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Title: Uncollected Stories and
Author: Stacy Aumonier
eBook No.: 2200241h.html
Date first posted: April 2022
Most recent update: April 2022
This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat
View our licence and header
The stories and articles are listed in the Contents in the order of date of first publication.
It seems that they have not appeared in any collection of Aumonier's stories published before 1934.
In most cases the stories and articles have not yet been found by me. Those stories which have been found are included here and have a link (blue text colour) to the story.
Details of online internet sites which contain stories not yet included here would be appreciated, as would files containing any of the stories.
The Preposterous Princess (story) The Smart Set, August 1915 The Triple Scarab (story) Pictorial Review, September 1916 Pearson's Magazine, February 1917 To-morrow You Will be King (story) The Century Magazine, Oct 1916 * Solemn Looking Blokes (story) The Century Magazine, Dec 1917 The Golden Book Magazine #59, November 1929 * The Chinese Philosopher and the European War (story) The Century Magazine, Jan 1917 Mr. Van Heel of Virginia (story) The Strand Magazine, January 1918 The Bitter End (story) The Story-teller, April 1918 Pictorial Review, October 1918 The Return (story) The Century Magazine, Apr 1918 Land and Water, Mar 7, Mar 14 1918 Tuez! Tuez! (story) The Century Magazine, November 1918 The Century Magazine, December 1918 Mrs. Huggins's Hun (story) The Century Magazine, Jan 1919 The Strand Magazine, February, 1919 The Genie of the Dingle (story) Hutchinson's Story Magazine, Sep 1919 A Grave Responsibility (story) The Strand Magazine, August 1919 The Vanisher (story) Hutchinson's Story Magazine, August 1919 George (story) The New Magazine (UK), September 1920 The Living Age, September 4 1926 London Discovers Uncle Abe (article) The Century Magazine, February 1920 Mrs. Twohey Goes Over the Top (story) Pearson's Magazine January 1920 The Brothers Krinkin (story) Hutchinson's Story Magazine August 1920 The Train Among the Minnows (story) Hutchinson's Story Magazine, June 1920 A Steadying Influence, (story) Pan, April 1921 The Importance of Tripping Over a Mat (humour) The Saturday Evening Post, December 24 1921 Cassell's Magazine of Fiction #120, March 1922 The Lovers (story) Hutchinson's Story Magazine, February 1921 The Strong, Silent Man and the Perfect Woman (story) Hutchinson's Magazine, May 1921 A Lesson for You (story) Gaiety, July 1922 Heart-Whole (story) The Strand Magazine, March 1922 Second Subject (story) John o' London's Weekly, December 9 1922 The Argosy (UK), September 1932 The Last Night (story) Hutchinson's Magazine August 1922 The Old Boys' Dinner (story) Gaiety, June 1922 Bilj (play) John o' London's Weekly, February 3 1923 It All Takes Time (story) The Strand Magazine, October 1923 The Possessive Sense (story) The Royal Magazine, May 1923 Where Ideas Come From (article) Pearson's Magazine, March 1923 Are Our Prisoners Coddled? (article) Pearson's Magazine, January 1924 What Chen Lin Stole from His Neighbour (story) Cassell's Magazine of Fiction #146, May 1924 The Argosy (UK), September 1934 Within the Shadow of a Memory (story) Metropolitan Magazine, May 1924 And Life Went On (story) The Blue Magazine, #75 September 1925 The Man Who Married for Money (story) The Strand Magazine, June 1925 The Young Man Who Wrote Home to Mother (story) The Strand Magazine, March 1925 Glancing Sideways (story) Hutchinson's Magazine, May 1926 Mrs. Pomeroy's Pies (story) Pearson's Magazine, March 1926 The Halt (story) Woman, December 1926 The One-Pound Note (story), The Strand Magazine, August 1926 The Perfect Murder (story) The Strand Magazine, October 1926 The Argosy (UK), February 1931 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, #100, March 1952 The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK), August 1962 How My Plots Come to Me (article) The Strand Magazine, April 1927 Put It Down Outside! (article) Cassell's Magazine, July 1927 The Interrupted Letter (story) Pearson's Magazine, January 1927 Short Story Magazine (Australia) #36, 1947 Nothing Ever Happens (story) The Strand Magazine, October 1928 Why Be Ashamed of Civilization? (article) The London Magazine, August 1928 What Happened to George (story) The Argosy (UK), December 1932>
The Smart Set, August 1915
Once upon a time there was a Princess who was adorably beautiful. She was so beautiful that all the Rotary Film Companies in the world fell over each other trying to get a snapshot of her ankles as she walked across Grosvenor Square. For, of course, she lived in Grosvenor Square and kept five butlers, eleven maids and fifteen expensive little dogs. She was so beautiful that, when she came to London, three leading musical comedy ladies committed suicide, and a fourth broke off an engagement to an earl and married a boy she was fond of—just in sheer panic. By the time she was twenty she had received four hundred thousand, nine hundred and thirty-six offers of marriage.
Practically every unmarried male who saw her photograph wrote and proposed. They came in vanloads from America, China, Japan, India and the colonies. She was so beautiful that people looked at her in the street and then fainted right away. She was so beautiful that savage tribes in Central Africa fought over the torn remains of a photograph of her in the illustrated weeklies. Editors of daily papers bartered their principles, politicians went into exile, artists went in sane, duels by the thousand took place every day between men of note who quarrelled at the mention of her name. By which you will gather that she was an exceptionally beautiful woman.
One day a young man named Kismet Ug, an assistant in a dry-goods store at Golgotha, Michigan, who had saved up a few hundred dollars to do Europe, was passing through Grosvenor Square on his way to the Wallace Collection, when he beheld the Princess walking across the Square, followed by her fifteen dogs.
"Gee!" he murmured through a plug of chewing-gum, that he was thoughtfully removing from one cheek to another, "this is the real goods at last!"
He was a small, flat-faced boy with a yellow rubber face and a large chin and a flat grey hat. He followed her to the house and watched her go in, followed by her canine retinue. Then he stood by the area railings and leaned his chin on the iron bars and expectorated meditatively into the area. He stood there chewing for five hours and then the Princess came out and got into an electric brougham.
As she walked across the pavement he stepped forward and took off his hat. It was the first time he had done such an act of degrading obeisance, but he felt the cause merited it. However, the Princess did not notice him, and he only succeeded in treading on one of the dogs. For four days he stood there, repeating this action. Every time the Princess came out he went up and took off his hat, but the Princess did not see him.
On the fourth day a Georgian-looking gentleman in knee breeches came out of the house and advised him to clear off "as he was being watched." As he refused to do this the guards were called and he was taken off to the guardhouse, where they fell on him and beat him.
For fourteen days he lay in a dungeon without light or food. On the fifteenth day he was back again hanging on the railing in Grosvenor Square. When the Princess came out it was raining. She glanced at the sky on the way to her brougham.
Before she had time to look down again, Ug had taken off his coat and thrown it down for her to walk across. She walked round it and got into her car and drove off. In the evening the guards came again and fell on him again and beat him, and this time he was thrown into a dungeon for thirty days. On the thirty-first day he was back again in his position in the Square.
He had a wonderful chin. But the Princess was gone. He bribed the postman and found that she had gone to the South of France, and by this time Kismet Ug had no money. But time was urgent, so he managed to bring off the "Spanish Prisoner" swindle on an innocent old retired colonel and to relieve him of two hundred pounds and then he went to seek his Princess. He found her at Mentone, staying in a wonderful old chateau.
He stood outside the gate and bowed to the ground when she came out. She was accompanied by a Finance Minister and two Generals and she did not see him. But he waited there for three days. And then the French Police fell on him and he was condemned to death as a spy, but the day before he was to be shot, the wife of the head of a Ruling State, who was visiting that part, gave birth to twins, and to celebrate the event the Government granted amnesty to all political offenders. He was released and returned to the chateau of the Princess.
He waited there for thirty-six hours without seeing the Princess. But one of the Generals had noticed him and he sent a small platoon of his men and they seized him in the dark and threw him into the sea. He was picked up by a Spanish vegetable boat and taken to Algeciras, living all the time on beetroot and raw fish. He was thrashed every night by the captain and made to do all the roughest work. At Algeciras they took all his money from him and threw him ashore. He worked his way through Spain assisting at a travelling circus and at length reached France. He walked the length of the Pyrenees living on acorns and moss and eventually reached the Mediterranean coast.
He got a job in the dock of Marseilles and by going without food for three days saved enough money to get to Mentone. When he arrived there the Princess had gone. She had returned to London. He bought a picture post card of her and set out for England, placing it next to his heart. By borrowing a little money and playing poker, at which he was singularly proficient, he eventually made through to London and turned up at his railing in Grosvenor Square. After waiting only two hours and a half she came out accompanied by the king of some Near Eastern State, two Viscounts and a Scotch architect, who had inherited a fortune. He went up and took off his hat and the Scotch architect stabbed him in the wind with his umbrella, taking him for a rate collector. He was carried in an ambulance to a hospital, where he remained for three weeks. On the day he came out he returned to his position, for he had a wonderful chin.
