and drank it neat. He stumbled on into other bars all the way to Trafalgar Square, wrestling with his fear, and drinking. The spirits ultimately took their effect, and he sat somewhere, in some dark corner, he could never remember where, with his mind in a state of trance. He remembered being turned out—it must have been twelve o'clock—and engaging a cab—he could just remember his address—and ordering the man to drive home. In the cab he went sound asleep, hopelessly drunk for the first time in many years. He knew nothing more till the next day. Some one must have come down to help carry him in; he was no light weight. He woke up about one o'clock, feeling very ill and scared. He jumped up and called out:
"What the devil's the time? What are we all doing? Why haven't I been called?"
Mrs. Mapleson came in; she put her hand on his forehead and said:
"It's all right. I sent a telegram to say you were ill. You had better stop here. I'll get you some tea."
Mapleson fell back on the pillows, and the sickening recollection of last night came back to him.
Later in the evening Mrs. Mapleson came in again and said:
"I hear that Mr. White has had his operation, and is going on as well as could be expected."
Beads of perspiration streamed down Mapleson's face, and he murmured, "My God! my God!" That was all that was said, and the next day Mapleson went back to work.
The officials at the hospital seemed curiously reticent about White. The only information to be gleaned for some days was that he was alive. Mapleson went about his work with nerveless indifference. He drank, but his drinking was more automatic than spontaneous. He drank from habit, but he gained neither pleasure nor profit from doing so.
The nameless fear pursued him. Great bags appeared under his eyes, which were partly blood-shot. He stooped in his walk, and began to make mistakes in his accounts, and to be abstracted in dealing with customers.
He was arraigned before two of the directors of Taunton's, and one of them finished a harangue by suggesting that "it might be more conformable to business methods if he would remove the traces of yesterday's breakfast from the folds of his waistcoat." The large man received these criticisms in a pathetic silence. "Poor old Mapleson!" they said round in the bar of the Monitor. "I've never seen a chap cut up so about anything as he is about White," and then abstract discussions on friendship would follow, and remarkable instances of friendship formed in business.
Of course White would die—that was a settled and arranged thing, and curiously enough little sympathy was expressed even by those to whom White had lent money. Despite his charm of manner and his generosity, they all felt that there was something about White they didn't understand. He was too clever, too secretive.
On Friday he was slightly better, but on Saturday he had a relapse, and on Sunday morning, when Mapleson called at the hospital, he was informed that White was sinking, and they didn't expect him to last forty-eight hours.
Mapleson had inured himself to this thought; he had made up his mind to this conclusion from the first, and this last intimation hardly affected him. He went about like one stunned, without volition, without interest. He was only aware of a vast unhappiness and misery of which White was in some way a factor.
For five days the wire-mattress agent lay on the verge of death, and then he began to rally slightly. The house surgeon said it was one of the most remarkable constitutions he had ever come up against. For three days there was a distinct improvement, followed by another relapse; but still White fought on. At the end of another week he was out of danger, but the convalescence was long and tedious.
When at the end of six weeks he was well enough to leave the hospital, the house surgeon took him to one side and said:
"Now look here, my friend, we re going to let you out. And there's no reason why you shouldn't get fairly well again. Only I want you to understand this: if you touch alcohol again in any form—in any case, for years—well, you might as well put a bullet through your own head."
In another ten days White was back at business, looking exactly the same as ever, speaking in the same suave voice. He soon appeared in the Monitor, but with the utmost courtesy declined all offers of drinks except ginger-ale. It need hardly be said that to Mapleson such an event seemed a miracle. He had sunk into a low, morbid condition from which he had never hoped to rise.
Out of courtesy the first evening Mapleson insisted on drinking ginger-ale himself, so that his friend should not feel out of it.
And they sat and had a discussion far into the night, White giving luminous and precise details of the whole of his illness and operation, eulogizing hospital methods, and discussing the whole aspect of society towards therapeutics in a calmly detached way.
But Mapleson was not happy. He was glad to have White back, but the element of fear that White had introduced him to was not eliminated. He felt ill himself, and there somehow seemed a great gap between White in the old days and White drinking ginger-ale and talking medicine. For three nights Mapleson kept this up, and then thought he would have "just a night-cap."
It gradually developed into the position that Mapleson resumed his whisky and White stuck to his ginger-ale; and it is a curious fact that this arrangement depressed Mapleson more than it did White. He drank copiously and more frequently in order to create an atmosphere of his own; but always there was White looking just the same, talking just the same.
The ginger-ale got on Mapleson's nerves. He felt that he couldn't stand it, and a strange and enervating depression began to creep over him again. For days this arrangement held good. White seeming utterly indifferent as to what he drank, and Mapleson getting more and more depressed because White didn't drink whisky. At length Mapleson suggested one evening that "surely just one" wouldn't hurt White. But White said with the deepest tone of regret that he was afraid it would be rather unwise; and as a matter of fact, he had got so used to doing without it that he really hardly missed it.
From that moment a settled gloom and depression took hold of Mapleson. He just stood there looking at White and listening to him, but hardly troubling to speak himself. He felt utterly wretched. He got into such a state that White began to show a sympathetic alarm, and one evening toward the end of February, as they were sitting at their favourite table in the Monitor, White said, "Well, I'll just have a whisky and soda with you if you like."
This was one of the happiest evenings of Mapleson's life. As soon as his friend began to drink, some chord in his own nature responded; his eyes glowed, he became garrulous and entertaining.
They had another, and then went to a music-hall, into the lounge; but there was such a crowd that they could not see the stage, so they went to the bar at the back and had another drink and a talk. How they talked that night! They talked about business and dogs and conscription and women and the empire and tobacco and the staff of Taunton's. They had a wild orgy of talk and drink. That night White drank eleven whiskies and sodas, and Mapleson got cheerfully and gloriously drunk.
It was perhaps as well that the friends enjoyed this bacchanalia, for it was the last time they met. By four o'clock the next afternoon White was dead.
Mapleson heard of it the following night. He was leaning against the fireplace in the Monitor, expatiating upon the wonderful improvement in White, and extolling his virtues, when young Howard Aldridge, the junior salesman to Mr. Vincent Pelt of Taunton's, came in to say that White's brother-in-law had just rung up Mr. Pelt to say that White was dead. When Mapleson heard this he muttered, "My Christ!"
These were the last words that Mapleson ever uttered in the bar of the Monitor.
He picked up his hat and went out into the street. It was the same feeling of numbed terror and physical sickness that assailed him. With no plan of action arranged, he surprised his wife by arriving home before ten o'clock and by going to bed. He was shivering. She took him up a hot-water bottle and said, "I'm sorry to hear about White." Mapleson didn't answer, but his teeth chattered. He lay awake half the night thinking of death.
The next day he got up and went to business as usual, but for the second time the head of the firm felt it his duty to point out to him one or two cases of negligence and to warn him that "these things must not happen in the future."
Two days later Mapleson received a postcard signed by "F. Peabody," to say that the funeral of the late G. L. White would take place at such-and-such a church at East Acton, and would leave the "Elms," Castlereach Road, Acton, at twelve o'clock, and it was intimated that a seat for Mr. Mapleson would be found in a carriage.
A fine driving rain out of a leaden sky greeted Mapleson when he set out for White's funeral on the Saturday. His wife tried to persuade him not to go, for he was really ill; but he made no comment. He fiddled about with a timetable, and could come to no satisfactory decision about the way to get there. His wife ultimately looked him up a train to Hammersmith, from which terminus he could get a train. Before reaching Hammersmith a strange revulsion came over him. Why, after all, should he go to this funeral? White wouldn't know about it, and what did he know of White's relatives? A strange choking and giddiness came over him, and at Hammersmith he found a comfortable refreshment-room, where he betook himself, and decided that after refreshing he would go on to business.
After having two whiskies, however, he changed his mind. "No," he muttered to himself, "I'll see it through." He boarded a tram that went in the direction of Acton. He found that he had to change trams at one point. It seemed an interminable journey. He kept wondering how White managed to get home at night from Oxford Street at twelve o'clock. He felt cold and wretched as the effect of the whisky wore off.
At last he reached Acton, and asked for Castlereach Road. Nobody seemed to know it. He was directed first in one direction and then in another; at last a postman put him on the right track, but suggested that as it was some way, he might get a 'bus to Gaddes Green, and then it was only about fifteen-minutes' walk.
Mapleson set off, keeping a sharp look-out for a place of refreshment, for the reactionary spirit was once more upon him. The 'bus put him down at a forlorn-looking corner, where there was only a sort of workman's ale-house. "I expect I'll pass one on the way," he thought, and taking his directions from the assistant of a greengrocer's shop, he set out once more through the rain.
The farther he went, the meaner and more sordid did the streets become. He did not pass a single public-house that he felt he could approach. "I expect the neighbourhood will change soon," he thought; "I expect I've come the wrong way. Why, everyone said White must be making at least eight hundred a year. He wouldn't live in a place like this."
At length he came to a break in the neighbourhood where some newly-built villas crowded one another on the heels of the more ancient squalor. An errand-boy told him that "Castlereach Road was the second turning on the right off Goldsmith's Havenue." He found Goldsmith's Avenue, where a barrel-organ was pouring forth lugubrious music to an audience listening from the shelter of their windows, and swarms of dirty children were hurrying through the rain on nameless errands. A piece of bread and jam was thrown from a second-story window to a little boy in the street, and missed Mapleson's hat by inches. His progress was in any case the source of considerable mirth to the inhabitants.
At last he came to Castlereach Road. After the noise and bustle of Goldsmith's Avenue, it seemed like the end of the world. It was a long straight road of buff-coloured villas, with stucco facings and slate roofs, all identically the same. From the end, where Mapleson entered it, it looked interminable and utterly deserted. Doubtless, if it had been a fine day, the gutters would have been crowded with children; but with the pouring rain, there was not a soul in sight.
Mapleson blundered on in search of Number 227, and as he did so, a thought occurred to him that he and White had a common secret apart. He always had felt in his inmost heart a little ashamed of his red-brick villa in Willesden Green, and that was one reason why he had always kept business well apart from domestic affairs; and White had casually referred to his "place at Acton." His place at Acton! Mapleson entered it, horribly tired, horribly sober, horribly wretched. All the blinds were down. It had taken so long to get there he hoped that he was too late.
A tall, gaunt woman in black, with a slight down on her upper lip, opened the door. She seemed surprised to see him.
He explained who he was.
"Oh, yes. My! you are early. It's only half-past twelve.
"Half-past twelve?" said Mapleson. "But I thought the funeral was to be at twelve."
Then the gaunt woman called into a little side room:
"'Ere Uncle Frank, what 'ave you been up to? Did you tell Mr. Myple that the funeral was at twelve?"
"Oh, don't sye that; don't sye that!" came a voice from the room, and a small man, with sandy hair and wizened features and small, dark, greedy eyes, came out into the hall. "Oh, don't sye that, Mr. Mypleson! I'm Peabody. I quite thought I said two o'clock."
Mapleson had a wild impulse to whistle for a cab or a fire-engine, and to drive away from this anywhere; but the utter helplessness of his position held him fast. Before he had time to give the matter serious thought he was being shown into the drawing-room, a small stuffy room with a blue floral wall-paper, bamboo furniture, and many framed photographs, and the gaunt woman was saying, "Oh, Uncle Frank, how could you have made that mistyke!" And Uncle Frank was explaining how it might have occurred and at the same time saying that they must make the'best of it; that Mr. Mapleson would have a bit of lunch. There was a nice cut of cold leg of mutton, and of course no one, under circumstances like this, would expect an elaborate meal; in fact, no one would feel like it, apart from anything else. And then the gaunt woman left the room, and Mapleson was alone with Uncle Frank.
Mapleson could not recollect ever having met anyone whom he so cordially hated at sight. He had a sort of smug perpetual grin, a habit of running his hands down his thighs as far as his knees, and giving vent to a curious clicking noise with his cheeks.
"Well, this is a very sad hoccasion, Mr. Mypleson," he said; "very sad indeed. Poor George! Did you know him well? Eva—his wife, you know—she's upstairs quite prostrate. That was her sister who showed you in. Yes, yes, well, how true it is that in the midst of life we are in death! I'm afraid poor George was careless, you know. Very careless. Clever, mind you—clever as they make 'em, but careless. Do you know, Mr. Mypleson, he hadn't even insured his life! And he's left no will. There isn't enough to pay his funeral expenses. Fortunately, Eva's clever; oh, yes, she's clever with her fingers. They say there's no one in the neighbourhood to touch her in the millinery. Oh, yes, she's been at it some time. Why, bless my soul, do you know she's paid the rent of this 'ouse for the last four years? Oh, she's a clever woman. Poor soul, though, her great consolation is that George didn't die in the 'orspital. Yes, Mr. Mypleson, he died upstairs, quiet as a lamb. She was there at the end. It was a great consolation."
And Uncle Frank nodded his head, and his little eyes sparkled, but the grin never left his lips. Mapleson said nothing, but the two men sat there in a sombre silence. Uncle Frank occasionally nodding his head and muttering, "It's a sad hoccasion."
The rain increased, and it seemed unnaturally dark in the blue drawing-room, and Mapleson felt that he had sat there an eternity, consumed by desire to get away, when there was another knock at the door, and a youth was let in.
Uncle Frank called him Chris, and he seemed to be a cousin, or some near relative of White's. He was a raw youth who had just gone to business, and was very much aware of his collar and cuffs. He seemed to take to Mapleson, and he sat watching him furtively. Mapleson seemed a man of the world, a very desirable personality. The youth made many advances, but the latter felt a repugnance for him in only a slightly less degree than in the case of Uncle Frank.
At length the gaunt sister asked them all into the diningroom, which was a room on the other side of the passage that seemed even smaller and stuffier than the drawingroom. It was papered with a dark-red paper, and the woodwork was painted chocolate. As they crossed the hall, they passed Mrs. White, who had apparently been persuaded by her sister "to try and take something." She was a shrivelled little person, with white cheeks, and her eyes were red with weeping.
She hurried by the men without speaking, and a curious thought struck Mapleson. During the twenty years or so that he had known White he could not recollect him speaking of his wife. He probably had done so, but he could not recollect it. He remembered him talking about his "place at Acton," but never of his wife. He did not feel entirely surprised. White was probably ashamed.
In the window of the dining-room were several birdcages, containing two canaries, a bullfinch, and a small highly-coloured bird that hopped from the floor of its cage to a perch and kept up a toneless squeak, with monotonous regularity. Uncle Frank went up to the cage and tapped the wires, and called out, "Ah, there he is! Cheep! cheep! This is our little Orstrylian bird, Mr. Mapleson. Isn't he? Yes, yes; he's our clever little Orstrylian bird." And during the course of the hurried meal of cold mutton and cheese the birds formed a constant diversion. Uncle Frank would continually jump up and call out, "Oh, yes, he's our little Orstrylian bird."
Mapleson tried to recall whether he had ever discussed birds with White, and he felt convinced that he had not. It seemed a strange thing. White apparently had had these birds for some time—three different varieties in his own house! Mapleson would have enjoyed talking about birds with White; he could almost hear White's voice, and his precise and suave manner of discussing their ways and peculiarities. And the terrible thought came to him that he would never hear White talk about birds, never, never. This breach of confidence on White's part of never telling him that he kept birds upset Mapleson even more than his breach of confidence in not talking about his wife.
"Oh, yes, he's a clever little Orstrylian bird." A terrible desire came to Mapleson to throw Uncle Frank through the window the next time he heard this remark.
Before they had finished the meal, three other male relatives appeared, and a terrible craving came over Mapleson for a drink. Then the sister came down with a decanter of sherry and said that perhaps the gentlemen would like a glass. Uncle Frank poured out a glass all round. It was thin, sickly stuff, and to the brass-bed manager like a thimbleful of dew in a parched desert. A horrible feeling of repugnance came over him—of repugnance against all these people, against the discomfort he found himself in.
After all, who was White? When all was said and done. White was really nothing to him, only a man he'd met in the course of business and had a lot of drinks and talks with. At that moment he felt he disliked White and all his snivelling relatives.
He wanted to go, to get away from it all; but he couldn't see how. There was half a glass of sherry left in the decanter. He unblushingly took it as the funeral cortege arrived. There were two ramshackle carriages and a hearse, and a crowd of dirty children had collected. He tried to mumble to Uncle Frank some excuse for not going, but his words were lost by an intensely painful scene that took place in the hall as the coffin was brought down. He did not notice that the sister with the down on her upper lip became an inspired creature for a few moments, and her face became almost beautiful.
He felt that he was an alien element among all these people, that they were nothing to him, and that he was nothing to them, and he felt an intense, insatiable desire for a drink. If he couldn't get a drink, he felt he would go mad.
Someone touched him on the arm and said, "Will you come with us in the second carriage, Mr. Mapleson?" He felt himself walking out of the house and through a row of dirty children. For a moment he contemplated bolting up the street and out of sight, but the feeling that the children would probably follow him and jeer paralysed this action; and then he was in the carriage, with Chris and another male relative who was patently moved by the solemnity of the occasion.
Chris wriggled about and tried to engage him in banal conversation, with an air that suggested, "Of course, Mr. Mapleson, this is a sad affair, but we men of the world know how to behave."
The dismal cortege proceeded at an ambling trot, occasionally stopping. Chris gave up for the moment trying to be entertaining, and the forlorn relative talked about funeral services and the comfort of sympathy in time of bereavement. They crawled past rows of congested villas and miles of indescribable domesticity of every kind, till as they were turning round a rather broader avenue than usual where there were shops, the forlorn relative said, "We shall be in the cemetery in five minutes."
And then Mapleson had an inspiration. They were ambling along this dreary thoroughfare when his eye suddenly caught sight of a large and resplendent public-house. It was picked out in two shades of green, and displayed a gilt sign-board denoting "The Men of Kent."
Almost without thinking, and certainly in less time than it takes to chronicle, Mapleson muttered something to his two companions, and called out of the window to the driver to stop. He then jumped out, and called out to the driver of the hearse and the other carriage to stop, and then before anyone realized what it was all about, he darted into the saloon bar of The Men of Kent!
The bar was fortunately empty, but through the little glass shutters two women and a man in the private bar watched the performance.
There was a moment of dazed surprise, followed by a high shriek of laughter and a woman's voice in strident crescendo:
"He's stopped the funeral to come in an' 'ave a drink! O my Gawd!" Mapleson's tongue seemed to cling to the roof of his mouth, but he gasped out an order for a whisky and soda. To the barman these incidents were nothing, and he served the drink instantly; but to the three in the private bar it was a matter of intense enjoyment. The other woman took it up.
"Well, that's the first time I've known that 'appen. Gawd! fancy stoppin' a funeral to come and 'ave a drink!" Then the man bawled out: "'Ere, I sye, ain't the others cornin' in? Let's make a dye of it."
The women continued shrieking with laughter, and the appalling ignominy of his position came home to him. He knew that he was damned in the eyes of White's friends.
Curiously enough, the thought of White had passed out of his mind altogether. He was a thing in revolt against society, without feelings and without principles.
Yet when the whisky was put in front of him his hand trembled, and he could not drink it. He fumbled with the glass, threw down a sixpence, and darted out of the bar again.
In the meanwhile Uncle Frank and other members of the funeral party had got out of the carriages and were having a whispered consultation on the curb. Instructions had evidently been given for the cortege to proceed, for Uncle Frank was talking to the driver of the hearse when Mapleson appeared.
As all returned to the carriages, the three people came out of the bar and raised a cheer, and one of the women called out, "Oh, I sye, don't go!"
Mapleson lay all of a heap in the corner of the carriage, and he noticed that he was alone with Chris. The forlorn relative had gone into the other carriage.
In a few minutes they arrived at a church, a large new building with Early Victorian Gothic arches and a profusion of coloured glass. The funeral party huddled together in the gloom of the large church, and somehow the paucity of their numbers seemed even more depressing than the wretchedness of their appearance.
Mapleson sat a little way back, and curiously enough his mind kept reverting during the service to the little birds. He felt a distinct grievance against White on account of the little birds. Why hadn't he told him, especially about the small Australian bird? It would have made a distinctly interesting subject of conversation.
The service seemed interminably long, and it was a relief when the tall, rather good-looking young clergyman led the way out into the cemetery. The rain was still driving in penetrating gusts, and as they stood by the grave-side, the relatives looked askance at one another, uncertain whether it was the proper thing to do to hold up an umbrella. As to Mapleson, he was indifferent. For one thing, he had not brought an umbrella; but it seemed frightfully cold.
They lowered the coffin into the grave and earth was sprinkled. For a second it flashed through his mind, "That's White being let down," and then a feeling of indifference and repugnance followed, and the craving desire to get away from all these sordid happenings. Then he suddenly thought of White's wife. "A miserable-looking slattern she was," he thought. "Why, what was she snivelling about? What could she have been to White or White to her? Why, he never mentioned her during twenty years!"
He experienced a slight feeling of relief when the service was finished and the party broke up, and he hastily made for the cemetery gates, knowing that White's friends would be as anxious to avoid him as he was to avoid them; but he had not reached them before some one, hurrying up behind, caught him. It was Chris.
"I expect you're going up west, Mr. Mapleson," he said. "If it's not putting myself in the way, I'll come too."
Mapleson gave an inarticulate grunt that conveyed nothing at all; but the young man was not to be put off.
There was something about the bulk of Mapleson and the pendulous lines of his clothes and person that made Chris feel, when he was walking with him, that he was "knocking about town" and "mixing with the world." He himself was apprenticed to a firm of wall-paper manufacturers and he felt that Mapleson would be able to enlighten him on the prospects and the outlook of the furnishing and decorating trade. He talked gaily of antique furniture till they came to a gaunt yellow-brick station.
On enquiry, there seemed to be no trains that went from it to any recognizable or habitable spot, but outside were two melancholy hackney-carriages. By this time Mapleson was desperate, and a strange feeling of giddiness possessed him.
He got in, and told the driver vaguely "to drive up to London." Chris came to the rescue, and explained to him that he might drive to Shepherd's Bush first. They started off, and rattled once more through the wilderness of dreary villas.
The young man accepted the position he found himself in with perfect composure. He attributed Mapleson's silence to an expansive boredom, and he talked with discretion and with a sort of callow tact. Before they reached Shepherd's Bush, however, Mapleson muttered something about feeling faint, and Chris immediately suggested that they should go and have a drink. "You might bring me something in," said Mapleson. "I'll have a brandy neat." They drove helplessly through neat avenues and roads for nearly ten minutes without passing anything in the way of a public-house. At last they came to a grocer's shop licensed to sell spirits not to be consumed on the premises. "Go and buy me a bottle of brandy," said Mapleson. The young man got out, and soon returned with a six-and-sixpenny bottle of brandy and a corkscrew. He paid for it himself, relying on the natural honour of Mapleson to settle up afterwards, but the matter was never mentioned again.
He drew the cork, and Mapleson took a long drink, and then wiped the mouth of the bottle and offered it to Chris. Chris behaved like a man, and also took a draught, but spluttered rather.
For the rest of the journey Mapleson at regular intervals took thoughtful and meditative drinks, and gradually began to revive. He went so far as to ask Chris if he knew anything about the little birds, and how long White had had them. Chris said he knew he had had the canaries for four or five years and the bullfinch for two years. He didn't know much about the little Australian bird. This information seemed to cause Mapleson to revert to his former gloom.
When they reached Shepherd's Bush the cabman refused to go farther. So they got out, and entered another cab, Mapleson carrying the brandy-bottle under his arm. He took it upon himself to tell the cabman—this time a taxi—to "drive round the Outer Circle of Hyde Park, and to take the hood down."
It was about half-past four when they reached Hyde Park, and the rain had ceased a little. It was the fashionable hour for the afternoon drive. Magnificent motors and two-horse phaetons were ambling round well within the regulation limit. Their cab was soon almost hemmed in by the equipages of the great world. But after they had completed the circle once, and Mapleson lay back, with his feet on the opposite seat and his hat brushed the wrong way, and without the slightest compunction held the large brandy-bottle to his lips every few yards, Chris began to feel that there was a limit to his desire to "mix with the world."
He got the cab to stop near the Marble Arch, and explained to Mapleson that he must get out and take the tube to business.
And then there was a scene. Mapleson, who up to that time had not addressed a personal word to Chris, suddenly became maudlin. He cried, and said that he had never taken to anyone as he had to Chris. He was the dearest fellow in the world; he mustn't leave him; now that White was dead, he was the only friend he had.
But people began to collect on the side-walk, and Chris simply ran off. The taxi-driver began to be suspicious about his fare, which was registered fourteen shillings. But Mapleson gave him a sovereign on account, and told him to drive to Cleopatra's Needle, on the Embankment.
By the time they reached there, the brandy-bottle was three-quarters empty, and tears were streaming down his cheeks. He offered the driver a drink, but the driver was "not one of that sort," and gruffly suggested that Mapleson "had better drive 'ome." So he got out of the cab pathetically, settled with the driver, and sat on a seat of the Embankment, hugging his bottle and staring at the river.
Now, it is very difficult to know exactly what Mapleson did the rest of that afternoon between the time when he dismissed the cabman and half-past eight, when he turned up in the bar of the Monitor.
It is only known that he struggled in there at that time, looking as white as a sheet. He was wet through, and his clothes were covered with mud. He struggled across to the comer where he and White used to sit, and sat down. The bar was fairly crowded at the time, and young Chris made his début there. He felt that he would be a person of interest. When Mapleson appeared, he went up to him, but Mapleson didn't know him, and said nothing.
Several others came up and advised Mapleson to go home and change his clothes and have a drink first; but he just stared stupidly ahead and made no comment. Someone brought some whisky and put it before him, but he ignored it. They then came to the conclusion that he was ill, so they sent for a cab, and two of them volunteered to see him home.
Just as they were about to lead him out he stood up. He then stretched out his arms and waved them away. He picked up the glass of whisky and raised it slowly to his lips; but before it reached them, he dropped it, and fell backward across the table.
"Women, you know," said Charlie Maybird some months later, addressing two friends in the Monitor, "are silly creatures. They think love and friendship is all a question of kissin' and cuddlin'. They think business is all buyin' and sellin'; they don't think men can make friendships in business. Crikey! I reckon there's more friendships made in business—real friendships, I mean—than ever there is outside. Look at the case of White and Mapleson. I tell you, those two men loved each other. For over twenty years they were inseparable; there was nothing they would not have done for each other; hand and glove they was over everything. I've never seen a chap crumple up so as Mapleson did when White died, in fact from the very day when White was took ill. He went about like a wraith. I'll never forget that night when he came in here after the funeral. He sat over there—look—by the fireplace. He looked as though his 'eart was broken. Suddenly he stood up and lifted his glass, and then dropped it, and then fell backwards crash on to the floor. They took him to the 'orspital, but he never regained consciousness. The doctors said it was fatty degeneration of the 'eart, 'elped on by some kidney trouble; but I know better. He died of a broken 'eart. Lord, yes;11 tell you, there's a lot of romance in the furnishing trade."
"Did he leave any money?" asked one of the friends.
"My word, yes; more than White," answered the genial Charles. "White never left a bean, and it seems his missus had not only been paying the rent out of her millinery, but allowed White some. White was a card, he was."
"And what did Mapleson leave?"
"Mapleson left nearly four pounds."
"Is that all?"
"Four pounds and a wife and five kids, the eldest twelve."
"A wife and five kids! How the hell does she manage to keep things going?"
"Oh, Gawd knows! Come, let's go over to the Oxford and see what's on."
The refinement of the Bindloss family was a by-word in Tibbelsford. Mr. Bindloss himself was a retired printer. Now as everyone knows printing is the most respectable of professions, but retirement is the most refined profession of all. It suggests vested interests, getting up late in the morning, having a nap in the afternoon, and voting for keeping things stable. But Mr. Bindloss was by no means an inactive man. He was a sidesman at St. Mark's Church, tended his own garden, grew tomatoes, supervised the education of his two daughters, sat on the committee of the Tibbelsford Temperance League, and the Domestic Pets Defence League. Mrs. Bindloss was even more refined, for it was rumoured that he was distantly related to a lord. She certainly spoke in that thin precise manner which was easily associable with the aristocracy; a manner which her daughters imitated to perfection. The elder daughter Gwendoline who was sixteen, was in her last term at Miss Langton Matravers' school; whilst the younger daughter Mildred was in her first term at that same institution. One might mention in passing that Miss Langton Matravers prided herself that she only catered for daughters of the gentry. The family lived in a neat semi-detached villa in the Quorn Road.
Now it came to pass in the fullness of time that Mr. Bindloss realized that he was not so well off as he thought he was, or as he used to be. He discovered that the money that he had made by honest toil in the printing trade was now described as unearned increment, and taxed accordingly. Moreover, it did not go so far as it didin the good old days of his early retirement. In those days Mrs. Bindloss was able to secure a nice pliable servant, who would work twelve hours a day, sleep in, and only ask for every other Sunday afternoon off, for fourteen pounds a year. Now the only domestic help she could secure was a fugitive procession of strange women, who came daily and demanded a pound a week, all their evenings off as well as Sundays. Even then they did not appear eager for the work. They would turn up, take stock of the household, eat a few huge meals, smash a few plates, and vanish. It was very trying. Why couldn't things remain as they were?
One spring morning Mr. Bindloss was in the garden thinning out some young cabbage plants, when his wife came out to him, holding a letter in her hand.
"I've had a letter from Agnes," she said.
"Oh!" said Mr. Bindloss.
"She says that the Northallertons have gone to live at Tollinghurst."
"Really!" said Mr. Bindloss.
"Yes. Do you know that young Archie Northallerton may one day be Lord Windlass?"
"Oh, that's nice!" said Mr. Bindloss, who was apt to be a little preoccupied when gardening.
"Put that trowel down, Julian, and listen to me," said his wife.
Mr. Bindloss knew when he was spoken to, and he obeyed.
"Young Archie is just fourteen. Tollinghurst is only half an hour's journey by train. Does anything strike you?"
"Not forcibly," replied Mr. Bindloss, scratching his head behind the left ear.
"No, I suppose it wouldn't," snapped the refined Mrs. Bindloss. "Does it not occur to you that this boy is fourteen, that is to say that he is two years older than Mildred and two years younger than Gwen?"
The eyes of Mr. Bindloss narrowed. His wife's implication became clear to him.
"What a thing it is to have a clever wife,"' he said defensively, then added:
"It's a bit young though to think of—er—marriage."
"It's not too young to begin to think about it."
"No, no, that's true, that's very true. What do you propose to do, my dear?"
"Write to his mother, and suggest their bringing or sending the boy over for the day."
"Excellent, you know her, of course?"
"I haven't actually met her, but she will know of me naturally. We are distantly related."
"You say that boy may be Lord Cutlass. Let's see, what is the exact relationship? You did tell me but I have forgotten."
"Windlass not Cutlass. It's like this—my sister married a Bream, who are cousins to the Northallertons. Henry Bolsover Northallerton, the father of this boy, is the younger brother of Lord Windlass, who is a middle-aged bachelor. If he leaves no heirs Archie will inherit the estates and the title."
"I see, your's is not exactly a blood relationship, then. I mean to say there would be no obstacles—"
"No obstacles at all. The Northallertons in any case are a very good family and very wealthy."
"Well, of course, my dear, I shan't stand in your way. Indeed, I'll do my best to make the young gentleman's visit enjoyable." So Mr. Bindloss returned to his cabbages and Mrs. Bindloss to the library, where she wrote the following letter:
Dear Mrs. Northallerton,
Forgive my writing you as I don't think we have ever actually met. My dear sister's husband, Samuel Bream, used to speak so affectionately about you all. Happening to hear that you have come to live in the neighbourhood I wonder whether you would give us the great pleasure of a visit. My dear husband, who has retired from business and my two daughters and myself, would be delighted to welcome you. We live in a modest way, but we have a very pleasant garden, as this is my husband's special hobby. I hear you have a small boy. We should be so pleased if you would bring him too, as we are all devoted to boys.
Believe me, dear Mrs. Northallerton,
This letter elicited no reply for five days. At length one morning came the following:
Dear Mrs. Bindloss,
Thank you for your letter. Yes, I remember hearing my cousin speak of you. I'm afraid I cannot come oyer to see you just now, as I have several house-parties coming on, and Archie is attending school. Perhaps some time when you are in the neighbourhood you will give me a call.
To some people this reply would have been accepted as rather in the nature of a snub, but not so to Mrs. Bindloss.
"It gives me a loophole," she explained to her husband. "I shall wait a decent period, and then happen to be in the neighbourhood."
As a matter of fact she waited fourteen days. It is possible that she might have called on Mrs. Northallerton sooner, but this interlude had been devoted to the making of an ill-afforded new frock. At the end of that period she took the train to Tollinghurst, and walked sedately up to "The Three Gables," only alas! to find Mrs. Northallerton had gone up to town for a few days. Whatever faults Mrs. Bindloss may have had a lack of tenacity of purpose was not one. Three times during the course of a fortnight she "happened to be in the nieghbourhood" of Toilinghurst. On the third occasion she ran her quarry to earth. Mrs. Northallerton was just going out but she was graciously pleased to entertain Mrs. Bindloss for a quarter of an hour. The latter, was at her very best. She flattered her hostess about her house, her clothes, her appearance, and her intelligence in accents so refined as to be almost painful. No one is entirely immune to flattery and Mrs. Northallerton could not help but be polite and a little cordial. Towards the end of the interview Mrs. Bindloss said:
"And how's that dear boy of yours? Archie, isn't his name?"
"Oh, he's very well. He's at school. He goes to Headingley, you know."
"Really, how interesting!" exclaimed Mrs. Bindloss. "I hear it's such an excellent school. It is the great grief of my husband and myself that we never had a boy. My husband adores boys. It would be so delightful if you would let er-Archie come over and see us one day—perhaps during the holidays."
"Why, of course, I expect he would like to come very much," replied Mrs. Northallerton, without any great show of enthusiasm. "He's just got his school cap—maroon and black stripes. He's very pleased with himself."
"How delightful! I do think maroon and black is a delightful combination. I expect he's a very clever boy, isn't he?"
"They seem to think so, Mrs. Bindloss. He's very good at Latin and botany."
"Really, how splendid, Mrs. Northallerton. He would get on admirably with my husband. He doesn't know much Latin. He can't speak it you know; but he knows all about botany. You should see the tomatoes he grows."
"Indeed! Well, it's very good of you to call, but I'm afraid I really must be going now."
"Of course, oh dear! I'm afraid I'm an awful chatterbox, especially when I meet someone really interesting."
When Mrs. Bindloss returned home that evening she was able to announce that she had made a conquest, that Mrs. Northallerton was charming, and that the boy was certainly coming over to visit the family during the holidays. She also said that her husband and both the girls were to study hard at Latin and botany. Now this command led to a good deal of unpleasantness. The little Latin that Mr. Bindloss had learnt at school he had almost entirely forgotten. It seemed rather much to expect, at his time of life, that at the end of a day's gardening when his natural inclinations were to sit down and read the newspaper, he should have to try and learn up passages from Virgil. The girls said they hated botany and had no books on it. This defect was rapidly put right by Mrs. Bindloss, who went into the town and bought "Green's Life of the Plant" and "Morgan's Botany for Beginners."
"You will study these books, Gwendoline and Mildred, or there will be no flower show and Church bazaar for you next month."
Under this dire menace the two girls steeled themselves to grasp the first principles of plant life. And during the ensuing summer months Mrs. Bindloss did her best to train their minds in some of the principles of human life. She did it quietly and insinuatingly. She pointed out how in a few years time they would come to the stage when they would require to marry. She limned all the beauties and advantages of married life. She dwelt upon her own happy married life, only handicapped by the eternal lack of funds. Everything was so expensive now. Unless one was very, very rich one had to do one's own housework. (The two girls she knew hated housework.) Then she began gradually to talk about young Archie Northallerton. She had heard that he was a perfectly charming boy, very kind, clever, and gentlemanly. He would one day probably be Lord Windlass; in any case he would be very rich. -A woman who married him would be a real lady, and would never have to do any housework at all. She did not think it advisable to go any further. The affair did not make much impression on Mildred. She was of the age which is more interested in meringues than marriage. But Gwendoline was sixteen, and was beginning to be absorbed in erotic literature. In reading of the doings of Ivanhoe and Lancelot it occurred to her sometimes that Tibbelsford was a drab little town. And she dreamed of a knight on a white charger, riding up to number 27, Quorn Road, and snatching her up—one evening perhaps when she was watering the syringa in the front garden—and carrying her off and whispering in her ear:
"Come, my beloved, I will make you a Lady. Come with me to my castle on the other side of the dark wood."
She dwelt rather unduly on these visions.
As the summer advanced the family began to discuss the best way to entertain the future lord. It was to be assumed that it would be a fine day. Now Mr. Bindloss took a great pride in his lawn, which he kept rolled and cut himself. He had never allowed tennis or any other game to be played on it, but discussing the matter in bed one night with his wife, they agreed that a game of some sort would have obvious advantages. It would bring the young people into more intimate relationship. But tennis? none of the family played tennis, and it was doubtful if the lawn was quite large enough. But what about croquet? Croquet was a nice quiet game that didn't require running about, and would not be likely to do damage to the flower beds. Yes, croquet they decided was just the thing.
The next day Mr. Bindloss wrote up to town and had a croquet set sent down. When it arrived he and his wife pored over the rules. They seemed extremely complicated, and the girls were called in to give their help. The only solution seemed to be set up the hoops and experiment.
"We must be able to play a decent game when Archie comes," said Gwendoline, who quickly showed herself the most proficient performer of the family. Nearly every afternoon for some weeks the Bindloss family practised croquet, much to the astonishment of their neighbours. Mr. Bindloss had to explain to Mr. Longman next door that the exercise was good for the girls. This was a good enough reason, but whatever physical benefits may have accrued it cannot be said that the mental effect was satisfactory. There is perhaps no game at which people can so easily and persistently lose their tempers as croquet. There were furious arguments and-disputes about the rules. Moreover, Mr. Bindloss objected to being beaten, and the girls accused him of cheating. Mr. Bindloss always played with the wrong ball, and swore it was the right one. Eventually the parents gave it up, and left the girls to play alone. Mildred hated the game, and was forced to play as though it were taking medicine. They also bought a box of draughts, and a box of Halma, in case it should be a wet day, when Archie came. Early in July Mrs. Bindloss again wrote to Mrs. Northallerton, a chatty friendly little letter, ending up by hoping that at the end of the term Mrs. Northallerton would remember her promise to bring Archie over for the day.
She received no reply to this, so she wrote again a week later, saying that she feared her letter must have miscarried and repeating her invitation. There was still no answer, and it was near the end of July. The situation was desperate. She knew the school must have broken up. Some women would have given up in despair, but not so Mrs. Bindloss. She wrote once more, and said that as the weather was so fine and Mr. Bindloss's roses were now at their best, wouldn't Mrs. Northallerton and Archie come over the following Wednesday to lunch and spend the afternoon? Her persistence reaped its reward. Two days later came a telegram from somewhere in Yorkshire. "Many thanks am arranging to send Archie next Wednesday. Train arrives 12.45. Northallerton."
Triumph! Mrs. Bindloss glowed with it. And then what a to-do there was. The girls' new taffeta frocks had been in preparation for some time and were quickly finished off. Mr. Bindloss was bought a new alpaca coat and a Panama hat. A new loose cover was made for the best armchair in the drawing-room. And a man was sent for to mend all kinds of household defects, attention to which was considerably overdue.
"And now we must consider the lunch and the tea," said Mrs. Bindloss.
It was decided that you could not give a potential lord anything less than chicken. The question was ought they to have soup and fish as well. After a deal of argument they decided to have soup only, for the reason that they were short of plates, and if Annie, the daily help, had to wash up plates between courses, she would probably lose her head. Of course there must be some nice sweets and pastry, but these could be prepared beforehand. And for the tea there must be a goodly assortment of cakes, jam and cream.
"A young gentleman like that is sure to appreciate such things," said Mrs. Bindloss, "and if we do it well he will be more likely to come again."
At length the great day dawned. Mrs. Bindloss was up early. She peered out of her bedroom window anxiously. Yes, the day promised to be fine. She got up and dressed and roused the rest of the family. There would be plenty to do for everyone. Annie couldn't be relied on to cook such an elaborate meal by herself. Mrs. Bindloss had had to scold her the day before for carelessness. Mrs. Bindloss dressed feverishly. Annie of course was late. She would be on such an important occasion. Came half past seven and then eight and still no Annie. The girls were bustled out of bed and made to get breakfast. The family started the day with bad tempers.
"It's no good getting agitated," said Mr. Bindloss, coming into the dining-room just as the breakfast was on the table.
"It's all very well for some people," snapped Mrs. Bindloss. "Some people don't have all the work and worry of it."
After a sketchy breakfast Mildred was sent into the town on her bicycle to beat up the lagging Annie. She returned in half an hour's time with a message from Miss Annie Woppins to the effect that that lady had no longer any intention of "obliging Mrs. B. after the saucy way she spoke to her yesterday."
Consternation and fury in the Bindloss family.
"We must make the best of it," said Mr. Bindloss, lighting his pipe. "We must meet the situation with Christian fortitude."
"Yes, and perhaps you'll go and get some coals in," said Mrs. Bindloss. "Mildred, get on your bicycle again and go and see if you can get Mrs. Betts, or that other woman in Stone's passage—what's her name? the one with a moustache."
"We can't have that awful apparition about for Archie to see," exclaimed Gwen.
"You'd better get on with the housework," said Mrs. Bindloss, "and be quick about it. And, Mildred, on the way back, call at Fleming's and order the dog-cart to be here sharp at twelve to take some of us to the station. Julian, after you've got the coals in, you can clean the knives, and then roll the lawn and put up the croquet hoops."
Mrs. Bindloss's annoyance about the defection of Annie was mellowed by a certain cynical enjoyment at rubbing it in about the sordidness of domestic drudgery. It would be an object lesson to the girls. Having borne the burden of the fight so far, she meant to stand no nonsense from the family. For the next few hours the house was in a turmoil. Mildred returned to say that neither Mrs. Betts, nor the woman with a moustache were available. Mrs. Bindloss proceeded with her preparations for lunch, whilst her husband and daughters were sent flying round at her commands. It was decided that the correct thing to do was for Mr. and Mrs. Bindloss to go to the station themselves in the dog-cart to meet the future Lord Windlass, whilst the girls remained behind to change into the new taffeta frocks and at the same time to keep an eye on the fowl and the vegetables. It must be acknowledged that under the very trying circumstances Mrs. Bindloss managed efficiently. All the preparations were carefully made, and when the dog-cart arrived at twelve o'clock, she was ready in the hall pulling on her new white gloves.
They arrived at the station a good quarter of an hour before the train came in. Mrs. Bindloss was one of those women who are always pecking at their husbands. That is to say she was always darting at him and pulling his waistcoat down, putting his tie straight, or picking little bits of cotton off his coat. This quarter of an hour was fully occupied in this way, amplified by various wishing-to-goodnesses he would do this, that, and the other in regard to his clothes.
At length the train came in. It was a slack hour, and a mere handful of people got out. In this company it was not difficult to discriminate which was the future Lord Windlass. The rest were ordinary market folk. Apart from being obviously what is known as "upper class, he was wearing the maroon and black striped cap which his mother had spoken to Mrs. Bindloss about. He came swinging along the platform, and he was carrying curiously enough—two fishing-rods in canvas coverings and a brown paper parcel.
"Leave this to me," whispered Mrs. Bindloss. When the boy was within hailing distance she cried out in her most refined accent:
"So here you are, Archie! Welcome to Tibbelsford!"
She held out her hand, and he took it shyly. On close examination it could not be said that the future Lord Windlass was exactly of prepossessing appearance. For a boy of fourteen he was distinctly too fat. His round, fat face was flabby and, indeed, the lower part of his face even gave the appearance of having double chins. His expression was taciturn, with a shy reserve of maliciousness.
"You're just in time for lunch," added Mrs. Bindloss, who was avid to begin the lavish entertaining. "I expect you're ready for your lunch after your journey."
Archie mumbled something about being "able to peck a bit," and the three walked out of the station and got into the dog-cart.
When they were seated, Mrs. Bindloss broke out:
"Now, my dear Archie, I have a most dreadful confession to make. I don't know what you'll think, considering what you—er—are used to. But the whole of our domestic service has broken down. I don't know whatever kind of lunch we shall be able to provide. I do hope you won't mind taking pot-luck. Our cook is ill in bed, and we're in such a muddle."
They couldn't hear what the boy replied, owing to the rattle of the wheels and the noise of the town. Mrs. Bindloss continued:
"And how is your dear mother?"
"She's all right."
"Such a charming woman, so handsome, so intellectual!"
The rest of the conversation on the way to the house, consisted of a wild babble of effusive comment from Mrs. Bindloss, a certain amount of forced hilarity from Mr. Bindloss, checked by almost inaudible monosyllables from the boy.
"He's very shy," Mrs. Bindloss whispered to her husband as they descended from the dog-cart. Gwendoline was on the lawn.
Mrs. Bindloss called out:
"Ah, here we are, dear! This is my eldest girl, Gwendoline. I hope you'll be great friends. Where is Mildred? Reading, I expect. Both my girls are great readers. Are you fond of reading, Archie?"
He was understood to say either "yes" or "no."
It was then Mr. Bindloss's turn to have something to say.
"Hullo, I see you've brought fishing-rods. I'm afraid we haven't any fishing here."
"Haven't you?" said Archie quite distinctly.
They entered the hall, and he put down his rods, and his brown paper parcel, and took a stone bottle of ginger beer out of his pocket and laid beside it.
"Oh, dear! boys will be pueri," said Mr. Bindloss, who was preparing for his Latin campaign. "He's brought a bottle of ginger-beer, and I do believe—this parcel—"
"Really, Julian, Archie's parcel is no business of yours."
"They're sandwiches," said the visitor. This rather surprising statement was robbed of further comment by Mildred's entrance, rubbing her hands on her apron, which she had forgotten to remove. She had been dishing up the vegetables.
"Ah!" exclaimed Mrs. Bindloss, "here's our younger pride, Mildred. Mildred, dear, what are you wearing that apron for. Have you been working at your plants in the conservatory?"
"No, mother, I—er—" she held out her hand to Archie and said timidly: "How are you?"
"Pretty dicky," replied the boy.
"What!" exclaimed Mr. Bindloss. "Pretty dicky! but my dear boy, why didn't you tell me? What can we do? Is there anything you'd like? A little sal volatile, perhaps. How do you feel?"
"Oh, I don't know," he answered.
"But this is most distressing. Do you feel like having any lunch?"
"I expect I could peck a bit."
There is no denying that the future Lord Windlass had not made a very auspicious start. He was plain, surly; he arrived with fishing-rods, sandwiches and ginger beer—whatever kind of people did his mother think they were?—and on the top of this he announced that he felt "dicky."
"Come on, then, Julian, take Archie upstairs. Perhaps he would like a wash. He may feel better after lunch."
While he was upstairs the lunch was whipped on to the table. It must be acknowledged that for an invalid Archie "pecked" remarkably well. He had two wings of chicken, a large slice of breast, the parson's nose, two sausages, a liberal helping of sprouts and potatoes, some coffee jelly, three mince pies, a banana, an apple and some nuts, and chocolates. Apart from eating his enthusiasms appeared dormant. They could get him to talk about nothing at all. Mrs. Bindloss talked about the Royal family, the weather, politics, her two daughter's cleverness—she didn't mention that it was Mildred who had smitched the Brussels sprouts—the church, and the lower classes. Mr. Bindloss talked about Headingley College, the decay of society, and the beauties of plant life. Gwendoline recounted a beautiful romance she had just been reading called, The Mother Superior. Mildred stared at the future lord open-mouthed, too nervous and agitated to eat or speak. The young gentleman himself remained stubbornly monosyllabic. He only ventured two remarks during the meal. Once he cocked his head on one side and said:
"That picture's out of the straight."
And towards the end of the meal he said to Mildred:
"Do you hunt?"
On receiving an answer in the negative, he relapsed into a settled gloom.
Once Mrs. Bindloss said: "After lunch we thought you dear children might have a nice game of croquet. Dojyou play croquet, Archie?"
"No," he said, "I hate croquet."
This was distinctly discouraging in view of the time and expense that had been devoted in preparing this innocuous game. However, concessions have to be made to the eccentricities of a future lord. By an elaborate process Mr. Bindloss led up to the value of doing things promptly, and came out proudly with:
"As you know, Archie, 'corripe tempus quod adest, O juvenes, ne hori moriemini.'"
Anyone who happened to know the trouble that Mr. Bindloss had had to memorize this old tag would sympathize with him in his disappointment when he regarded the face of his guest. It expressed an uncomfortable disgust. Neither did he display any excitement over the girl's drawings of flowers and fauna.
After lunch, however, he appeared in a better humour. On his own responsibility he suggested a game with the girls which he called "Yoics." It had to be played in a room, so they repaired to the drawing-room. The game was this. Each of the three players had to occupy a wall, touching it with their hands. Then the one facing the blank wall had to call out: "Yoics! I'm going over." Then he or she had to throw themselves on the ground and scramble on all fours to the opposite wall before the other two—also on all fours—met in the middle and touched hands. If he or she failed to get there, then they all changed walls and someone else tried.
It was not a game that Mrs. Bindloss would have recommended because for one thing it meant re-arranging the furniture, furthermore, it did no good to the girls' new taffeta frocks. Nevertheless, she and her husband looked on and gave the impression of being greatly amused. They kept the game up for about twenty minutes, until in an excess of anxiety to reach the opposite wall, Archie barged into the mahogany side table and knocked it over, smashing the vase which dear Aunt Emily had given as a wedding present, and spilling the flowers and water all over Gwendoline's frock. Gwendoline had to go and change, and Mr. Bindloss suggested that as it was such a fine day they might play some game in the garden.
Archie was now getting more at home with the girls, and his greater intimacy was principally demonstrated by pushing them about. He had quite a pleasant wrestle with Mildred while Gwen was changing her frock. He guaranteed to throw her three times in five minutes, pinioning her head to the ground, and he did so quite successfully. He was less successful with Gwen, as he only threw her twice in ten minutes, and then at the expense of tearing her skirt.
"It's a pity you don't play croquet, Archie," said Mrs. Bindloss. "It's a most interesting game."
"No, I hate it. I'll tell you what we will do though. Let's play croquet polo. You know, you have a goal at each end of the lawn, and you try and score goals."
This sounded a harmless enough game, and they played Archie and Mildred versus Mr. Bindloss and Gwen. They started gently tapping the wooden ball across, but no goals being forthcoming, Archie began to hit harder, and suddenly there was a yell. Mr. Bindloss had received a fierce blow on the ankle from Archie's drive. He limped off the field, and the girls protested that the game was too rough and dangerous.
"All right," said Archie, "but I bet I'll drive a croquet ball further than you two girls put together."
Mr. and Mrs. Bindloss retired to the security of the drawing-room.
"He's a very curious boy," said Mr. Bindloss, rubbing his ankle.
"I'm sure he's really very nice. I expect he improves on acquaintance," replied his wife.
There was a sudden terrific crash and they rushed to the window. Archie had driven his ball right through the glass of the tomato-house.
"Oh dear, oh dear!" Mr. Bindloss called out feebly.
It required great tact to dissuade the young gentleman from continuing this game, without being definitely rude to him. It was not till he had trampled on a bed of lupins, broken a croquet mallet, and nearly knocked Mildred's eye out, that they were able to get him to turn his attention to something else.
The nerves of Mr. Bindloss were getting on edge. He was accustomed to an afternoon nap, but of course, such a thing was out of the question on a day like this. He was inclined to be querulous with his wife, an attitude which was hotly resented.
"You never think of the girls' interests," she said.
"Interests!" exclaimed Mr. Bindloss. "A nice sort of son-in-law he'd make. I wish he'd go."
"He's getting on very well," said Mrs. Bindloss, looking out of the window. "I'm sure he's enjoying himself." Then she added breathlessly, "Julian, would you believe it! He's—kissing Gwen in the tomato house!"
"Yes, he's got his arm round her waist."
"Well, I—really—I—what ought we to do?"
"Leave them alone. They are only children. Besides—"
She turned from the window and took up some knitting. There was silence from the garden for nearly twenty minutes. Then Mildred came running in.
"I say, mother, Archie says he feels sick," she exclaimed excitedly.
"Sick!" exclaimed Mrs. Bindloss.
"Sick!" echoed Mr. Bindloss,
"Yes, he looks it too."
"Oh dear, oh dear!" exclaimed both the parents. They hurried out into the garden. There was Archie sitting on the grass fanning himself. He certainly looked very queer.
"Oh, my dear Archie," exclaimed Mrs. Bindloss, "Im so sorry. Won't you come in? Let me get you something. Hadn't you better lie down?"
He said, "Yes," and they led him in. He looked so ill that they took him up to Mr. Bindloss's bedroom and got him to lie down on the bed.
"Gwen," said Mrs. Bindloss, "run down the road and see if Dr.' Burns is in. I'm sure Archie's mother would like us to have a doctor to him."
They gave him a little soda water and left him. Gwen went for the doctor. And while she was gone a most surprising thing happened. A telegram arrived addressed to "Bindloss." Mrs. Bindloss naturally opened it, and having opened it, gave a gasp of astonishment. She handed the telegram to her husband. It ran as follows.
"Archie has mumps regret could not send him. Northallerton."
Mr. Bindloss repeated the word "mumps" three times, and stared helplessly at his wife.
"What does it mean?" said Mrs. Bindloss savagely, as though accusing her husband of some wicked treachery.
"How can they say they couldn't send him when he's upstairs all the time lying on my bed?" said Mr. Bindloss, as though he had made a brilliant riposte.
"He must have escaped," interjected Mildred.
Mr. Bindloss was feverishly biting his nails. Suddenly he waggled his first finger at his wife.
"Does anything strike you? Does anything strike you?" he said.
"He's got mumps. That's what the matter is with him. When he arrived I thought he had double chins. But he's got mumps."
Mrs. Bindloss gasped.
"He's got mumps, and he's been kissing the girls, and now he's lying on my bed."
"It's an outrage," screamed Mrs. Bindloss, "What are we to do?"
"The only thing we can do is to wait for the doctor and then telegraph to Mrs. Northallerton."
Gwendoline happened to catch the doctor starting on his rounds. He came in and he and the two parents went up to the bedroom. The doctor examined the boy.
"Yes," he said, "he's got mumps all right. He must remain here and not be moved."
"Oh, my dear Archie," said Mrs. Bindloss, "what a pity you didn't tell us! But look here, my dear, here's a most curious letter from your mother, read it."
Archie was sorry for himself and surly. He read the telegram and said:
"That's not from my mother."
"How do you mean?"
"My mother's name is Bloggs."
"What!" yelled Mr. Bindloss.
"What!" screamed Mrs. Bindloss.
"You never asked me my name. I was going out to do a bit of fishing and you asked me home to lunch. That's all."
"But we called you Archie."
"My name is Archie, Archie Bloggs."
"But the maroon and black cap!"
"Yes, I know, I go to Headingley. I know young Northallerton, awful little ass. There was an epidemic of mumps just as the school broke up."
"But who the devil!" exclaimed Mr. Bindloss. "I mean who is your father?"
"Don't you know? Blogg's Sausages."
Mrs. Bindloss was nearly in tears.
"Do you mean to say we've taken all this trouble and your father is only a sausage—"
Mr. Bindloss saw red.
"It's an outrage!" he yelled. "I shall prosecute you. You come here and get a good meal on false pretences. You smash up the drawing-room. You smash the greenhouse and the croquet mallet. You nearly break my leg. And on the top of it you go kissing the girls with mumps on you, and all the time you're not—you're not who you're supposed to be. You're only the son of a sausage—By God! I'll have you locked up."
The doctor intervened.
"You must excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Bindloss, as I'm here in a professional capacity I must ask you to keep the patient quiet. And he should not be moved from this room."
"We won't have him here."
"Well, that's not my business. I've given you my advice." And the doctor went.
There are many people in Tibbelsford who consider that Mr. and Mrs. Bindloss behaved heartlessly in this matter. It is a point of controversy to this day. The visit from an indignant Mr. Samuel Bloggs, the father, did not help perhaps to pour oil on the troubled waters. There was certainly an acrimonious argument, and various cross threats of legal proceedings, but in the end the boy was sent home in an ambulance. The critics of the parents' behaviour did not of course know the inner history of their spiritual duress. People are apt to underestimate what parents will suffer for their children's interests, what indignities they will submit to. The girls fortunately did not get mumps, and two days later Mrs. Bindloss wrote to Mrs. Northallerton.
Dear Mrs. Northallerton,
We were so grieved to hear about dear Archie. I do hope he is making a good recovery. We waited lunch nearly three quarters of an hour for him. I hope before the holidays are over he will be well enough to come over for the day, and that you will be able to accompany him. It was so sweet of you to have tried to arrange it, and to have sent us the telegram. My husband joins me in sending our very best greetings, and hopes for Archie's speedy recovery.
Believe me, dear Mrs. Northallerton,
Yours very sincerely,
That is the kind of woman Mrs. Bindloss is. And that is the kind of spirit that has built cities, founded colonies and enlarged empires.
You may remember that the summer of 1938 was an exceptionally hot one. Anti-cyclones over the eastern Atlantic caused a series of heat waves in northern and western Europe. These conditions began in early June, and they prevailed with only the briefest interruptions right up to the third week in September. People had never known such a hot summer.
One afternoon during the beginning of the first heat wave in June, Lena Trevanna peeped beneath the sunblind and looked down on to the marble terrace of her husbands palatial mansion at Twickenham. The white marble seemed to be dancing and quivering in the sun. Projecting from beneath the awning of an extending deck chair she could see her husband's white buckskin boots, and the sight filled her with bitterness. One might ask whether her husband's boots were a special source of irritation to Lena. It is difficult to say. Certainly, the right boot had once kicked her during a paroxysm of the owner's anger. But it is doubtful whether she hated his feet more than any of the rest of him. She had no desire to see his face at that moment. She was all too familiar with that heavy, puffy jowl, the bald head fringed with white hair, the moist protruding eyes, the bristly tooth-brush moustache, the overhanging eyelids, and the small dark eyes that missed nothing and flashed alternately with anger and cunning.
She hated him, and she hated that miniature city, the roofs of which she could just see on the other side of the park. They called it Trevanna City. It comprised several square miles of studios, workshops, and buildings of plaster and canvas, film factories, and solid houses where lived actors and producers, and operators, and all the rag-tag and bob-tail of that profession she had learned to hate.
And Lena had not always hated it. When a very young girl it had been the ambition of her life to be a filmstar. She had studied and struggled and failed. She knew she was not beautiful. She was short and dark and ill-proportioned. But she had something—she believed she had the ability to portray emotion. For three years she had withstood the buffets of the cinema world. No one gave her the least encouragement. She became despondent and bitter. And then one day she had met the great Julius Trevanna. Even at that time—fifteen years ago—he was a big man in the film world. And now?—was it not a notorious fact that he was the central pivot of a virtual combine, the combine of all British and Colonial film interests? Millions: millions; he had piled them up as other men pile up shillings. And the millions brought no satisfaction to Lena. She was nominally the mistress of the house. In effect she was less than a servant. She was a servant without the power to give notice. She was a slave, a chattle. She wandered through the great corridors and galleries, and was alone—utterly alone.
Some strange, almost perverse desire must have assailed Julius when they first met. She was conscious of him observing her sleepily and tugging at his little moustache as though considering a problem. She disliked him instantly. He was physically repellent to her. And then one day he had come and stroked her hair and said:
"You're a nice little girl, eh?"
She did not know what to do. There suddenly flashed through her mind two visions. One of Lena Baynes—unsuccessful, unknown, penniless, getting old. The other of Lena Trevanna, rich, successful, the greatest film star in the world. If she married him he would be bound to give her leading parts. She had hesitated and dallied. Julius was a masterful man. He had not given her opportunities for long consideration. Money was no object in any of his undertakings. And so one April day she found herself his wife. For a few months there was a semblance of some kind of happiness in their married life, and then came the rift. She almost at once discovered that he was vicious, egotistical, and tyrannical. He tired of her, but he would not let her go. When she suggested herself in leading parts, he said:
"'Um, yes. Well, we shall see. Better begin at the bottom and climb."
He gave her small parts and quickly showed he thought nothing of her ability. One day she overheard him tell a producer that he needn't bother about her because "she was a perfect fool." That was the beginning. They quarrelled, and henceforth their lives were lived apart. They shared the great palace and hardly ever exchanged a word. He clothed her and fed her, but only made her a small allowance. He ordered her about and bullied her. Sometimes he even struck her. For fifteen years she had endured this life, hesitating between numerous alternatives. What could she do? If she left him, she would again have to face the struggle and the disgrace. She had become quite convinced at last that she really had no ability as an actress. And she was getting older. No wonder she began to hate this unreal world. Everything was unreal and unconvincing. Emotions, murders, and marriages and robberies were always being enacted right under her nose. The house itself was frequently in use, and she arrived at the condition of being unable to differentiate between reality and posture. Every vision might be a chimaera. The wljole countryside was unreal—film mad.
On this afternoon as she gazed on to the terrace, she sighed for the days of her youth, when everything was vital and real. The sun was apparently too hot for Julius. She saw him pull his hat over his eyes and stroll into the house. At the same time she observed a large aeroplane gliding downwards beyond the trees. After hovering for a few seconds, it alighted on the landing stage across the park. A small detachable motor-car appeared to be released from the framework and in a few minutes was racing up the drive towards the house.
"It's someone coming to see Julius," she thought.
In her enervated and bored mood she felt a sudden desire to see who this stranger might be. Anything was better than eating her heart out. She found her husband in the Louis XV. salon, still smoking the cigar and glancing at a tape machine. She did not address him. She went and perched herself in the window-seat. Apparently he did not observe her. She pretended to be reading. In a few minutes' time a butler entered with a card on a lacquer tray. He handed it to Julius, who examined it.
The importance of the message appeared to be so profound that he swung round as though he could not restrain his excitement. He must communicate it to someone. He observed Lena and exclaimed:
"Mark Ulrich! Good God! Mark Ulrich himself! The biggest man in the film world of the whole of America! What the devil does he—"
Apparently feeling that he was being too familiar and communicative, he turned once more to the butler and said:
"Show Mr. Ulrich in."
The room was flooded with a mellow light diffused by the skilful arrangement of sunblinds. She lay shivering in her corner, watchfully alert. The butler retired and re-entered, followed by the visitor. There was little about the first impression of Mr. Mark Ulrich to denote the biggest man in the cinema world. His physique was insignificant, his face was grey and drawn, his clothes dowdy. It was only when he advanced and held out his hands that she observed the quiet power behind the eyes, the steady jaw, the complete sense of assurance which only masterful men possess.
"Mr. Trevanna?" he muttered, and smiled kindly.
Julius was obviously deeply affected, excited and a shade suspicious. What had the American Film King come to him for? He spoke as casually as he could:
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Ulrich—a great honour. Won't you sit down?"
The American perched himself on the corner of a Chesterfield, and passed his hand over his brow.
"I have been most anxious to meet you, Mr. Trevanna. I am a bad traveller. I preferred the old days when we used to come by sea. Even now I insist upon the dirigible. They are slow but comfortable. I must have my bath. It is two and a half days since I left my home in Connecticut to come and visit you."
Julius raised his eyebrows.
"Do I understand that you have come over specially to see me?"
Mr. Ulrich smiled.
"Why not? Yes, indeed. I have a matter I want to discuss with you, if you can spare me the time."
"Why, of course, I have nothing urgent this afternoon or to-night. May I put you up for a day or two?"
"It is very kind of you. I must return to America to-night, however. But if you think well of my idea I shall return again in a few days' time."
"Well, well, now. Make yourself at home. Have a cigar."
"Thank you, I do not smoke. If you can really spare me the time, I will begin to lay my plans before you at once."
He coughed and looked round the room, and his eye alighted on Lena. He gave a little exclamation of surprise.
Julius, who had quite forgotten her, turned in her direction. He barked out:
Mr. Ulrich immediately walked across the room and held out his hand to her.
"Mrs. Trevanna," he said, "I am delighted to make your acquaintance."
The unaccustomed social attention quite unnerved Lena. She could only gasp: "Thank you...Thank you."
Mr. Ulrich looked slightly puzzled. He glanced from one to the other and then resumed his seat. Julius appeared to hesitate whether to order his wife out of the room, but apparently decided that her presence made no difference one way or the other. The only sound was the ticking of the tape machine. Mr. Ulrich leant forward on his knees, and as he spoke a tinge of colour enlivened his countenance:
"What I am about to propose to you may cause you considerable surprise, and I shall not ask you to come to any decision in the matter till my return from America. The idea has come to me slowly. It is the outcome of the growth of my experience—many, many long years in the film world. I think it began to take shape at the time when the Chinese, and indeed all the Eastern people, began to be absorbed by the fascination of moving picture work. Now, as you know, Mr. Trevanna, the cinema industry is the first industry in the world. It represents a larger flotation of capital, it employs more people, and pays greater dividends than any other two industries in the world put together. You and I, and perhaps a few others, hardly realise the power that is in our hands."
Julius looked up at him quickly.
"Is your idea—an international combine?"
"In a sense—yes. But my idea is more comprehensive than that. I am of opinion that what the famous League of Nations failed to accomplish, the Universal Film Trust could accomplish quite easily."
"I'm afraid I can't see—the League of Nations! What have we to do with politics?"
"We might have everything to do with politics. If we could live up to the ideal which should inspire all parties to the agreement, we could—"
"What could we do?"
"We could stop the earth!"
"What the devil!"
"I do not mean that human life or activities would be stopped. On the contrary, they would be helped, and encouraged, and elevated. What I mean is that history could be stopped. There would be armies, but they would be armies in fustian. We could fight again the battle of the Marne, the battle of Poitiers, the battle of Marathon, but there would never again be bloodshed. There would be nations retaining their national characteristics but as nations they would have no claws or talons. There would be Governments, but they would be tools in our hands. We should enter the age of retrospection. We would wind up the history of the world. We would set it down, and reproduce it on the screens. All men would work simply and reverently for the good of mankind. Agriculture and manufacture and all arts and industries would still go on, of course, but there would be no international politics. With the power that we represent we could check any movement of political aggression. We could stop the production of all armaments except those made of wood and canvas."
"You must be mad!"
Mr. Ulrich smiled gently, and raised his hand.
"Mr. Trevanna," he continued, "I need perhaps hardly point out to you that my life and work have not all been the outcome of a visionary existence. Many people consider me a hard, material man. Even my numerous benefactions have been ascribed as 'good business.' I may mention that, in spite of your unique position in the British film world, you are not the first man I have approached. I only crave your sympathetic consideration. As I say, I do not expect you to give your decision until I return from America."
Julius sucked the stump of his cigar, which had gone out.
"Might I ask—who else have you approached?"
"Ah Sing Fu."
"Ah Sing Fu!"
Lena observed her husband start and shrink back into the easy chair. Mr. Ulrich twisted his fingers around his bony knees and swayed backward and forwards.
"The world has yet to comprehend the Chinese. The Chinese are the most numerous, the most intelligent, the most immovable race on this earth. It may almost be said that they wound up their history some time ago. They have begun to find out how to live. I have spent many happy hours in the society of Ah Sing Fu. He is a philosopher, an idealist, and an extremely able and practical man. As you know, he is the presiding genius of that wonderful group of Eastern film activities which have only come into force during the last fifteen years. It embraces the whole of China and Eastern Siberia and part of Japan. It has its ramifications throughout India and the Malay Archipelago. It is a bigger corporation than either yours or ours. Ah Sing Fu and I are the only people at present who have discussed this idea. I now come to you. Within the course of a few weeks trusted agents of ours will be active throughout Europe and Africa and that part of Asia not yet influenced by Ah Sing Fu."
"But what does it all amount to? How do you propose to go to work?"
"The nations of the world, Mr. Trevanna, are still living on paper credit as a result of the great war. They are, indeed, a lot of bankrupts. They can dress well and dine well and stuff the bills away into a drawer. They are just gambling on. Their very existence depends on the goodwill and good sense of men controlling the largest blocks of actual assets. We film industries are conducted on a cash basis. We represent the biggest, solidest control of capital in the world. Nothing can stand against it!"