This went on for three years and then, one day, the Princess noticed him. He had tracked her down at the country seat of a Duke, but there he made himself so importunate that the Duke had instructed his gamekeepers to shoot him by mistake for a poacher. But one morning the Princess was going for a walk by the lake with her dogs (there were now forty-seven), when one of them, a Pekinese that she called "Casserole," started foaming at the mouth and running round in circles. This was Ug's opportunity. Since he first met the Princess he had been studying Dog. He had Friedbergor and Fruhner's Veterinary Pathology at his finger-tips. He sprang out from behind a statue of Pan, where he had been hiding, and seizing "Casserole" he injected a small tube behind the dog's ear and "Casserole" became herself again. Several friends of the Duke rushed up and would have torn him to pieces, but the Princess held up her hand. "Stay," she said. "Spare him!" So they led him up to the house, where the Duke, who was also a Justice of the Peace, gave him two months in the third division for "loitering with intent." But again the Princess intervened. "Listen!" she said, and her voice was the most glorious music he had ever heard, "Listen! I don't know who this horrid little man is, but he seems to be clever at Dog. I will have him in my kennels." So Ug was released and placed under the third dog-groom in the service of the Princess and this was the golden hour of his life. For a year he saw the Princess every day. And he became so proficient at boning pheasants for the Pekinese and teaching the chows to do tricks that he was made head groom, and on several occasions the Princess spoke to him personally. But the passion of his life was consuming him. One day he had just performed a very delicate and highly successful operation on a Lhassa terrier called "Boco." The Princess came into the Dogs' operating theatre, where Ug was manicuring his nails, and thanked him with tears in her voice. Then Ug let himself go. He knelt down and poured out his love. The full tide of his pent-up passion poured forth in silver speech, hyphenated by the virile vernacular of Golgotha. It was tremendous. The Princess had never heard anything like it. She rang a bell and summoned her retinue of princes, politicians, editors and financiers who were waiting in a long queue in the hall to propose. They all trooped into the Dogs' operating theatre. "Now!" said the Princess, touching Ug on the shoulders, "do that again. It was beautiful." Ug turned round and glanced at the sneering cortege of worshippers and his heart quailed within him, but the touch of the Princess on his shoulder fired his blood. Setting his chin, he started once more to declare his passion in no uncertain terms. His eyes flashed and his bosom heaved as he flung the fine flowers of his rhetoric among the contemptuous followers. He piled Pelion on Ossa in lavish praise of the Princess. He tore the stars from their firmament in vaunting his ambitions. He was Caesar, Napoleon, John Stuart Mill in one. He was immense.
A newspaper magnate, who was present, offered him the editorship of any one of six hundred newspapers that he controlled. A Bishop who had come all the way from Madagascar to propose to the Princess went straight back that afternoon. Two Dukes took to drugs, and a Japanese plenipotentiary hanged himself in the kennel next door. The Princess was delighted. She raised his salary and sent him fruit from her own table. Whenever an especially distinguished crowd of visitors arrived they were taken out to the Dogs' operating theatre to hear Ug propose. In time Ug became restless. It was glorious, but not what he meant. One day he heard her tell an ambassador that she would love to have a pergola of onyx and an arcade with figures of the Muses carved in rock crystal, but she simply couldn't afford it! This was at her country seat. The remark gave Ug food for thought. The next day he went to her and said: "Princess, may I give you a pergola of onyx, and an arcade with figures of the Muses carved in rock crystal?" The Princess clapped her hands and said: "Oh, yes, that would be beautiful!" The thought also occurred to her that it would be a good way to get rid of him, as the proposals were beginning to pall, and a troop of Chinese fencers had turned up and were voted a more amusing entertainment. So Ug left her and went away to find a pergola of onyx, and an arcade with figures of the Muses carved in rock crystal, and he found that onyx and rock crystal were the most expensive materials in the world, and to carve figures full size would cost millions of pounds. So he crossed the ocean and went to Golgotha. Now, Golgotha is a place where no one lives; it is right out beyond everywhere. It is a vast miasma of corrugated zinc and high chimneys, and things crawl to and fro and stoke and rivet. Ug got there and entered a rubber works. He stayed there for four years. By working six teen hours a day and gradually ousting people above him he eventually became the manager. He saved all his salary and bought stock. He studied stock during the night, also rock crystal. He returned a millionaire and went back to the Princess. She was away from her country seat. He bribed the factotum to let him have control of the garden while she was away. He engaged the finest sculptors of the day and made the pergola of onyx and the arcade of Muses in rock crystal.
At length the Princess returned. He hid behind a statue as she drove up the drive. He saw her lean forward in her car and say to the King of ——, who was riding with her, "Whatever are all these horrid glass figures doing here?"
"These are the Muses carved in the rock-crystal, Princess," said Ug, springing forward.
"Oh, but I'm tired of rock-crystal," said the Princess, and the King of ——, who was a very big man and a fine polo player, muttered, "Disgusting!" and getting out of the car he threw all the Muses into the lake.
Ug stood there chewing and meditating and looking at the lake all day, but toward nightfall the Princess, taking compassion on him, sent for him to come and see her. "Of course," she said, when he arrived, "I think it was very sweet of you to take all that trouble, but I simply can't bear rock-crystal now—nobody has it. But still I'm very sorry. If you like you can go and have some supper in the servants' hall." Ug thanked her and retired, for he really wanted his supper. But the next day he went to her and said: "Princess, I'm sorry about that rock-crystal; of course I wasn't to know you'd have gone off of it. I suppose it's natural. You are the real goods. Tell me, what can I do for you? I have the stuff."
The Princess liked to hear people talk like that, so she said: "Ah, I knew you were a clever little man. It's emeralds I'm interested in now, emeralds and amethysts."
"Then you shall have the finest emeralds in the world," said Ug. "If I bring these, will you—" He couldn't finish the sentence, because the Princess was looking at him out of the corner of her eyes, and it took his breath away.
"If you bring me these," said the Princess, "I will be very kind to you," and she dismissed him.
Ug went back to Golgotha and realised all his remaining stock, but he found that emeralds cost much more than he had, so he set to work again, and he floated several companies and sold a railway that didn't exist, and then started buying emeralds. In a year's time his agents were all over the world buying emeralds and amethysts for the Princess. At length he had all the best emeralds and amethysts in the world and he drove up to her house in the country with seven van-loads full. When the Princess saw the emeralds and the amethysts, she said, "Oh, dear me, what a lot!"
"They are yours," said Ug.
"But, you see," said the Princess, "I only wanted emeralds and amethysts because the Duchess of K. had emeralds and amethysts and I wanted better ones than hers; but now she doesn't seem to have any. No one seems to have any; they are not worn!"
"I see," said Ug; "I've overdone it a bit." So he drove the van-loads of precious stones to the village and gave them to the village children, and they made wonderful grottos with them, and there they remain to this day. But the Princess invited him to stop to tea and Ug felt that all his efforts were justified. He sat in a room packed with notabilities and watched them pass cake to the Princess, for he was in too great a state of emotionalism to take any part in the proceedings. But he felt he was making headway, and the Princess even introduced him to the assistant secretary of the Burmese Legation. She said, "This is Mr. Ug, who cured Boco." It was wonderful; Ug was in his Seventh Heaven.
Before he was dismissed the Princess called him into the library. "I am sorry about those emeralds," she said.
"It's so trying—the way people change, I mean."
"Let me try again," said Ug doggedly. "Anything in the world you mention I will get for you."
The Princess signed, and then she said: "I am having a new ceiling to my music-room. It would be lovely if I could have some original ceiling paintings by Paul Veronese."
"If I bring you these—" said Ug, tentatively.
"If you bring me these—" said the Princess, and tears sprang to her eyes and she held out her hand to him to kiss.
Three days later Ug was in Rome interviewing the Italian Ministry. Much to his surprise he found that the Veronese ceiling paintings in the Ducal Palace at Venice were not for sale. Moreover, he learned that there was a law prohibiting the export of Works of Art. Ug immediately set to work. By means of enormous bribes he got numbers of the Opposition on his side who committed themselves to get this law rescinded.
For four months he went up and down the country with his confederates, bribing and cajoling. In the Spring, the Government was overthrown, and the first law the new party passed was that permitting the export of Works of Art. This led to Revolution. Thou sands were killed in the streets of Rome and Milan. Foreign Powers intervened. But on the night when the law was once more reinstated, Ug smuggled the paintings out of the Ducal Pal ace and onto a specially chartered steamer. In twelve days they were delivered at the country house of the Princess. She was not there. She had gone to Paris. Ug deposited the paintings in the basement (where they re main to this day). In Paris the Princess received him with open arms.
"Oh, Mr. Ug," she said, "I have been wanting you. Where have you been?" Ug told her with all modesty. But the Princess seemed to have lost interest in Art, she was full of a new idea.
"Mr. Ug," she said, "I want you to buy me Paris!"
"Paris!" said Ug.
"Yes," she answered, and her expression was devastating.
"If I buy you Paris," said Ug desperately, "will you marry me?"
The Princess seemed very moved. She could hardly speak.
"Paris is a big thing," urged Ug; "it means big money. I will have to go back to Golgotha and get a move on things."
"I will marry no one else or consent to marry anyone else till you have bought me Paris," said the Princess ambiguously.