"Then we could shove the prices up."
"We could, but that is not the idea of either Ah Sing Fu or myself. Our idea is simply a moral one. On the contrary, we think the charges should be reduced, the standard of production raised; the ego could be turned inwards to absorb the moral of the past and, through it, to determine the way to live."
The eyes of Julius were starting out of his head. He was obviously convinced that he was in the presence of a lunatic, a dangerous lunatic, and yet a person for whom he had a profound respect. He had chafed his fingers once badly pulling the strings against this very man. And Ah Sing Fu was a genius; the whole film world acclaimed it.
He was uncomfortable and disturbed, and suspicious. Why couldn't they leave him alone comfortably piling up his millions. Who cared or believed in the "uplifting of humanity?" At the same time, if he opposed them, what might they not do? His fortune was great, but his commitments were greater. He depended on America, and Russia, and even the East for many things. Unless he was circumspect, he might find himself marooned. He temporised.
"It's a big idea."
Mr. Ulrich blinked at the great salon and cracked a knuckle. Then he arose and walked to the window, and looked across the park. He appeared to be considering some new problem. Suddenly he turned and said quietly:
"This is a very beautiful house. Very quiet and charming. It has suddenly occurred to me—Ah Sing Fu and I had almost determined to call a conference at Joachims in Prague at the end of the month, but when I come to think of it—I wonder whether we could trespass upon your hospitality! This would make an ideal meeting place. And it would be more convenient in many ways. You live here alone, do you not? Of course, it all depends upon the word of Mrs. Trevanna..."
He smiled and bowed to her. Julius grunted and tugged at his little moustache. Lena did not speak. The shafts of unspoken venom passing between husband and wife must have been apparent to Mr. Ulrich, but he gave no recognition of it. Julius suddenly exclaimed:
"Yes, yes, certainly. Have it here, by all means."
But it was said less as a genial invitation than as an assertion that the word of Mrs. Trevanna didn't count one way or the other.
"Very kind, very kind of you indeed," murmured Mr. Ulrich. "As you may imagine, there will be a great number of technicalities to discuss. It will be necessary to get in everyone, and possibly to—eradicate objectionable elements."
He uttered the last sentence very slowly and clearly. There was a touch of velvet menace about it. Julius visualised Ah Sing Fu, Ulrich and Joachim eradicating "objectionable elements." Joachim, he knew, was another of these international fanatics who were becoming so prolific. The centre of his operations was Prague, and he controlled the film interests of all Central Europe. These three together could eradicate anything. They were mad—stark, staring mad; but they frightened him. Fortunately there was his friend, Jonkers, in Brussels. He was a good man, a good, solid man, with no nonsense about him. He would ring up Jonkers, and see what he thought. Between them perhaps they could cope with these lunatics, these visionaries. Damn it! what was his wife doing, suddenly walking over to this American and shaking hands, saying she would like to have the conference here? In his house! He, who by his industry and genius, had built the place, and picked her out of the gutter. He had half a mind to cancel the whole thing. He was being rushed...
"Then that is settled, Mr. Trevanna. I do not mean that you will agree at present to join the combination, but that you will agree that we hold the conference here. It is so much more satisfactory than any written or wirelessed way of communicating. It is necessary that we should all know each other. The personal factor still remains the dominant force in the world."
Mr. Ulrich held out his hand, and Julius found himself gripping it. The vanity of wealth over-rode his other feelings. He desired to impress his rivals.
"Invite as many as you like," he exclaimed. "We could put up a hundred or two and not notice them in this place."
"I do not think it will be necessary to ask more than about twelve or fifteen—just a central body—but the conference will naturally go on for several weeks. After formulating a broadly-designed scheme, it will be necessary to keep constantly in touch with our representatives in all parts of the world. There will be opposition and misunderstanding, and we shall have to clean it up bit by bit."
"I will stroll down the garden with you."
Julius felt a sudden accentuated aversion to his wife. He was annoyed that she had been present. He felt that he was being made to look weak and pliable, and it angered him that she should have observed it. He scowled at her as he suggested the stroll in the garden. It was meant to imply very forcibly that her presence was undesirable. It was quite unnecessary, however. Lena made no attempt to follow. She froze into her former conditionjof sullen aloofness. Mr. Ulrich shook her hand, and the two men went into the garden.
Lena watched them for some time talking earnestly beneath the cedar tree. Ulrich did most of the talking. He was emphasising his points deliberately and clearly, tapping the palm of his left hand with two fingers of his right. In rather less than an hour's time, he took his departure.
Julius came back into the house. He was in a very bad temper. He kept snapping his fingers, a characteristic sign of extreme tension and nervousness. When he saw her, he bawled at her:
"Make all preparations with the servants to entertain twenty men here for three weeks in August."
She felt tempted to reply: "Don't you mean, 'make all preparations with the other servants?'" but she forbore, and shrank away from him. Alone in her room, she thought: "They are going to stop the earth...everything will cease...everything will be unreal for ever."
The unusual spell of heat continued. Three days later her husband remarked to her in the morning:
"Jonkers is coming to-night. Have the Dubarry room prepared for him."
She knew and detested this Jonkers. He was so very like her husband, only not so fat. He had a disgusting, oleaginous, over-familiar way of talking to her. He said one thing with his mouth and another with his eyes. He was cunning, and supercilious, and sensual. He sometimes flattered her, but she knew from his eyes that he thought no more of her than her husband did. Nevertheless, she was interested to hear of the visit. She knew that it was in some way connected with the visit of Mr. Ulrich. All over the world were springing up what her husband called "these crazy internationalists." Ulrich, Ah Sing Fu, Joachim, and these others were of that persuasion. They only awaited some lever. Jonkers and Julius Trevanna would never agree with the rest. They would plot behind the scenes. They would play for their own hands.
She knew that, and she knew it more fully when she saw them together that night after dinner. She pretended to make herself scarce, but she was watching and listening. Jonkers stayed two days and nights, and the two friends talked far into the night. It was very difficult. Julius was suspicious, and she had to appear more dormant and preoccupied than ever. Only once did she manage to overhear a portion of a conversation which completely showed the trend of their ambitions.
"Of course, we shall have to agree," Julius was saying. "It's too big a thing. But this is where we'll come in, Jonkers—"
He explained some technical suggestion of Ulrich's. Lena could not understand it, but she understood the chuckle of the Flemish guest, when he interjected:
"Keep that dark, dear boy. You and I between us, we should make four million a year clear profit over that—if we pretend, see?"
Followed no relief from the prevailing high temperature. Jonkers went and others came. Tapes and telephones and wires were always active, and still the world was unsuspicious of being stopped. July came and went and the day of the conference was drawing near.
Lena was pledged to secrecy. Not a word was to be breathed. The affair was to have the appearance of an ordinary house party. The servants would know nothing about the guests. If it came out that all the film magnates were assembled at one point, the stock markets of the world would be in panic.
Ah Sing Fu was the first arrival. He came with a retinue of three servants and a secretary. He drifted into the house like an autumn leaf indicating the wane of the year—an old man, with a thin, white beard, suave, gentle, impenetrable. Lena would never know him, but she felt that she could trust him.
"No man was ever so wise as some Chinamen look." Ah Sing Fu was like that. There was something about him big, disinterested, indestructible—a pioneer of perpetuity.
He and his retainers glided about the house in their slippered feet. Their presence seemed permeating but intangible. Ulrich followed within twelve hours. Then came Joachim, a jovial giant, with a deep penetrating voice and a laugh that was good to hear. Three others arrived in the night as if by magic. Rene Caradoc, a Frenchman; Raddaes, a Portuguese; and an indeterminate person called Linnsen, who might have been anything from a Moor to a Chicago stock-raiser. They vanished to their rooms, met in the morning, and talked in little groups over their coffee. The conference was already begun. Golf was played in the afternoon, obviously with the idea of giving an impression of normality. Joachim broke a club, and his laugh could be heard across the park. He had probably never played the game before. The afternoon brought two gentlemen from South America and one from Cape Town. Lena was beginning to lose the thread of their identities. Everything was becoming dreamlike, fantastic. The heat was enervating. There was an informal meeting of all parties in the library, and Julius informed her that her presence was not desirable. Again in the night arrived Moder, another American, and a Hindu, with a retinue of five. Within the week the conference was complete. Twenty-three sat round the circular table in the library. All the doors were closed. Lena wandered about the grounds or sat in the garden dreaming. What were they going to do? What would be the outcome of it, this conspiracy to stop the earth? She liked Ulrich, and she liked Joachim and Ah Sing Fu. They were good men. She was convinced of that. But—this heat! She dreaded it, the stopping of the earth, retrospection, going back, nothing happening again, everything to be filmed and unreal. She would not be able to stand it.
While things went on there always seemed a vestige of hope...anything might happen. But if they were successful—
She met them on the terrace and at meal times, pleasant, charming men for the most part. They were very kind to her, very considerate, but pre-occupied. Big things were on the move. Code messages arrived and were despatched all day and night. The weeks dragged by. She overheard occasional remarks which gave her an inkling of development. There appeared to be trouble in South Russia and the Balkans. There would be, of course. Joachim and Ulrich were very active over this. Someone was being squeezed out. The operation appeared to be conducted through a process of buying and selling stock on the Vienna stock exchange. It was all quite incomprehensible.
At the end of the third week two more men appeared; one a German, the other an Albanian. They were initiated into the mysteries. Once she heard one of them remark: "The Dutch are obstinate." She knew they would be. Her heart went out to the Dutch. Then the crushing process began on Amsterdam. Someone else was superseded. It seemed horrible. The whole earth was being cleaned up. And all the time Julius Trevanna and Jonkers were playing some game of their own. Before the others, they did not appear very intimate, but Lena knew that Julius invariably visited Jonkers in his room at night after the others had retired. There was a private telephone and wireless service there. One night she tried to listen at the keyhole. She could hear them talking, but could not hear what they said. And suddenly the door opened and Julius came out. He caught hold of her arm and hurt her.
"What the devil are you doing?" he muttered, and he flung her across the passage.
That night she did not sleep.
The next day she sought out Ulrich. She managed to detach him from a group on the terrace. She whispered:
"Mr. Ulrich, may I have a private word with you?"
"Why, certainly, dear lady."
"Will you come to the end of the second orchid house in ten minutes' time?"
When he came she could not get her breath. She was terrified. She felt sure Julius would know. If she betrayed him, he would kill her. She said:
"Mr. Ulrich, forgive me. I am worried. I know you are good—you are all good men. But this power you are wielding—suppose one day this power should...get into the hands of someone who is not good?"
Mr. Ulrich looked at her kindly, and patted her hand.
"My dear lady," he answered, "you are quite right. And we are taking every precaution. As a matter of fact, the combination can only exist while it is a moral force. You may be sure that immediately it began to be abused humanity would turn and rend it. Our ambition is to keep it dark for many years until its activities have produced concrete results."
"You mean to say that the world won't know it has been stopped?"
"Yes, that is what I mean."
"But suppose—suppose someone inside abused it."
"There is a slight risk of that, of course. But he would have to be wonderfully astute to deceive Ah Sing Fu and—some of the others. Has anyone arrived at the conference whose character you suspect?"
"There, there, you must not distress yourself, Mrs. Trevanna. Everything is going on splendidly. The meeting has exceeded my wildest anticipations."
A messenger came seeking him. The conference was in session. Lena ordered the car and told the chauffeur to drive fast. She wanted air. The heat was getting unbearable. On her return the party were again on the terrace. They seemed in very good spirits. She heard Joachim say: "On Thursday, then, we will sign."
Ulrich replied: "Yes. If the reply from Brotzel is satisfactory."
She moved among them, and with shy diffidence presided at the silver tea urn. The men were all laughing and joking. Joachim suddenly slapped his leg.
"I have it! I have it! I know what we must do," he exclaimed.
"What is that?"
"We must film it."
"Thursday. It must go down to posterity. The day when the Conference was signed. All the incidents of the day. The members signing—having tea, talking, enjoying the special delights of Mrs. Trevanna's hospitality."
Ulrich nodded sagely.
"There would be no objection, I'm sure, provided that the films were not released for many years."
"Naturally. What do you say, gentlemen?"
No one objected, although Ah Sing Fu seemed to consider it a superfluous indignity. Rather trivial; nevertheless, he nodded acquiescence. Jonkers smiled cynically.
"Yes, of course. Very good. You must be in this, too, Mrs. Trevanna. Wife of British delegate ministering to her husband, eh?"
The suggestion was greeted with shouts of approval. Lena frowned and felt uncomfortable. What a mockery! And all these years she had wanted to play—now, "the wife of British delegate ministering to his wants." The future generations would never know. No one would know except Jonkers, mocking and sneering behind his black moustache. How unbearable! What could she do to stop it all?
On the Wednesday news came that Brotzel—whoever he was—had been won to the cause. The coast was clear. The next day the Conference would sign and break up. The world would begin to stop.
That night Lena slept for an hour, and then awoke with a start. She rose and went to the window. She pressed her temples against the pane. The heat was intolerable. She looked out into the park. Nothing stirred. Everything was unnaturally still. The silence was oppressive. "The world has stopped...the world has stopped," she thought. "Nothing will ever happen again. There will be no more love, no more romance—only make-believe. It will get hotter and hotter. The sun will scorch it to a cinder, and the other side will freeze. Everyone will die, and either burn up or freeze. Nothing will matter. Nothing will have any value. It will all be as though it had never existed. Perhaps it never did exist. Perhaps it's just a dream—a film."
Suddenly burying her face in her hands, she muttered:
"Oh God! give me power to be real—just once."
The day dawned clear and hot. The terrace glittered with sunlight and crisp shadows. An excellent day for "shooting." The operators were already busy in the park. She could see Joachim laughing and striking preposterous attitudes. Ah Sing Fu fanning himself unconcernedly. A small party having breakfast on the terrace. Ulrich talking quietly and authoritatively. Where was Julius Trevanna? Ah! the inevitable cigar. He strolls—or rather rolls—like a bloated elephant to the easy chair to put his feet up, a newspaper tucked under his arm. A breakfast tray on a table by his left side, the plates and knives dishevelled. He has been for the paper. He looks irritable and bored. A fat band of flesh bulges above his collar. His thick lips are sucking at the cigar.
Down she goes. The sunlight blinds and dizzies her. She could almost faint with that first step into the light. Nervousness, a kind of stage-fright, perhaps. Very, very slowly, like a cat, she creeps across the terrace. A little man by the top of the steps is watching her, and she is pleased. Years and years go by before she reaches the table, but it doesn't matter because the world has stopped. Her actions become slower and slower, and more mechanical. She takes ages to choose the knife in such a collection. The butter-knife would be foolish—possibly ineffective. The bread-knife? No, that sharp, busy little thing so useful for cutting ham. Cutting ham! She laughs inaudibly, but Julius does not stir. The aggressive line of fat above the collar entices her. She is conscious of her face clean cut in profile, expressing a real emotion that shall go down to posterity, of the deliberate grace of her posture as she slowly raises her arm and—thrusts downwards above the collar, and of the voice of the little man at the top of the steps:
"That's right, Mrs. Trevanna, not too fast. Hold it! Fine...fine...My God! what have you done!"...The first big part Julius Trevanna had ever given her an opportunity to play.
"Confound that Mrs. Buswell!"
Twenty minutes to nine, and she had not either called me or brought my early cup of tea! During the four years in which I had held the distinguished position of sub-manager to the Southrepps Bank in Baker Street—the youngest sub-manager ever appointed in the whole record of this famous Southrepps banking association, sir—it had always been my proud boast that I had never been one minute late in the morning, not one minute. Apart from the eagerness and interest I flatter myself I have always taken in my work, I consider it a valuable example to the junior clerks. I like to be at my desk when they arrive, and to grade the quality of my morning salutation to a precise scale of minutes. Sharp on time and I say breezily: "Good morning, Mr. So-and-so!" Four minutes late: "Morning." Five minutes late: a curt nod. Anything between five and eight minutes: a black scowl. Anything beyond eight minutes: a peremptory demand for explanation. Punctuality and precision have always been the most pronounced of my characteristics. To these I probably owe my success in life.
Now, I occupied a pleasant suite of rooms in a small house in Motcombe Street. Mrs. Buswell was my landlady. I did my utmost to inculcate into her the value and importance of these two strong principles, and in a fair way I succeeded. On the whole I could not complain of Mrs. Buswell. She knocked on my door every morning at half-past eight, and set down a cup of tea. I would then rise, drink the tea, shave, have a bath, dress, and enter my sitting-room at ten minutes to nine. My breakfast was invariably ready. Breakfast would occupy fifteen minutes. I would then smoke one cigarette, glance at the newspaper, put on my boots, and leave the house at nine-fifteen. I would walk along a quiet street parallel to the Marylebone Road, and arrive at the bank about three minutes before half-past nine. At half-past nine—I say—I would be seated at my desk, pen in hand. Our manager, Mr. Woodward, did not come till ten.
But recently Mrs. Buswell had developed a regrettable lapse. On Monday she had been three minutes late. On Wednesday, four and a half. On Thursday, so late that I had to go without marmalade, and to take a 'bus along the Marylebone Road. I would rather go without breakfast altogether than be late at the bank. And now on this Friday morning she was again ten minutes late and there was no sound of her. I rang the bell and waited, but there was no answer. I went out on to the landing and called down: "Mrs. Buswell, are you there?"
I could get no answer to this. The minutes were crowding by. I was angry. I believe I swore. In any case I hastily donned a dressing-gown and slippers and explored the basement. There was no sign of Mrs. Buswell, and the fire was not lighted. Mystery of mysteries! I went back and consulted my watch. Had it gone wrong? Was I several hours fast? But no, I am a man peculiarly sensitive to time. I knew by my sensations that it must be somewhere about eight-forty-five. Without more ado I went upstairs and knocked on Mrs. Buswell's bedroom door. Again there was no answer. I knocked louder. A dread suspicion came to me. Perhaps she had died in the night, or been murdered?
I boldly opened the door. Mrs. Buswell was not there. The bed was sketchily made. I could not tell whether it had been slept in or not. There was no one else in the house. It was all most provoking. She must have gone out somewhere—perhaps to get some bread or milk. Anyway, I could not afford to waste any more time. I went back to my room, shaved in cold water, had a bath, and dressed myself. By that time it was seven minutes past nine. Still no sign of Mrs. Buswell. I went down into the kitchen. I just had time to make myself a cup of tea, and then, by taking the Marylebone Road 'bus, I could be at the bank at my usual time. I filled the kettle, and struck a match to light the gas-stove, and then I had my second shock. The gas was cut off.
"Now, that's a queer, mysterious thing!" I thought. I had a cheerless breakfast of bread and butter and cold water. I would not be late at the bank. I was just preparing to go when I realized that my boots were not cleaned, and yesterday had been muddy. I then really did swear at the defaulting landlady. To turn up at the bank with yesterday's mud on one's boots is an even more heinous offence than being five minutes late. I fetched my boots and cleaned them.
In the end I had to run to the corner where the 'buses passed. Of course, there was not one in sight! I waited several minutes, fuming with impatience. No 'bus came, neither was there anyone about.
"What's the matter with the world?" I exclaimed, angrily. I crossed the road and ran down the side street that led to Baker Street. I ran nearly all the way. I did not pass a soul, but so consumed was I with my special complexity I hardly noted the fact. It is in any case a source of pride to me to be able to state that when I entered the bank it was just one minute to the half-hour. I was at my desk by half-past, pen in hand. We had at that time only two junior clerks, Weaks and Burton. (Burton, indeed, was really only an office boy.) Of course, they were both late. Burton had been late on several occasions recently and I was in a bad temper. I had had practically no breakfast in order to be in time, and I prepared myself to put Master Burton in his place. Five-and-twenty minutes to ten and neither had arrived. Twenty to, and a deadly stillness pervaded the bank premises.
I became eerily conscious of a silence that I had never felt in my life before. There was no sound of traffic outside at all!
"Perhaps there's been a strike," I thought. "And then, of course, Weaks and Burton would both be unavoidably late."
But I didn't like it at all. I went out to the front door and looked up and down Baker Street. There were no vehicles at all, no people, no life of any sort!
An almost unrealizable horror gripped me. I looked up at windows, peered into basements, and shouted at the top of my voice. There was no answer, no response. The position was too staggering to be grasped. Horrors, visions, black misgivings crept through me. Prophetic utterances, and Biblical quotations.
"And one shall be taken and the other left!"
Had everyone been taken? and I the only other left? I am not an hysterical man. I have always been sensible, orthodox, and practical. I am a member of the Church of England, and an upholder of the Throne and the Unionist party.
I said to myself, firmly: "William, get a grip on yourself!"
I went back to my desk and waited. Perhaps Mr. Woodward would turn up at ten. He was seldom late. It would be in any case an immense relief to discuss the amazing phenomenon with someone. Ten o'clock came, a quarter past, no Mr. Woodward. Then, indeed, I did become slightly unbalanced. I had a sudden inspiration. The telephone! I rushed to the instrument, lifted the receiver, and screamed into it: "Hullo! Hullo! Hullo! Is anyone there?"
There was a pause, and then I distinctly heard a voice say, weakly:
"Hullo, who is that?"
"It's I, William Mears, of the Southrepps Bank. Who are you, for God's sake?"
I listened. There was no sound but the drone of the wires. I waited, and called again and again. The low hum of the wires continued. Then I thought to myself: "Nevertheless, the telephone is working. If it is working, someone must be at the power-station."
Where were the power-stations? I had distinctly heard that voice at the other end—a man's.
I sat calmly at my desk, almost afraid to think. Eleven o'clock came, eleven-fifteen, eleven-thirty. I hope you will place it to my credit that between eleven-thirty and twelve I quietly continued my office routine as though nothing were the matter. We were within a week of our quarterly balances, and there was much to do—especially with all the staff away.
Just before twelve, however, I thought to myself:
"What's the good of banking when there is no one to bank?"
I shut up the ledger, put on my hat, and went out, after carefully locking everything up. The sun was shining, and the roads, wet from yesterday's downpour, gaily reflected the blue and white sky. In that strange hour it gave me a curious sense of comfort to observe light cirrus clouds moving across the sky. Yes, something was alive then.
I walked up Baker Street. The doors of some of the shops were open, and I went in. There were neither shopkeepers nor customers. I could have helped myself to things of untold value. At the corner of Orchard Street was a newspaper placard. It said: "Latest from Newmarket." There was no date on the paper. It seemed grimly ironic to think of horse-racing when Oxford Street was entirely deserted. There was Messrs. Harridge's vast emporium. One of the doors was open and I went in. I walked through endless show-rooms, filled with clothes, books, stationery, silver, plate, glass, all utterly without value or interest to me. Then I came to a large provision department, and my interest quickened. I remembered that I was hungry. There were hundreds of hams, tongues, fowls, quails, and all kinds of thing in jelly. Without any scruples I devoured two jolly little quails in aspic and a fruit tart. The wine department was packed with every conceivable wine, spirit, and liqueur, but I am a temperate man, and these things did not tempt me. It was, moreover, very necessary to keep a clear head. I left Messrs. Harridge's and went farther on down Oxford Street, I was passing the premises of a rival bank, and I went in. It was all open; moreover, the safe was unlocked. I could have helped myself to a bag or two of golden sovereigns and a sack of Treasury notes, but what is the use of five thousand pounds when you cannot even buy the sound of a human voice?
Just before reaching Regent Street I had a most emotional experience. On the roof of a hosier's shop I espied a black cat. It was mewing piteously. Now, I have never been very fond of cats, but I suddenly felt an overwhelming desire for the company of this black friend. I ran into the shop and up the stairs. With great difficulty I managed to get on to the roof. The cat had disappeared. What became of it I never knew. I felt terribly affected by losing this cat. I said to myself:
"William, you are becoming mawkish. You must pull yourself together."
In Regent Street a cheering sight met my gaze—a florist's shop. I hurried in. There were masses of cut roses, lilac, carnations, and violets. There were plants and dwarf trees in pots. I examined them all carefully. The cut flowers were in water, the plants were growing. The general scheme of things began to take shape in my mind. The world was alive, the sun was in the heavens, the clouds and the good air were just as usual. There was life going on of some sort—flowers, a black cat, a voice on the telephone. It appeared to be just human life conspicuous by its absence. I gathered together a large bunch of dark red roses. I buried my face in them, and clung to them as the only connecting link with the things that mattered. I took them with me on my further pilgrimage down West.
Piccadilly Circus was like a neglected dust-heap. Refuse was scattered here and there. Near the Tube station were holes in the wooden pavement, as though someone had started to dig it up and then gone away. I wandered down the Haymarket, across Trafalgar Square, past Charing Cross, and then to the Embankment. The dear old river looked just the same as usual, except that there was no sign of seagulls or pigeons. The little waves were lapping against the piers of the bridge. The river in any case was another live thing. It was crowded with barges, lighters, and small merchantmen, all idle and deserted. I sought avidly for any sign of smoke. There was none.
I went along the Embankment as far as Westminster, then turned back past the House of Commons and along to the Green Park. The Green Park soothed me. It was green, and the trees and bushes were all in leaf. I knelt on the grass and examined it closely. Was it actually growing? or had it reached its crisis and this was the last day of all? I could not tell, but the grass looked fresh and healthy enough.
By the time I reached Buckingham Palace it was a quarter to two, and I felt hungry again. I went into the Palace unchallenged. I wandered about the vast corridors and reception-rooms. At last I came to the kitchens and larders. I found there a profusion of food little less imposing than that at Messrs. Harridge's.
"Well, after all," I thought, "why not? His Majesty would hardly begrudge a meal to his only remaining subject."
I made a fire with wood and coal, and cooked myself a cutlet and boiled some Brussels sprouts ( I am very fond of sprouts). I placed the meal on a tray and carried it up to the Throne Room. I sat on the Throne of England and solemnly consumed my cutlet. I am probably the only man who has ever eaten a cutlet whilst seated on a throne. It was not very comfortable, but the irony of the situation pleased me. Humour has never been considered my strong point, but I was sensible enough to see that whatever humour I had must be developed in order to sustain me through my amazing ordeal.
I kept on pinching myself and saying: "Well, of course, all this is simply a dream."
Then I would go to the window and look out. But no, I never felt so vital and awake before in my life. Everything was vivid and tangible. It had not that nebulous quality which characterized a dream. Something abnormal and supernatural had happened, and I had to face it. I had heard of people finding themselves in colourably similar predicaments—being lost on a desert island, for instance—and I knew that the great thing was to retain one's sanity.
I had really hardly yet begun to think. I was observing and taking my bearings. Serious thinking must come later. I must simply keep sane.
In one of the courtyards of the Palace I came across several large motor-cars. Another bright inspiration came to me. During the war I had had the honour of being allowed to drive a V.A.D. ambulance. I knew quite a bit about cars. I hurried to the first one, a large touring Daimler. To my intense delight, the self-starter acted promptly. I released the clutch and the thing moved. This was perhaps the most satisfactory experience of the day. With a car I could accomplish a great deal. I raced out into the Mall. If need be, I could escape to the country, go up North, or to the coast. There must be life somewhere. Then it occurred to me that it would be an interesting experiment to go first to the Zoo. I returned up Regent Street and I could not help grinning when I realized that I automatically had to toot my horn and slow up at corners. I was at the Zoo in less than fifteen minutes. Leaving the car outside I clambered over the turnstiles. My worst apprehensions were fulfilled. AH the animals had vanished. I ran from house to house. There was no living thing. By some of the houses the ground appeared to be scratched up, as though the animals might have scratched their way out and escaped. Here and there I came across bleached bones and skulls. I believe I could have made a life-long friend of a sea-lion if only the thing had been there. Once I thought I saw a mouse scamper across a jackal's cage, but I could not be certain.
I gave up the Zoo and returned to my car. What should I do? After mature reflection I decided to give up going into the country till the morrow. I would thoroughly explore London first. After all there seemed more probability of meeting people, or finding some solution here rather than among the fields and commons. I went round Regent's Park to the Finchley Road—and then on to Hampstead, keeping my eyes skinned all the time for any appearance of life. I went all through Hampstead and Highgate, and then through Camden Town, Islington and Highbury. I made my way back to the City and the East-end. I went to St. Paul's Cathedral, and entered it questioningly. The great temple of the people gave me back no answer.
I crawled slowly down Cheapside and Fleet Street. My eyes were constantly intrigued by advertisements. "So-and-so's Soap." "Broadstairs is so Bracing." "A readymade suit for seventy shillings." "Give her Bovril." "George Robey to-night at the Coliseum."
I must keep sane.
Late in the afternoon I went back to the bank. Nothing had changed. I tried the telephone again, but this time I did not even hear the hum of the wires. I was feeling physically exhausted and mentally overwrought by the day's experience. Where should I spend the night? I had the choice of Buckingham Palace, the Savoy or Carlton, or my own bed. I quickly decided in favour of the latter. But first of all I must have another good meal. It surprised me that in this respect I felt well and eager for good things. I eventually went down to the Carlton, and once more routed out the kitchens. I venture to say that I prepared myself a meal that the chef himself would not have been too contemptuous of.
After my dinner I lay back in the lounge in the Carlton and reflected. (I almost wished I had worn evening dress I) It was certainly a situation which demanded profound reflection.
"One shall be taken and the other left."
Assuming that there had been some cataclysmic spiritual manifestation, why should all the others be taken and I left? I carefully reviewed the record of my past life. I could conscientiously say that I had little to reproach myself with. I had always been scrupulously honest, industrious, and sincere. I had been a regular and devout communicant at St. Mary's Church, Marylebone. I had no recollection of ever having done a contemptible or mean action. I may on occasions have been a little quicktempered, a little uncharitable to my subordinates, but surely not sufficiently so to arouse the wrath of God.
But what was the position? What was God's idea? I found myself alone, and in charge not only of the South-repps Bank in Baker Street, but of the whole of London. I was King, Prime Minister, and proprietor. I could go and draw out a hundred million pounds in cash to-morrow and drive away—whither?
But more practical details began to impress themselves. At the present moment London was full of fresh food, fruit, and vegetables. On the other hand, there was no electric light or gas. There was no one to attend to the water or the drainage, or to scavenging in general. The streets were already untidy. In a few days all the food would go bad. In a week's time the whole place would be pestilentially insanitary. No, it was obviously the wisest course to clear out. It would be best to find a small house by itself somewhere in the country or near the sea, a house with a well, perhaps. I could take with me stores of tinned food, sufficient to last for years; and then I could grow vegetables and fruit. I would go to one of the libraries and get books on this subject. The sea was the most attractive proposition. Perhaps some foreign ship would come along. Were all countries and cities like this? Possibly not. And yet, there was no suggestion of a local annihilation, no suspicion of poison-gas or plague. In this case there would be the gruesome evidence of dead bodies. Everyone had just vanished. I was entirely alone. And yet—what was that voice on the telephone?
The evening was drawing on. I left the Carlton, drove up the Haymarket in my car, called at a stores, and commandeered several boxes of candles. I could see that another difficulty was going to be bread. I must store quantities of flour, and read up from books how to make bread. In the meantime, there were plenty of dry unsweetened biscuits in tins. I filled up my car—or rather, His Majesty's car—with all the edibles for my immediate use, and then drove back to my rooms in Motcombe Street.
I was thoroughly worn out, but I found the sight of my small familiar properties comforting. I smoked and reflected for another hour, and then I went to bed. Having persuaded myself that I could do nothing but trust to God and my good conscience, I soon fell into a profound sleep.
I don't know how long I had been sleeping when I was disturbed by a disconcerting noise. I awakened with a start, and listened. When I realized what it was I could extract little comfort from a sound which, although unusual in the room I occupied, was quite familiar as a human experience.
It was the sound of a mouse or rat nibbling in the wainscoting in a corner of the room. Now, it had always been a boast of Mrs. Buswell's that her house was free from vermin of any sort, and I knew that this was no idle boast. I threw a boot into the corner, and the sound ceased. In five minutes' time, however, it started again. When one's nerves are already a little on edge, there is nothing so disconcerting in the stillness of the night as this restless gnaw, gnaw, with the uncertainty of the progress and exact location of the rodent. I lighted a candle and banged on the floor again. Again there was a pause, but only of the briefest duration. I left the candle burning, and so tired was I that after a time I did fall asleep. It must have been several hours later when I awoke with an involuntary start, warned by some foreboding movement of the quilt. I opened my eyes in time to see a large brown rat scuttle from the bed and dart out of sight. My heart beat violently with pure dread.
Now, in nearly all living creatures there is some element of companionableness, but in the rat—no! It is surely the most sinister figure, next to the snake, in all organic life. I yearned for living contact, but with the rat—oh, dear, no! I leapt out of bed. The candle was guttering in its socket, and I quickly lighted another. I shouted and hit the floor with my boots. There was no sign of the rat. However, I found the hole through which he had come, and I feverishly stuffed it up with a towel dipped in paraffin. But I knew I should not sleep again that night. I lighted more candles. I opened my bedroom door an inch or two, and I could not be certain, but I fancied I heard scuttling and scuffling on the linoleum of the passage. I shut the door quickly and spread another towel along the bottom of it.
That decided me. First thing in the morning I would load up my car and leave London. It was just what one might have expected. Directly humanity departed, these awful things would come into their own. In a few days London would probably be overrun with rats. I took down a book and read until daylight filtered between the window curtains.
As soon as it was light enough I arose. I went first to see if my good car was outside. I don't know what I thought could have happened to it, but in this crumbling world I realized that the Daimler was the only friend I had. The sight of it in the road beneath almost brought a lump into my throat. When I had breakfasted I made a list of the things I must not forget to take with me, not forgetting petrol and clothes. There would be a certain pleasant satisfaction in rummaging in the big stores, helping myself to a fur overcoat worth a thousand pounds, and choosing the finest linen and wool. Then I would have a clock, and a diary, for I decided during the night that, whatever the future held in store for me, I would accept philosophically. Within my capacity I would lead a normal life. I would shave and dress meticulously, as befitted the sub-manager of the Southrepps Bank. And I would set everything down and keep a record, so that if there were some ultimate solution of this crazy problem I should be in a stronger position to deal with it. Moreover, an ordered and disciplined life would keep me sane.
I made out my list, collected a few household goods, and went out to the car. I put the things in the car, and was just about to board it when an appalling sight met my gaze. I could do nothing but walk round the car and mutter, "My God!"
All the four tyres had been gnawed to ribbons!
I thought of my unpleasant visitor of the night and a cold horror gripped my heart. It was not that there was anything very surprising in a rat gnawing through a motor-tyre, but there was a suggestion of deliberation about this. The tyres had not been eaten. They were just ripped to pieces as though for a purpose.
I had to admonish myself roundly for giving way to an explosion of despair.
"All right, William, don't lose your hair. There are plenty of other cars in London. You saw hundreds yesterday."
I remembered that there were three taxi-cabs on the rank in the Marylebone Road. Without hesitating a second I ran down the street and turned the corner. There was no need for me to cross the road. The three cabs were resting on their iron rims, the tyres all flat and torn!
"Steady! Steady!" I thought. "There must be some locked up in garages that the rats wouldn't have been able to get at."
I walked towards the wealthy residential quarters of Portland Place and Harley Street. Some of the garages were locked up, and I had to batter down the doors with iron bars or anything I could find. It was a pilgrimage ol despair. I spent the whole morning wandering from street to street, from garage to garage. I inspected hundreds of cars, but not one had a tyre intact.
I lunched at the Carlton again, and attempted to formulate a new plan. Of course, there was nothing to prevent me walking out of London, but how was I to carry all my kit? I might get a barrow and load that up, but it would be an arduous journey, and owing to the sedentary life I had always led I was not very strong, and not a very good walker. London is by no means an easy place to walk out of. It would mean at least a ten or twelve-mile walk, pushing a heavy barrow. But there seemed no alternative. I could not spend another night in this awful city, alone amongst the loathsome creatures.
It took me nearly two hours to find a barrow, which I eventually did in Co vent Garden Market. I trundled it up the deserted streets to Messrs. Harridge's. But on my wanderings in search of the barrow I made another significant discovery. You may remember that on the previous day the wooden pavement outside Piccadilly Tube Station gave me the impression that someone had begun to dig it up and had then neglected it. I now discovered that this was something very different. It was a warren of small holes leading into the earth. The same condition prevailed on the Haymarket side of the Tube, and also at Leicester Square and Oxford Circus.
After making this discovery I went tentatively into Piccadilly Tube Station, and went a little way down the spiral staircase till it was too dark to see. A horrible odour assailed my nostrils, and I hastily retreated. So that was it! It required no special astuteness to envisage that vast warren and storehouse beneath, with arteries connecting with the whole underworld of London. I thought of the many evenings I had travelled in the Tubes about theatre time, the gay lighting, pretty women in opera cloaks and jolly youngsters out for an evening's fun, and then with a shudder I thought of it now committed to eternal darkness and foulness, controlled, moreover, by a mysterious cunning and sense of order. The thought was unbearable.
When I arrived at Harridge's with my barrow I was trembling all over. I wandered over the premises with my list, and chose the things I wanted. It took much longer than I had anticipated, and in the course of it I was subjected to further ominous misgivings. For one thing, whereas on the previous day there had been scores of boxes of candles, to-day there was not one in the building. Neither were there any cheeses, lard, or butter. In the provision department some hams which I had suspected of being slightly tainted had disappeared. The fresh food remained untouched. Every room, every floor and partition was honeycombed with holes. Harridge's was being carefully watched.
This experience made me all the more anxious to get away from London.
The barrow was very heavy when I had loaded it up, and I still had to go back to Motcombe Street to collect the things I had left in the car. As it was getting late I decided that I would only go as far as Richmond that night. I would sleep there, and then push on into Surrey the next day.
I tried at several other places to get candles, but they had all disappeared.
By the time I had had a meal and was ready to start it was sundown. I hesitated as to whether I would try and endure one more night in my Motcombe Street rooms, but my first resolution was fortified by the discovery that all the candles I had taken home the previous day had also disappeared. I could have a fire, but otherwise the evening would have to be spent in darkness.
I added the final touches to my strange outfit and started off down the Marylebone Road. I decided to walk to Hammersmith, go across Barnes Bridge, and so on to Richmond that way. I reckoned on a good two hours' walk. But in doing so I had not allowed for inevitable rests. For the first few hundred yards the barrow load did not seem unduly heavy, but by the time I had reached Hyde Park I felt as though I were pushing a railway truck laden with coal. I was panting and puffing, and my hands were chafed and my back ached. I took a good rest and started again. All along the side of the Park as far as Notting Hill I had to rest every dozen yards or so. When I reached Shepherd's Bush I felt doubtful whether I could proceed. I was quite done up, and it was already getting dark. I rested disconsolately on the edge of the barrow. Whilst doing so, my eye caught sight of a rather gaudy public-house. I had never in my life entered one of these places, but it flashed through my mind that here was an occasion when the most fastidious could hardly grieve at my defection. I entered the saloon bar. There was no lack of every conceivable alcoholic refreshment, I drank a wineglassful of neat brandy, and added the bottle to my effects. At the same time I discarded some of my tinned food in order to lighten the load. The effect of the brandy temporarily ameliorated the outlook, but I was very weary and feverishly anxious to get on. I had an impatient desire to get to the other side of the river. I felt I would rather sleep in the open in Richmond Park, or on Barnes Common, than endure another night in any of these unlighted and cheerless houses. Moreover, I tried several times to dissuade myself from accepting a conscious realization—things already moving and scurrying in the fringes of the coming darkness!
As I struggled on painfully towards Plammersmith Broadway I became gradually obsessed by a terrifying conviction. I was being watched! A dark power was encircling me, and when the moment came, I—I could not tell what would happen, but I knew that I should no longer be master of my fate. I kept to the middle of the road and prayed for strength. Just past the Broadway a swarm of black objects swung in a body across my barrow from left to right. A minute later another swarm swung across from right to left. I looked back, and I became aware of a vast semi-circle of black movement following me.
Before I had reached Barnes Bridge, I knew that I could not go on. In any case, I could not go on with my load. I would discard my barrow and run for it, chancing to find on the other side of the river the necessities I needed. Perhaps on the morrow I could return and reclaim my property in daylight. I left the barrow and strode forward swinging a stick. It was less than a hundred yards to the bridge, but before I had reached it I knew that I was defeated. A pale moon was up and I could see sufficient. It was not so much numbers that paralysed my will to go on, as the sense that at the back of them was an ordered plan, a sinister intelligence. I'm afraid I gave way to a moment of self-pity. I saw myself, the conscientious and scrupulous sub-manager of the Southrepps Bank, a pitiable figure, struggling to do his duty, and to behave as became a Christian gentleman, and then—hemmed in and mastered by a dark, unjust fate.
As I stood by the bridge, uncertain how to act, I was suddenly startled by a new amazement. Creeping along the near bank was a small tramp steamer or freighter. It was moving. There was smoke coming out of the funnel. I could almost swear that I could see the figure of a man at the wheel. Then, as I peered more eagerly, I was certain that, though there might be a man at the wheel, the deck of the steamer was swarming with that same dark restless movement. At the top of my voice I yelled out:
"Hullo! Hullo! there! Who's that? Land, I say, for God's sake!"
The steamer crept under the bridge and appeared the other side. I rushed to it and screamed out again:
"Hullo! Hullo! I say. Is that a man? For God's sake, land!"
I waited. There was a noise of squeaking and the rushing of water. As the steamer began to crawl out of sight, I could swear I heard a husky answer:
"I can't. They won't let me!"
I groaned and cried out again, but no further answer came back.
Then, indeed, was I becoming desperate. Why did the creatures not attack me and make an end? I was utterly at their mercy. For a moment I hesitated whether I would not rush on to the Bridge and throw myself into the river, but the idea of suicide has always appeared to me to be of all crimes, next to murder, the most irreligious. No, I would fight to the end.
I walked back to my barrow, my consciousness almost numbed into indifference. So absorbed was I with my spiritual tribulations that I hardly heeded the movements of my black masters. I stood by the barrow hesitating, and then the strangest thing of all happened. I became aware of concentric movements, of swerves and formations, like an army at manoeuvres.
"Now," I thought, "it's coming. Well, let it be quick—"
I was in the middle of the road, and I could see fairly well. I waited patiently, stick in hand. The manoeuvres seemed suddenly to a stop, as though the Generalissimo had achieved a perfect formation. Then two bodies detached themselves and took up positions on either side of me. I could even see their leaders gleaming menacingly on the flanks. And then a third smaller body approached between them. It was apparently conveying a large dark object. The whole cavalcade appeared to be closing in on me, and then it suddenly retreated, leaving the dark object at my feet.
I peered down. It was a large brown rat, a very prince of rats, an enormous fellow. He was wounded in the right leg, whether through fighting or through falling on a sharp object I could not say. The command was obvious. I was being watched by ten thousand specks of light.
I praised God for the thoroughness of my preparations before leaving Harridge's. I had a first-aid outfit, and during the war I had picked up a little knowledge of the valuable craft. I took the things from the barrow, being careful to show no signs of hurry or suspicion. Then I knelt down and bathed the wound, which was bleeding, applied some antiseptic, and bound it up with a clean bandage. I did it as well as I possibly could. The brown rat never stirred. As a brilliant afterthought I smeared a little brandy over his nose. I could not be sure how this would affect him, but I thought the experiment might be worth while. Then I drew apart and waited, to show that the operation was over. Followed a lot of squeaking and whispering, the movement of further formations, and the removal of the invalid. Nonchalantly I strolled off down the street back to Hammersmith. I went unmolested, nevertheless, the sense of depression became accentuated. Before I was in open warfare; now I felt that I was a slave. If I was useful to them they would neither kill me nor let me go.
Strolling back towards Kensington the truth of the whole situation began to dawn on me. The voice on the telephone, the black cat, the man on the steamer, myself—Humanity was not defunct. It had simply been superseded. The earth was now dominated by the rat. Man was a subsidiary and servile creature. A few human beings would be allowed to live, provided they served some useful purpose in the rodentary scheme of things.
In Kensington I found a large private hotel. I was tired, dazed, and beaten. I stumbled in and found my way to a room on the top floor. I struck matches, and satisfied myself that there were no holes in the floor or walls. Then I threw myself on to the bed and fell into a heavy sleep.
It was, of course, only to wake later to the abrupt irritation of that gnaw, gnaw, gnaw in the skirting.
"I shall go mad!" I whispered. Then:
"William, if ever there was a time to pull yourself together it is now. What is to prevent you walking out of London to-morrow morning? They don't come out in daylight. Get right away into the clean, sweet air of the country, and leave everything. Better to die of starvation or exposure than endure this. Besides, who knows but that you may find a colony of humans somewhere?"
The gnawing went on, but I slept by fits and starts. My fears were somehow less directly personal. I felt that my services to the old brown rat would in some way secure me from immediate attack. Once during the night I know that a rat scuttled across the bed. I had no candles, and I was too weary to protest. What would be the good? If I went to another room they would quickly make their way thither. I tried to visualize London a hundred years hence, a mouldy ruin entirely perforated, like an old leaf that has been pressed between the leaves of a book and forgotten. It seemed surprising that it was less than forty-eight hours ago that I had been in this metamorphosed existence, and it already held me in an ice-cold grip of fatality. If I could consider the matter logically and dispassionately I might be able to persuade myself that I was despairing too rapidly, surrendering too easily. But I was enveloped by an atmosphere in which logic seemed to have no place, reason no throne. A few days and nights of this and I should be an old man.
The dawn at last. I rose hastily and began to dress. I had not completed my toilette before I was confronted with a new disaster. The soles of my boots had been eaten! There was again in this the menace of deliberate purpose. There could have been no reason to have eaten my boots for the nourishment they contained. London was chock-full of food. I wandered over the hotel. I found five pairs of gentlemen's boots. In each case the soles had been destroyed. On the other hand, I found seven pairs of ladies' shoes. They were untouched. Why?
So soon as I had consumed a hasty meal I hurried out into the street in my socks. After a brief search I found a bootmaker's shop. One glance satisfied me. All the boxes had been pulled down and eaten into, and the soles of the boots destroyed. Even some ladies' boots of the larger kind were destroyed; but there were plenty of the latter with Louis heels and useless pointed toes. The thing was diabolic. Could I walk out of London in my socks? In any case I would try. It was my only hope. I bound my feet up in thick bandages, after covering them with vaseline. On the top of this I wore two pairs of thick socks.
This time I would go North, where there was no river to cross. I made up a small parcel of food and a change of clothing, and set forth. I will not distress you with a description of that journey. It was a dull record of pain, weariness, and mental anguish. I lost all sense of time or space. Sometimes I would rest on a doorstep and nibble at my food. A curious conviction came over me that I was instinctively imitating the rats' method of eating. It was again nearly dark before I found that the houses were getting more widely separated, and there were occasional lapses of fields and open spaces. Even then—there would be many miles to go before I was clear of it all.
I had nearly reached the end of my tether, and was passing a red-brick wall that might have been the outside wall of some institution, when suddenly I thought I heard the sound of a cry on the other side of the wall—a human cry! With a superhuman effort I leapt at the wall and scrambled to the top. Just on the other side I beheld a woman. She was kneeling down and collecting something from the ground. In the most futile and inane fashion I called out:
She turned her face to me. It was the saddest face I have ever seen. At the sight of me it expressed neither relief nor pleasure. It simply looked utterly hopeless and scared. I said:
"Who are you? Will you come with me? Let us escape—"
She looked round with a terrified glance, and muttered:
"No, no, no."
"They won't let me."
And then with a groan she ran across the courtyard, and darted through a gate which she slammed after her.
Then I knew that all was finished. I was a creature in revolt. I gripped my stick. I would not avoid rats any longer. I would seek them out. I would attack, and die fighting for what I represented.
I stumbled on to the next house I came to, a bleak buff-brick villa. I stamped into the hall and cried out:
"Come on, you devils!"
A new strength seemed to enter my limbs. I went into a dark room and struck at the floor and walls with my stick. But as the strength came so it oozed away. Something unaccountable was happening to me. I fell on to a couch and groaned. I seemed to be rushing through space, through a noisy channel. At the other end sounds detached themselves. I distinctly heard a voice say:
"Hullo, old man, that's better!"
There was an interval, and then the same voice said:
"Hullo, William, old man, you're all right now, eh? You understand? You're all right."
The voice was strikingly familiar. Tom—of course, Tom Stokes. What was he doing in this God-forsaken place? What place? Where was I?
"You remember it all now, old man, don't you? We were having a jolly talk about Bernard Shaw and Dean Inge—"
Dean Inge! The gloomy Dean, they called him. Something shaped and cleared. I remembered a lot of things.
"I'll never forgive myself, old man. We were talking—a jolly talk about what could happen to humanity. You leant over the fireplace, knocking out your pipe. I reached up to get a spill, and, like the clumsy ass I am, I knocked that big vase right over. It fell on to your head. They've had to put in a couple of stitches. You're all right now, old man, eh?"
More familiar than Tom's voice—the cosy security of my own room. More dear to me than Tom's face—the eyes of my wife welcoming me back. Queer, that all that part of my life had been forgotten, that I should have jumped back to the time when I was a sub-manager at a small bank. Queer—
"What could happen to humanity? The gloomy Dean, the gloomy Dean. Yes—"
Yes, I remembered it all.
Muriel Upwey was surely as perfect a wife as man could desire. She was young, pretty and docile. She had about her that air of helpless dependence which all men sneakingly value above all womanly virtues. Her husband, Sam, owned a timber works just outside Tibbelsford. He was a bearded man, considerably her senior, and of a stern and upright character. He left home at nine o'clock every morning and returned at six in the evening. His slippers and his pipe, and his supper were always ready for him, and during the evening Muriel would sit in rapt adoration whilst he talked about timber and religion. For he was a very religious man. They went to church twice every Sunday, and every evening he read out aloud a chapter of the Bible before going to bed. He did not read very well, having some defect in the cavity of his mouth, which caused him to whistle some words and mumble others, but Muriel sat enchanted. The next day she would call on some friend and talk about timber, and lay great stress on how the world needed religion, and what a noble and fine character was her husband. The themes might possibly have bored the neighbours except that Tibbelsford is rather a dull town, and a chat with any one is always welcome. Besides, one is not bound to pay too much attention. One can lie in wait, and at the first opportunity pounce upon the situation and tell about what an exciting affair it was at the Poulteney Jones' lantern lecture on Belgian churches, or dilate upon that new face cream that Laura was recommended by the wife of a man who came to make an estimate for re-papering the drawing-room. Fair's fair. Even timber has its limitations of interest. Even the Bible you can have too much of. There are other men in the world besides Sam Upwey. Nevertheless, Muriel was very much liked, as the helpless and yielding always are. Does it not say somewhere, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?"
Sometimes she would visit the timber works and stare reverently at the great piles of timber, and listen to the saw mills at work. They make a lovely screaming whirr with a jolly plonk at the end which meant that more wood was sawn up. It was a grateful and satisfying sound—things being done, needs being supplied, Sam being enriched. And at night she would dream of timber and of great forests with wolves darting about amongst the trees. And she would be frightened, and then Sam would appear, and would look so strong and his beard look so fierce that all the wolves would run away, and she would feel frightened no longer. Indeed, so impressive would he be that she would not like even to mention the wolves. He would roll up his sleeves and say: "Watch me. I am going to chop down all these trees, all the trees in the world. You must understand, my dear, that throughout all time wood has always been the greatest friend to man. It has protected him, warmed him, and adorned his habitations."
And lo! the forest would suddenly turn into vast stacks of timber and saw mills, and she would wake up. Sam would sometimes search the Scriptures with a rather resentful expression on his face because he could find no reference to the fact of the Lord having made wood. He made light, and fire, and water, and all these other things, then why not wood, which was a much kindlier element?
He was also something of a politician, and strangely enough for one so orthodox he was inclined to express extremely liberal views. He was indeed almost a Socialist. It was only when it came to the paying of his own workpeople that he hedged a little in principle. The consequence was that Muriel read the leading articles in the liberal newspapers, and at Mrs. Wain wright's she would talk quite passionately about the iniquities of the unequal distribution of wealth, and the virtues of Trades-unionism, and the blessings of Free Trade.
When they had been married three years Muriel presented her husband with a son. Needless to say the delight of both parents was unbounded. They would sit and talk by the hour about the small person's future. They discussed his food and training and education, and decided that he should be called Hector Samuel, and that he should go into the timber trade, and become a good churchman and a liberal. Alas! for some of these best laid plans. When the child was only six years old Samuel Upwey died. He died quite nicely, from heart failure during an attack of pneumonia. Muriel was terribly upset. It was said at all the tea-tables in Tibbelsford that had it not been for the child she would have died from grief. She wore the deepest mourning just like women do on the Continent. She shut herself up, and read the Bible. She went nowhere except to church. She wrapped her life round Master Hector Samuel. The timber works were sold to a company, and out of the proceeds she derived a small but sufficient income to live in comfort. Friends called on her and offered what consolation they could, but she was inconsolable. She had several enlargements made of her late husband's photograph, and also of the timber yard. These she framed, and they were hung in conspicuous places all over the house. She would sit and gaze at them, and she would tell Hector Samuel what a great and good man his father had been, and how it must be the ambition of his life to live up to that noble example. And as he grew older she told him all about wood, what a great friend wood had always been to man, and what an important part timber had played in all our lives. And she Instilled into him the value of religion, and explained about the unfair distribution of wealth, and what splendid institutions were Free Trade and Trades-unionism. And Hector Samuel said: "Yes, mamma."
He was just a healthy, rather ordinary little boy, but in the eyes of Muriel he was the most wonderful thing that ever lived, and we have no right to laugh at her for thinking so.
It is as it should be.
When he was twelve years old, she sent him to a public school. The parting with him was a perfect nightmare. She could see no virtue in sending a boy to a public school, but she remembered that Samuel had expressed the opinion that it was good for a boy, and he had intended sending Hector. He was four years at Beestoke College, and Muriel simply lived for the holidays. She kept a calendar and ticked off the days. She wrote to him every other day, and always sent him little presents and sums of money. For the rest she lived the life almost of a recluse. Occasionally she would visit Mrs. Wainwright or some other lady friend, but when she did so she appeared preoccupied and uninterested. She held the same opinions that she had held when Sam was alive, but they were lacking in force or enthusiasm. She could think and talk of nothing but Hector Samuel. She was getting thin, and her friends predicted that she would go into a decline. So ill did she appear one summer that Mrs. Wainwright persuaded her to consult a doctor. As she said: "Remember, my dear, you haven't only yourself to consider. What would happen to Hector if you—er—you understand my meaning—?"
And Muriel understood. She called in Doctor Anscombe, a genial, middle-aged man, who wore an imperial and a Harris tweed suit, and drove about the country in a dogcart, played golf, and belonged to the Tibbelsford Constitutional Club. After examining her he said:
"There's nothing much the matter with you. You want feeding up, and you ought to play golf."
And a tear came into Muriel's eye. Golf! There was something a little shocking about the suggestion. Golf and Samuel! Oh, dear no, this man didn't understand her. She said:
"I don't think I'd like to do that."
He laughed and said: "Well, that's my prescription. But if you like, I'll give you a tonic as well, But, my dear lady, do get out in the air as much as possible."
She thanked him and took the tonic. When he called a few days later, she was certainly looking a little better. She had been out for one or two walks. In a curious way the doctor himself seemed to be a tonic. She liked his breezy manner of speech, the smell of Harris tweed, the something vital and hopeful about him.
As the summer wore on, and she got stronger, she looked forward to his visits. He did her good. And he always said something that was amusing and entertaining. She showed him the photographs of Samuel and of Hector and he seemed interested. By the end of July she was quite well again, and she would probably have lost touch with the doctor altogether, had it not been for the fact that two days after Hector came home for the holidays he developed German measles, and Doctor Anscombe attended him. He came every day for a week, and was very attentive and sympathetic.
And one day Muriel found him looking at her. Now there are all kinds of ways of one person looking at another. But there is one kind of way that means only one thing. And Muriel understood. When he had gone she looked at herself in the mirror with an expression, half troubled, half elated. She was now thirty-four, and her large wondering eyes beheld a face by no means unbeautiful. She turned away and as though appealing for succour she gazed at the enlargement of Sam's photograph. Poor Sam! how good he was! how noble and helpful, just like the noble and helpful wood that he devoted his life to.
She visited Hector, who was getting better, and sufficiently amenable to concede the fact that the doctor was "a decent sort." Hector got quite well, but the doctor still continued to come. And one day he insisted on taking her out for a drive in his dog-cart. He drove well, and he looked quite handsome, sitting bolt upright, and making funny little clicking noises at the mare. He told her a lot of interesting things about trees, and birds, and plants, and people. Muriel was very impressed. On only one point did she feel perturbed. She happened to ask him what church he attended, and he laughed and said:
"The last time I went to church was when I got christened. I propose to go twice more."
Muriel, puzzled, said: "When?"
"When I get married, and when I get buried."
What an odd man! It is difficult to discuss religion in a dog-cart, but she did ask him his views, and in his rich burr of a voice, he shouted into the wind surprising and shocking theories. He always got back to trees, and birds, and plants, and people. And Muriel found herself only partially listening to him. She was fascinated by his voice, and by the firm lines of his nose and chin, and the brown eyes which seemed to register the movements of the mare, and yet to be absorbing all the living phenomena of the countryside. There was danger here. It seemed dangerous sitting up in the high dog-cart, alongside this dangerous man with his dangerous theories. So dangerous that she invited him home to tea, an invitation which he readily accepted.
When Hector Samuel went back to school she did a surprising thing. She failed to appear at church the following Sunday at either morning or evening service.
This defection so alarmed little Miss Wainwright that she called on her the next afternoon. Muriel appeared curiously evasive about it. No, she had not been ill. She just thought she wouldn't go. She quickly changed the subject. She talked about trees and birds and about the genius of Hector Samuel.
And as the weeks and months passed, Miss Wainwright detected more and more surprises in her friend. One afternoon she called and began to talk about what iniquitous institutions Trades-unions were. Miss Wainwright said:
"But, my dear, you've always been a keen believer in Trades-unions."
Muriel stared at her, open-eyed and wonderful. She didn't seem to remember, or if she did—well, it was as clear as daylight now that Trades-unions were an evil. What the country needed was a strong Conservative Government, with benevolent ideals.
A few days later, Miss Wainwright found her taking down several of the enlargements of Sam's photograph. Then she began to get suspicious. The suspicions reached their climax when she heard from a reliable source that Mrs. Upwey had been seen on the golf-links having lessons from Dr. Anscombe! Golf! It was the beginning of the end.
Actually it was another six months before she married the doctor. They chose the beginning of the summer term when Hector Samuel had just gone back to school. After the first shock the boy had taken it very well, and he and the doctor got on splendidly. She gave up her house, and the enlargements of Samuel and the timber yard were buried in a lumber-room at the doctor's. She was a loving and devoted wife. She looked after his house, saw to it that his consulting-room was always warm and tidy. When he was called up in the night, she would have hot tea ready for him on his return. She learnt to play golf, and she even read The Lancet. She took an absorbing interest in his work. At Miss Wainwright's she would hold forth on the wonders and miracles of medical science, and explain how her dear John was probably the cleverest doctor in the world, and one of the noblest men who ever lived. Once her friend said to her:
"When are you coming to church again, Muriel?"
"I shall only go once move," she said.
"When do you mean?"
"When I am buried."
This heathen confession nearly lost her a friendship. She hastened to add that she had nothing against the church, but that she believed one could be just as good and religious without going. And she talked about trees and birds and plants and people till she was well out of her depth.
Her devotion to her husband was only equalled by her adoration of her son. She still ticked off the days from the calendar against his return. Her only dread in life was that her two beloved idols might not get on with each other. But the first holidays reassured her. Hector Samuel was developing into a healthy, sensible boy. He accepted the intrusion of a step-father gracefully. They did not see a great deal of each other, as the doctor was very busy at that time and frequently did not get back from his rounds till late. But when he had time to spare for the boy they talked animatedly about cricket and school life. And Muriel listened absorbedly, her eyes glowing with pride and satisfaction. The darlings! They would grow fond of each other. She was surrounded by love; love, and cleverness, and beauty. Oh, how clever John was, and how clever Hector was becoming. He could even talk about chemistry and motor cars. He knew all about the best makes, and she was able to say one day at a tea-party at Mrs. Altringham's:
"Oh, but you know, my dear, the Rolio is easily the best motor bicycle on the market."
And Mrs. Altringham was duly impressed.
It was at about this time that Dr. Anscombe became an ardent tariff reformer. He joined the local tariff reform league, and Muriel went to lectures and studied all the papers in favour of this measure. And she went about telling everyone that "we shall never have prosperity in this country with this wretched Free-trade Government. What we have got to do is to make the foreigner pay."
Apart from his extensive practice, Dr. Anscombe had a small private income. And so they were comparatively well off. It was decided that when he had finished school Hector should be sent up to Cambridge. Muriel sighed when this decision was arrived at. She had been looking forward to Hector leaving school. John was out so much. She had visualized the day when she had both her men to herself. Then Hector would always be about the house, and she could administer to him. And they would go for walks together, and she would be able to say: "This is my son."
It was Hector himself who threw out hints about Cambridge. Some of his colleagues were going up. And it was John who championed the idea. He had been at Cambridge himself, and he would like the boy to have every opportunity. It was unlikely that they would ever have children of their own. What could she do against this united wish? What could she say when both her men joined forces? She meekly accepted the situation. It meant another three years partial separation, and what then?
Hector was only two years at Cambridge, however. He developed an extraordinary craze for drawing and painting. He wanted to go in for art. Now people go to Cambridge for all kinds of things, but they don't go there to study art. The boy was clamouring for Paris, whither a friend of his had gone. Paris! but what an alarming and dangerous suggestion! She fluttered around Tibbels-ford trying to discover if there weren't some fount of artistic training to be had there. The search was not very satisfactory. There certainly was a middle-aged lady who taught flower-painting to a class of little girls, but even she had not the audacity to suggest this would be good enough for Hector. John considered the matter carefully over many pipes, and in the end he enunciated:
"Well, I don't know much about art. I shouldn't think it means an easy career. But everyone has to follow their own bent. If the boy wants to become an artist, and Paris is the only place he can learn in, he had better go there. I shan't stand in his way."
And next day, with tears in her voice, Muriel explained to Mrs. Wainwright:
"You see, dear, everyone has to follow their own bent. Hector is crazy to become an artist, and Paris is the only place he can learn it in. Oh, dear! how long do you think it takes to learn?"
Mrs. Wainwright was of opinion that it would take at least two years to learn, and then she added brightly:
"Oh, but perhaps your Hector, being so quick and clever, won't take so long."
And so at the end of the term Hector left Cambridge and went over to Mont Parnasse. He joined an art school, grew the inevitable beard, and led the conventional life of the Quarter. Every three months he came home for a short holiday, and those were golden but anxious days for Muriel. Had he changed? What kind of life was he leading? Were his friends nice people? Would he be quickly through his career and be made a Royal Academician, and have a large studio in Tibbelsford, and just go up to town for varnishing days?
Hector Samuel was, if anything, a little more manly in his appearance on his first return; a little more independent, and restless, and anxious to show his knowledge of the world. After he had returned Muriel was able to say to some ladies at a flower show:
"Isn't it strange that there have been no great English painters since Sir Joshua Reynolds, or was it Gainsborough?—you know, the man who painted those lovely hats? They say that there are even now a lot of great French painters, only they do it in a different way. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Hector became the one great English painter! That is why he is living in Paris, you know."
And she bought books on art, and read the lives of the painters. She found it all very difficult to understand, and between the pages would constantly occur the vision of Hector, in a velvet suit, with a wreath of laurels round his head, receiving the aristocracy at the top of the staircase at the Royal Academy. When next in town she went to the National Gallery. She gazed awestruck at the numerous masterpieces, but when she left she could not remember Murillo as distinct from Rembrandt.
Whether Hector Samuel was quicker and cleverer than other boys was a point we need not discuss. He spent three years in Paris and at the end of that time he was by no means an artist—except in the eyes of Muriel. But perhaps it takes a little longer? On the other hand he certainly had made considerable progress. He gave the promise of being a fair average portrait painter. It was quite possible that he would end by not being a painter at all. He had various interests and points of view, some of which were a little alarming. Oh, why did everything and everybody alter and change! Muriel wanted to hold everything dear to her tight. She wanted to make it static, but she found it flowing past her. When he returned from Paris nothing would do but that he must take a studio in London—in Chelsea.
"You see, mother," he explained, waving aside her protests, "nobody could possibly paint in Tibbelsford. It would be like trying to paint in a coffin. Besides, I'll always be popping down for the week-end."
On one of these occasions Hector brought down a friend with him, a fellow student. And it was during this visit that Muriel received a mental shock from which she was destined never entirely to recover. It was Saturday night, and directly after dinner the doctor had had to go out. She left the two young men sitting over their claret, talking and smoking. Hector was very fond of talking.
She wanted him to herself, and as they seemed a long time, she tiptoed back to the dining-room. The door was slightly ajar. She heard a voice talking excitedly. It was Hector's. And this is what she overheard:
"Not at all, not at all! What I say is it's largely a question of environment. Now you take the case of my step-father. He's quite a decent old chap. I'm fond of him, but he's a cabbage. He knows nothing. He doesn't even bother to keep up to date with his job. He doesn't believe in the Bible, but he believes what the syndicated press tells him. He even believes in tariff reform. Tariff reform! I ask you. He's got the makings of an intelligent man, but he's a kind of Dodo—"
Oh, Hector! Muriel hurried away. She went back quietly into the drawing-room and shut the door. She walked across to the window in the recess and opened it wider. It was a warm spring night. The air was charged with the odour of spring flowers. There was no moon, but the sky was light with the magic of clustering stars. Her breath came in little stabs. Everything was moving and changing and she wanted to keep it still. Oh, why had Hector said that? And yet he had not spoken unkindly. "Quite a decent chap. I'm fond of him." Thank you for that, Hector. He loved her, and John loved her. All around was love; love, and beauty, and truth. Truth?...What were the stars signalling to each other? Were they laughing at her? Ah, no, they couldn't do that, because her heart was simple, and she only wanted love and beauty, and truth. Such little things, such big things; everything and nothing. A tear came into her eye, and comforted her. It was not that. Love she had, love all around her. Was that not the greatest thing of all? It was only that...Oh, dear! Oh, dear! In the days to come what was she to think!
"That's all very well," said Mr. William Egger. And after a pause he repeated: "That's all very well."
In his shirt sleeves, carpet slippers, and embroidered skull-cap, he shuffled restlessly from the breakfast-table to the window, in the sitting-room above his general shop. His wife began to clear away, with the obvious suggestion that it was her place to make herself scarce. This was a father's duty. The boy stood sheepishly staring out of the window. The day was going to be scorching.
Of course it was his duty. It was always a father's duty. He must be firm, admonishing, a little forensic. And all these things came a little difficult to William. He was no orator. It was too early in the morning. He had breakfasted well, and at the back of his mind lurked the old hint of palliation: "Boys will be boys." He cleared his throat and rumbled:
"You say pinching apples isn't stealing. You're wrong. Anything you do becomes a habit. This is the second time Farmer James has written to complain. That doesn't mean that it's only twice you've stolen his apples. It means it's only twice you've been found out."
"I swear it's only twice," said Tom, sulkily.
"That'll do. Don't answer me back. You acknowledge you stole them. Well, what does it mean? You took what didn't belong to yer. It's sinful. You steal apples, and it becomes a habit. Perhaps to-morrow you steal pears, then peaches, then grapes—"
"I've never stolen no grapes!"
"Be quiet, will yer! It's just a question of—one thing leading to another. The downward path, the slippery slope, the—er—Gadarene swine, and so on. If you take these things p'r'aps one day you'll pinch a little money out of the till—my till!—p'r'aps someone else's penknife, umbreller, or whatnot. That's not the end. You're slipping down. Stealing leads to other things—weakness, giving way all the time. In the end, drinking, forgery, goin' to the pictures, all the deadly sins—"
Mrs. Egger had re-entered the room with a brush and crumb-tray and she exclaimed:
"Tom's a very bad boy, William. But you needn't drag in all the deadly sins. One doesn't need to go to hell for pinchin' a few apples."