Ug left her presence inspired. He went right back to Golgotha. He built new workshops and factories. He dealt in more stock. He opened offices in Chicago, New York and Boston. He lay awake every night scheming and plotting. He got railway concessions from Foreign Powers and turned them into Companies and sold them. He made a corner in ice-water and made the people pay a dollar a pitcher for it. He floated bogus companies and sold things to himself and bought them again and sold them again. He controlled pig iron, mushrooms, blankets, jute, and nogger-pumps. Even then it took him two years to raise sufficient capital to buy Paris. He bought it lying in a bed at New York with telephones, electric batteries, and wireless instalments fitted up all around him. When the contract was completed he cabled to the Princess:
"Paris is yours, will you marry me?" Then he fell back on the cushions and waited four months in breathless suspense.
In the meantime the machinery of his affairs worked of its own accord. Vast masses of Capital accumulated and large staffs were employed in all the Capitals giving away wash-houses, libraries and swimming baths as rapidly as they could. Ug lay in bed, vitalised by injections of strychnine and high-voltage electric batteries. At the end of four months a cable arrived from the Princess.
"Wedding Delhi eighteenth Durbar rajahs and elephants."
The amazing ambiguity of this message, the uncertainty as to whether it meant that she would marry him or someone else, whether he was to arrange the Durbar and buy the elephants, or whether it meant that she was going to marry a rajah or an elephant and was merely inviting him to it—whether she meant the 18th of this month or the next (if she meant this month it meant starting at once and travelling a thousand miles a day for three weeks), put him into such a fever that it brought on heart collapse and he died.
When Ug arrived in Heaven, he was led before the Celestial Tribunal and they asked him his name.
"Kismet Ug," he answered. At the mention of that name the members of the Tribunal started and an official stepped forward and said:
"Are we to understand that you are the Kismet Ug who gave away all those wash-houses and libraries to towns all over the world?"
"The same," said Ug.
"Dear me!" said the official, and he returned to the group. There was a whispered consultation, then the official came forward again and said:
"Kismet Ug, come with me!" They led him up and up through realms of light and the official said:
"Kismet Ug, a special Paradise has been prepared for you. Behold! Every thing has been thought of that your heart could desire," and he pointed to a wonderful room where were lounges of luxurious comfort and all around the walls golden cases filled with cigars that Ug's experienced eye guessed would fetch at least nine or ten dollars apiece on Broadway.
"This is dandy," said Ug.
"But this is not all," said the official, "follow me," and they passed through wonderful corridors where the strains of Heavenly music were wafted, and the official pointed to a diaphanous curtain.
"Look," he said, "all this is waiting for you, Kismet Ug, you have only to lift the curtain and joy is ever present and Eternal Beauty awaits you."
"Yes," said Ug, "and so it darn well can."
"What do you mean?" said the Celestial Authority.
"What I mean," answered Ug, "is, that she's missed her chance!" and elbowing his way past the Powers of Heaven, he returned to the smoke-room.
The Century Magazine, Oct 1916
To-morrow you will be king.
This is the best and most highly paid job that I give out. You will have an enormous salary, and you will be able to buy anything you like to eat or drink, but you must wear the clothes that I give you. There will be several hundred suits, and you must wear them on occasions as I dictate. You must always be thinking of ME and my CONSTITUTION (spelled in very large capitals), and you must not have any ideas of your own. You may think, but you must not express your thoughts. You must not have any likes or dislikes, any prejudices, any bias, or any political thought.
"Above all, you must not marry whom you like. I will find you a wife. You see, I was once a slave, as you will be to-morrow, and I like to keep you, although you are expensive to me, because you remind me of that time; or, rather, you bring home to me how I have developed, how I have become free, and I like to feel this power that I, a People (with a very large P), may even keep one slave myself, may even be a tyrant when the mood comes over me. For I rejoice in you, and as you pass me in the street I will take off my hat and bow to you, and when you deign to acknowledge me, I will cheer and cry, 'God save the King!'
"To-morrow and every day after I shall introduce you to hundreds and hundreds of people. You will not find them interesting, in fact you will find them mostly tedious and dull, but you must remember them all—all their names and faces and many facts concerning them, so that in after years, if you meet one of them, you must be ready to say, 'Ah, Mr. Brown, how is your youngest son getting on in Nicaragua?' You must be very careful to remember that it is the youngest son and that it is Nicaragua. If you ask how his eldest son is getting on in Fiji, and his eldest son is dead and had not even been to Fiji, you will estrange Brown, and I value Brown very highly. He supports the exchequer of one of my greatest parties. I shall expect this of you. It is what I am pleased to call 'tact.' If you meet others, and you look into their eyes, and they seem sympathetic to you, you must not treat them with more cordiality than those to whom you take an aversion.
"You must worship in the church established by my prelates, and considered best for you, and you must be strict in your observances. Every day there will be many papers for you to sign, but fortunately for you, you need not read them, for you must sign them in any case. And when you open my house of government you must read a speech. This speech will be written for you by some one you won't know, and will be printed in bold type, so that it will not be difficult to read.
"This holds good with every public act of yours. I try to make it as easy for you as possible, so that you have no personal worry or responsibility. You must not even refer to yourself as I; you must say 'we.' This does not mean that there is more than one of you, but it gives you emphasis, and lends point to the phrase, 'Le roi est mort. Vive le roi!'
"You may have relaxation,—that is to say, you may have change of scene and to a certain extent change of society,—but you must never deviate by a hair's-breadth from these restrictions that I have laid down. Into my life you will bring color, history, pageantry, and a sense of form. For these things I am prepared to pay you well and to stand by you.
"When your day is finished and you say your prayers and retire to bed, in the silent watches of the night you may have whatever thoughts you like. Of course I should prefer you to think of ME and my CONSTITUTION, but I shall not exact that from you, provided your thoughts do not color your actions of the preceding day. Now go, sire, for to-morrow you will be king."
The Century Magazine, Dec 1917
The Golden Book Magazine #59, November 1929
At midday on August 15 I stood on the pavement in Cockspur Street and watched the first contingent of American troops pass through London.
I had been attracted thither by the lure of a public "show," by the blare of a band, and by a subconscious desire to pay tribute in my small way to a great people. It was a good day for London, intermittently bright, with great scurrying masses of cumuli overhead, and a characteristic threat of rain, which fortunately held off. Cockspur Street, as you know, is a turning off Trafalgar Square, and I chose it because the crowd was less dense there than in the square itself. By getting behind a group of shortish people and by standing on tiptoe I caught a fleeting view of the faces of nearly every one of the passing soldiers.
London is schooled to shows of this kind. The people gather and wait patiently on the line of route. And then some genial policemen appear and mother the people back into some sort of line, an action performed with little fuss or trouble. Then mounted police appear, headed by some fat official in a cockade hat and with many ribbons on his chest. And some one in the crowd calls out:
"Hullo, Percy! Mind you don't fall off yer 'orse!"
Then the hearers laugh and begin to be on good terms with themselves, for they know that the "show" is coming. Then follows the inevitable band, and we begin to cheer.
It is very easy and natural for a London crowd to cheer. I have heard Kaiser William II cheered in the streets of London! We always cheer our guests, and we love a band and a "show" almost as much as our republican friends across the channel. I have seen royal funerals and weddings, processions in honor of visiting presidents and kings, the return of victorious generals, processions of Canadian, Australian, Indian, French, and Italian troops and bands. I wouldn't miss these things for worlds. They give color to our social life and accent to our every-day emotions. It is, moreover, peculiarly interesting to observe national traits on a march: the French, with their exuberant élan, throwing kisses to the women as they pass; our own Tommies, who have surprised the world with their gaiety, and keep up a constant ragging intercourse with the crowd and cannot cease from singing; the Indians, who pass like a splendidly carved frieze; the Canadians, who move with a free and independent swing and grin in a friendly way; the Scotch, who carry it off better than any one. But I had never seen American troops, and I was anxious to see how they behaved. I said to myself, "The American is volatile and impressionable, like a child." I had met Americans who within an hour's acquaintance had told me their life-story, given me their views on religion, politics, and art, and invited me to go out to Iowa or Wisconsin or California and spend the summer with them. Moreover, the American above all things is emotional and—may I say it?—sentimental. It would therefore be extremely interesting to see how he came through this ordeal.
The first band passed, and the people were waving flags and handkerchiefs from the windows. We could hear the cheers go up from the great throng in the square. And there at last, sure enough, was Old Glory, with its silken tassels floating in the London breeze, carried by a solemn giant, with another on each side. And then they came, marching in fours, with their rifles at the slope, the vanguard of Uncle Sam's army. And we in Cockspur Street raised a mighty cheer. They were solemn, bronzed men, loose of limb, hard, and strong, with a curious set expression of purpose about them.
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
And they looked neither to the right nor the left; nor did they look up or smile or apparently take any notice of the cheers we raised. We strained forward to see their faces, and we cried out to them our welcome. Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
They were not all tall; some were short and wiry. Some of the officers were rather elderly and wore horn spectacles. But they did not look at us or raise a smile of response. They held themselves very erect, but their eyes were cast down or fixed upon the back of the man in front of them. There came an interval, and another band, and then Old Glory once more, and we cheered the flag even more than the men. Fully a thousand men passed in this solemn procession, not one of them smiling or looking up. It became almost disconcerting. It was a thing we were not used to. A fellow-cockney near me murmured:
"They 're solemn-looking blokes, ain't they?"
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
The band blared forth once more, a drum-and-fife corps with a vibrant thrill behind it. We strained forward more eagerly to see the faces of our friends from the New World. We loved it best when the sound of the band had died away and the only music was the steady throb of those friendly boots upon our London streets. And still they did not smile. I had a brief moment of some vague apprehension, as though something could not be quite right. Some such wave, I think, was passing through the crowd. What did it mean?
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
The cheers died away for a few moments in an exhausted diminuendo. Among those people, racked by three years of strain and suffering, there probably was not one who had not lost some one dear to them. Even the best nerves have their limitation of endurance. Suddenly the ready voice of a woman from the pavement called out:
"God bless you, Sammy!"
And then we cheered again in a different key, and I noticed a boy in the ranks throw back his head and look up. On his face was that expression we see only on the faces of those who know the finer sensibilities—a fierce, exultant joy that is very near akin to tears. And gradually I became aware that on the faces of these grim men was written an emotion almost too deep for expression.
As they passed it was easy to detect their ethnological heritage. There was the Anglo-Saxon type, perhaps predominant; the Celt; the Slav; the Latin; and in many cases definitely the Teuton: and yet there was not one of them that had not something else, who was not pre-eminently a good "United States-man." It was as though upon the anvil of the New World all the troubles of the Old, after being passed through a white-hot furnace, had been forged into something clear and splendid. And they were hurrying on to get this accomplished. For once and all the matter must be settled.
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
There was a slight congestion, and the body of men near me halted and marked time. A diminutive officer with a pointed beard was walking alone. A woman in the crowd leaned forward and waved an American flag in his face. He saluted, made some kindly remark, and then passed on.
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
The world must be made safe for democracy.
And I thought inevitably of the story of the Titan myth, of Prometheus, the first real democrat, who held out against the gods because they despised humanity. And they nailed him to a rock, and cut off his eyelids, and a vulture fed upon his entrails.
But Prometheus held on, his line of reasoning being:
"After Uranus came Cronus. After Cronus came Zeus. After Zeus will come other gods."
It is the finest epic in human life, and all the great teachers and reformers who came after told the same story—Christ, Vishnu, Confucius, Mohammed, Luther, Shakespere. The fundamental basis of their teaching was love and faith in humanity. And whenever humanity is threatened, the fires which Prometheus stole from the gods will burn more brightly in the heart of man, and they will come from all quarters of the world.
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of
wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible, swift sword.
There is no quarter, no mercy, to the enemies of humanity, This is no longer a war; it is a crusade. And as I stood on the flags of Cockspur Street I think I understood the silence of those grim men. They seemed to epitomise not merely a nation, not merely a flag, but the unbreakable sanctity of human rights and human life. And I knew that whatever might happen, whatever the powers of darkness might devise, whatever cunning schemes or diabolical plans, or whatever temporary successes they might attain, they would ultimately go down into the dust before "the fateful lightning." "After Zeus will come other gods."
Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp.
Nothing could live and endure against that steady and irresistible progression. And we know how you can do things, America. We have seen your workshops, your factories, and your engines of peace. And we have seen those young men of yours at the Olympic Games, with their loose, supple limbs, their square, strong faces. When the Spartans, lightly clad, but girt for war, ran across the hills to Athens and, finding the Persian hosts defeated, laughed, congratulated the Athenians, and ran back again—since those days there never were such runners, such athletes, as these boys of yours from Yale and Harvard, Princeton and Cornell.
And so on that day, if we cheered the flag more than we cheered the men, it was because the flag was the symbol of the men's hearts, which were too charged with the fires of Prometheus to trust themselves expression.
At least that is how it appeared to me on that forenoon in Cockspur Street, and I know that later in the day, when I met a casual friend, and he addressed me with the usual formula of the day:
I was able to say:
"Yes, the best news in the world."
And when he replied:
I could say with all sincerity:
"I have seen a portent. The world is safe for democracy."
The Century Magazine, Jan 1917
It may seem a remarkable fact that in the World War in which nearly all nations are engaged, the oldest, wisest, and greatest nation is not only not participating, but is apparently looked upon as a negligible quantity by the belligerent powers. Surely no greater tribute could be paid to the wisdom and the greatness of the Chinese.
Some one has said that "No man was ever so wise as some Chinamen look." But will not these cataclysmal European happenings demonstrate a denial of this statement? Will they not prove that some one is as wise as some Chinamen look, and that person the Chinaman? In his rock garden near Peking the Chinese philosopher sits fanning himself. His mind communes with the spirits of his ancestors, and meditates upon the unforgetable wisdom of the Lord Confucius.
He recalls how a few idle centuries ago the continuity of these peaceful meditations was disturbed by the sudden arrival of restless infidels on his shores. Even now he can see their strained, feverish faces. To the trained eye they differed from one another; they spoke different languages, wore different clothes, had different casts of countenance, but to the all-seeing eye they were fundamentally the same. They preached the same doctrine—a doctrine they labeled "progress, civilization." They professed several mushroom faiths, the dominant one being called "Christianity," concerning which they differed profoundly, and split up into many subdivisions. The Chinese philosopher recalls the faces of their emissaries who came to him and said:
"Wake! You must advance, you must bestir yourself!" He can almost recall the tones of mild remonstrance of his own voice.
"To what end?"
"To progress. To become civilized, to enter into the great world competition."
They hardly stayed to listen to the serene philosophy which his master would have inspired him to instill into them if they had stayed to listen, they were in so restless a hurry. They said:
"If you do not do this, we will destroy you."
They were off again to struggle with one another for good positions on his shores, there to carry on their strange and unaccountable practices of buying and selling, and distributing soul-destroying spirits to the undisciplined, and to erect tin temples to their parvenu Gods. He saw their fussy gunboats on his rivers destroying human life.
Some there were who were disturbed by these actions, and came to him and said:
"What shall we do concerning this? Shall China stretch forth her hand?"
And he had answered:
"China is linked to the sun and moon by immemorial ties. Look into your heart, my children, and read the words of the All-Wise."
And then, as the centuries rolled by, he observed that it was not China they destroyed; it was one another. The wind bells tinkle under the eaves of the pagoda. Soon in all her glory the sun will be setting. A messenger enters and kneels in low obeisance.
"Excellency, the Western World is at war. Already ten million men have fallen by the sword."
"Ai-e-e!" He draws the wind through his teeth with a whistling inflection. "What Western World is this?" he asked at length.
"They who enunciate the doctrine of progress, civilization, culture, O Excellency!"
He meditates upon this for some time. He harbors no feelings of animosity against these people who had threatened to destroy him; only his heart is filled with a strange, pitying misgiving that there should be so much lack of culture, so little appreciation of the value of inner progress, and so exaggerated a sense of the value of outer progress.
Wood-pigeons are cooing in their cot above the temple, and the sound, mingling with the low chanting of a priest, tends to emphasize the tranquility of the evening. Ten million men! It is very sad, very deplorable; but he banishes these melancholy thoughts, for he knows that his mind must be occupied with far more important matters. It is the hour when, in strict accordance with immemorial precepts, he must look into his own soul.
The Strand Magazine, January 1918
Old Jamesson was something of a character. The position he held in the firm of Quinson and Beelswright, the famous decorators and furnishers, was unique. It was a known thing that in the eyes of the directors old Jamesson could do no wrong, or, in any case, he could do no radical wrong. All his eccentricities and peccadilloes were easily forgiven. The man had a certain florid force of character, and he was moreover one of the best judges of antique furniture and porcelain in London, and no mean critic of what is called Fine Art. He was a large man with puffy red cheeks and grey curls, and he wore check trousers, white spats, and a tortoiseshell-rimmed monocle. His manners were not always irreproachable. He took snuff, ate and drank prodigiously, had many little affectations, a quick and tempestuous temper, no sense of humour, but a heart of gold. He was a great favourite of Mr. Hugh Quinson's, the managing director of the firm, who understood him entirely, and who would in expansive moments pat him on the back and call him "Johnny." He had been with the firm for nearly twenty years, and for nine years of that period he had been in charge of the antique department, and it was only by exercising the greatest tact that Mr. Quinson had been able to ultimately remove him from that position to one of being a head salesman and sub-manager. The trouble with old Jamesson in the antique department was that, although he was an excellent buyer, he seemed to resent having to sell these rare and beautiful objects he had been at such pains to collect. He liked to walk about among them and touch them with his fat fingers, and breathe heavily upon their cloistered beauty. If a customer showed a disposition to buy one of his favourite pieces, he would instantly depreciate it, and he had, moreover, a native instinct for candour that was not strictly in accordance with the canons of the commercial side of antique dealing. He would say:—
"Yes, sir, it looks a fine piece, but only one leg is genuine, the rest is copied."
Or he would shake his head and remark:—
"No, madam, I don't agree with you. The upper part of this cabinet is fair, but the lower part is quite wrong in style."
Things are not said like that in the antique trade, and so he was gradually relieved of the responsibility of this position, and was only allowed to confine himself to the control of more frankly modern things. The change, though equally remunerative to old Jamesson, and far more remunerative to the firm, cannot be said to have produced in the former any elevated sense of satisfaction. Of course, the work was easy enough. He knew the furnishing trade inside and out, as he explained to everyone, but the modern aspect of it bored him. He left all the details of the jobs he had in hand to his assistant, Shenton. This Shenton was also a source of boredom to him, but at the same time an invaluable young man. He had a thin, cadaverous face, a restless eye, and a very retentive memory. He was always on the make, and conducted goodness knows how many businesses in his spare time. His chief hobby in life seemed to be to "get someone by the short hairs." He was always scheming and planning, and, though old Jamesson despised him, and was bored by him, he realized his merits, and was at times even a little afraid of him.