William showed annoyance. Just like Agnes—to put him on to the job and then interfere.
"I tell yer—one thing leads to another," he barked.
"There's no 'but' about it. Sin is sin, and once on the slippery path, down yer go."
"It's not so bad as all that," replied Mrs. Egger, quickly.
"What I ses is—it's not nice it getting about, us with the shop and that—"
The whole matter might have petered out at that point, but for the fact that, in the disturbance caused by Farmer James's letter, Mrs. Egger had left the bacon-dish on the sideboard. On the bacon-dish were several rinds from their breakfast. Ambling between the window and the sideboard, Mr. Egger's attention had been divided between this dish and a company of fowls in the yard below. The situation was a little too embarrassing to glance at his son. When his wife stood up in defence of the young man he pretended to be annoyed, but he was really relieved. He had landed into this tirade of abuse and admonition, and didn't see quite how to end gracefully. In a moment of distraction he picked up one of the bacon-rinds and flung it out to the fowls.
For the purposes of this story it is necessary to drop the curtain on this domestic scene for the moment and follow the adventures of the bacon-rind.
The fowls were white leghorns, and from their appearance they fared sumptuously. Doubtless a small general shop is a liberal found for scraps, apart from the supply of grain which their kind demands. But there is something about a bacon-rind that is irresistible to nearly all living creatures. Dogs will fight to the death for it, cats desert their kittens, birds and poultry perform prodigious acts in the way of running, doubling, and ducking. The bacon-rind is never safe until safely ensconced in the maw of some hungry champion.
On this occasion three hens rushed at the bacon-rind, and one, a little longer in the legs than the others, got possession. She scampered towards the hedge, followed by seven others, clucking and screaming. Before the hedge was reached the rind had changed hands—beaks, rather——three times. The original bird had regained possession and was about to force her way through a gap, when the cock flew from a savoury refuse heap and savagely pecked her neck. Scandalous that a female should be allowed to enjoy this essentially masculine luxury! There was a rough-and-tumble in the hedge, and the cock got possession. But do not think that he was allowed to enjoy his triumph in peace. The fight was by no means over. So great is the appeal of bacon-rind that the weak will attack the strong, wives will turn on their husbands, the desperate will perform feats of valour which no other incentive could stir them to.
The cock half-flew, half-ran, across the angle of the adjoining field, followed by five of his screaming females. He knew a thing or two, and doubled under an alder-bush and entered a narrow coppice that ran alongside the road. But when he arrived there three of the hens were still on his track.
Now it is one thing to capture a piece of bacon-rind, but quite another thing to swallow it. The latter operation requires several uninterrupted seconds, with the head thrown back. Even at the last moment a rival may seize the end projecting and a fierce tug-of-war take place. And that happened in this case. He ran and ran and ran. He had no recollection afterwards how far he had run, but at last he seemed to have outdistanced his pursuers. There was a moment's respite somewhere by the side of someone's kitchen-garden. He threw back his head, closed his eyes, and began to gulp the succulent morsel inch by inch. Oh, the ecstasy of that oleaginous orgy! Was there ever such a rind?
And then, of course, the thing happened! Someone had seized the end just as it was disappearing, and was tugging it back energetically. Curse! He opened his eyes and blinked. If it was one of his own hens, he would—well, give her a very bad time. Perhaps kill her, perhaps only neglect her. But, no! As he looked into his rival's eyes he realized that he was up against a large brown cock, one of the Rhode Island wretches that belonged to Mr. Waite, the wheelwright. Venom and hatred stirred in his blood. When this little matter of the rind was determined he would settle with this Rhode Island upstart. He was somewhat exhausted and nearly two inches of the rind had been reclaimed by his rival. Backwards and forwards they swung, their feathers sticking out with sinister promise of the real fight that was to follow. The white cock had regained a quarter of an inch when the rind snapped. He gulped his remaining portion, and drew back ready for the fray. Both beaks were lowered, when suddenly the white cock beheld an approaching terror, a large, savage mongrel dog rushing towards them. With a scream he turned, flapped his wings, dashed through the bushes, and left the brown cock to his fate.
"Jim! Quick! Quick!" exclaimed Mrs. Waite, running out of the cottage. Jim Waite appeared at the door of his shed, a hammer in his hand:
"What is it? What's the matter, Ida?" he called out, running towards her.
"That dog! That savage mongrel dog of the Beans has killed one of our fowls! O Lordy, it's the cock, too! It's killed the cock!"
"Where is it?"
"Look! Running across the road."
Jim Waite was angry. This was not the first time that mongrel dog of the Beans had raised his ire. It always growled savagely at him and at his wife and children. On one other occasion he had found a fowl murdered, and he had had his suspicions.
He ran into the road in pursuit. The dog, scared at first by the shouts of Mrs. Waite, had left its victim and darted under a culvert the other side of the road. Jim bent down, picked up a stone, flung it into the opening of the culvert, and, as chance would have it, hit the dog on its flank. The dog became angry. It saw red, and likewise Mr. Waite. It ran out and round him in a circle, growling, and then made a sudden rush. Jim was a powerfully-built man, and he brought the hammer down plomp on the mongrel's skull. It would kill no more fowls.
The matter might have ended there had not Mr. Bean, the retired corn-chandler, at that moment turned the corner in his dog-cart and beheld Jim with the hammer in his hand, standing above the corpse of his pet dog. Now Mr. Bean was a thin, wiry man of rather bucolic and eccentric temper. Moreover, he had a great affection for this most unpopular dog of indeterminate breed. Long before he reached the group he roared out:
"What the devil have you done?"
Equally angry, Mr. Waite roared back:
"I've ridded the neighbourhood of this vile beast that's just murdered my cock!"
"Your cock! What the devil does it matter about your cock!"
The dog-cart pulled up, and Mr. Bean jumped out. Before either of the men could say another word, Mrs. Waite pointed to the other side of the hedge and screamed:
"Look! Our only cock! Your blamed dog's killed it. It's always trying to bite everyone."
Mr. Bean followed the direction where she was pointing. His side-whiskers shaking, he exploded:
"Well, then, it was in my ground. If your cock comes into my ground, my dog is justified in killing it."
"There was another cock there—"
"Be damned to that!"
Mr. Waite appeared, a formidable figure towering in the road, with the hammer in his hand, as he said, savagely:
"You shall pay for my cock!"
Nevertheless Mr. Bean replied with spirit:
"You shall pay for my dog!"
"Dog, you call it? Bah!"
The attitude of both men appeared threatening, particularly as Mr. Waite handed the hammer to his wife and began to take off his coat. What would have been the immediate outcome is difficult to say. But the uproar and disturbance upset the rather highly-strung young horse, which began to trot off up the road. Mr. Bean did not notice this till it had gone about twenty yards. Then he called after it, but the horse took no notice. So Mr. Bean began to run. He would probably have caught it, but a little farther on a farmhand, late for his breakfast, came swinging down a narrow lane into the road on a solid-tyre bicycle. He did not expect to find a horse and trap there, and he just ducked under the horse's nose and his back tyre struck the left shaft, and he was thrown. So far as the horse was concerned, that put the lid on things. He put back his ears and bolted, with Mr. Bean a kind of forlorn "also ran."
The farm-hand picked up his bicycle and swore. Jim Waite picked up the dead dog, and flung it into Mr. Bean's strip of land. Mrs. Waite picked up the dead cock, and muttering to Mr. Waite: "Well, we'd meant to kill this week, anyway," she took it inside and plucked it while it was warm.
Mr. Bean was a good runner, and he tore down the road, yelling: "Stop him! Stop him!"
He had lost his dog, and the prospect of losing his horse also spurred him on. But a young horse, even encumbered by a dog-cart, can run faster than the fastest man. The distance between them widened. He could see the dogcart swaying and swerving, but the horse stuck to the road. Mr. Bean ran over half a mile. It was a deserted part of the country, and nothing passed him. The horse and cart were out of sight. He rested for a few moments, and then ran on. When he had travelled about another four hundred yards he beheld a group of dark objects at the angle of two narrow roads. For some moments he could not distinguish what they were, but his instinct told him that something had happened. On approaching nearer, he beheld a large car, apparently jammed into the embankment by the side of the road; his dog-cart appeared to be hugging its mudguards. Two of three figures were moving about, but there was no sign of the horse. He rushed up, panting. When within hailing distance, he called out:
"What's up? What's happened? Where's my horse?"
Three busy men turned and regarded him. One was a young chauffeur. The other two were a curious contrast: a tall, white-moustached man of the Indian Army type, and a thin, aesthetic young man in the early twenties.
Now Mr. Bean was in the mood when the great thing he needed in life was sympathy. He was having a bad morning. It was therefore an unpleasant shock to have the white-moustached gentleman turn on him in a blaze of anger and exclaim:
"Who the devil are you? What the devil do you mean, letting your damned horse and trap rush about the country? My God! you've buckled both our front wheels, and I've a most important appointment in forty minutes in Hornborough."
"Where's my horse?" wailed Mr. Bean. "I got out of the trap for a moment, and he bolted."
"What the devil did you get out of the trap for?" roared the stentorian individual. The younger man grinned and said, casually:
"Your horse is all right, old boy. He's trotting about in the meadow yonder, eating lotus-leaves."
Mr. Bean climbed up the embankment and looked over; and, sure enough, there was the horse, two hundred yards down the meadow, nibbling grass in the intervals of staring nervously around. He did not appear damaged at all, but the left shaft of the dog-cart was snapped at the base and the wheel badly twisted. Mr. Bean, however, was not allowed to devote too much attention to his own troubles. The elder man, whom he heard the other address as "General," ordered him down in such a commanding way that he had not the power to disobey.
"Now, my man, listen to me," roared the parade-ground voice. "How far is it to Hornborough?"
"Nine miles," replied Mr. Bean, almost involuntarily adding "sir."
"God!" said the General. "And where is the nearest place we can get a car?"
"There isn't a garage nearer than Hornborough that I know of."
"Isn't there anyone in this God-forsaken part of the country who has got a car?"
"Only Sir Samuel Lemby, and I know he's motored up to town to-day."
"God!" repeated the General, and, turning to the younger man, he said: "What the devil are we going to do, my lord?"
It occurred to Mr. Bean that the younger man, addressed as "my lord," was vaguely amused. He scratched his chin and said:
"It looks like a wash-out, unless we walk, General."
"Walk! Nine miles in forty minutes."
"Perhaps we could hire bicycles."
The General's face was a study in stupefied outrage. He turned to Mr. Bean and exclaimed: "Are there no traps about here!"
"Plenty, sir," answered Mr. Bean, who by this time had completely succumbed to the overwhelming atmosphere of a general and a lord. "But no trap could do nine miles in forty minutes."
"But what the devil are we to do? The Minister can't wait. The train won't wait. The House sits at two."
Mr. Bean was enormously impressed. He felt personally responsible for some mysterious national disaster. He said, weakly: "I don't know, sir. It's very awkward."
Then a bright inspiration occurred to him. "A racehorse could do it. Sir Samuel Lemby has race-horses, but he's away, and it's not likely the head-groom would lend any out for such a purpose."
The eyes of the General started out of his head.
"He wouldn't, wouldn't he? How far is it to this Lemby's?"
"There's the house, just up there, sir. Five minutes'
The General appeared to be calculating savagely. At last he turned to the younger man and said:
"Gevennah, it's our only chance. You could do this. You rode in the Grand National. What you don't know about horses isn't worth knowing. For God's sake run up the hill. Cajole, bribe, steal—do anything to get the horse. Five minutes, say another five minutes arguing—half an hour to do nine miles. Perhaps you can get across country, save a bit, eh? There's just a chance. The train goes at twelve-thirty-two. Oxted is bound to catch it."
The young man's face lighted up. A queer smile twisted his mouth.
"All right," he said. "I'll have a shot. Give me the report."
"Here it is. I'll follow you up the hill as fast as I can move, in case they want more persuading."
Mr. Bean was left alone with the useless car and the broken dog-cart. He saw the younger man sprinting up the hill like a professional runner, and the elder chasing after him like some valetudinarian crank trying to keep his fat down.
As luck would have it, the younger man came slap on the head-groom and a subordinate leading two silk-coated mares out of the paddock for a canter. He approached the head-groom and smiled.
"My friend," he said, "I'm going to ask you to break all the Ten Commandments in one fell swoop. I am Lord Gevennah, a lover of horseflesh and metaphysics. The gentleman yon observe coming up the hill is not training for the Marathon. He is General Boyd-Boyd, of the War Office Intelligence Staff. You may suggest that War Office and intelligence are a contradiction in terms, but we have not time to argue the matter. The point is. Sir Samuel is a very old friend of the General's and we are convinced that he would come to our rescue in the circumstances."
The head-groom leant forward and said: "Excuse me, sir, but would you mind telling me what you're talking about?"
"A very reasonable request. Farther down the hill, at the cross-roads, you may also observe a car jammed against the embankment. Both the front wheels are buckled. It is essential that we deliver a report—this report, my friend—to Sir Alfred Oxted, the Minister. He is catching the twelve-thirty-two train at Hornborough for London. The report affects the whole aspect of the argument affecting a Bill that is being discussed in the House this afternoon."
"What is it you want me to do, sir?"
"I want the loan of that beautiul roan mare which for the moment your figure so gracefully adorns, for the purpose of riding to Hornborough."
"What! Lend you one of Sir Samuel's racers!"
"Precisely, my friend."
"Not on your dear life! Lend you Iconoclast to go monkeying about the high roads on! Why, it's more than my place is worth."
"Is your place worth more than the interests of the people—the vital necessities of the nation?"
"I know nothing about it. I work for Sir Samuel Lemby. If you get his permission—"
"We have his permission—morally. He is one of the General's oldest friends."
"I've only got your word for it. Sir Samuel paid four thousand seven hundred and fifty for this mare. It can't be done."
"Come! this is quibbling; time is precious. The General said we should waste five minutes arguing. But if you will kindly dismount, I shall still have half-an-hour to get to Hornborough. I promise to bring the mare back safely."
"It can't be done, my son. For all I know the whole thing may be a cock-and-bull story."
"Ah! here comes the General. General, I'm afraid our friend demands security."
"Well, for God's sake give it to him. What the devil does he think we are?"
"Produce everything you've got, General. Pocket-book, money, despatches. I will do the same."
The head-groom beheld wallets of notes being produced, and he became frankly interested. In the end he accepted a bribe of two hundred and twenty-five pounds in cash for the loan of Iconoclast for one hour.
"It's an awful risk," he said, dismally, as he dismounted.
"If you do not take risks you will never arrive," replied the young man, leaping into the saddle. "Without taking risks great battles would not have been won, colonies founded, discoveries made. Iconoclast! an excellent name! Come, old friend! Iconoclast, breaker of idols, shatterer of illusions, trusted enemy to false prophets! Come!"
He pressed the mare's flanks gently with his knees, and she responded.
"Only twenty-nine minutes!" roared the General.
The young man turned a laughing face and waved his hand. His progress was visible to the anxious General's eye for nearly half a mile. The narrow road flanked a sixty-acre field and led into a bridle-path through a chain of little coppices. By taking this bridle-path, the head-groom had explained that he would save a mile or two, as well as the horse's feet. The last they saw of him, he appeared to be leaning over, whispering in the mare's ear. Iconoclast was travelling like the wind.
It was certainly a very beautiful ride. The bridle-path, which once had been a Roman road, ran for nearly six miles in almost a dead straight line. The ground was gently undulating. Woods flashed by, and open spaces, commons with sparse trees, sandy cuttings with gorse and furze projecting at tantalizing angles, stretches of blue distance with cattle grazing, sleepy rivers. On, on, raced this famous offspring of Babylon and Happy Days (you shall read of her in Borwell's History of the Turf).
The young man's face was alight with pleasure. Occasionally he slackened the mare's speed to glance at his wrist-watch. When the road was reached there were three miles to go, and twelve minutes to accomplish it. Iconoclast had justified her good name.
"Steady, now, old girl, steady! We're reaching the stormy outposts of Christian gentlemen."
A sign-post pointed eastward to Hornborough. Fortunately the road was still what is known as a secondary road. A few cars flashed by, their drivers a little nervous of this bolting apparition of man and beast. Hay-carts lumbering leisurely out of fields were the serious source of danger, men on bicycles, market carts, all the slow-moving things.
Twelve minutes, eleven minutes, ten—the road sloping upwards violently to the headland that looks down on the Horn valley.
Nine minutes, eight and a half, eight—the summit reached. Down below, the sleepy valley, almost impervious to the thrusts of time. Thus it must have looked in Boadicea's time. A few more hamlets, a few more cultivated fields.
"Whoa up, old girl!"
The signboard said one and a quarter miles to Horn-borough Station. One mile and a quarter, and eight minutes to go! His faith! a worthy beast, this Iconoclast! One mile and a quarter, and all the way a gentle slope downward. If ever there was a pleasant sporting prospect, here was one. To travel at the rate so far maintained would bring the horse and rider to their destination with some minutes to spare. Away on the horizon appeared tiny white balls of smoke, like little lumps of cotton-wool being shot out of a toy gun. It was the train. He again consulted his wrist-watch and estimated the distance. "It's four minutes late!" he exclaimed, a shade of disappointment in his voice. It would appear, in any case, not an occasion to tarry. One mile and a quarter, and twelve minutes to go. But, curiously enough, the young man seemed in no hurry. He tethered the mare to a gate, on the top bar of which he perched himself, and lit a cigarette.
"A glorious ride, Iconoclast, old friend!" he said, stroking the mare's nozzle. He appeared to be making a careful calculation, his eyes wandering from the little blobs of cotton-wool to his watch. After some minutes he flung his cigarette away, and again took to the saddle. The last mile and a quarter was done at express speed, but certainly not at the greatest speed of which the mare was capable. The rider seemed a little agitated by some meticulous calculation. Some of the road was covered in whirlwind fashion, but there were unaccountable slackenings and halts.
When the little market town of Hornborough was reached, the blobs of cotton-wool arrived simultaneously. There was a furious ride along the broad High Street, terrifying the owners of booths and stalls. Shopkeepers ran to their doors, women clutched their children, and dogs barked. But horse and rider swung round the corner into Church Street, dashed across Ponder's Green, up the slope into the station-yard, and arrived just as the train went out! The whole town must have observed that dramatic ride and commented on it. A young man, on one of Sir Samuel's race-horses—some said it was Iconoclast herself—racing to the station to catch the London train—why?
He flung the reins to an outside porter, and dashed into the station and on to the platform.
"The train has just gone, sir," exclaimed the ticket-collector, grinning. It may be observed, at this juncture, that there is a type of individual who loves to impart information of this kind. He loves to tell you you have just missed your train, or that you are in the wrong train, or that there isn't another one for four hours. His supreme idea of joy is to be able to tell you that you have just missed your last train. It isn't nice.
On this occasion our hero—for so he surely must be—merely muttered the formal exclamations of disappointment, and then went back and remounted his steed, after flinging the improvised groom a purse of gold. (No, if we remember rightly, it was a shilling.) Anyway, he galloped back through the town for all the world to see.
Instead, however, of returning the way he had come, he bore off to the west and, after ten minutes' ride, cantered up the chestnut avenue that led to a Georgian house. In the circular drive in front of the entrance-hall he espied a butler taking a parrot in a cage out for an airing. He called out:
"Hi, Fareweather, can you hold my mare for five minutes? I can't stop. Is Miss Alice in?"
"Yes, my lord. With pleasure, my lord. She's in the Dutch garden, watering the gentians."
Ah! watering the gentians! How like Alice! The Dutch garden was excellent. It had the added charm of being sunk.
The girl looked up at him with that dreamy, does-any-thing-else-exist-but-thou-and-I expression, and he crushed her in his arms. These preliminaries being concluded, she said:
And appropriately enough he answered:
"There's a destiny which shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will!"
"You look as though you had just invented a new religion."
"And so I have, but I haven't had time to patent it. This afternoon the Government will fall, and it will be my work. Religion and opportunity are old bedfellows."
"You know the storm that has raged round the Subsidies Bill. It has been working to a crisis. The Government have staked their all on squashing the amendment which our people are putting this afternoon. A delicate subject like this is largely a question of figures. Figures can be impressive, but a clever man can use them either way. That is what they've been doing. They have the control end of statistics, and statistics can be wangled. Over the week-end I was at Clive Hall. I was supposed to be there for polo, but I found myself in a mare's nest of conspirators and wanglers. Brigadiers and carpet-salesmen, they've been all over the country, drawing up a report."
"Is it a false report, Mervyn?"
"Yes, and no. A report can be false not so much by what it says as by what it leaves out. See? This was a devilish, wanglish, naughty, spiteful report, and they were going to spring it on the House this afternoon, to crush our people's amendment. I didn't show my hand. I'm only a polo player. I was full of sympathy. A chutney-biting brigadier named Boyd-Boyd fixed an appointment on the 'phone with Oxted, at Hornborough Station, for the twelve-thirty-two. Fie was to deliver the goods. I offered to accompany him, making the excuse that I had to go to town. Cyril lent us his car. We had got as far as some God-forsaken spot in the Weynesham Valley. I was desperate. I couldn't make up my mind whether to dot the old chap over the head and bolt or whether to pinch the report and let it blow away, when fate supervened."
"A horse in a dog-cart bolted. The fool of a man had got out for some reason or other. In trying to avoid it, our chauffeur ran into a bank, and buckled both the front wheels. We had nine miles to go, and there wasn't such a thing as a car in the neighbourhood. The old Purple Patch nearly went off his nut. Then some magician produced a race-horse."
"Wasn't it sweet? I jumped at the idea. I knew that it would be up to me to do the flying handicap stuff, and with the report once in my possession all would be well. I rode hell-for-leather, and missed the train gracefully by a minute."
"But what will you do with the report?"
"Give it back. It doesn't matter. It will be too late. Figures like that are only useful when used at the right moment. To-morrow the Government will be down, and no one will care a rap about their blinking old report."
"Oh, dear! I'm glad I don't have anything to do with politics."
"You do. You are politics. You are what we fight for, and lie for, and wangle for. You are religion. You are beauty. Haven't you heard the saying: Homo solus aut deus aut demon? You are the rose in the heart of the world. You—"
"Talking about roses, Mervyn, how do you like my gentians?"
"There you go! You always spoil my best periods. Darling, one kiss and I must away."
"Whither, O Lord?"
"To take the mare back, and face the fury of my bonny brigadier."
"He will be angry!"
"What does it matter? Did you ever know a brigadier who mattered? When the big story is told, you'll find he's about as important as a—as a—piece of bacon-rind!"
"You didn't ought to have talked to the boy like that," said Mrs. Egger, as she poured out Mr. Egger's glass of stout at suppertime. "It's set the boy on thinking; and when a boy like Tom starts thinking it's—it's—bad for his health."
"I like that," replied William, blowing the froth off the stout. "Why, it was you put me up to it. Didn't you say—?"
"I told yer to give him a good scolding. It would have been better if you'd boxed his ears. Instead of all this talk."
"Saying one thing leads to another, and so on."
"Well, isn't it true?"
"In a kind of way it's true. In a kind of way it's silly. Anyway, it sets him on thinking. I saw him in the shop this afternoon staring at them cooking-pears. I know he was thinking about what you said. Now if he took apples to-day, he might take pears to-morrow. It put the notion there, like. He'd never have thought of it. And this evenin' he comes up to me and says, 'Mum, dad said one thing leads to another,' and I says, 'Yes, Tom?' and he says, 'Mum, what was the first thing from which the other things come?' Did you ever hear such notions? Pass the pickles, dear."
If one Sunday morning you wander up the Rue Cadec in Montmartre and lose yourself in the picturesque confusion of the market in that narrow fairway—or perhaps you may have to go a little further afield, round the corner in the Rue des Abesses—in any case, in one of these delightful streets you are almost bound to meet a very old lady who is always an object of universal interest. She is very old, fragile, and bent. She leans for support upon a stout hickory stick. In the other hand she carries a string bag, revealing her modest purchases of leeks, salsifis, bread, fish,' and candles. She appears to be a very popular figure in the market. The men touch their hats and smile friendlily. The women call out:
"Good morning, maman. May God preserve you!"
And her face lights up with an enchanting smile that is in some queer way younger than her body. It is the smile of a young and simple soul, easily flattered, sensitive to affection or indifference. Antiquity has a beauty of its own. When all the passions are dim memories, all the discords inaudible, all the memories themselves mellowed by long years of serene detachment, the face takes on an expression of spiritual beauty that makes one wonder whether the owner were half so beautiful in the lambent years of youth.
Now if you are a stranger, and you ask one of the habitués of the market:
"Who is the dear old lady?"
You will receive a reply given eagerly and proudly:
"Oh, that? Don't you know, monsieur, that is the mother of Carmen Colignon."
"Indeed!" you may reply, "and who is, or was, Carmen Colignon?"
And then a most curious thing happens. Your fellow marketer looks a little bewildered. If it is a man he probably tilts his hat on one side and scratches his head behind the ear. If a woman, she probably taps her cheek with a large latch-key, and then pouts and shakes her head. But whichever sex your marketer may be, you will assuredly get some such answer as this:
"Eh? H'm! Well, now, since you mention it, monsieur, upon my soul I couldn't rightly tell you at the moment. Carmen Colignon? Well, yes, she was—what was she? A singer? An actress? It has escaped my memory. But that is her mother, I assure you, monsieur. We always address her as such, "the mother of Carmen Colignon.'"
Well, well, what would you? The life of the streets, the life of the boulevards—indeed, all life is a fluid business. It flows past us, leaving a trail of fading memories, impressing upon us one central fact—that fame is a transitory thing, but that love and beauty have an endurance of their own.
Near the village of Cambo-les-Bains, at the foot of the Pyrenees, there dwelt a small farmer named Raymond Marcillac with his two sons and two daughters. He was regarded as a queer old fish, taciturn and reserved, and somewhat quick-tempered, a difficult man to know. After twenty years of a somewhat fractious married life his wife had died. Monsieur and Madame Marcillac had never been on the best of terms. She was a chicken-headed woman, used to city life, and she had never adapted herself to the farm. She was, moreover, considerably younger than her husband. Monsieur Marcillac was now fifty-three, and one might have predicted that the lamp of romance would have respectably guttered and died out. But oh, dear, no! There came to Cambo a widow named Goud-chaux, who was a consumptive, and her daughter, Honorine. They stayed at a little sanatorium just adjoining the farm. Calling there one day to deliver some butter, he chanced to meet the daughter, Honorine, in the garden. He got into conversation with her. No one knows what was said on either side, but immediately after the visit the neighbours noted a striking and significant change in Monsieur Marcillac. His unkempt beard was trimmed. He scrubbed his hands and face at least twice a day. He bought a new suit and some smart boots. He made curious noises at his work, which some declared to be singing. And every day he made some excuse for calling at the sanatorium.
Six months later he married Honorine Goudchaux, who was then in her twenty-seventh year. Her mother had died, and she went to live at the farm with Monsieur Marcillac and his two sons and daughters.
It is difficult to discover what attraction the uncouth farmer, who was twice her age, could have had for Honorine. But there! these things do happen, and sometimes happen quite satisfactorily. She was a tall woman, rather clumsily built; a simple soul, refined, sensitive, and though by no means handsome, she had a certain appealing charm by virtue of her transparent sincerity and honesty of outlook. She loved her husband, and she made him a devoted wife. All might have been well but for the children of Monsieur Marcillac.
The two girls, Jeanne and Louise, were now respectively sixteen and eighteen. They had been badly brought up. Their mother had either neglected or spoilt them, and since her death they had lived a life of idleness and indulgence. They naturally resented the intrusion of this interloper, who was not only going to monopolise their father's afiections but his property and savings. The sons also resented it, but they were of less consequence in the affair, as shortly afterwards they both married, and one went into the com chandler's profession at Bayonne, whilst the other went to live on an adjoining farm.
These two daughters of Monsieur Marcillac soon set to work to make their stepmother's life a misery. Coldly polite to her before their father, they tyrannised her directly his back was turned. And she was a good subject for tyranny, being sensitive and warm-hearted. She did her utmost to be friendly to the girls, but all her advances were repulsed. They sneered at her and mimicked her, and saw to it that all the heavy work of the farmhouse fell upon her shoulders.
After the early repulses she accepted the situation with complacency. She was not unhappy. She worked hard and cheerfully, and always met her husband with a bright smile. She said nothing to him about the way his daughters treated her. And he, poor man, sensed nothing of the antagonism. His daughters feared him. He had an uncompromising way of dealing with disobedience and disrespect, a way in which physical force was strikingly evident.
His new wife delighted him. When his day's work was done, he would return to the house, and the family would sup together. Afterwards he and his wife would sit out in the garden side by side. They were not a talkative couple. Honorine seemed to be satisfied just to be by his side, mending his socks or making up a frock. Monsieur Marcillac would smoke his pipe and read the newspaper. Sometimes he would put the paper down and talk to her about the prospects of root crops, or the prices pigs were fetching in the market at Biarritz. And Honorine would be enchanted. At night beautiful dreams would come to her. In the twilight hour between sleeping and waking she would be conscious of a mysterious outflow of intense happiness...
The child was born the following year, and what a to-do there was! Monsieur Marcillac was overjoyed. There was a baptism and a feast, and the little girl was called Yvonne.
Now if the two daughters resented the intrusion of the mother, the arrival of Yvonne added gall to their bitterness. Apart from the importunacy of the "squealing brat"—as they called it—it soldified the mother's side of the affair, and caused the withdrawal from the work of the farmhouse of its most active and efficient helper.
Monsieur Marcillac, moreover, quickly showed that of all his children this was to be the favourite. He was for ever hovering over the cot and nursing the little mite in his arms.
This strange household functioned without any outward hint of cleavage for five years. It takes two parties to make a quarrel, and Honorine refused to quarrel. She submitted to every kind of insult and gibe. In only one particular did she assert her right and authority—the child. She knew she could not trust the two girls. They were capable of any criminal act. One day Louise smacked Yvonne for no other reason than that she was crying. Honorine flew at her and pushed her into a corner; then picking up a carving fork she said, in accents the passionate quality of which could not be misunderstood:
"If you ever touch my child again I will kill you."
Yvonne was left alone after that, but the mother was treated more cruelly than ever. At five years of age Yvonne was a beautiful child, quick and vivacious, with bright malicious eyes. Louise became engaged to a small tenant farmer named Bartholomé Ombrédanne. Soon, perhaps she would marry and go away—Jeanne also. Everything would turn out well; Honorine held her course. In any case they could not destroy her dreams...
And then one morning Monsieur Marcillac complained of a sore foot. He had trodden on a rusty spike a few days previously and had neglected it. A doctor was fetched. The wound was treated, and he was ordered to stay in bed for several days. He did, indeed, stay in bed for one day, but the next morning he awoke at dawn and said to his wife:
"Honorine, my angel, who is taking those calves to the market at Biarritz?"
"Jacques! A pretty dolt to handle such a deal. He'll sell the lot for a capful of sous."
And without more ado he rose from his bed. Honorine protested, cajoled, and even wept, but she could not dissuade him. He struggled into his clothes, limped down into the yard, saddled the mare, got the calves roped into the cart, and drove off.
He returned early in the afternoon. His face was white, and he was suffering great pain. Honorine got him to bed, and the doctor was fetched. Everything that local knowledge, science, and skill could do was done, but Monsieur Marcillac died within forty-eight hours from blood-poisoning.
It was some weeks before Madame Marcillac recovered from the first shock of her great grief. When she was once more able to guage the measure of her working life, she found herself facing a formidable situation. Monsieur Marcillac had made a will. It was a most elaborate will, displaying that relish for meticulous detail which is so characteristic of the French peasant. It might have been the will of some huge landed proprietor rather than that of a small peasant farmer. He had evidently devoted a lot of thought to it. In effect, it amounted to the direction that the farm was to be held in trust for Yvonne. Honorine,
the eldest son, and Monsieur Ombredanne were appointed trustees. The bulk of the profits were to go to Honorine during her lifetime. At the same time a share of the profits was to go to his two daughters, who were to be allowed to remain at the farmhouse, and who he trusted would always treat his wife and her child with "Christian devotion and affection." It was further decreed that Monsieur Ombredanne was to be appointed overseer at a fixed salary. He left various small sums of money to his sons and friends, and the furniture to his wife.
One day the son, together with Ombredanne, and a notary named Pironneau, arrived to discuss the arrangements about the execution of the will and the future conduct of the farm. Honorine was called in, but they hardly addressed her. They talked animatedly about legal terms which she did not understand. This Ombredanne was an insolent, good-looking, youngish man, with a fair beard, large flashing eyes, and slightly protruding teeth.
It was not till some time later that she realised that the salary fixed for the overseer was considerably in excess of what the small farm would stand. It was equally apparent that these three men were hand in glove. She signed all the documents set before her. And the realisation came too late that until Yvonne came of age she was to be little more than an underpaid drudge. She was tied to the farm, committed to live with the two sisters, and was entirely in the hands of Ombredanne and the others so far as finance was concerned.
She bowed to the situation for the sake of her child. Nothing mattered provided little Yvonne had all that she required. And the farm certainly supplied that. There was always milk and eggs, and butter and bacon. But when it came to money—that was a different story. There was machinery to buy, a barn to be re-roofed, seeds and meal to be bought—Monsieur Marcillac had been apparently very negligent. At the end of the first quarter it was explained to her that the farm had made no profit at all. She wanted money for clothes and boots both for herself and the child. There was much shaking of heads, much elaborate explanation. Ah! no, Madame Marcillac must wait. Perhaps after the harvest.
During the whole period of Ombredanne's overseership she never managed to get out of him more than a few hundred francs a year. She was forced to go shabby, to cut up clothes to make things for the child, to slop about the house in old shoes. It would not have been so bad—there was a fierce exaltation in the sense of self-sacrifice for her little one—if only...She could sometimes hear their cruel laughter, their whispers together, and then Jeanne and Louise would go out smartly dressed, and they would go for drives in the governess cart with Ombrédanne, and visit travelling booths and fairs. After a decent period—for they are very strict in those parts about the etiquette of grief—it was announced that Louise and Ombredanne were going to get married. It was also put to her, without equivocation, that the room she occupied was far too large for a single person. It was the only room in the house suitable to a married couple. Times had changed, etc.