On a certain morning in June old Jamesson was sent for by Mr. Quinson, who said:—
"Ah, Johnny, here is an inquiry you might attend to. It is from an American named Justus Theodore Van Heel. He has bought Gilling's Manor, at Wayneshurst, fifteen miles down the line in Surrey. He wants it done up. I have looked him up in our secret reference list. He is all right. His money is in real estate and gilt-edged securities. Give him any credit he wants."
The prospect of interviewing an American millionaire did not raise the spirits of Mr. Jamesson very considerably, and if it had been a dull day he would probably have sent Shenton off on this expedition; but the day was brilliantly fine, and he was not very busy, so he decided to go himself.
He met Mr. Van Heel on the lawn of Gilling's Manor. He was a small, sallow-faced man, with white hair and keen grey eyes. He was quick in his movements, but, in Jamesson's opinion, curiously reserved for an American. He was extremely courteous, and, indeed, gave the impression of a host ministering to a guest rather than a client dealing with a tradesman. He took Jamesson over the house and explained his requirements, and asked him his opinion upon every point. It was a charming Queen Anne building in a fair state of repair, although it had not been lived in for some years. His demands were quite simple. He was apparently going to live there alone, but the size of the mansion would necessitate certain renovations, and of the ten bedrooms all except three were to be put in order, For the rest, he wanted everything kept much as it was.
On the way upstairs he murmured: "I have a few pieces of old furniture," and Jamesson's interest quickened perceptibly.
One packing-case had arrived, and was lying on the floor on the first landing. The lid had been removed, and a pot was standing on the floor and a small statuette on a side-table. As they passed, Jamesson stooped and passed his fingers over the glaze several times. Then he muttered:—
He then looked closely at the statuette, and said:—
The American looked at his visitor with one of his quick glances, and said:—
"You know something about—works of art, Mr. ——?"
"Jamesson. Yes, I know a little."
They passed on in silence, each feeling a little more drawn towards the other. Mr. Van Heel said, at last:—
"I shall hope you will do me the favour of giving me your opinion upon all my other goods when they arrive."
"It will be a great pleasure," Jamesson panted, following heavily in the wake of his more nimble companion.
When they had been all over the house, Mr. Van Heel led him into the garden. On the east side of the house the ground was level for about a hundred yards, and then ended in an abrupt embankment. This embankment, which extended for some distance, was probably the normal elevation of the land, but at some time the ground below had been levelled, and had been converted into a lawn and fruit garden. Mr. Van Heel, for some reason or other, seemed a little agitated. He coughed, and said:—
"Will you be so good as to come this way?"
When they arrived at the embankment, he pointed to it, and continued:—
"I have the idea to make a squash-racket court here."
It would not have been surprising if old Jamesson had expressed astonishment at this request, but he had been in the furnishing trade for over thirty-five years, and he knew that it was not his business to be surprised at any suggestion made by a client, particularly a wealthy one.
He said: "Yes, sir. Do you wish it cut out of the embankment?"
The American's idea was quite simple. It was to be as it were sunk into the embankment, with concrete walls and a concrete base, a small gallery upstairs netted in, a flat skylight, and two powerful arc lights giving almost the effect of daylight, so that his guests could, if they liked, play after dinner or in the winter when it got dark early.
Jamesson listened to Mr. Van Heel's instructions, and took down one or two notes in his pocket-book, and came to a mental decision that this would be a very good job for Shenton to see through. He mildly wondered once or twice at such an elderly gentleman as Mr. Van Heel requiring a squash-racket court, and being so keen and determined about all the details; he also wondered why he should insist on its being built so far away from the house when there was an excellent site for it in a yard which adjoined the servants' quarters. But he did not give the matter much attention at the time. His mind was more occupied with the Ming pot on the staircase and the Tanagra statuette. The hour was also approaching when he was in the habit of having a long and refreshing drink, and he knew he had nearly a two-miles' walk to the station.
When they arrived back at the house, however, all his apprehensions on this score were set at rest, for Mr. Van Heel immediately led into the dining-room, and said:—
"You must allow me to offer you a little refreshment before your journey."
A bumper glass of Jamesson's favourite beverage was set before him, and a cigar the like of which he had never imagined existed found its way between his teeth. He observed that his host only drank Vichy water. He was a peculiarly mild and gentle little man. Jamesson had never met an American who talked so little. He was no great talker himself, and the silences would have been almost embarrassing but for the fact that he felt strangely drawn towards this unusual client. When it became time for Jamesson to go, Mr. Van Heel stood up, and said:—
"My automobile is here. It will take you to the station. Perhaps, Mr. Jamesson, you will do me the favour of meeting me at my flat in town, when we can discuss the disposition of the various pieces of furniture. I have some François premier work which may interest you."
This was a job after Jamesson's own heart, and he readily assented, and returned to town in better spirits than he had been for some time. He handed the instructions to Shenton, with the remark:—
"Here, get out an estimate for this lot."
On the following Wednesday Jamesson met Mr. Van Heel by appointment at a flat in Westminster, and he spent a most entrancing day. He arrived there at twelve and stayed till a quarter to six. The two men lunched on whisky and sandwiches. In the whole course of his career Jamesson had never come across such a fine private collection of old furniture, paintings, and objets d'art. Mr. Van Heel became garrulous. It was obviously the hobby of his life, the one thing he was really interested in. Jamesson responded with warmth. He had met a kindred spirit. It was a glorious time. He had never met anyone before with such a sympathetic passion for old "pieces." So interested did they become in discussing their antiquity, their beauty, their proportions, the slightly doubtful authenticity of certain sections, that they quite forgot the original idea of the visit, which was to determine where the different pieces were to be placed in Gillings Manor. Consequently a further visit had to be arranged. When Jamesson arrived home that night he felt that a new light had come into his life. A kindred spirit. He was very cheerful. He lived with his wife, two daughters, and a son and rather ugly house in Kensington. It was a pleasant innocuous ménage, where all sorts of allowances were made for "the eccentricity of papa." But when "papa" was in a good temper, the general standard of happiness and comfort was equal perhaps to that of any other middle-class family in the neighbourhood. On this particular evening, when his wife commented on his buoyant frame of mind, he remarked:—
"I met a very charming man in business to-day, my dear, very charming indeed."
During the ensuing month Jamesson went about his work with a kind of stolid zest. He did not hurry or behave with any outward sign of excitement, but he worked quietly and well. He would sometimes hum an unrecognizable tune under his breath, and he showed a disposition to be kind to everyone, and even tolerant to Shenton. The work at Gilling's Manor proceeded, and he met Mr. Van Heel three or four times in town and twice in the country. It could not be said that they became friends, but they became peculiarly sympathetic on the one theme. Jamesson was conscious that Van Heel had taken to him. He liked to have him to talk to and to listen to; but he was also conscious that there was an unbridgeable reserve between the American and himself. He noted that if the discussion threatened to develop beyond the bounds of this subject which absorbed them, Mr. Van Heel drew Back. He did not seem disposed to talk about himself or his life or his thoughts. And Jamesson, realizing this, respected the other man's mental attitude, and made a point of also avoiding the personal equation.
Nevertheless, the wells of their mutual interest were inexhaustible. They went to Christie's together, and Mr. Van Heel bought a Diaz at Jamesson's suggestion. And they went to the South Kensington Museum and the National Gallery, and even poked about among antique shops in Soho. They talked Spode and Worcester, cloisonné, Limoges, Heppelwhite, Chinese lacquer, Daubigny, the French transition period, Della Robbia, the quinquecentists, everything that really matters in this life. Jamesson found a revived interest in the society of his newly-found acquaintance.
It was not till the renovations at Gilling's Manor had been nearly completed that a sudden intrusion came to disturb this pleasant intimacy. It happened one evening in September. Jamesson had been working late, and he had adjourned to the bar of the Green Turtle to enjoy a well-merited tankard of ale before returning home, when Shenton came into the bar. He was looking strangely excited. He had apparently been drinking. His upper lip quivered, and his eyes had a restless, furtive expression. He came straight over to Jamesson and leered at him.
Jamesson blinked at his assistant, and said:—
"What's the matter with you?"
Shenton nervously licked the end of a cigarette, and called for some whisky. He was very mysterious. He nodded and winked, and glanced apprehensively round the bar. He had been staying down at Wayneshurst for a few days, superintending the Gilling's Manor job, and had just returned. Jamesson got impatient at these antics, and he said, irritably:—
"Is the job going all right?"
Shenton nodded, and then leaned a little closer. Suddenly he whispered thickly:—
"Say, who is this 'ere Van Heel? What do you know about 'im, eh?"
Jamesson bridled somewhat, and said:—
"What do you mean, 'What do I know about 'im'? He's all right, isn't he?"
Shenton loomed with things of tremendous importance. He winked again, and drained his glass. Then he pulled Jamesson by the coat-sleeve a little farther away from a group of men talking earnestly about ratting. And suddenly he made a series of most surprising suggestions to Jamesson. He said:—
"Van Heel? Von Heel, I should say!" Then he leaned forward and whispered: "'Ere, what's an old man like that want a squash-racket court for? What about the concrete foundations as a base for a big howitzer, eh? What about Wayneshurst? Fifteen miles from South London, eh? A big gun from there could raze Kensington, Streatham, and Brixton to the ground in half an hour, eh? What's 'e want these 'ere powerful arc lights for at night, throwing a light straight up at the sky from the top of an embankment? What sort of name is Van Heel? What nationality would you call 'im, eh?"
An expression of surprise and disgust came over Jamesson's face. He exclaimed:—
"Mr. Van Heel is a gentleman; one of the best!"
Shenton leered, and called for another whisky.
"Well, you can guess what I think, and I'm on 'is track."
As Jamesson looked at his assistant at that moment, he realized for the first time that he had the thin pointed face of a sleuth-hound. He hated the man. It was abominable. He would not hear a word of such nonsense. He muttered, angrily:—
"Rubbish! Go and hold your silly head under a tap!"
But Shenton was quite unperturbed by this insult. He was too full of importance, and whisky. He had found his right métier. A 'tec! He had indeed been dwelling upon this idea for some time, and coming up in the train he had visualized his own portrait on the front page of the Daily Photo. "Mr. James Shenton, the smart young furniture salesman, whose clever dispositions in the first place led to the discovery." Phew! it was going to be exciting. Recognition, fame, and a fat cheque from some official quarter, and then to the deuce with the furnishing trade! Jamesson could read something of these vivid anticipations on the face of his assistant, and his only desire was to escape from him. And he did so by deliberately turning his back on him and walking out of the bar.
But he spent a restless night. Of course, the suggestions were absurd, preposterous! He would have none of them. A man like' Mr. Van Heel, who loved Limoges enamels, and could tell the date of any piece of furniture at a glance, a spy! There was nothing of the spy about him, except his reserve. Yes, certainly he was very reserved about his private life. But so were many others. The squash-racket court was peculiar but not unreasonable. And the arc lights that made the court like daylight? Well, if people wanted to play the silly game at night, they must see. There was nothing in this. Of course, as Shenton said, the position was peculiarly good for—what he hinted at. It was at the crest of a long, gently-rising slope. It commanded South London. But this was merely coincidence. The name? Well, a name meant nothing. At its worst it was only Dutch. He would dismiss the whole thing from his mind. And he would take Shenton away from this job and see it through himself.
But in this latter resolution he reckoned without his host. Shenton was prepared for this, and he was rather too clever for him. He had all the details at his finger-ends, and when Jamesson tried to take it up, he soon got into a muddle. In disgust, he handed it back to Shenton again, and told him "to get on with it, and not have quite so much of the Sherlock Holmes."
Shenton accepted this gibe without a word, and soon made it his business to go down to Wayneshurst again and stay the night. In the meantime Jamesson once more went out with Mr. Van Heel, and they visited more exhibitions and sales together. He thought the American seemed a little more nervous and abstracted than usual, but perhaps this was only his imagination. "The squash-racket court was completed before the rest of the work. Shenton then stayed down there for several nights at the local inn. It is difficult to know what might have been the outcome of what he called his "dispositions," if the old tag, "in vino veritas," had not exerted its influence on his behaviour. For he came up to town one evening a little "the worse for wear," as Someone described him in the bar of the Green Turtle, and in the excitement of his mood he blabbed his scheme into the ear of Jamesson.
"To-morrow night," he said, "I'm going to get Mr. Herr von Heel by the short 'airs. I'm going to fix him all right."
And then he explained that for the last week, every night after dinner, Mr. Van Heel had crept out to the squash-racket court and shut himself in for about half an hour, and had then returned to the house. Shenton could not see what took place there, for a dark green blind was drawn over the skylight, but he could see that the powerful lights were on inside. But now the astute salesman had arranged a little device of his own. The framework of the skylight was supported by a double brick wall, but Shenton, with his own hands, had loosened one of the outer bricks at the back of the ventilator. To-morrow night he was going to lie in wait for Mr. Van Heel. He would lie on his face on the top of the embankment and remove the brick before Mr. Van Heel came, and then when he entered the court, Shenton would be able to observe him comfortably through the ventilator without being seen himself. He was consumed with his brilliant cunning, and simply could not keep his excitement to himself. Jamesson scowled blackly, but made no comment.
But to Shenton's disgust, on the following day he was just sitting down to an early chop and a whisky and soda in the Bull Inn, at Wayneshurst, when the big man came in. Shenton started and said:—
"Halloa! what are you here for?"
Jamesson replied casually:—
"Oh, I'm just down for a change of scenery. I'm going out for a stroll with you after you've finished making a beast of yourself."
Shenton was very annoyed. He cursed his alcoholic mood of the previous evening which had led him into blabbing the truth. He didn't want anyone else in this. This was his show. He'd done all the work and made all the "dispositions." He didn't fancy having Jamesson's photograph alongside his own in all the illustrated weeklies. He wanted all the glory to himself. It was most unfair. And he said as much; but Jamesson was adamant. Shenton could not see how he was to prevent his heavily-built senior from accompanying him, for nothing apparently but physical force could stop him, and Shenton had it not. He sulked, and tried to lie, but Jamesson stolidly smoked a pipe and waited.
After Shenton's meal they started out together in silence. It was a dark October night and inclined to rain. They walked the two miles to Gilling's Manor without exchanging comments, and approached the embankment from the back. Shenton soon found the shallow brick wall which enclosed the framework of the skylight. He felt along it with his hand, and his teeth were chattering unaccountably. Jamesson felt cold and wretched but determined. He detested spying; it was no business of his what Mr. Van Heel did in his own racket-court. But he had come to see that Shenton didn't make a fool of himself, and he meant to hang on to him at all costs.
Shenton produced a screwdriver and a narrow strip of steel and the brick came away quite easily. And then they waited. A few dim lights in the house, away among the trees, showed that activity, of Some sort was in progress. A dog barked and then became silent.
They seemed to wait an interminable time, but at length Shenton muttered:—
They saw a dark figure come quietly up the gravel path that had been cut up to the court. It moved quickly and deliberately, and soon they heard a key turn in the outer door which was of wood, and then the door slammed, There was a narrow vestibule between the outer door and the door of the court, which was of iron and fitted flush to the walls. In a few seconds they heard the iron door open, and then the court was flooded with light. The two salesmen had to have their faces unpleasantly close together to obtain any view at all, and for some minutes they believed they were not going to see anything. They could just observe the top of Mr. Van Heel's head as he moved about in the court. But at last he produced a long deal board and placed it against the wall. Then he unrolled something and pinned it up on the board. They could see the object very distinctly, but they could only see the back of Van Heel's head, and then he sat down and they could not see him at all.
Now, when these two watchers observed this thing pinned upon the board it produced in them two very diverse emotions. In Shenton it produced a feeling of utter disappointment and disgust. To Jamesson it was the most amazing moment of his life. To Shenton it was just a portrait of a girl painted in oils, but to Jamesson it was something which sent his heart beating Violently against his ribs, for he recognized it at once. It was nothing less than the famous "Santa Maria" by Leonardo da Vinci, which had five years previously been cut out of its frame in the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris, and had never been heard of since. Van Heel! His friend Van Heel had stolen it!
Jamesson was glad of the darkness. He drew back and wiped his brow. He heard Shenton mutter:—
"It's a dirty wash-out!"
Jamesson managed to pull himself together sufficiently to whisper:—
"You've made a blankety fool of yourself. Let's get back."
But Shenton insisted on remaining. He wanted to see what his intended victim meant to do. He could not believe that an oil painting alone could be the motive for these nocturnal visits. He could not be robbed so easily of his bombs and flashlight signals. And so they both continued peeping through the grille. But so far as they could see, Mr. Van Heel did nothing but sit there and gaze at the portrait.
It was most disappointing. At the end of about twenty minutes the lights went out, the doors banged, and they heard the American returning along the gravel path to the house.
The two men stood up, and Shenton became sulkily abusive. He cursed the silly sentimental old fool who had gone to all this trouble "to look at the portrait of some girl he had been in love with." He became violently insulting to Jamesson, but that gentleman was hardly listening to him. He was very much consumed with his own internal fires. He wanted to get away from Shenton and think this thing out. At the inn he said good night abruptly and went up to his room. But it was many hours before Jamesson found his well-earned sleep. He lay there racked by the contemplation of this preposterous crime. It was incredible, amazing, and yet—it was a crime he could appreciate and even sympathize with. He had heard the "Santa Maria" appraised at the value of twenty thousand pounds. Mr. Van Heel was a very rich man. He had not stolen it for its money value. He would not in any case be able to sell it. Why had he taken it? How had he Managed it? Ought Jamesson to give him away? These questions kept revolving restlessly through his brain. Jamesson was a simple-minded man. His sins were always placed jauntily in the shop window. He had a reputation for candour and straight dealing, but he was not necessarily matter-of-fact. The romance of the furnishing trade was a favourite theme of his. And on that still night there occurred to him that in all his career he had never encountered quite such a romantic experience as this, no episode which so dovetailed with his own peculiar sensuous aspirations.
It was tremendous! How the man must love Art. Fancy risking his whole life and reputation to acquire a picture so that he might secretly call it his very own. Imagine the fierce moods of exultation he would enjoy as he stole into the private chamber night after night and gloated over the beauty of the thing he had torn from the vulgar gaze of the public.
What a risk the man must have run! What a passion it must have been that stirred him to this desperate action. And so—the squash-racket court with its concrete floors and its windowless walls, the powerful arc lights that made the room at night "like daylight!"