Well, well, little Yvonne was nearly six, and could run and talk. There was no reason why she should not be happy in the room above. It would be in any case farther out of the sound and influence of the others. And so she gave up her bridal chamber and moved up to the attic with her child. She was expected to do the cooking and most of the housework, as well as attend to the poultry and make and mend clothing for herself and Yvonne. And yet she found happiness in all this. The sun would come aslant through the open doorway, and she would peep out and behold visions of green maize through a trellis of pollard oak trees, and down below the pale blue ribbon of the Nive creeping from between the shoulders of majestic hills. And in her heart she sang as she took little Yvonne to the village school in the morning, and listened to her prattle when they returned hand in hand across the fields in the evening. She was a mother.
As the years advanced her antipathies to the Ombre-danne farmstead—he had now established himself as the master—became finer and more acute. They were less coloured by physical and material issues than by spiritual ones. Monsieur Ombredanne was unscrupulous and selfish, but he was not altogether a cad and a bully. He was rather seduced by the attractiveness of Yvonne, who was indeed a fascinating child. He would sometimes spoil her—give her sweets that were bad for her, pinch her cheeks, and call her a little "bagful of sunshine." Sometimes he would drink brandy and be loose in his conversation; he would say things that bewildered and confused the child. The two sisters showed no signs of living down their animosity. They seemed to exult in saying unkind and improper things to Honorine in her little daughter's presence, and the child was beginning to understand. Something would have to be done.
One day she went to see the notary, Pironneau. With considerable trepidation she unfolded her plan. The furniture had been left her by her husband. She wished to sell it, and with the proceeds go to another part of the country with her daughter. Monsieur Pironneau put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and regarded her critically. He then produced the papers relating to the estate. Placing a blue form before her, he said laconically:
"You must have forgotten, Madame Marcillac, that you signed this paper agreeing not to sell the furniture until your daughter inherits the property."
She shrank from his unfriendly glance. "Yes, I had forgotten."
Going back across the fields she heard a lark singing at some invisible altitude. Apple blossoms were beginning to fall. Spring was merging into summer.
"Never mind, my little one," she murmured, "a way shall be found."
Nevertheless she remained two years more at the farm. And then Louise had a baby, and Monsieur Ombrédanne drank more brandy and sometimes became quarrelsome, and coarser and looser in his behaviour; and Jeanne became more cantankerous because a young man had made love to her, and then deserted her for another. And so one day Honorine packed up her few small possessions and went away with her daughter.
She obtained a situation at one of the little hotels catering for invalids. It was seven miles from Cambo, on the outskirts of a tiny village. The patron agreed to let her have the child, and they slept in a room above the stables. Honorine's work began at six and did not finish till the establishment closed at night, but she was used to long hours. She had to scrub and scour, and wash the saucepans and the blankets, in fact do all the heavy work of the establishment, but it brought with it a sense of elation and freedom. The patron soon realised her worth and was fairly kind and considerate towards her. Yvonne went to the village school, and played in the garden and learnt her lessons in a loft, where Honorine strove to mould her mind, and night and morning they would pray side by side. She was happier than at any time since her husband's death. Sometimes she would awake abruptly at dawn, as though caressed by invisible and loving arms, and she would think:
"Why am I so happy?"
And she could not account for it. She would rise hastily and make Yvonne's chocolate, and prepare eagerly for her day's work. Perhaps she was happy because life is beautiful, and because her own was directed by a singleness of purpose-love for her child. It made her happy to make clothes for Yvonne when she herself was tired to darn afid sew for her, to teach her and humour her,' to suffer for her wilfulness.
And as the years passed she found that the occasions increased when Yvonne made her suffer. She was spoilt at school, spoilt by the visitors to the hotel, spoilt by neighbours and strangers. She was already conscious of her prettiness and charm.
Madame Marcillac only partially realised this. Whatever faults Yvonne might have, her mother took the blame upon herself. Neither could she endure for an instant the little bursts of anger and petulance when Yvonne was thwarted in her desires.
They stayed at this hotel for four years, and then Madame Marcillac decided to make a change. She had saved up several hundred francs, and she did not feel that Yvonne was getting the opportunities for study and improvement which she might get in a town.
They went to Biarritz, and took one room in a back street. Every day she went out to work, and in the evening did sewing and cleaning, or anything that came along. Nevertheless, she found life here more precarious and harder. Everything was more expensive, including Yvonne's education and the little extra luxuries she increasingly demanded. At the end of the first year she had saved nothing, and her daughter was clamouring for greater comforts. She was of course incapable of understanding the situation. She mixed with children in a better state of life, and she instinctively nurtured a grudge against her mother because she did not supply her with the luxuries these other children had.
Madame Marcillac struggled on. She worked late into the night when Yvonne was asleep. She worked till her health gave way. She would probably have worked herself into an early grave, but one day she had a stroke of fortune. A neighbour brought her a Paris newspaper in which was an advertisement by a firm of lawyers asking for information regarding the whereabouts or existence of Honorine Goudchaux, daughter of the late Monsieur and Madame Henri Goudchaux. She wrote to the lawyers, who replied that if she were indeed the individual advertised for, it would be worth her while to go to Paris and interview them. Paris! But what a journey! What an expense! How was it to be done? Could she endure the separation from Yvonne?
But the same neighbour, having a shrewd suspicion that the money would be well invested, offered to advance her her expenses.
And so one day, with much misgiving and heartburning over this first separation from her beloved child, she set out for Paris alone. The expedition was entirely satisfactory. She found the lawyers and proved her identity. It appeared that her mother's brother, who had lived in Athens and was in the currant trade, had died intestate. He was unmarried, and Honorine was the only living relative. The fortune he left, carefully invested, would bring her in approximately twelve thousand francs a year.
On receipt of this news she felt bewildered and somewhat apprehensive, as though she were appropriating something which by rights belonged to others. And then suddenly she thought of Yvonne. Yvonne! This meant clothes, presents, education, joy for Yvonne. Comfort and security for ever, a dot on her marriage. Tears came into her eyes as she thanked the lawyers.
When she returned to Biarritz her health broke down. She went to Yvonne and flung her arms round her and kissed her, and exclaimed:
"Little one, everything is going to be better for you. You are going to have frocks and better food, and a nice place to live in, and a nice school, and everything you wish."
And then she trembled and burst into tears. She was obliged to go to bed and remain there for many days. She could neither eat nor sleep. A doctor came and gave her a powerful sleeping draught.
"You must have a long rest," he said, "you have been working too hard."
The mother and daughter stayed in Biarritz for four more years. At first the income seemed prodigious. She had no idea how far it would go. But she quickly found that there was very little over after they had moved to better quarters and she had paid for Yvonne's schooling and her singing lessons and her multiplying extravagances. The child was very advanced for her years. At the age of sixteen she was already a woman, in many ways more sophisticated than her mother. She could dance and sing, and look at a man with that malicious gleam which predicates the cocotte. But Honorine saw' nothing of this. Yvonne was beyond all criticism.
One day she came to her mother and said:
"Maman, I am tired of this poky little town. Let us go and live in Paris."
Paris! Why should they go and live in Paris? Honorine had got to love this country, this little white town, the blue rolling waves dancing against the rocks, the bold outline of the distant Pyrenees, the happy Basque people in their native dress, the tamarisks and eucalyptus trees. Paris! She sighed a little, knowing that Yvonne would have her way.
And so it proved, for the following autumn the mother and child went to live in Paris. They took a small apartment out in Levallois Perret.
It took Honorine some time to accustom herself to the new conditions. Paris was strange and bewildering. They knew no one there, and the people were hard to deal with and unresponsive. Yvonne announced her intention of having no more lessons except dancing and singing, and so she attended a conservatoire in the Rue Farzillan. It was known at that time—for some reason or other—as the "Conservatoire Voltaire," and it was run by an old gentleman named Sigogne, who had been a ballet master and producer at several Parisian theatres.
At first Honorine was hardly conscious of the significance of this determination of her daughter to devote herself to singing and dancing. She was absorbed with the details of reconstructing their new home, and only too happy that Yvonne was having what she desired. As for Yvonne, she was deliriously happy. She found herself suddenly plunged into a world which she had believed to be unattainable. She was in Paris, the Mecca of her dreams. She met girls who were going on the stage. She proved to her teachers that she was a pupil of more than average promise.
At the end of six months Honorine received a visit from Monsieur Sigogne. He was a tiny little bald-headed man, who looked like a linnet. He hopped into the room and chirruped:
"Madame Marcillac, I congratulate you. Your daughter has great talent. She shall stay with me for two years, and then she will go far."
And patting her hands, he smiled, bowed, and took his departure without another word. Even then Honorine did not entirely grasp the significance of this new departure. It was brought home to her slowly, in the fulness of time. It came about through their friends. Honorine had few friends, but this deficit was more than atoned for by her daughter. Yvonne rapidly formed a great circle of passionate attachments. They were mostly fellow pupils or their friends. They came flooding into the little apartment, and their talk was all about stars, and salaries, and parts, and jealousies, and scandals. They were amusing people, vain and naive, self-centred, warm-hearted and impetuous. But Honorine was a little frightened of them. Moreover they added considerably to the upkeep of the establishment. They led Yvonne into extravagances which she could not afford.
At the end of the first year she found they were living above their means. She did not complain. She struggled on, denying herself many little personal comforts. Then she heard these friends talking among themselves. They were discussing the question of when Yvonne would be ready, who she should go to, what line she should take up, whether she should concentrate on singing or dancing.
One day when they were alone Madame Marcillac said to her daughter:
"My darling, is it your intention to go on the stage?"
"But of course, my dear,"
Honorine looked down at her long fingers, lined and drawn with years of toil. She heard her daughter add a little abruptly:
"I suppose you have no objection, mother?"
"No, little one...you must do as you desire," she said quietly.
When rather less than nineteen, Yvonne went on the stage. She obtained a small part in a musical comedy at Rouen. Honorine stayed there with her. The piece ran for three months, but it gave Yvonne little chance to distinguish herself. At the end of the run they returned to Paris, and for a long time she got nothing else to do at all. This early disappointment upset her badly. She became querulous and bitter. It was Honorine who encouraged her, and painted optimistic pictures of her future. It was nearly a year before she got a small part in a musical piece that was to have an extended tour. The salary was very small and after considerable discussion it was decided that Honorine should not go with her. The expense would be too great, and Yvonne seemed anxious to be left to her own devices.
Honorine spent a lonely time in her little apartment. She wrote to Yvonne every day. She sent her presents and all the money she could spare, for Yvonne's salary was not large enough to live on in the way she had recently become accustomed to. Yvonne replied spasmodically. The longer she was away the less frequent became her letters and when they came they were usually concerned with her petty triumphs and conquests, and plaints concerning the expense of living on tour.
Madame Marcillac decided that she must work. What could she do? She had no skill or ability at anything except housework and sewing. And she knew that Yvonne would be ashamed of her mother occupying herself in this menial way. Nevertheless, she could not remain idle, and something must be done to counteract her daughter's extravagance. So she went out secretly and got work at a pension near by. She worked nine hours daily, and at night came home and wrote a cheery letter to her daughter, giving the impression that she was leading a life of comfort and idleness.
When the tour finished Yvonne returned to Paris, and Honorine deserted her pension, with a guilty feeling that she had done wrong. It would be superfluous to chronicle the record of the next three years of Yvonne's career. It was an ordinary story of little successes and big disappointments. She ran into debt and moved in strange company, whilst Honorine stood watchfully and protectingly on the fringe of these experiences. But at the end of the third year, she made a sudden leap to fame.
A Jewish gentleman named Karl Matz saw her dance in a revue at a cabaret in the Boulevard St. Martin. After the performance he went round to see her. Without removing a cigar from the corner of his mouth, he said:
"You are being badly managed. You can dance. I could do something with you. Would you care for a contract?"
Care! Yvonne was beside herself with excitement, bhe signed the contract with Monsieur Matz next day binding herself to him for five years at a fixed salary' whether working or not.
It proved a highly satisfactory contract—for Monsieur Matz.
He sent her to a dancing master, Poldini, to whom he gave very precise instructions. He also told her that she must change her name. Yvonne Marcillac sounded too sombre for a dancer. After a good deal of discussion, it was decided that she was to be called "Carmen Colignon." Three months later she appeared at the Folies Bergeres in a ballet called A Travers les Ages. She was a cave woman with bare legs and a panther skin in the opening act, and in the last act a society woman in a snake skin. She made an instantaneous hit.
Honorine watched the performance from the back of the auditorium, and when she heard the roar of applause after Yvonne's first dance tears trickled down her cheeks.
When the show was over she hurried behind to take her child away. She found Yvonne surrounded by admirers. Her eyes were dancing still. She was almost too excited to acknowledge her mother, but when the latter whispered:
"Come, my little one, you must come home to supper; you will be tired." The daughter replied:
"Oh, mother, I shan't be coming home to supper tonight. I've promised to go out with Monsieur Matz and Mademoiselle Folvary and some of the others."
That was the beginning of Honorine's tragic phase, doubly tragic by reason of her own foresight of what was going to happen. One may give to another one's life's blood, one's love, and passion, and devotion, but one cannot make that other love one as one may desire to be loved. Yvonne did not really love her mother. She was fond of her, and she relied upon her, and respected her, but her real love was the glamour of success. In the years that followed it intoxicated her. She became the rage of Paris, and Monsieur Matz became a rich man.
The more successful she became the more indifferent she became towards her mother, and the more devoted her mother became to her. She watched over her, and tended her, and prayed for her. When Yvonne was not dancing she was always lunching or dining with her friends, or driving in the Bois. It is to be feared that she was a little ashamed of her mother in the presence of her brilliant friends. Honorine was now nearly fifty. Her life of toil had left its mark on her. She was a little what is known as "provincial." She wore the same kind of old-fashioned frocks that she used to wear at the farm at Cambo. Her hands were hard and bony, like a servant's. Her remarks were trite and commonplace. She was out of place in that astounding environment. Yvonne seldom introduced her. She would go down to the theatre and hang about the corridors, waiting to see if her daughter wanted anything. And people would say:
"Who is that old countrywoman?"
And the answer would be:
"Oh, don't you know? That's the mother of Carmen Colignon."
But even then she was not altogether unhappy. Sometimes she would take herself to task and think: "Why am I not unhappy? I give my whole life to my daughter, and she does not respond."
And she would look down into the darkening streets, and see the crowds rushing hither and thither on dubious errands. Lamps being lighted, and somewhere in the distance a bell would be tolling...And she would think:
"Even if she does not love me I can still serve her. I am her mother."
And dreams would come to her.
Within a very short time her mind was diverted by material considerations. At first the two hundred francs a month which Monsieur Matz had agreed to pay Yvonne appeared a princely sum. But when she became a star it seemed to dwindle into nothingness. A star must have attendant satellites and luxuries. Yvonne was far too dazzled by her facile success to worry over such details as settling bills or considering ways and means. The more she earned the more she spent. At the end of the first year Madame Marcillac found herself faced with debts she could see no way to meet except by drawing on her capital. She put the matter to Yvonne, who exclaimed:
"Oh, that doesn't matter, mother. I shall soon be earning more, and when my contract runs out they'll have to pay me thousands a night."
When her contract ran out! But that was four years hence. At the present pace Madame Marcillac's capital would be exhausted before then. She pleaded with her daughter to be economical, to think of the future. Yvonne did make some sort of attempt to curb her extravagances—until the next temptation came along. Between the mother and daughter there began to yawn unbridgable chasms of reserve. Yvonne did not mean to be denied the attainment of these new delights. She became furtive and mendacious.. She borrowed money on the quiet, and made all kinds of excuses for breaking into Madame Marcillac's dwindling capital.
So far she had had many admirers but no one who could truthfully be called a lover. But a year after her leap to fame there appeared upon the scene a young actor named Max Gion. He was not a particularly good actor, neither was he very successful, and he had no money. They became engaged.
Madame Marcillac thrilled with delight at her daughter's engagement. The man was young and good-looking, and he had charming manners. It was a love match. She had always dreaded that Yvonne might marry some elderly man for his money.
Soon, however, she found that what the young couple had most in common was a passion for extravagance. When not performing they spent most of their time in cabs and restaurants. Rather than being relieved, her financial commitments were doubled. The capital began to dwindle. Yvonne was dancing superbly, and "Carmen Colignon" was a star of the first magnitude. Her portraits were everywhere. She was painted and sculpted by famous artists. The journals rang with her praises. But Monsieur Matz was not inclined to deviate one franc from the terms of his contract. He had discovered her and made her. He had run the risk of her being a failure.
At the end of the second year of their acquaintance the young couple married and took a little flat in the rue de la Baume. It was plainly hinted that Max would rather not have his beloved Yvonne's mother to live with them. And so she took one room in a little street just off the avenue des Ternes. She lived alone, but her identity was soon established. When she walked quietly backwards and forwards people nudged each other and said:
"Do you know who that is? That's the mother of Carmen Colignon."
And they argued amongst themselves as to why so beautiful and famous a star should have such a queer old fish for a mother. And some wondered why the daughter did not see that her mother was kept in happier circumstances. And they shrugged their shoulders. These theatrical people!...
As the years passed Honorine lived more within herself. Her love for her daughter became a vital abstraction. She gave her all that Yvonne might lead the life she desired. But they had nothing in common. Honorine hovered like a moth on the outskirts of this dazzling and dangerous effulgence wherein her daughter pirouetted to the clamorous approbation of the mob.
One day her daughter came to her in great distress. Max—of the good looks and charming manners—was not all that he appeared. He had put his name on the back of a bill. Within seven days he had to find fifteen thousand francs. The alternative was a law case, bankruptcy—possibly arrest.
The fifteen thousand francs was withdrawn from Madame Marcillac's capital. The gay life continued. Before Yvonne's contract had run out her mother was ruined. She had not a penny in the world except what she earned. She went out secretly and reverted to her old profession of housework and sewing. Yvonne seldom asked her mother how she passed her time.
In the meantime Yvonne's life had not been without emotional incident. As their debts increased and they saw no possibility of relief from the mother, they quarrelled bitterly. There were scenes, recrimination, almost ending in a crime passionelle. Eventually Yvonne had no difficulty in divorcing her depraved young husband, and immediately afterwards she married a rich elderly merchant named Mocquard. Paris was intrigued. Her reputation became more assured. When her contract expired she was re-engaged at an enormous figure. She was rich beyond her wildest dreams.
It was at that point that the cleavage with her mother became pronounced. Madame Marcillac would not take a penny of her daughter's money. She gave no reason. It was not for her to criticise. She went calmly about her affairs, her eyes filled with wonder and awe. She went frequently to see her daughter, at an hour when she knew no one would be about. On only one occasion did she show signs of distress. That was on the occasion of her first visit to the new house in the avenue Malakoff, when Yvonne, all aglow with her new wealth and success, openly boasted about it, and offered to make her mother a handsome allowance. And the tears had started to Honorine's eyes, and pressing her hand to her heart, she had exclaimed:
"Oh, my dear, my dear...my little one..."
But she could say no more, and she went quietly away, after refusing the offer. She was set down then definitely as a crank. She was pointed at in the street and laughed at.
"Did you ever see such an old sketch? That's the mother of Carmen Colignon."
Her figure became familiar on the boulevards, and once Sem did a caricature of her which appeared in Le Rire, and which made Yvonne very angry. Honorine shifted her quarters, and took a room up in Montmartre in the rue Cortot.
Years passed. Her eyesight was not too good, and she had trouble with her feet, and one day she bought a stout hickory stick for support. She found work a little tiring, but people were kind to her. She made many friends among people of her own class, who were always anxious and willing to help her.
One December day as she was walking through the square of St. Pierre there came to her a sudden flow of memories of her youth, of her husband, and the days on the old farm at Cambo. Cambo! Hard upon these memories came the reflection that the farm at Cambo belonged to her daughter. It was to be hers when she became of age. Strange that she should have forgotten this all these years. If Yvonne did not object she would not mind accepting the gift. It was associated with a period of calm happiness and purity. It was earned by her own husband by honest toil. She flushed a little at the temptation. Perhaps she would go back there to end her days...
Yvonne had no objection. She laughed contemptuously at what she called "the old piggery." Most certainly her mother should have it. She herself was far too engrossed in big things to worry about such a trifle.
And so one day she packed an old black bag and returned to Biarritz. She was away five days. She went to see Monsieur Pironneau. He was very evasive. He used terms she could not understand. Yes, Monsieur and Madame Ombredanne were still living there. They had a large family. He talked about entail, and forfeiture, and surrenders. She could not tell whether the farm was to be her property or not. The next day she went out to Cambo and wandered around it. She had not the heart to call. It all looked very much the same. She went back to Biarritz and again interviewed the lawyer. It is impossible to know how long she would have been kept there in this indeterminate condition, but her visit was cut short. On the fifth day she picked up a newspaper in the little pension where she was staying, and a headline caught her eye. "Serious illness of Carmen Colignon."
She caught the night train back to Paris, and drove to her daughter's house in the avenue Malakoff. A servant admitted her. The house was all in a fluster. Yes, Carmen Colignon was very ill. The doctor believed it was smallpox, caught at the theatre from one of the stage hands. Monsieur Mocquard was staying elsewhere. He had been advised to, as the disease was very catching. She forced her way upstairs. A dark-featured nurse met her on the landing, and exclaimed:
"You cannot go upstairs. The upper floor is isolated. Madame Mocquard is seriously ill."
"I am going up."
"Who are you?"
"I am her mother."
She pushed back a curtain reeking with disinfectant, and went up to her daughter's bedroom. Yvonne was semi-conscious. For six days and nights she never went further from her daughter's bedside than the adjoining room. She ate hardly anything and slept less. The two nurses, after the first irruption of her entry, took kindly to her. She was useful, and after all she was the patient's mother. She had penetrated into the sick chamber, and if she was to catch the disease she would catch it, whether she stayed or went. On the sixth night she fainted from sheer exhaustion. One of the nurses gave her a powerful sleeping draught. She slept for eleven hours. She came to in a dreamy semi-comatose condition. She thought she was back at the farm at Cambo. Little Yvonne was packing her sachel preparatory for school. She was sing-ing in her childish tremulo a song called "Les fleurs qui passent."
The nurse entered and stood by her bedside. After a short pause she said: "Madame Marcillac, I'm sorry to say your daughter passed away in the night."
Madame Marcillac turned on her side, but she did not speak. She wanted to hear little Yvonne finish the song, "Les fleurs qui passent."
After a time she wept a little and rose from her bed. She put on her cloak and went into her daughter's bedroom. When she beheld her she made the sign of the cross, and knelt by the bedside. And there she remained in prayer for a long while...
All Paris flocked to the funeral of Carmen Colignon. Senators, merchant princes, artists, students, and actors drove out to Pere La Chaise. There were carriages by the score, and magnificent wreaths from Monsieur Mocquard, Monsieur Matz, and other fights of the theatrical profession. The newspapers outvied each other in eulogistic competition. It was an event.
Honorine walked to the funeral.
In the distinguished company hardly anyone noticed the old countrywoman who hobbled into the cemetery, leaning on a hickory stick. She stood on the outskirts of the crowd, and when the ceremony was over she wandered away alone in the direction of the Seine. Alone!...She had no definite plans formed in her mind. She was stunned by the abruptness of the catastrophe, broken by the completeness of it. She found herself wandering by the north bank of the river, looking across at the pile of buildings on the He de la Cite, dominated by Notre Dame. The water looked grey and inviting...sleep-giving. Oh, how she needed sleep! It was Christmas time. People were hurrying hither and thither with parcels and flowers. No, it was not true that all Paris was at the funeral of Carmen Colignon. "All Paris" is a phrase. Many had hardly heard of her. Most were indifferent. Even those who wept and sent expensive wreaths, how long would it be before they, too, forgot?...
Only love is permanent; only a mother's love perhaps...She looked up at the cupola of Notre Dame, and her eye alighted on the cross. Notre Dame! Oh, Mother of God! She seemed to sense in that instant the whole significance of her own fife, and yet she remained dumb...inarticulate. She could express nothing. She had given something which finked her to a spirit greater than her own. She looked up humbly, her eyes filled with wonder and reverence. Barges glided by, and the people hurrying in their thousands, people who had hardly heard of Carmen Colignon. She was conscious of her heart filled with pity and compassion...of a great immensity, of something vast wherein nestle the loves, passions, fears, and frailties of every living thing. And turning her back on the river, she walked slowly away...
Tap-tap! Tap-tap! Along the Rue Cadec she comes this Sunday morning, smiling to herself as though with childish memories. And the men touch their hats and the women cry: "Good-morning, maman. May God preserve you!"
She hobbles on, her old bony fingers clutching the handle of the string bag. She passes by, leaving a trail of unexplained delight.
"Who is she?"
"Don't you know? That's the mother of Carmen Colignon."
"And who in God's name is Carmen Colignon?"
Just by old Grognon's shop she pauses, and her face is silhouetted against the dark opening. It is lined and scored by a hundred tiny cracks and wrinkles, but the beauty remains. And one regards it as, after many years, a reader might regard a leaf that had been pressed between the leaves of some old volume and long forgotten; and the reader gazes enchanted, held by the vision of this magic network of myriad perfections.
Twixt sleeping and waking there came to him a moment of quiet exaltation. His consciousness was revelling in the surf of some far distant and yet familiar sea where the sirens whispered:
"You are well. You are happy. You are virile. You have achieved great things, and you will achieve more. You are enveloped in love and beauty and youth."
The sun was creeping between the cracks of the dark blind. Spring! In a short while he would be out in it all. He would grasp it in his hand—love, and beauty and youth. He lay there vividly intent upon himself, his environment, his happiness.
Below the window the dew would be sparkling upon daffodils and jonquils, primula and violets. A starling up in the apple tree was chanting a eulogy of spring. In the next room—the white door slightly ajar—his wife was sleeping. He could almost see her, curled up in that way she had, like a little round ball, her glorious fair hair scattered over the pillow, her dark lashes, her beautiful fair skin, her small mouth firmly shut, just the tilt of that little wilful chin—how he loved her!
In two rooms at the end of the corridor, Mervyn, aged nine, and Diana, aged eleven, were sleeping as only youth can sleep...Children of this cloudless love match. The fullness and the richness of their day was before them, and he possessed it as much as they.
Half dozing, half dreaming, he lay there an infinity of time absorbed in this sense of happiness...he was creating. He saw form, and the beauty of form, and the building of form. He was a sculptor...
And then his mind abruptly registered the probable reason of his exultant mood—the letter which had arrived by the last post the previous night, announcing that his model had been accepted by an important Corporation in the North. He had received this sought-after commission above all his fellows. The work would take him a year to accomplish, but what a year! His consciousness cleared. He began to work on the details of his undertaking. Technical problems were being faced, the frenzy of creation, with its pains, penalties and ecstasies. He would give to the world all that was best in him. Dear life! to be happily married, to have children, to be healthy and virile, and at the age of forty-seven to be recognized as one of the foremost sculptors in the world, was it not enough on this Spring morning to work him into a state of fevered anticipation and delight?
"I musn't think too much of myself, about myself. I don't want it all for myself, it's for the others—the people I love, even the people I don't love. It's all too big, too overpowering to take to oneself. Oh, the glory and the beauty of the world."
He restrained the temptation to get up and rush into the garden until he heard the familiar sound of domestic movements. Then he arose and went into the bathroom. The thrill of cold water down his spine urged him to song, deep-chested and passionate, even if a little out of tune. He rubbed himself down, his eyes glimpsing, not without pride, the fine proportions of his legs and torso. He completed his toilet with care and discretion, and then visited his wife. She was already drinking tea and reading an illustrated paper. He kissed her and exclaimed:
"Well, my darling, sleep well?"
"I always do. You've been making an awful noise in the bath-room."
He laughed tempestuously, teased her a little, discussed the petty arrangements of their daily routine, and then went downstairs to the breakfast-room. He always regretted that Laura insisted on having her breakfast in bed. Breakfast was the most glorious meal in the day. The sun poured into the breakfast-room. The garden was ablaze with green and white and yellow and red. "Rags," the old sheep dog, bounded to him, buried its nozzle between its master's knees, and peered at him, its sentimental eyes gleaming amidst the profusion of shaggy fur.
"Rags, Rags, dear old Rags, what is the day going to bring forth for us? I'm hungry, Rags, what about you?"
But Rags never seemed to be hungry. He seemed quite content to sit at the feet of his master and to feed on the glorious vision. A maid appeared with glittering silver dishes and a coffee urn. A gong sounded. He moved to the sidetable and picked up his letters and his newspapers. His interest quickened. The letters, mysteriously intriguing in their uncut state, linking him to friends, and the glamour of his career; the newspapers equally so with the whole cosmic creation. What had the world to tell him to-day? He stood there happily bemused, turning the letters over. And then suddenly what a to-do! The children and their governess. He was enveloped in a swirl of pulsating vital forces. Youth consumed with the prescience of a terrific day's programme. A terrific business having breakfast, making arrangements, anticipating, discussing. He was almost overlooked in the important trifles. Just pleased to have him there, happy at seeing father well and happy, but no time for endearments, no time for questions or solicitude. The rabbits had to be fed. George, the gardener, was reputed to have promised to bring along two guinea pigs. A cousin was coming to tea. Mervyn's cricket bat had got to be sent to the makers to be re-bound. Diana had to be reproved by the governess for calling Mrs. Weak, the housekeeper, a "silly sausage." There was a picture postcard of Zermatt from Uncle Walter. All terrifically important...breathless. In the midst of it all he laughed loudly in sheer happiness. And the children laughed too, for no reason—just contagion, and Rags joined in the din.
Breakfast over at last, and he lighted his pipe and went out into the sun. He sat on the bench below the tennis lawn, and looked at the spring flowers, entranced. At the end of the garden the black wooden studio partly concealed by foliage was calling him. He enjoyed the tumult of restraint. There was no hurry. Was he not fully conscious of his powers? Was he not even now, working, creating? A wood-pigeon was cooing in the coppice beyond the vegetable garden. His senses tingled with the thrill of the sweet, pure air, the perfume of wallflowers, the familiar comfort of good tobacco. His mind was working rapidly. Thus and thus would he do to improve upon that model. A curious sense of detachment crept over him, as though he were looking down on himself. Almost impatiently he arose, and wandered through the grounds, his grounds and—hers. He was consumed with a kind of contemplative lust of possession. He found himself in the white panelled drawing-room. There, indeed, could he give his sense of possession full play. Was there ever such a beautiful room? A genuine Queen Anne room with French windows leading on to the lawn. There was the jolly walnut tall-boy which they had bought on their honeymoon, from a dealer in Falmouth. He could almost see Laura now, leaning on his arm. He could hear the tone of her adorable voice:
"Oh, darling, wouldn't it be lovely to have it?"
It meant a lot in those days. They were very poor when they married. But somehow he managed to buy the tall-boy because Laura wanted it so much. And there it stood to this day. And it had collected around it a company of worthy fellows, a William and Mary cabinet which he bought at a sale in Seven Oaks, a set of original seventeenth century walnut chairs which he got at Christie's at an appalling price...Things were different now. On the further wall was his choicest possession—an interior by Pieter de Hoogh in an ebony and tortoiseshell frame. He sank back in an easy chair and regarded it lovingly. Everything in the room was beautiful from the Pieter de Hoogh to the daffodils in a cut glass vase on the bureau. Everything was symbolical of the unity of his married state. His taste and hers—what joy it had been to struggle, to select, to build. He thought of the old days when he had been a poor boy apprenticed to a builder at Nottingham, showing little aptitude or ambition. It was not till he was nearly thirty that he suddenly developed the passion to express in form the strange surgings of his soul. He had saved up money and been to Italy and studied Donatello...Thirty-five he was when he first met Laura. She seemed a slip of a girl, almost boyish. For a long while he had pondered over the problem of their mutual infatuation. He was twelve years older than she. Would it be right? Could he make her happy? "When I am so-and-so, she will be so-and-so," he envisaged every phase of married state.
Well, well, he had nothing to regret. When they marry a man may be a little older than a woman. Especially if he keep himself fit, and y sane, and temperate. A man has all the advantages. He was hardly conscious of the passing years, except as they added to his spiritual stature. He had mastered his art. He had wrested from the social conflict honour, and fame, and wealth. His love had developed into a finer, richer passion than it had been when he first met her. She was linked to him indissolubly by the ties of children, and the associations of passion and tenderness. O God! how happy, how happy!...And they had built this beautiful nest in the Surrey hills. Step by step, piece by piece, their tastes ever in common, every little thing in the house was a symbol of their mutual understanding. And they were surrounded by friends.
There was old Morrison, the painter, who lived at "The Seven Gables," across the valley, a wealthy and entertaining old man who frequently came to dine. There were the Stapleys, and the Brontings, and Guy Lewisham, and there was that young violinist, Anton Falk, who had come to live with the Brontings, an engaging and romantic figure. Several evenings a week he would come, and play glorious passages from Bach and Paganini in this very room. And Laura would accompany him. He loved to lie back on the window seat and watch her bending over the keys, the pink glow from the lamp suffusing the beautiful room, the tense, pale face of the young fiddler frowning over his instrument. In music one finds the solution of all one's spiritual unrest.
He rose again impatiently, moved by an impulse to touch his possessions. He moved from piece to piece, smoking his pipe, and passing his hand affectionately over glossy surfaces. He buried his nose in flowers. There were flowers everywhere, flowers that she had gathered and arranged—spring flowers. Then once more he sat back in an easy chair and sighed contentedly.
The door opened abruptly, and the room appeared to receive the final note of its ultimate expression. Laura glided in, wearing a frock of thick white lace, and in her hand she carried a bunch of dark red roses, wrapped in that thin paper that florists use. She started slightly at sight of him and exclaimed:
"Hullo, dear, you're not working then—"
He laughed gaily at her momentary confusion, and at the exquisite vision of her supple movements.
"How clever of you," he said, "to come in at that moment. I was looking at the room. It just wanted that note—the girl in a white frock holding a bunch of dark red roses."
"Aren't they lovely!" she exclaimed and bent over them. She removed the paper, scrumpled it up into a ball and threw it into the paper basket. Then she produced a a glass bowl and a pair of scissors. With loving care she arranged the roses, humming to herself as she cut their stalks, and set them in the bowl on the centre table. His eyes caressed her every movement. When she had completed her task she went across to him and sat on the arm of his chair.