And that fool Shenton! The great bulk of Jamesson shook the bed with laughter when he thought of his discomfited assistant. Thank God he hadn't recognized the work. He wouldn't know one painting from another, the chicken-headed tyke!
Jamesson returned to town next day, but he became restless and abstracted in his work. He could not determine his own course of action. The affair obsessed him. And he desired passionately to share his secret knowledge with someone. At last he acted in a manner that was characteristic of him. He wrote to Mr. Van Heel and asked for an appointment in town. He went to the flat in Westminster, and when he was alone with his client he said quietly, but deliberately:—
"I have seen your 'Santa Maria.'"
The effect of this remark was electrical. He saw the little American start from his chair, his face change colour, and his hand automatically slip towards a hip-pocket. Jamesson proceeded in level tones:—
"I have no intention of betraying your—secret."
Mr. Van Heel stood wildly gazing at him, his breath coming quickly, and his thin hands clutching the table for support. He made a curious choking noise in his throat, and then swayed and sank back to the chair and buried his face in his hands.
Jamesson, feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed, looked down at his hat, and then proceeded to take out and fill his pipe. The American did not speak. At length Jamesson managed to say, thickly:—
"I must apologize for intruding. My assistant—an interfering young devil, but he knows nothing. You must not be disturbed. It is a matter which concerns no one but yourself. I should not dream—perhaps I can understand."
But still Mr. Van Heel was silent. At last he rose and walked unsteadily to the fireplace. With his back to Jamesson, he said in a low, clear voice:—
"Mr. Jamesson, you have been very considerate to me. I appreciate your kindness. I am very—I cannot express myself for the moment."
Then he paused and added:—
"If you will return this afternoon at five o'clock, I will try to let you understand better. I—"
Jamesson stood up and bowed heavily. Then he said:—
"I will agree to come back at five o'clock, and I do not hold you to any explanation. As I have said, I pledge myself to entire secrecy in the matter, but I must make one stipulation."
"What is that?" answered the American, without turning.
"That you hand me that revolver from your hip-pocket."
Mr. Van Heel started and turned, and Jamesson thought he detected a tear on the brink of his eyes. Slowly he drew out his revolver and placed it on the table. Jamesson picked it up and added:—
"And that you promise not to do anything—foolish till I return."
Mr. Van Heel paused, and then bowed his head, and Jamesson withdrew.
When he returned at five o'clock, Mr. Van Heel was alone in the flat. It was a cold, bleak day, and the streets were already lighted. A bright fire was burning in the drawing-room, and his host led him thither.
"Please sit down," he said.
He seemed to have aged since the morning, but his face had a calm, resigned expression. He took a seat facing the fire, with his profile towards Jamesson. He started speaking immediately, as though anxious to relieve himself of some terrible strain.
"You have been very sympathetic to me, Mr. Jamesson, and I am entirely in your hands. I do not deny that I have the picture you mention. I can only tell you my story, and trust to your generosity of heart to treat me as leniently as you think fit. I will be as brief as possible. I come of an old Southern family from Virginia. We were raised on most strictly puritanic—exclusive lines. It was even a great source of annoyance to my parents that I took an interest in Art. I had known my wife since we were children. She also came of an old family, the Lowrys, who were if anything more exclusive than ourselves. In fact, we saw very few other families in our State. It was a sort of understood thing—the Van Heels and the Lowrys had been connected for generations. We were married at twenty-five. We were very happy. We had one daughter, the darling of our lives. Her name was Anna. We lavished on her all our love and care and wealth. We built up splendid dreams for her. She was the most beautiful thing that ever danced in the sun. She had all our Southern pride, but something of the free-moving, independent nuance of the North. We enjoyed nearly twenty years of unalloyed family happiness, and then suddenly one day our daughter announced that she had fallen in love with a young sailor—an ordinary seaman working before the mast in a coastal steamer. I need hardly say that my wife and I protested. We forbade her to see him, or him to enter our house. But the affair went on. She saw him secretly, and my wife was furious. There was one terrible interview. We all lost our tempers. My daughter walked out of the house and—I have not seen her since."
Mr. Van Heel paused and pressed his handkerchief against his brow. Then he continued more slowly:—
"For years we believed she would return. In the first flush of anger we destroyed all her portraits and photographs. Then we repented. I wrote to her, but either she did not get the letter, or she was too proud to answer. We heard that she had married the sailor, and had gone to sea, but we heard nothing more. Three years went by, and we became disconsolate, and at length my wife died in my arms."
Mr. Van Heel again paused, and buried his face in his hands, and spoke drearily:—
"I travelled after that. I visited various ports, hoping to meet her. Then I came across to Europe and wandered about England, and Italy, and France. I sank into a low, maudlin state, and I believe to a certain extent my mind became unhinged. I was in Paris one day, and I drifted into the Académie des Beaux Arts. Looking at paintings was the only interest I had in life. Suddenly I came face to face with the 'Santa Maria' of Leonardos. The thing was amazing. Apart from being such a beautiful work, it was incredibly like my daughter Anna! It had her same proud smile, the same queer way of peering at you, even the hair and the colour of the eyes were the same. I gazed at it breathlessly. It was the only thing in the world which recalled her. I had no other record. Every day for weeks I went to the Académie and gazed at this wonderful portrait. I was not happy away from it. The knowledge that it was there seemed to keep me sane. At last the thing became an obsession. I could think of nothing else. I determined to steal it."
Jamesson leaned forward.
"How did you manage that?" he asked, breathlessly.
Mr. Van Heel sighed.
"They say, Mr. Jamesson," he answered, "that money can accomplish anything. I certainly spent a good deal of money acquiring the 'Santa Maria.' And I do not propose to bore you with all the details of it. In fact, I have forgotten many of them myself. I can only say that I ran no risks at all on the score of expense. It involved buying a confectionery business in the Rue d'Abernon, which, as you know, runs at the back of the Académie. I employed two gentlemen of adventurous disposition. One came from Texas, the other was a Frenchman. You may remember that at the time of the robbery two attendants were found asphyxiated in Gallery VII., and the picture was cut neatly out of the frame, while an entrance had apparently been cut through a shutter and a window and had been effected from the iron fire-escape emergency staircase. These things are apparently astonishingly simple if you take enough pains and trouble. My friend from Texas threw a lariat from our roof on to the flagstaff of the Académie at three o'clock in the morning.
"It is a matter of twenty-five yards or so. It was then an affair of rope-ladders and rubber piping. The Frenchman was a chemist—a charming person, with anarchical tendencies: but a kind heart. From a series of large cylinders in the top room of the confectionery business in the Rue d'Abernon we pumped quantities of a very penetrating but quite innocuous gas through the ventilators of five galleries in the Académie. We knew that these galleries were separated from the rest of the building at night by iron fireproof doors, but we could not, of course, be sure in which one the attendants might be at the time. So we gassed them all. The result was entirely successful. The two men were found sleeping peacefully in Gallery VII., although I might add that a pack of cards was found between them and also a bottle of beer. M. Touquet was even thoughtful enough to remove these incriminating objects before we left, after we had cut the picture from its frame. We did not want the men to get into trouble. I was amazed at the simplicity and success of the whole scheme. I paid M. Touquet and Len Pollard ten thousand dollars each. Pollard is now running a big ranch in Arizona and is the father of five splendid children, and Touquet, I believe, is in Russia, 'working politically,' he tells me.
"I left Paris soon afterwards and came to England, smuggling the picture through the false bottom of a trunk. It has been a source of endless comfort to me, my one connecting link with those I loved. But I have always been haunted by the fear of discovery. In hotels nothing is sacred. And even in a private house there are always Servants. Rooms have to be cleaned out. I did not want to arouse suspicion. It was one day in the Royal Automobile Club here that the idea of a squash-racket court occurred to me. I thought that anything to do with sport would probably not arouse suspicion in this country. And the court has no windows, and I am undisturbed at night. I keep the picture in the locker which you made for rackets and balls, and of which no one has the key but myself. That is all my story. I do not attempt to extenuate my crime, for crime it undoubtedly is, and I place myself entirely at your disposal. My only plea is my unhappiness. I am unhappy—unhappy—unhappy."
It would be difficult to express the exact effect that this amazing story had upon Jamesson. He could not reconcile the opposing motives of pride and sentimentality which had prompted the Southern States man to act in the way he had. He was to a certain extent disappointed. It shattered his dream of that splendid sin which appealed to him far more—the sin of a man whose passion for Art was so great that he had fallen in love with the thing itself—had risked his life for it. Jamesson could not for the moment concentrate. His slow-moving mind became only conscious of the fact that he was in the presence of a fellow-being who was suffering intensely. He fumbled with his hat, and could only keep repeating: "Please do not disturb yourself. It is understandable. I shall not betray you."
He did not know how he escaped from the presence of Mr. Van Heel. He went about his work for days as though in a dream. Everyone found him distracted and apt to be quarrelsome, and at home "the eccentricity of papa" became a nuisance to all his family. The job at Gilling's Manor was completed, and the account sent in and paid for by return of post.
It was, in fact, several months later before any further development took place. And then one Friday he received a telegram:—
"Will you come down and see me to-morrow? Car will call for you at three.—VAN HEEL."
It was a clear April day when Jamesson once more alighted at the front porch of Gilling's Manor. On either side of the porch two beds of crimson tulips struck a note of gaiety. The lawn was rolled and cut and in good condition. There was indeed about the whole establishment an air of brightness that did not seem to characterize it before. As he was about to enter the hall a girl in a white frock, carrying a basket and a pair of garden scissors, came singing out of the house. She looked at Jamesson and smiled and passed on, and the large salesman stood there spellbound. The girl appeared to him the reincarnation of the "Santa Maria."