"Don't they look lovely!" she murmured.
"Yes," he said. "They are exquisite—almost exotic. It is early in the year for roses."
She sighed as though a little impatient of his plaint.
"They must come from abroad," he ruminated. "Or perhaps bred under glass. We do not get such roses here till June."
"They come from Stoole's, the florists," she explained, fluttering towards the window like a little bird restless for flight.
"Davy," she suddenly added, "is it quite easy to take a cast of anyone's hands?"
"Yes, quite easy."
"I thought it would be rather jolly to have a cast of Anton's hands. Have you ever noticed what beautiful hands he has?"
"Yes, they are beautiful hands."
"There's something romantic about the hands of a musician, something one would like to preserve. He is coming this evening. Do you think you could spare time?"
"Why, of course. It would take less than an hour of my valuable time. You shall have a cast of your fiddler's hands, my dear."
"Thanks so much, Davy."
The little bird fluttered through the French window and down into the garden. But the man continued to sit there, intent on his happiness and the serene beauty of the room. The dark red roses produced in the artist in him a queer emotion. They were extraordinarily beautiful, and yet they left upon him a slight impression of disquiet. The room was no longer so serene or tranquil. They were a note of luxury and defiance. In the fullness of their blooming two petals had already dropped, and lay upon the dark table like little pools of blood. It was the season for daffodils and primroses, the virgin flowers which herald in the spring, but these spoke of warm summer nights or southern climes.
"It is early in the year for roses."
Very slowly he rose, and walked towards them. The richness of their perfume assailed his nostrils. Much as he loved them they jarred his sensibilities, like a perversion or a wanton feast. He turned away, and went as though driven by some subconscious force to the waste-paper basket. With quiet deliberation he unfolded the paper they had been wrapped in. A piece of card had apparently escaped his wife's detection. He picked it up and read it. On it was scribbled in pencil, "To my darling." There was no signature. Guiltily he tore it up, and returned it and the paper to the basket.
And that morning he worked with the fury of creation. With long strides he reached his studio. His hands clutched and fashioned great masses of clay. Forms emerged from chaos, forms expressing beauty and humility. So engrossed was he with his new concepts that he did not return to the house for lunch. He sent his assistant over for a tray of food, which he devoured savagely, standing by his model all the while, like a mother fearful of some treacherous attack upon her child.
Sometimes the laughter of the children, playing in the garden, reached him, and once he heard his wife singing...The long day drew on. At six o'clock his assistant left. A little later there was a tap at the door, and it opened before he had time to say, "Come in."
Laura came gaily in, followed by the young man. "Here's Anton, dear. Are you very, very busy?"
Her eyes were sparkling with the love of life. The young man was grave and deferential.
"Very, very busy. How are you, Anton?"
"What about those hands, David?"
"Ah, yes, I had forgotten. Those hands—let me see them, Anton."
The young man held out his long delicate fingers.
"Yes, they are indeed beautiful hands, beautifully proportioned. The fingers long and tapering, the tips slightly flattened. Beautiful hands. I will take a cast of them. But you must excuse me for the moment. I have something to finish. Anton will stay to dinner. Afterwards we will have a little music perhaps? And then I will take a cast of Anton's hands."
"You mustn't work too hard, Davey. You haven't left the studio since ten o'clock this morning. You'll be knocking yourself up."
"Thank you for your solicitude. I'm feeling remarkably robust. Now run away and play, children."
Any feeling of constraint which might have marred the dinner party that evening was dissipated by the arrival of Laura's mother, a dear old lady who was extremely garrulous and amusing. As a matter of fact the dinner was unusually merry. Laura was in the highest spirits, and David talkative and reminiscent. Only the young man seemed self-conscious and reserved, plainly anxious for the meal to end. But if his tongue was silent, he was sufficiently eloquent with his eyes.
The music that followed was not a success. Anton was obviously not in the mood, and Laura was apt to be frivolous. The old mother acknowledged frankly that classical music bored her.
David was restless and eager to consummate his preconceived purposes.
During a pause he arose abruptly and said:
"Come. I'm afraid we must terminate this concert if I am to take a cast of Anton's hands to-night."
"Why, yes," exclaimed Laura. "I was forgetting all about it. Shall we all go over to the studio?"
"No." David was emphatic. "You stay here with your mother. Anton and I will go over there alone."
He almost relished the tinge of disappointment which flickered at the back of his wife's eyes. Out in the hall he said:
"Put on your hat and coat, Anton. These April evenings are treacherous."
They walked the length of the dark garden and entered the studio. David switched on the light.
"I shall not detain you long," he said. "The process is quite simple. Here is a bowl of sweet oil. Will you please dip your hands in it, and get them thoroughly saturated."
Anton did as he was bidden whilst the elder man prepared a mixture of plaster of Paris and water.
"Does it take long to set?" asked the violinist, advancing to the bench where David was at work. He was holding out his oily hands.
"Oh, no, two or three minutes at the outside. But it is very necessary to keep the hands quite still. Now, lay them face downwards on this plaster bed. So."
He covered up the young man's hands with the cold wet plaster. Then he continued:
"I have been handling piaster all my life. It is treacherous stuff, shifting, unstable, unreliable—not unlike human nature. In a case like this we usually use irons to keep it from shifting. Allow me."
He passed the iron bands over the pool of plaster and bolted it down into the bench.
"Does it feel cold?"
"It's not too bad, Mr. Cardew. Will you explain the process to me?"
"With pleasure. We leave your hands there for a few moments till the plaster sets. Then we remove the irons, and you will be able to withdraw your hands quite easily. There remains then what we call a mould. This I fill with more plaster mixed with soap and oil. I leave this to set. I then chip away the outer mould and we arrive at the completed cast. Quite simple and painless, you see. Laura was most anxious to have a cast of your beautiful hands."
He laughed a little recklessly as he uttered the last sentence in a cold incisive voice, and then he lighted his pipe. The seconds ticked by, and neither man spoke. At the end of two minutes Anton said:
"I think the plaster has set, Mr. Cardew. It feels like it."
David Cardew was perched on a high stool. He looked thoughtfully into the bowl of his pipe. In passionless accents he suddenly remarked:
"Dark red roses do not grow in April."
The young man looked up at him quickly:
"Dark red roses?"
"Nature makes laws, and men make codes. It's all very much the same—the struggle for survival. Nature is cruel and relentless, man less so. He does not want to set up these codes. He is forced to do so. It is a blind subconscious force not so much for the protection of the individual as for the preservation of the type. We have our English saying, 'It isn't done.' It sounds inane and foolish and conventional, but in effect it is quite a sound dogma, founded on experience and tradition. It isn't done, Anton Falk."
The young man gave him a quick glance and shifted his position.
"Why do you say all this to me, Mr. Cardew?"
"Dark red roses in April—an exotic fancy! This is the time of year when the hedgerows are alive with little innocent buds, when the birds are mating, and youth and
purity are at the helm. The flowers of darker passions are out of place. As a fellow artist you will appreciate this point of view, I'm sure."
The young man gave a sudden scared look and made a violent movement with his wrists.
"If you had the strength of ten men you could not draw your hands from that mould, Mr. Falk."
The two men then looked full into each other's eyes, and both understood. Anton's face was the colour of the plaster which encased his hands.
"What are you saying, Mr. Cardew?" he said breathlessly. "What are you implying? It's all false, I swear. My God! what are you going to do?"
This latter query was caused by David Cardew's sudden action. He had reached out and taken down from the wall a Japanese sword in a carved ivory scabbard. Almost languidly he drew the sword and remarked:
"An interesting old sword this. It was given me by an American print collector, who brought it from Japan. It belonged to a famous Samurai. Wonderful people the Samurai, with a code of honour and morality that has never been surpassed. It is said that three people have already died by this sword—the wife, the lover, and then the man himself. Rather drastic you may say. In these days we should think it sufficient to kill the lover."
The young man who was hanging limply by his hands suddenly uttered a cry of terror.
"My God! your're mad, Mr. Cardew. Help! help!"
"They won't hear you in the house. The walls are thick, and the wind is stirring in the trees."
"Don't talk like this. It's all false I tell you. I know what you think, but it isn't true. I'm not your wife's lover."
The older man laughed cynically, and muttered:
"Dark red roses in the Spring."
"I'm fond of your wife, very fond, but there's nothing else, I swear. I've never—Oh, for God's sake release my hands!"
"Very fond, very fond. Yes, yes, yes."
Suddenly the tones of his voice changed. He went up to his captive and said savagely:
"I'm not going to kill you. It isn't done. Only listen to me, killing is not the only thing that isn't done. Do you understand me? I told you to bring your hat and coat because the April nights are treacherous. The reason is that when I release you, you will take the path through the vegetable garden and drop down into Hood's Lane. You will go right away and never darken my doors again. Do you understand that? Do you promise that? or would you prefer to die?"
Hanging inert against the bench the young man whispered:
"Yes, I promise. But it's all false—it's all false—"
"I want no lies, no protestations."
He sheathed the sword, and replaced it on the wall. He was trembling all over when he unbolted the iron bands. Controlling his passion he managed to say in a calm voice:
"Steady now, steady, Mr. Falk. Withdraw your hands carefully. I must finish my work. Denise will be distressed if she does not have the cast of the beautiful hands of the young violinist. There I that's it, so. In the corner you will find a sink and some soap. You may wash your hands. I'm afraid they're badly soiled. Then I will see you into the lane."
The young man was completely unnerved. He withdrew his hands and staggered towards the sink. He washed and wiped them on a towel, but he was careful never to turn his back on his late captor. He watched him furtively, prepared for flight. But David Cardew appeared already pre-occupied. His eyes were solemnly regarding the mould. There was nothing more to say on either side. When he had put on his hat and coat, both men went silently out. David led the way through the vegetable garden. At the end of it, he opened a gate that led into the lane.
"You know your way, I think," was all he said, and the other replied, "Yes." They parted without salutation, and Cardew returned to the studio.
His emotions were in a state of riot. He could neither focus nor decide upon his next actions. Youth, and beauty, and love—shop-worn! Savagely he chipped away at the outer mould. One sardonic desire pressed itself upon him.
"She shall have the beautiful white hands of her lover."
What was he going to do? How far was she involved? Could she possibly love this man?
"He won't come back anyway. I've frightened the life out of him. Spineless wretch!"
A few hours ago his happiness had been unbelievable. And now—could it all be destroyed so easily? Could all the associations of love, and passion, and tenderness be suddenly uprooted? No, no, no, a thousand times no. She had loved him. Of that there was not a shadow of doubt. This must be some mad spring infatuation. It would pass. He would go to her. There would be a little scene, and then she would weep on his breast, and he would forgive her. And oh, he would be so gentle, and forgiving, and loving, and she would fall asleep at last in his arms, like the little child she was. A kind of fierce pride surged through him when he thought how forgiving he would be. He completed the cast of the fiddler's hands. There they were, the beautiful long, tapering fingers with the slightly flat tips. He restrained the desire to hurl them to the ground. He had promised them to Laura. It would be a dramatic and potent way of starting their little scene. He would say:
"Look! Here are the white hands of your lover. Sha ke them. They have come to say Good-bye."
And Laura would give a little scream, and throw herself on the bed. He hated the thought of hurting her, but the position had got to be faced. The nettle had got to be gripped before its stalk became too strong.
He wrapped the plaster hands in paper, shut up the studio, and went stealthily towards the house. A light was burning in the library. He hoped the mother had gone to bed. He would feign exhaustion and suggest that they went up at once. The bedroom was essentially the place for their little scene. He entered the hall noiselessly. To his disappointment he heard the voice of his wife's mother in the library. A sudden idea occurred to him. Perhaps Laura had already confessed; perhaps she was confessing even now. He tip-toed towards the door, which was ajar. He pushed it quietly open another two inches, and stood there listening, holding the plaster cast in his hand.
And this is what he heard—his wife's voice speaking cheerily:
"Oh, mother darling, I forgot all about thanking you for those lovely dark red roses you sent me from Stooles."
The mother's voice: "Oh, my dear, my dear, don't be absurd. As though I should forget."
His wife's voice again: "Do you know, darling, isn't it a scream! but Davey did forget. He was so taken up with his silly old commission that he forgot all about my birthday! Isn't it too funny! Mother darling, don't remind him. He would be so upset, the poor dear!"
David Cardew fumbled his way through the door, but so agitated was he that he dropped the plaster cast on the parquet floor and it smashed to smithereens.
Well, well, what does it all matter? Pass the little silver spoon. Stir. Stir very gently. For to-night is the night of the carnival.
Quite soon Denise will be here. I shall hear her step upon the stair, the click of the latch, and then her gay laugh, and the mellow sound of that voice which means everything to me in heaven above and the earth beneath.
"Well, Anton, darling, are you ready?"
Ready! O, God! how beautiful she is. She trembles in my arms. She is all vivid youth, and all utterly mine. When she is not here I do not exist, It is all a sluggard twilight; and suddenly she comes, and the birds are singing in the trees and the kingcups are glowing in a sunlit meadow. When I look into her eyes I am as young as she, a strong man of virile purposes. The poignant moment is all-sufficient. She is mine, and we are a twin-god praising the beauty of the hour. I feel myself a person of tremendous power. All that is best in me is newly discovered. I want to pour out all my strength to serve her. I am breathless for the exchange of understanding. Small things become charged with pregnant significance. We create as we look into each other's eyes, and touch each other's hands. We race along through golden corridors of time. No other hour has ever been till this. And yet I have heard men say she is not beautiful. Who am I to judge? It is just that curve of those smooth cheeks that is Denise and no one else. Just that little tilted nose, the dark-brown hair, the poise of that dear chin and neck, the slender figure. It is all hers, and hers and no other's. And therefore it is mine. And those eyes that await on me, and are so eloquent, those eyes that never misunderstand me, that anticipate my thoughts, that interpret my love. And as I watch her move, and hear her speak, I do not ask whether she is beautiful. She is Denise. She is the alpha and omega of life. There could be nothing different. It would be unthinkable...
She sails across the room to me, holding out her arms. She is wearing a frock of fantastic hues, and in her hair dark-red poppies. Dark-red poppies!...Yes, yes, of course; to-night is the night of the carnival!
So vivid are these moments that sometimes I dream she is here before she actually arrives. I sit by my attic window, watching the little particles of dust flicker in the pale shaft of sunlight. Below me I hear the drone and cries of the great city. A woman over the way is playing that Spanish thing of Debussy's—Soirée dans Grenade. It always excites me. I see the sun sinking behind the mountains. In the courtyard of a dim palace are groups of people. Three swarthy, dark-featured men are playing the guitar and the mandolin, their sensual faces grinning in the amber light. A woman is dancing, quite unconscious of their animal glances. Her body sways, expressing the subtle rubato in the music. Figures are moving covertly in the recesses of a balcony. Fireflies whip the shadows. It is a melody of joy and infinite sadness. The melody of the life of each one of us...Strange that music should have this power! And as I listen to it I recall my first meeting with Denise, for she, too, is a dancer.
No one ever danced quite like Denise. When I first saw her she was like grass blown by the wind, or blossom falling from an appletree, or flecks of cloud scudding across the sky at the break of dawn. She all purity and movement. It is odd how dancing may express all the emotions, exhaust the gamut of all the senses, excite, degrade, inspire, elevate. I had been riding since forenoon. Business in connection with the transfer of one of my father's estates in Picardy had necessitated it. My father was very old, and I an only son. Tired and thirsty, I rode into the courtyard of the inn at Couturet-en-bois. I gave my horse over to a groom. From the back of the inn came the sound of music. Languidly I went up to my room. I looked out of the window. I beheld a pleasure-garden where peasants made merry in holiday season. Beneath a tree two travelling musicians were playing a country gigue. On the grass in the open Denise was dancing. And I stood there and watched, and forgot all about my fatigue and my stiff limbs. She was little more than a child then, supple, lithesome, appealing. She had that peculiar genius of all good dancers in that she appeared to be quite unconscious of her body, and yet to have a complete control of it. A score or so peasants and travellers were seated on the grass. In the intervals there was applause and the buzz of talk. An old man took round a tambourine and collected money. I waited till the dance was finished, and then I buried my face in my hands. The figure of Denise had danced its way into my life, never to be deleted. I rang the bell. To the woman who answered it I said:
"Who is this girl I have observed dancing in the grounds yonder?"
"Oh, that!" replied the chambermaid; "that is Denise Floquet. She is the daughter of old Leon Floquet.—a worthless fellow, Monsieur."
"He takes her round the countryside and makes her dance. He lives on her. Monsieur. For himself, he does nothing."
"The old man with the tambourine?"
I thanked her and went down to the common room of the inn. I made inquiries and found that Denise and her father had gone on. A mood of melancholy came over me, as though I had lost my dearest friend. I ate my dinner in silence. Half-way through I pushed my plate away and went and sat out at the table pleasantly placed under the trees of the orchard. I sipped my coffee and dreamed of the little dancer. Three men came and occupied the table next to mine. We were the only occupants of the garden. I paid little attention to them, though I was conscious that one was a large, red-faced man who, judging by his remarks, was a traveller for a firm of spirit merchants; the other two were local tradesmen. When they had consumed several liqueurs their conversation became louder, and I could not help overhearing it. Suddenly I became aware that the large, red-faced man had made an unspeakable reference. He was laughing bucolically, and he said something which I cannot repeat. It referred to Denise. I am a hot-tempered man, and I sprang to my feet.
"You—you—unspeakable traducer, you!" I cried, and I flung the contents of a glass pitcher of water full in his face.
I will not recall all the details of that distressing episode. We were all blind with rage. With the apple blossoms falling all around us and the birds singing in the trees, we fought—the four of us—among the marble-topped tables and the chairs. People rushed out of the inn and separated us, but not before I had knocked the large man senseless and flung him among the rhododendron bushes. Denise did not know, and never has known, that I had constituted myself her champion, or the price that I paid for it. For in the struggle I cut my wrist upon a broken wine glass. It bled profusely. In the night I became delirious, and a surgeon was sent for. I developed blood-poisoning. For days I lay in a critical condition in the bedroom of the inn. And then my old father came to see me. I shall never forget his coming. You must know that my father was devoted to me. He had an exaggerated idea of my character and abilities. My mother had died when I was a small boy, and my father wrapped his life round mine. He spoilt me in every way. I could do nothing wrong.
I can see him now as he came shuffling into the room, thrusting out his thin arms, and mumbling:
"My little boy...my brave heart!"
He would never believe that I was more than a little boy, although he entrusted me with all the affairs of his estates. He was educating me in the law, and had a great idea that I was to get into the Senate. Of the origin of my quarrel we said nothing. I do not know how much he learnt, but I know that the traveller in spirits, who was clamouring to set the law on me, was squared. I saw or heard nothing more of him. It was five weeks before I was well enough to get about, and by that time the position between my father and myself became reversed. He was the invalid, and I was well enough to look after him. As a matter of fact, he ought never to have travelled. He was very unwell when he started, and it was only the nervous anxiety and his affection for me which kept him going. When I began to recover, he collapsed. His heart was in an extremely enfeebled state.
One evening I was seated at my window. The sun was setting in a blaze of glory. The fruit blossoms were over, but the bees were busy among the irises and roses. Suddenly I saw my father enter the garden. He was carrying a rug. I was about to call out to him, but somehow I felt constrained to watch him instead. He walked ever so slowly, dragging one foot after the other. He stood amidst the flowers, looking round. Then he appeared to sigh, and with great deliberation he chose a spot under a young birch-tree. He spread out the rug and lay himself down, facing the setting sun. I don't know how it was, but his movements fascinated me. They were so incredibly slow and so elaborate. It appeared to be so important to choose the exact spot. His thin, straight figure lay so still...so very still. Something seemed to tell me that my father was disappointed in me. It was the mise-en-scéne of our little tragedy. I watched him for twenty minutes, and he did not move; then, leaning out of the window, I called gently:
And he gave no sign. I darted back into the room. I was frightened. I felt my heart beating. I sat trembling on the side of the bed. After a long interval I went back to the' window and again called:
And the rigid figure remained inert. Then stealthily I crept down the stairs. I walked across the lawn on tiptoe. I touched my father's shoulder, and he did not wake. A wood-pigeon cooed melodiously up above in the branches of an elm. The bees droned in the young flowers, and the sun went down.
Three months later I was in Paris, studying for the Bar. My father had left me a comparatively rich man, and the heir to great ambitions. His name was to be perpetuated upon the scrolls of fame with the names of the best sons of France. I had not seen Denise again, and I had tried to dismiss her from my memory. I occupied luxurious quarters in the Rue Ambrosine, and I was attended by an old concierge and a valet named Canot. I passed my preliminary examination with comparative ease, and the work interested me. I moved in society of various sorts, and indulged in the orthodox pleasures of my kind.
It was nearly three years later that I again met Denise.
I recognised her at once. It was at Dieppe. I had failed in my final examinations for the Bar. Something went wrong at the end. I failed badly. Discouraged and crestfallen, I had gone away with a party of friends, amongst whom was Monsieur Léon Castille, the Deputy! He was a good friend to me. He believed in me and trusted me in my darkest hour. He insisted that there was a great career for me in the political world. We motored through Brittany and Picardy. At Dieppe we stayed at the Hotel de l'Univers.
One night after dinner I strolled through the back of the town alone. I wanted to escape from people of my own world I went into a little cabaret. It was quite amusing. I have always contended that the humble cabarets supply better entertainment than the much-advertised vaudevilles on the English and American plan. I had no programme, but half-way through a roar of welcome greeted what was evidently a popular number. The orchestra struck up a bowdlerised edition of Mendelssohn's Spring Song. The lights went up. The scene was set with a green cloth background. And suddenly the joyous figure of Spring itself danced before my eyes. For a second I wondered where I had experienced this before, and then the whole thing came back to me—the pleasure-garden at Couturet-en-bois! I sat entranced, clutching the arms of my fauteuil. At the end of the performance I sent round my card. Almost immediately I was admitted and shown to Mademoiselle's dressing-room. Two other actresses were with her and a snuffly old man, whom I recognised as her father.
Denise was examining my card quizzically, and her eyes were still shining with the excitement of the dance. I bowed, and said:
"Mademoiselle, pray forgive me. I had the great pleasure of watching you dance, three years ago, at an inn at Couturet-en-bois. Since then I have not had the good fortune to enjoy such an experience until to-night."
She gave a little cry and looked at me.
"Oh, Monsieur," she cried, "you are extremely gracious."
"May I take the liberty," I hastened to add, "of congratulating you on your well-deserved success, and of prophesying that even greater laurels are awaiting you in the temples of Terpsichore."
One of the actresses laughed at my rather stilted phrases, but Denise did not take her eyes from mine. Her lips were parted, and she smiled with friendly wonder. The old man snuffled at my elbow, and mumbled:
"Some other time, Monsieur. We are engaged for tonight."
What did the old fool mean? I bowed to him and tried to wither him with a glance. But Denise held out her hand.
"It is extremely kind of you, Monsieur," she said. "I remember Couturet-en-bois so well. I was born near there. We are staying at the Rue Bazin, number 47B. It would be so agreeable if Monsieur would call one morning, and we could discuss the dear country which I love."
I felt myself blushing as I bowed above her hand. I murmured my enchantment at the invitation, and promised to call on the morrow. When I had closed the door I heard the sound of shrill laughter coming from within. But I knew it was not Denise who laughed.
And on the morrow my convictions were confirmed. I knew that whatever feelings Denise might entertain towards me she would not be likely to laugh at me. In the stuffy little apartment of the Rue Bazin she treated me with a kind of surprised interest. We said very little. We were like old friends who had known each other for a long time, and suddenly discovered some new and amazing revelation of sympathy. She told me of her struggles and ambitions, and I told her mine. Her disgusting father hovered in the background like a timid dealer at a sale of second-hand furniture.
Three days later she was leaving for Amiens, and I managed to see her once again. I gave her my card. She was to be in Paris in the autumn at the time when I was putting up for the Senate. She promised to come and see me. I cannot account for my lack of enterprise at the time; perhaps our acquaintanceship had been too brief. I was very young, schooled to a meticulous recognition of the conventions. I may have been afraid she would misunderstand me, and that I was taking an unfair advantage of her. But I know that last morning, as we walked along the plague, and her eyes reflected the restless movements of the sea—I knew that I loved her, and there would never be any other woman for me. And I could not bring myself to say it. I let her go, the old melancholy gnawing at my heart.
And that evening I experienced one of the most distressing and disconcerting moments of my life.
I could not go to the cabaret. My friends had made other social engagements for the party, and the old tyrant of convention still controlled me. When I arrived back at the hotel just before midnight, I found old Floquet waiting for me in the hall. He stood up as I entered, and indicated that he wanted to speak to me out in the street. The old rascal had been drinking, without a doubt. He mumbled to himself and tugged at my arm. When we arrived in an unlighted corner of the promenade I asked him his business. He said something about Mademoiselle, but I could not hear very distinctly. He was almost incoherent. I asked if he had any message for me from her. He nodded and winked mysteriously. Suddenly he said quite clearly:
"The price will be a thousand francs,"
I clutched my cane. The promenade seemed to rock. The lights went swinging away amongst the dim stars. I seized him by the coat and shook him.
"Pardon, pardon!" he whined. "Let us say five hundred francs."
He seemed to have an idea I was bargaining with him.
I thrust him heavily against a stone wall, and rushed back to my hotel. When I look back upon that hour, it seems strange that I never doubted the old man. I believed his statement that the message from Denise was that "the price would be a thousand francs!"
Alone in my room that night I suffered agonies of remorse and disillusionment. I was like a drowning man from whom the life-belt had been snatched away. I did not realise till that moment how I had builded on this hope. It was to be the turning-point. The sun-bathed meadows lay before me, and then suddenly...all was again darkness. Two naked alternatives stood out before me. The one, to end it all for ever. The other, to compromise; in other words, "to pay the price." I laughed cynically as I contemplated my choice, knowing full well I had not the courage to do the one, nor the cruelty to do the other.
The following day my friends and I left for Paris. I was occupied for the rest of the summer on literary work and preparations for my political career. I addressed many meetings, and was congratulated by my political colleagues. In certain moods I certainly appeared to have the faculty of moving people. My essays on "Currency" were commended by no less an authority than Monsieur Duparc, of the Academy. Everything pointed to my failure at the Bar being entirely obliterated by a more brilliant and significant career. It would be idle to pretend that I dismissed Denise from my mind. On the contrary, thoughts of her haunted me day and night, but to an extent I controlled them. I steeled myself to the idea that I should never see her again. I closed down the shutters on that portion of my life.
At the end of September I experienced a great disaster. It was at the last and most important political meeting I had to address. The hall was packed to the ceiling. My friend Monsieur Leon Castille occupied the chair. There was great excitement and enthusiasm. When I was called on to address the meeting after my friend had made a long and eloquent address, I suddenly...forgot! I could remember nothing. I stumbled. I repeated myself. I said the wrong thing. In the middle of a sentence I sat down.
I was defeated at the polls by a fairly large majority, and I realised that that career was closed to me. For a long time I could do nothing. I brooded upon my misfortune. I indulged in social pleasures and read considerably. All my friends, with the exception of Monsieur Castille, appeared to lose their confidence in me. I moved out to Passy. In December I married Madame Ostrovic. She was a Frenchwoman, but the widow of a Polish officer. If you ask me candidly, I cannot tell you to this day why we married. We had nothing in common at all, except that she was musical and I myself am something of a 'cellist. We drifted together in a certain social set, where perhaps the others bored us even more than we did each other. Lisette Ostrovic was older than I, frivolous, material-minded, and vain. In her way she was handsome, being tall, dark, and well-developed, with straight firm brows and luminous eyes.
We went for a protracted honeymoon to Rome, Sicily, and Algeria. Indeed, the honeymoon was far too long. We stayed in Algeria for nearly six months. At the end of that time I can say wthout exaggeration that we hated each other. Poor Lisette! I am not going to say who was right or who was wrong, but one day in Biskra we had a terrible quarrel. I need not enter into the nature of it. It is sufficient to say that the next morning I packed up and left her. She told me that she forgave me, but that she never wished to see me again.
It was the end of August when I arrived in Paris. The city was deserted and very hot. I went back to my old rooms in the Rue Ambrosine. I had some vague idea of writing a book upon "International Problems," But when I arrived there I spent most of my time playing the 'cello. Also I found that, owing to neglect, my financial affairs had got into serious disorder. An attorney with whom I had entrusted large blocks of shares and the collecting of rents, had himself got into monetary difficulties. He came to me one night with tears streaming down his cheeks, and confessed the whole matter quite openly. He had appropriated certain funds of mine to meet his own liabilities. He was in an awful muddle. Poor old Lavalliere! I could not be angry with him. He was so distressed. I took him into the library and gave him some refreshment, and then I played the traumerei of Schumann to him till he cried again. It was all very painful.
The following day I was sitting alone in the library, looking through some papers, when Canot entered. He said:
"A young lady requests an interview with you, Monsieur."
I answered idly:
"Show her in here, if she is at all presentable, Canot; for I am bored."
He retired, and in less than two minutes Denise was standing before me.
I was so moved I could not get my voice. She bowed, and said:
"Pardon the liberty I take, Monsieur. You were good enough to ask me to call and see you last year. I did so, but I did not have the good fortune to find you in."
"But, my God!" I answered, "they never told me. Did you not leave your name?"
"I did not like to, Monsieur. I did not think it of any consequence."
"But, good heavens! child, don't you know—it's of tremendous consequence. Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me?"
Almost blindly I groped my way towards her; then I sat down on a chair facing her.
"Denise," I groaned, "if I'd only known!"
She did not understand me. She was a little frightened, but very wistful and sympathetic. Her dear eyes were fixed on me with their kind, mothering, innocent expression. She was more beautiful than ever. How could I have believed that message? How could she be anything but pure and noble, trusting, sublime? Why was I distressing her like this? Why was fate so cruel? Quite untruthfully, but with a vague idea of excusing my behaviour, I blurted out:
"Someone told me you were married!"
A smile tickled the corners of her beautiful eyes. She replied:
"Oh, no, Monsieur. Not I. On the contrary, I understand that I have to congratulate Monsieur."
I shook my head, and pandering to the mood of brutal frankness that came over me, I said:
"You need not do that, Denise. My marriage is a failure."
I observed her start, and an expression of deep sympathy clouded her pretty face. She stood up and murmured:
"Oh! I'm sorry. I'm so—very, very sorry."
Quite roughly I seized her hands and said hoarsely:
"What of your father?"
She did not resist my rough grasp, but with a tear in her voice she answered:
"My father died last year, Monsieur."
"Ah! Was he—cruel to you?"
"One does not speak ill of the dead."
I bowed my head. I felt ashamed. Releasing her hands, I choked out:
"So you are not married? You are not engaged? You are not in love? Tell me everything. Tell me about yourself."
She resumed her seat on the chair, like a little bird upon a bough, with its wings at tension ready to fly away. She spoke quite collectedly:
"No; I am heart-whole. I love my work. I have a good engagement in Paris. Everyone is very kind to me. For the rest—I should never marry a man I did not love and respect."
Love and respect! This remark did not reconcile itself with the allusion to the thousand francs! Blind fool that I had been!
"Denise, Denise," I murmured, "I am lonely. Don't run away from me. I want you to be my friend. I want you to trust me."
She held out her hand.
"Of course I trust you, Monsieur," she said simply.
"Call me Anton."
She hesitated. Tears hovered on the brink of her eyes. I realised that I had been too precipitate. I released her hand.
"Or perhaps you will, one day. Let us meet again—to-day, to-morrow."
The next day we drove in the Bois. She lunched with me at Fan tin's. I called at her tiny flat and took her to the theatre. Within a week our intimacy was complete.
We were like children. She called me Anton and she trusted me, and I gave her no cause to regret her trust.
There began then that period of golden bliss, the ecstasy of which lasts to this day. Life seemed to start for me all over again. Nothing that had ever happened before was of any account. I observed life from a new angle. I was swayed by new impulses, keen desires, and fervid resolutions. Little actions became charged with joy. We lived quite simply, and derived all our pleasure from the mere contact of each other's presence. We met every day. She would call for me, in her neat dove-grey frock. She would say:
"Well, Anton, are you ready?"
I was eager and trembling with the thousand important little things I wanted to tell her since we had met on the previous day. But I would be quite calm. I would reach down my hat and answer:
"Yes, my little wood-pigeon, let us flutter away among the trees."
And we would stroll away side by side, peeping at each other, furtively touching each other's hands. We would sit under the trees in the Luxembourg, and she would tell me all the latest gossip of the theatre, and the colour her new frock was to be, and what the maitre de ballet thought of her new dance, and where quite the nicest omelettes in Picardy are to be obtained, and how she was going to help her dresser's little boy, who was a consumptive, get into a sanatorium in the South, and how careful I must be not to stand in a draught when I called for her at the theatre; and it was all so very, very—important.
It was the end of September when I told her that I loved her. It was in my own room in the Rue Ambrosine. We sat facing each other, and suddenly I took her hands and I held them over my eyes; and I said:
"Denise, what are we going to do? I love you."
I felt her hands trembling, and she stood up. She put her arms around my head and kissed me on the brow.
"Yes," she whispered hoarsely; "I know...I know."
I clung to her hands. I dared not look at her. I repeated helplessly
"What are we going to do?"
I felt her bosom heaving. At length she raised my head and looked into my eyes.
"Anton darling, you know I love you," she answered, "and I want to do what is best for you. I want to make you happy. You do not love your wife, and she does not love you. It cannot be good to go on like that. At the same time I could not be content to be just your mistress. Oh, my dear, let us just go on being good friends. Perhaps, one day—who knows?"
I kissed her then for the first time, and we clung to each other, bewildered by the sudden vortex of emotion in which we were swirled. It was Denise at last who said:
"We must not go on like this, Anton. This must be the last time. I could not bear it—"
In October my wife returned to Paris. She wrote to me from Passy a formal letter concerning business matters. She expressed no wish to see me. In effect she demanded a settlement. She had apparently been living considerably above her means. When I had satisfied her and settled up affairs with my defaulting attorney I found myself a comparatively poor man. I moved to humbler quarters and sold the bulk of my furniture. My friend, M. Castille, was good enough to find me an appointment in the Ministry of Justice, but the salary was small.
It cannot be said that this change in my fortunes seriously affected my spirits. On the contrary, I almost welcomed it. I was so consumed with my love for Denise that nothing else mattered, and I was relieved that my wife showed no disposition to see me again. I told everything to Denise, and she was very loyal and sympathetic.
"So long as I have you they may take every stick of furniture," she said.
"Little one," I said, "everything will be well for us. I know my wife, and I know that before long there will be someone else. And then I shall be free—"
I was right in my prophecy with regard to the fact, but wrong with regard to the time. It is strange how a protraction or prolongation of time may upset the best-laid plans. In war, in peace, in love, time is an all-powerful factor. In this duel of hatred it was my wife who gave way in the main essential, but she defeated me. For it was nearly four years before I received the formal intimation that she was living with Henri Martin, and that divorce proceedings were easily negotiable. And in the meanwhile—No, no, no; I would not for one instant have you imagine that Denise did not remain loyal to me; I would not have you doubt her purity and sincerity. Four years! Day in and day out she was my dear and true friend. She stuck to her faith, and to her principle. She would not marry a man she did not love and respect. Even in my darkest days, when I was dismissed from the Ministry of Justice, and reached the bed-rock of my capital, she believed in me and stuck to me. Even when I lost situation after situation; when M. Castille deserted me; when I pawned my furniture; when I wandered footsore through the streets of Paris, searching for employment, she—she was the one light in my darkness. And when everything seemed finished, when I lay alone in the darkness under the fever, she it was who nursed me, she it was who bought the food which kept my soul and body together—she, the dancing-girl, out of her hard-earned savings!
Four years! Oh God, if it had not been so long! If at our first meeting I had had the pluck, the courage of my impulse! She might have saved me from myself. It was time which destroyed me. Time and the tyranny of habit. And if in the end she left me for another, I have no one to blame but that other self of mine, which is even now stirring the milk-white liquid in the glass. Only the little glass is left me. The little glass in which I see the reflection of that drawn face. Shall I ever forget that expression in her eyes when she first began to suspect? the strained anxiety in her voice as she whispered:
Anton...Anton, what is that...in the little glass?"
So stir; stir gently. Let me once more peep through the little window of the night. Nothing else is left. It was through the little glass I found Denise, and through the little glass I lost her. It was through the little glass I lost my father, and his fortune, and his fair name. It was through the little glass I found and lost my wife. It was through the little glass I lost my career, my position, my friends...everything. And it is only through the little glass that Denise will come back to me to-night across the ages. Thirty years ago! And she will be still vivid and young, fresh and gay, in her fantastic frock, with dark-red poppies in her hair...She will hold out her arms and say:
"Well, Anton, are you ready?"
Am I ready? Oh, God!...Ay, the musicians have already arrived. I hear the slow Spanish dance; the carnival is commencing. And no one at the carnival will dance like my Denise. And I shall hold her in my arms, and she will be mine, mine, mine!
The particles of dust are drifting through the pale shaft of sunlight; the shadows are deepening in the meagre room...The stove is cold. Perhaps soon all will be darkness...darkness and silence; or vivid lights and the movements of dancing feet. Denise!...Denise!
Talent is an elusive quantity. It never does to despair concerning the lack of it. Some people will dig, and dig, and dig, and find nothing, and then suddenly—perhaps when they are reaching middle-age—they will discover that they can do something as well as, if not better than, anyone else.
It cannot be said that up to the age of twenty-six Freddie Oppincott had shown any particular ability. Indeed, he was the butt of his family, as he had been of his school. He had tried seven different professions and had foresworn them all, or perhaps it would be truer to say that the professions had foresworn him. In spite of all this, Freddie was an incurable optimist. There was no holding him. He lived with his father, his elder brother John, who ragged him mercilessly, and his two sisters, Emma and Jane, who mellowed their ragging with a genuine streak of affection. Fortunately for Freddie, his father was a fairly well-to-do coal merchant. The family lived at Highgate. Mr. Oppincott had long since given up all hope of Freddie accomplishing anything, except perhaps marrying a rich girl. He was by way of being good-looking, and he could talk. Talking was certainly his one talent. But the trouble is that to exploit talking profitably you must be able to talk well. And that could not be said of Freddie Oppincott.
At the time when this story commences he had been in a state of unemployment for two months. And then one morning he sprang the latest bomb-shell on the family. He announced that he was going to be a private detective!
Even Mr. Oppincott was forced to laugh. And Emma and Jane said:
"Don't be so utterly absurd, Freddie."
But the matter was abeady a partial fait accompli. He had taken a little room, described as an office, in Bloomsbury.
And in the morning paper was an advertisement worded as follows:
Must hubby really stay at the office till midnight? Is it really mother that wifey spends the week-ends with? What is your partner always going to Paris for? If in doubt on all these problems, consult Pimpleton's Detective Agency, 9, Eurydice Street, Bloomsbury. Pimpleton never fails.
Freddie announced that he was Pimpleton. He was quite impervious to the shafts of derision hurled at him by the other members of the family. Having had a good deal of time on his hands during the last two months, he had been reading detective stories. His mind had become obsessed with visions of himself in a cloth cap (with ear flaps), tracking down murderers, discovering the duchess's stolen tiara, bringing the faithless to justice.
"Don't you make any mistake," he said. "I'm not such a fool as I look."
"No; but even then there's a wide margin to fill up," replied John. And Emma said sternly, in that delightfully candid manner that characterizes family life:
"Freddie, you have got every quality which a detective should not have, and you've not got a single quality that he should have. You've no perception, no logic, no reasoning power, and, moreover, you talk too much. You give yourself away every time you open your mouth. Don't be a complete ass."
And Jane said:
"Why don't you write detective stories? It's much easier, and far less dangerous."
And Papa Oppincott said:
"I must be off. Where are my boots? Don't smoke too many cigarettes, Freddie, sitting in your chamber waiting for the Countess to call."
And they all departed to their various vocations.
It would be painful to record the sarcasm, gibes, and derision to which Freddie was subjected during the ensuing ten days. It reached a degree of cruelty that could only happen amongst people who are really fond of each other.
Freddie went out and bought a cloth cap (with ear flaps). Then he hired a roll-top desk, and littered it with papers, ink, and pens. And then—a really bright inspiration—several cardboard files which he labelled conspicuously, "The Lord Harridge Case," "Mr. Jocelyn Mountjoy and others," "The Weir Case," and so on.
He purchased many tins of cigarettes, and he sat at his desk all day long, waiting for answers to his advertisement, which appeared regularly in several daily papers. He smoked cigarettes and read detective stories. He always had a drawer open so that if anyone called he could slip the book away. He had a shrewd suspicion that real detectives didn't read detective stories.
It was on the tenth day that the astonishing thing happened. He had gone out to lunch and was feeling a trifle discouraged concerning his enterprise. On returning to his "office" he found a dark, foreign-looking gentleman reading his notice printed on the door: "Out at lunch, back in twenty minutes."
The foreign gentleman started at sight of him and exclaimed:
"That's me," said Freddie.
"I wish to see you urgently."
"Come inside, Mr.—er—"
They went inside, and Freddie smuggled away Jim Slooth's Last Case just in time. They both sat down, and Freddie said:
"Well, now, what can I do for you?"
The mysterious visitor looked furtively around. Then he said confidentially:
"You, I believe, handled ze case concerning ze stolen bonds for Count Tisza?"
"What! But my sister understood from the Baron himself on the telephone this morning that you—"
"Oh, well, perhaps I did," said Freddie, realizing he had made a bloomer. "I have so many cases, you see, I'm apt to forget." And he glanced significantly at his labelled files.
The foreigner glanced at the files, too, and seemed satisfied. Then he leant forward and tapped Freddie's knee.
"It does not concern that, anyway. It was only a recommendation. My sister, the Countess Sforza, is in great trouble. Listen!"
Fame at last! Freddie listened.
"Doubtless you know of her by reputation? Hein? Well, she has the beautiful place at Steeplehurst, in Sussex. This week she entertains a small house-party—seven guns. The guests arrived on Saturday last. On Sunday evening she goes to dress for dinner. Her pearl necklace, worth thousands of pounds, is missing. A search is made, but ze guests are not informed. Zey have all announce to stop one veek. All ze servants has been searched, and zeir boxes and properties. A detective arrive from Scotland Yard on ze Monday afternoon. He passes as a guest—a Mr. Battesley. Zis is Wednesday afternoon. So far no clue, nozing discovered."
"Perhaps it was a burglar," said Freddie, brightly.
"Zere is no sign of burglary. No one has entered ze house unknown, or left it. Ze guests still remain. My sister—she is in despair. She rings up Count Tisza, an old friend. 'Go to Pimpleton,' he says; 'he'll solve ze mystery for you.' My sister bade me come to town at once to try to persuade you to return mit me. Zere is a train at five-ten vich gets us down in comfortable time for dinner."
"All right, Mr.—er—Forcer?"
"My name is Baron Hunyadi Sergius Szychylimski."
"Oh, really! I see. Well, I'll just have to go home first."
"Yes. I must go to Highgate and tell Dad and the others, and then pack up. I suppose you wear evening-dress for dinner down there, don't you?"
The baron seemed a little mystified. Perhaps he had misunderstood the English of this famous detective. He said:
"I will meet you on ze train, zen, Mr. Pimpleton. And—one vord!—my sister suggest zat you come as a private gentleman, not a sportsman. Zat would give you ze excuse to hang about ven ze others are out. She suggest you come as a professor or scientist, or explorer. If zere is any special branch of science you have exceeded at or—doubtless you have travelled a lot. Vat do you suggest? Vat is your special genius?"
Freddie considered for some moments, then he said:
"Well, I'm not bad at snooker-pool."
"Snookerpool!" The Baron turned the word over in his brain. Snookerpool sounded distinctly erudite. He was too polite to make enquiries. "Goot, zen! We vill say ze eminent authority on Snookerpool. What name shall we announce?"
"My name's Oppincott. I mean—why not call me Mr. Oppincott?"
"Mr. Oppincott, se Snookerpoolist. Goot!"
Luckily for Freddie, when he got home neither his father nor John had returned from business. The two girls were there, and he announced with magnificent calm that he was called away on a case to recover the Countess Forcer's pearl necklace. The girls for a long time thought he was fooling. It was not until he had commandeered John's evening dress, shoes, collar, tie, and splutter brush and packed these things that they began to take him seriously.
He caught the train by the skin of his teeth. He would, indeed, have missed it, but for the fact that the Baron was waiting for him feverishly by the booking-office, with two first-class tickets already taken. They scrambled into the train.
The journey down was uneventful. Freddie talked all the time, but it was difficult to know how far the Baron was impressed. He wanted to talk about the case, but he got little opportunity. He only managed to impress one thing on Freddie. He was not to make himself known to the other detective—Mr. Battesley. The Countess was disappointed that Mr. Battesley had so far not even got a clue. Pimpleton was to work on his own lines, and of course he was to have free run of the house.
When they arrived at Steeplehurst Towers they found two tired colonels drinking cock-tails in the lounge hall. The rest of the party were dressing for dinner. The Baron introduced Freddie to the two colonels as "Mr. Oppincott, ze eminent authority on Snoddlepole." It was fortunate that he had forgotten the word snooker-pool, because if the matter had been put to the test either of the tired colonels could have given Freddie fifty per cent, on any game played on the green baize. They regarded him languidly, either too polite or too bored to inquire what Snoddlepole was.
The Countess was very anxious to see Mr. Pimpleton, and he was ushered up to her boudoir at once. He felt a little dubious about removing his cloth cap (with ear flaps). No detective looks the real thing without such. It was only the questioning and rather challenging glances of the two colonels in the hall which prompted him eventually to leave it behind.
The Countess was small and dark and agitated. The loss of her pearl necklace seemed to have driven her to a frenzy of lapidary display. She appeared to be wearing the remainder of her jewellery, in case that too was stolen. Her knowledge of English was far more limited than that of her brother. She began by saying:
"I spik English bad. My brozzer tell you of the lost pearl. Zis man, Battesley, he find nozing. It ees to you I look now. Zese guests depart Saturday. Zis is Vednes-day. Ze house is disposed to you. Inquire, look, search as you vill. One vord also. Ze Baron and I, ve know of zis. No von else. Not even my daughter."
"Righto," said Freddie.
She came up to him and said, tensely:
"Listen. In ze short vile ze bell gongs to dinner. You gom to dinner? Or no? You stay here, perhaps, search ze guests' effects vile we hold zem at dinner? Perhaps you have dinner after by yourself. Hein?"
By the base of the hall staircase Freddie's nostrils had been assailed by an aroma that might have been roast pheasant, or it might have been roast quail. He was hungry. He replied:
"No, I think I'll start making my depositions after dinner, Countess. Work like mine can't be done on an empty stomach."
He did not quite know what "depositions" meant, but it was a word he had frequently come across in Jim Slooth's Last Case. It apparently impressed the Baron too, for he repeated, "he makes depositions," and he translated it into the rummy lingo they spoke between them. The Countess appeared satisfied, and he was allowed to retire to his room and to put on John's evening clothes.
When he found himself seated at the dining-table, after having been introduced to the company as Mr. Toddingpot, the eminent authority on Snoddlepole, he rejoiced that he had made this decision. In the first place, the dinner was unbelievably good. He had never imagined such foods and wines existed. In the second place, he found himself sitting next to the daughter of the house. She was an extremely pretty girl, with dark, mischievous eyes, and she spoke English like a native. (He found out afterwards that she had been educated at Girton.) He found her an enchanting listener. There were nearly twenty guests seated round the table, and the noise of conversation was so loud that he almost had to shout into her ear. They were eating red mullet, when she suddenly said:
"I'm most thrilled that you are an authority on Snoddlepole, Mr. Toddingpot."
"Oppincott is my name," said Freddie, in order to gain time.
"Of course. I'm so sorry. By the way, do you consider the Einstein theory is going to affect the practice of Snoddlepole?"
It was obvious that this was a dangerous woman. He was not going to enjoy himself so much as he had hoped. The only way to treat this onslaught was to counter it by asking questions of his own. He said, "No" rapidly, and almost in the same breath:
"Are you Oxford or Cambridge?"
"Good! I'm so glad. So am I. Can you float?"
"You're pulling my leg, Miss Forcer."
"You're asking for it, Mr. Hottentot."
There was a lot of fun in this girl. If she would only talk sensibly, about lawn tennis, for instance, or music-halls, or tobacco, he could have a good time with her.
He found himself eating pheasant when he suddenly remembered that he was a detective. He had to discover which of these guests had stolen the pearl necklace. He glanced round the table. A more unthieving-looking crowd had surely never foregathered. They all looked well-off, well-fed, and slightly vacant, entirely innocent of anything except the knowledge of what is done or what is not done. Stealing pearl necklaces is not done. No, there was only one saturnine-looking individual present at all. He was seated in the far corner.
"Who is that chap over there?" Freddie asked his neighbour.
"That's Mr. Battesley."
The real detective! That was no go, then. But still, you never could tell. A sleek exterior sometimes concealed an itching palm. That wasn't right. He was mixing things a bit, especially wines. He would have to keep a clear head for the great work in front of him. Depositions, eh?
When the dinner was over and the ladies had retired, Freddie realized that this was a good opportunity for him to commence his work. He went stealthily out of the dining-room. He had reached the foot of the stairs when he heard a quiet voice behind say:
He turned. It was Battesley, the detective. An uncomfortable feeling crept over him. He had been told not to have anything to do with his rival. But there was a sense of power about this man a little difficult to ignore. The detective said:
"May I have a word with you in the billiard-room?"
"Well, I don't mind playing you fifty up, but I've got some work to do."
"Yes, yes, of course," said Battesley, and led the way in. Having shut the door, he turned to Freddie and said:
"I have received information that you are a private detective that has been sent for at the Countess's direction. Here is my card. You know my mission here. The Countess is a very highly-strung woman, a little impetuous. I think it will be to the advantage of all parties concerned, and most likely to be conducive of results if we work together."
"Oh, I don't know," said Freddie, weakly.
"I am quite prepared to place at your disposal all the information I have so far acquired," continued the detective, ignoring Freddie's protest. "The Countess was wearing the necklace on the evening of the twelfth. On retiring to bed she locked the necklace up in her jewel cabinet On the following evening, when she went to put it on, she found it to be missing."
"Well, I never!" said Freddie.
"The key of the cabinet she kept in her chatelaine, which she carried about with her all day. No one could have entered her bedroom during the night. The doors were locked. The key must have been taken from her chatelaine during the day and replaced. The Countess says that, so far as she can remember, the chatelaine was never out of her sight. Of course, she put it down many times, on the piano for instance, and on the luncheon-table, but she never observed anyone touch it. It must have been done very deftly by someone who was near to her and very intimate."
"I have made a careful inquiry into the character and record of everyone of the servants, and also of the guests. One of the under-gardeners has a bad record, but he was never seen to approach the house all day. There is no one else upon whom one would dare to cast the slightest suspicion. But in order not to run any risks I have; unbeknown to them, searched all their rooms, luggage, and effects. It seems probable that, if one of the guests had taken it, he would have made some excuse to get away as quickly as possible. But no one has intimated any desire to leave before next Saturday."
"It's extraordinary, isn't it?" said Freddie. "Perhaps she dropped it somewhere. Did you look under the bed?"
"Now you are a young man," the detective continued. "And I observed that you were not altogether repulsed in your attentions to the daughter of the house, Miss Olga Szychyllmski. It is there that I think we may stumble on some solution."
"The daughter! You don't mean to say that you think she pinched it?"
"You may have observed that the Countess and her daughter are hardly on speaking terms. There has been a row. The daughter wishes to marry a profligate young man named Julius Stinnie. The mother won't hear of it. She has not even informed her daughter about the necklace. This young man has been forbidden the house, but he haunts the neighbourhood. The daughter meets him clandestinely."
"Well, you do surprise me!" exclaimed Freddie. "I thought she seemed a top-hole girl—a bit too clever, perhaps."
"I am, of course, working entirely on a supposition. The young man has no money and is a rout Nevertheless, he is well-connected. He would probably be able to dispose of a pearl necklace among some of his associates. Whether he has been able to persuade the daughter to connive at the theft remains to be seen. Whether it was she who actually removed the necklace and passed it on to him remains to be proved, but no one has more intimate knowledge of the Countess's movements and habits, or an easier access to her person. I have tried to make friends with her, but she repulses me. That is where I think you might succeed. She has obviously taken to you. You could keep her under observation. Take her out on the river, pump her, make love to her if you like."
Oh, if only John could hear all this! He, the despised Freddie, being appealed to by a real detective, and urged to make love to the daughter of a countess! A glow of manliness crept over him. He wanted to say:
"Yes, we professionals must stick together. I will sacrifice myself. The girl shall be made love to."
And yet he did not like Battesley. There was something hard, cruel, and forbidding about the man. It seemed shabby to make love to a girl in order to worm secrets out of her. It seemed shabbier to get someone else to do it for you. The manliness wavered.
"I will think over what you say, Mr. Battesley," and he bowed in quite a dignified manner and left the room.
In the morning he wondered whether the other detective had told him the story to put him off the scent. If he went punting about the river with Olga he would be out of the way, and the coast would be clear for Battesley, to do as he liked. Ha, ha! No, he was not going to be taken in like that. He went down to breakfast determined to act on his own. But how? He hadn't the faintest idea how to begin. Thank goodness, Battesley had searched all these people's private rooms and effects. It would save him from a most distasteful task.
After breakfast the Countess sent for him.
"Veil?" she said. "You make some discover? Yes?"
"Not yet," replied Freddie. "I am making my depositions. I have several people under close observation."
"No clue yet?"
"Veil, the house is disposed to you. It is urgent. I trust you."
"I'm sure, Countess, you'll have no cause to ultimately regret it," said Freddie, splitting his infinitive with a magnificent gesture.
In the garden he found Olga among the phlox and campion. She looked wickedly attractive.
"Good-morning, Mr. Oddinglot," she said. "Come for a little punt up the reach, will you?"
Now this was just what he had decided not to do. It was what Battesley wanted him to do—to get rid of him. His duty was to hang about the house and search for the pearl necklace. Great bumble bees hung heavily on the phlox. The air was filled with their droning, and with the song of birds, and the distant lowing of cattle.
"I should love to," he said.
In half-an-hour's time they were gliding up a backwater. Fortunately he could punt—not very well, but sufficiently well to get the boat along. He slowed up among the reeds and rested.
"Now I want you to tell me all about Snoddlepole," she said.
Freddie lit a cigarette.
"As a matter of fact," he replied, after a lengthy pause, "I'd rather not talk about Snoddlepole. When I'm on a holiday I like to get away from it."
"Are you on a holiday?" she said. Olga was one of those ingenuous girls who exude omniscience, or if there is something they do not know, you are not going to find out. Her dark eyes mocked him.
"I'm having a very nice holiday, thank you," he said, simply.
She laughed. "Tell me all about yourself. You amuse me."
This was the kind of invitation Freddie liked. Without any preamble he told her ah about Dad and John and Emma and Jane, about his own chequered career right up to the time when he became a detective.
"And what are you doing now?" she asked.
"I'm resting on my punt pole," he answered.
Oh, very clever, Master Freddie! He was feeling extremely happy and pleased with himself.
"This is all very interesting," the girl said. "Only, considering what a lot of things you've crowded into your brilliant career, I don't see how you could have found time to become an authority of Snoddlepole."
"Look here," answered Freddie, "that's all nonsense—it's a mistake. I don't even know what Snoddlepole is."
The punt shook with the girl's laughter.
"What I want to know is—what are you doing here? Mother doesn't know you. Uncle doesn't know you. None of the guests knows anything about you. Uncle went up and fetched you from town, and now you don't even know what Snoddlepole is!"
She was too clever for him. She was manoeuvring to defend her lover, of course, the man who had stolen the necklace.
"Do you want me to go away?" he said, not without bitterness.
"Oh, no. I like you. It's jolly to have someone really young and innocent about the place."
Little devil! "I think we'll push on a bit."
They did not get back till lunch-time; the girl, mischievous and provocative; the boy, bewildered and fascinated.
"I'll play you at tennis this afternoon," she said.
"She doesn't mean to leave me alone," he thought. "Oh, well—"
After lunch the Countess sent for him.
"Veil, have you any clue yet?"
"Not yet, Countess, but I have every hope."
"Is there anyone you suspect?"
"I'd rather not say for the moment."
Battesley nodded at him approvingly as he entered the luncheon-room. Most of the elder men were out shooting and would not be back until the evening. During the course of lunch Freddie decided that Battesley was right. It was this girl's lover who had stolen the necklace. Her whole manner indicated it. She suspected him of being there as a spy and she was going to look after him. Instead of him spying upon her, she was going to spy upon him. She had him in her clutches. Well, he wouldn't play tennis with her. He would refuse. He would begin to make his own researches. But-? It seemed much more difficult to be a detective than the story-books had led one to suspect. This man Battesley apparently worked on a system. He would go up to his own room after lunch and think the whole thing out.
When the rest arose from the table he avoided Olga's glance, slid out of the room, and dashed upstairs and locked his door. He then remembered that he had never sent a postcard home, as promised. So he wrote, saying that he had arrived, that he had not yet traced the Countess's necklace, but that he was getting together some important information and hoped to trace the thief by Saturday, when he returned. (He afterwards put this postcard on the hall table with some other letters for the post.)
He had just written his postcard when there was a knock at the door. He opened it. It was Olga. She said demurely:
"Oh, Mr. Loppinott, I'm so sorry to disturb you, but a young couple have just arrived and want to play tennis. I do wish you would come and make up a four. There is no one else."
What was he to do? He played tennis till tea-time. The young couple departed, and then Olga said:
"Now, wouldn't you like to take me on the river again?"
No. A thousand times, no! She touched him ever so gently on the forearm.
"You had better put on your sweater. It sometimes gets suddenly chilly in the evening."
A starling was making an awful to-do up in the apple tree.
"Right. Oh, thanks awfully. Of course I would."
When he found himself once more among the reeds up that backwater, and Olga was playfully letting the stream trickle through her white fingers, he knew that the reason he wanted to avoid her was that if it were true that her lover had stolen the necklace, he didn't want to be the one instrumental in discovering the fact. He didn't want to be associated with anything that would give her pain. Indeed, he wanted to bring her joy and happiness. He wanted to take her in his arms and say:
"I love you. I love you. I love you." Or words to that effect.
Her face caught the reflected glitter from the water. She was wearing most exquisite open-work silk stockings.
"I'm not cut out for a detective," he thought to himself.
"Well, my pensive friend?" she said, after he had been gazing at her abstractedly for at least five minutes.
"Life's a rummy go," he said, dolefully.
"It is, indeed," agreed she, eagerly. "Your perspicacity leaves me breathless."
As though accepting that as a challenge, Freddie stumbled across the punt and sat in the seat facing her. Her eyes were watching him questioningly. He took his courage in both hands and both her hands. He said:
"I shan't want to go back on Saturday."
She made no attempt to withdraw hers. She looked at him quizzically.
"Won't you? But your mission will be accomplished."
"Oh, I forgot you're just here on a holiday, Mr. Polyglot."
"Be serious with me for five minutes. This fellow you're engaged to—"
She withdrew her hands. Her eyes narrowed.
"I know all about it. You're going to marry that chap Julius Stinnie."
"Who told you that?"
"It wouldn't be fair to say."
The expression of her face suddenly changed. She spoke rather bitterly.
"Since it seems to interest you, I'll tell you the truth. I'm not going to. It's off. I found out things that—well, anyway, it's off."
Freddie's mentality received various shocks. Firstly, a shock of exultation. If Julius Stinnie was off, why should not Freddie be on? Secondly, but a much milder shock, a shock to his professional vanity as a detective. He was on the wrong track. He was doing just what Battesley wanted him to do—wasting two days making love to the daughter of the house, and it was all on a false scent. He registered a mental vow of revenge against Battesley. He must give this girl up and return to the fray.
He certainly did return, but it was nearly dark when the punt glided into the boat-house. The lawn was damp with evening dew, and the girl's hair was all awry.
The position, he now realized, would soon be getting desperate. After dinner another bright idea. He asked the Baron if he might see him and the Countess alone. Naturally. They received him in the boudoir.
"Please show me the key of the jewel-case at once, will you?"
The Countess produced it. He turned it over, held it up to the light, and repeated, "Ah!" three times. The Countess was very impressed.
"I can say nothing more to-night. To-morrow I hope to spring a surprise—"
"Vat ees dat?"
"He springs a surprise to-morrow," explained the Baron.
Freddie appeared to be thinking profoundly. He said "Ah!" once more, and left the room without another word.
"This will be difficult to follow up," he thought, as he went downstairs, not having the faintest idea what his various "Ahs!" implied.
He found Olga in the drawing-room with the rest of the party. She was in a high-spirited, ragging mood. He could not detach her from the rest. Her mocking laughter jarred him. He did not understand her. She was never serious for a moment. It was the first time he had met a girl of this kind. He was bewitched by her, and at the same time she made him feel wretched. Before the others she went out of her way to make him look a fool. And yet on the river—
He retired early and lay in bed trying to evolve "depositions." If only the Countess didn't keep on demanding clues! In the stories he had read they were usually footprints, or hairpins, or tobacco pouches. In any case, something solid. On the morrow he simply must find a clue. It would be his last chance. He slept at last, dreaming of the perfume of dark hair and of some very expensive and mysterious scent.
The next day was finer than ever. A thin mist hung over everything, presaging heat to come. After breakfast the Countess sent for him as usual. He experienced the familiar sensation of the schoolboy being hauled up before the headmaster for not learning his prep.
How sick he was of it!
"To-day I expect to find a clue," he said.
"He expects to find a clue," echoed the Baron.
The Countess was looking annoyed and a little suspicious.
"To-morrow they go," she snapped.
"You may rely upon me, Countess," wheedled Mr. Freddie, his mind concentrated on a last day on the river.
But Olga didn't want to go on the river. She took him for a walk over a common. He was deliciously happy. Away from the others she was quite amenable and rather more than friendly. She did not object to his squeezing her hand, putting his arm round her waist, and on two occasions kissing her. Beyond that there seemed to be a kind of blank wall. He could not think of the right thing to say. She never attempted to talk to him seriously. She was amusing herself with him.
It took Freddie the whole morning to realize this, and when he did he felt desperate. He was madly in love with her, and she was as intangible as a myth.
Lunch was a dismal meal. He almost made up his mind to confess to the Countess and to return to town forthwith. But the lunch was a very excellent lunch, and afterwards he felt fortified. He strolled out into the rose-garden, sat on a bench in the sun, and smoked. It seemed a shame to have to leave all this. That wretched Countess with her clues! He simply must find something.
Suddenly he saw her coming in his direction through the pergola. He looked desperately around. The only solid thing that caught his eye was a small garden trowel. He stooped and picked it up. As she approached him, he went up to her and handed her the trowel.
"Look, Countess," he said. "I have found a clue."
And without giving her time to ask questions, he hurried away in the direction of the house. He found Olga near the boat-house.
"Come," he said, "for the last time. Down the river. You must."
She was carried away by his decisiveness, and in a short while they were gliding away down the river. And they had a very pleasant afternoon. Pleasant, in that youth is pleasant, and a sunny day. And dalliance is pleasant under a willow tree with the water musically lapping the sides of a punt. And it is pleasant to hold hands and to imagine that one is in love—if only for an hour. It is pleasant to believe that; life is perpetuated in a gesture. To the girl it was a pleasant pastime. To the young man a desperate spiritual adventure. He knew that nothing would come out of it, and he didn't care. He saw himself clear and whole for the first time. During the most intriguing moments of this new ecstasy he was registering a vow to improve himself, to work, to learn, to study. He would go back and begin life anew.
"I love you so much that I am going to give you up," he said.
"Before you talk of giving up, you must first postulate possession," she answered.
He didn't know the meaning of the word "postulate," so he kissed her lips, presumably in order to close them.
He decided to catch the six-fifteen back to town, and so, in spite of her protests, he manfully guided the punt back to Steeplehurst boat-house in time for tea. On arriving at the house, one of the servants told him that the Baron wished to see him in the rose-garden.
"My doom!" he thought. However, he went eagerly enough thither, anxious to get the whole thing over. He saw the Baron in conversation with an old man with white hair. As he entered the garden the Baron exclaimed:
"Oh, Mr. Oppincott, Count Tisza himself has come over to see us."
The old Count came forward and then started at sight of Freddie.
"But this is not Ponderton!" he said.
"Ponderton?" said the Baron. "Ponderton? Did you not say Pimpleton on ze 'phone?"
"Pimpleton! No, Ponderton. Ponderton, the great detective. Who is this fellow?"
It was an embarrassing position, but it was relieved in a most astonishing manner. The Countess came hurrying down the grass path. Within earshot she cried out:
"Oh, Mr. Pimpleton! Mr. Pimpleton!"
The three men turned. The Countess came up. In her right hand she held out a pearl necklace.
"Oh, Mr. Pimpleton! how can I zank you?"
"But zis is not Pimpleton," cried the Baron. "I mean it is Pimpleton. It is not Ponderton.
"Who vas Ponderton?"
"It should be Ponderton, but it is Pimpleton."
"I know nozing. But I know it is he who find ze necklace. Listen, you all. I know not how Mr. Pimpleton or Mr. Ponderton work, on vat lines, no. But he zink, and zink, and zink, for two days. He not poke about like zis Battesley. He keep quiet and hide. And then, lo! presto! he find ze clue quick."
"How do you mean?" exclaimed the Baron.
"Listen. Zis afternoon I find him here zinking in zis garden. I goes to him. He gives me a little—vat you call?—trowel! He says, 'Look here, ze clue!' Zen he go away. I hold ze trowel in my hand and I zink also. And suddenly it all come back to me. It was here in zis garden on ze Saturday ven ze pearls was stolen. I had put my chatelaine down on ze zeat here, so! Zey call to me to go to ze telephone. Ven I gom back I zee zat man, Ben Burnett, ze unter-gartener. He vas vorking quite near in ze beds. I zink he give me one funny look, but I take no notice. Ze chatelaine vas as it is! So! I zink no more about zis until just so soon. Ven I see ze trowel it all gom back. I suspicion him with certainty. I go right down quick to his cottage. I go in. He is there vis his wife, I accuse him. I say, 'Vere is ze necklace you vas taken?' He says, no, but his wife burst vif tears. Zen I know. He too quite vite he goes. He bends ze knee. He tells me all. He vas vat you say, a tickets-of-leave man. He vas a bad man. But he lives straight, vasn't it? He implores forgiveness. His wife cries. She will ruin herself if he is taken. I give vay. I am weak. I restore me the necklace. I fogive him. I am so happy. Oh, Mr. Pondleton, how can I zank you?"
"I only did my duty," said Freddie, quickly.
"You will stay mit us over ze week-end, shust as a guest? Yes?"
"Alas, no," answered Freddie. "I must catch the six-fifteen. I have another urgent case."
"Veil, veil!" cried the Baron. "I must congratulate you, Mr. Pinderton. Perhaps I was fortunate after all to make zis mistake on ze telephone, eh, Count?"
The Count was annoyed, but he shrugged his shoulders and bowed politely to Freddie.
He did not see Olga again. Close by the box-hedge near the summer-house he heard her laughter, and her merry voice calling out, "Fifteen-forty!"
She was playing a single with the curate.
"It's a rum, funny life," he thought, as he sat back in the corner of a first-class carriage going back to London. In his breast-pocket was a cheque for one hundred pounds.
All this happened three years ago. It seems strange that after his brilliant start in the career of a private detective he no longer follows that calling. Indeed, he never received another commission.
He is now running a little shop where he sells foreign postage stamps, and is doing fairly well. He is married to a little girl, the daughter of an ironmonger. She is not clever, nor even pretty, but she has redeeming qualities. One is that she adores Freddie. She thinks he is handsome, loyal, and clever. She is enormously proud of him, and she believes in his story about the recovery of the Countess's pearls. Perhaps that is because he told her the truth about it. He also told the truth about it to John and Emma and Jane, but so embellished was it with romantic tissues that the Father of Lies himself might almost have claimed it as his own. What would you? A man must defend himself.
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