He had not time to recover from his astonishment when he found himself ushered into the white-panelled library. Mr. Van Heel, looking years younger and with his face flushed with some innate excitement, sprang to his feet and shook his hand. At the same-time he cried out:—
"Mr. Jamesson, I'm very pleased to see you. Allow me to introduce you to my son-in-law, Captain David Stoddard."
A tall, good-looking man with iron-grey hair rose from his seat and shook Jamesson's hand. He was in the uniform of a United States naval officer. He said:—
"Mr. Jamesson, I'm pleased to meet you."
Mr. Van Heel added:—
"I've been telling my son-in-law all about you, Mr. Jamesson. And I propose that we three go and have Ð° game of squash-rackets."'
And he laughed gaily.
The three of them strolled out into the garden and up towards the embankment.
When they entered the court, Mr. Van Heel locked the door on the inside and opened the locker. He produced the painting and pinned it on the board.
"Now!" he said.
Captain Stoddard looked at it and remarked:—
"Gee! It's certainly like her, though it's not very flattering."
Mr. Van Heel laughed, and Jamesson blew his nose violently. Then the owner of the house said:—
"Mr. Jamesson, I've made a full confession of my crime to my son-in-law, as I did to you. We are the only three men who know the truth about the 'Santa Maria.' You were good enough to say you would preserve my secret, and my son-in-law, with a generosity which I do not deserve, has also forgiven me and promises to keep silent. There only remains now the disposition of the picture, which I no longer require. I cannot take it back and I cannot destroy it. I therefore propose to ask you to take it and to do with it whatever you think fit, and please do not think I wish to be patronizing if I ask you to accept this little present as a recognition of your trouble and the kindness of heart you showed me in peculiarly trying circumstances."
And he handed the astonished Jamesson a cheque for five hundred pounds.
On the lawn outside they met Anna, with her basket full of flowers. She smiled and said:—
"What have you three been doing?"
"We've been playing squash-rackets, dear."
"You don't look very hot," she remarked, and then her cheeks dimpled roguishly as she added, "I believe you keep a canteen in that funny little house."
Jamesson returned to town by train. Between his teeth he thoughtfully chewed a cigar which cost sixpence. On the rack above him was a cylindrical-shaped brown paper parcel containing an object which he had reason to believe was worth twenty thousand pounds.
"The furnishing trade is a very romantic business," he kept thinking to himself.
When he arrived home, he told his wife that he had some letters to write, so he went up to a little room at the top of the house, which he called his den. Then he unwrapped the brown-paper parcel and gazed lovingly at the picture. And strange moods and temptations came to him. How romantic that would be! For one man to have secretly this—perhaps the finest work of art in the world—to creep up every night alone and revel in its absorbing beauty! Not to steal it for its gain, or even for its sentiment, but for joy in the thing itself! Jamesson sighed and lighted his pipe. A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. He sat there a long time looking at the picture. At last he packed it up again and locked it in a cupboard and went to bed.
In the morning he was up earlier than usual. He wrote out a label in Roman lettering:—
ACADÉMIE DES BEAUX ARTS,
He was no French scholar, and he felt a little uncertain about the "patron," but he knew the owner of an hotel was a patron, so why not an academy? In any case the Académie officials would get it.
Then he strolled out at his usual time and went to an obscure post-office where he was not known.
"Will you register this, please?" he said, to the girl.
He was handed the receipt and sighed and went out into the street. He hummed to himself a passage of a phrase that was meant to be an excerpt from an Italian opera.
When he arrived at Quinson and Beelswright's he found Shenton standing in his office with his hat and coat on. |
"I'm through with this hole," said the assistant.
"What do you mean?" said Jamesson.
"I'm fed up. D' you understand?" Shenton exclaimed, somewhat hysterically. "I've sent in my resignation to the boss and I'm going. This place is dull—dull—dull! It may be all right for old buffers like you, but it's not romantic enough for me. I'm off to Australia. Nothing ever happens here. It's simply killing me."
Jamesson blew out his cheeks.
"I see," he said.
"They can have my next week's salary," continued Shenton. "I'm going now." And he held out his hand. Jamesson took it.
"So you're going to Australia?" He raised his eyebrows and thought ponderously. Then he said:—
"Well, perhaps you're right. Australia ought to be just the place for a bright boy like you."
He fumbled with his pocket-book, and suddenly produced two five-pound notes.
"Don't think I bear you any animosity, Shenton," he said. "Here is a little something towards your expenses. Perhaps you'll think considerately of me at times."
He gazed heavily at a small pile of letters on his desk.
"They say," he remarked, "that a rolling stone gathers no moss. Well, I suppose that's true, but we all have to roll a bit to find the right sort of moss that suits us. But when you find the moss, Shenton, freeze on to it. Do one thing decently well. It pays in the end."
He hung up his hat and coat.
"If you take my advice," he added, "you'll avoid the detective business. Stick to trade. Even trade has its romance if you only look for it."
The Century Magazine, Apr 1918
Land and Water, Mar 7 and Mar 14 1918
I ought, perhaps, in the first place, to explain that I am, or rather was, a librarian at the suburban library of Chadstow Heath. When I first received this important appointment my salary was eighty pounds a year, but after six years' assiduous application to my duties it was advanced to one hundred and twenty pounds a year. I am married and have two children, and we lived in Gentian Villa, which is convenient to the library and barely ten minutes' walk from the heath itself. This may not represent to you a condition of material prosperity, but I would venture to point out that all these matters are entirely comparative. To a successful sugar broker or a popular comedian I must appear in the light of a pauper. To my own family I have always appeared to be something of a plutocrat. For you must know that I owe my education and whatever advancement I may have made to my own efforts at a national school, and the privileges of continuation classes. My father was a small greengrocer, and his family, which was a very large one and peculiarly prolific, has in no instance except my own risen above the social standard that he set for us. I hope this statement of mine will not sound priggish. It is simply a very bald assertion of truth. All my relatives are dear good people; it is simply that they do not, and never have, taken any interest in what is called education. My brother Albert is a greengrocer, as our father was, and he has seven children. Richard is in a leather-seller's shop. He earns more money than I did, but he has eleven children. Christopher is a packer at the Chadstow Heath Emporium. God has blessed him with three small offspring. Will is unmarried, and I couldn't tell you quite what he does. He is something of a black sheep. My sister Nancy is married—alas! unhappily—to a worthless traveler in cheap jewelry. She has two children. Laura is the wife of an elderly Baptist who keeps a tobacco kiosk on Meadway. She is childless. Louie, my favorite sister, is not married, but she has a child. But her tragedy does not concern this story.
In fact, the details of the entities neither of myself nor of my brothers and sisters are of very great importance in what I want to tell you, beyond the fact that they will give you a clue to the amazing flutter among us that accompanied the appearance of our Uncle Herbert when he arrived from Africa. The truth is that I believe that every one of us had entirely forgotten all about him. Albert and I had a vague recollection of having heard our father refer to a delicate young brother who bolted to South Africa when he was a young man, and had not been heard of since.
But, lo and behold! he turned up one evening suddenly at Gentian Villa when my sister Louie and her child were paying us a visit. At first I thought he was some impostor, and I was almost on the point of warning my wife to keep an eye on the silver butter-dish and the fish-knives which we always displayed with a certain amount of pride on our dining-room sideboard.
He was a little, wizened old man with a bald head and small beady eyes. He had a way of sucking in his lips and continually nodding his head. He was somewhat shabbily dressed except for a heavy gold watch and chain. He appeared to be intensely anxious to be friendly with us all. He got the names and addresses of the whole family from me, and stated that he was going to settle down and live somewhere in London.
When one had got over his nervy, fussy way of behaving, there was something about the little man that was rather lovable. He stayed a couple of hours and promised to call again the next day. We laughed about him after he had gone, and, as relatives will, discussed his possible financial position. We little dreamed of the surprising difference Uncle Herbert was going to make to us all.
He called on all the family in rotation, and wherever he went he took little presents and made himself extremely affable and friendly. He told us that he had bought a house and was having it "done up a bit." And then, to our surprise, we discovered that he had bought "Silversands," which, as you know, is one of the largest houses on Chadstow Heath. It is, as Albert remarked, "more like a palace," a vast red-brick structure standing in its own grounds, which are surrounded by a high wall.
I shall never forget the day when we were all, including the children, invited to go and spend the afternoon and evening. We wandered about the house and garden spellbound, doubting how to behave, and being made to feel continually self-conscious by the presence of some half-dozen servants. It would be idle to pretend that the house was decorated in the best of taste. It was lavish in every sense of the word. The keynote was an almost exuberant gaiety. It was nearly all white woodwork or crimson mahogany, with brilliant floral coverings. Masses of naturalistic flowers rose at you from the carpet and the walls. And the electric lights! I've never in my life seen so many brackets and electroliers. I do not believe there was a cubic foot of space in the house that was not brightly illuminated. And in this gay setting Uncle Herbert became the embodiment of hospitality itself, about among us, shaking hands, patting the heads of the children, passing trays of rich cakes and sandwiches. The younger children were sent home early in the evening, laden with toys, and we elders stayed on to supper. And, heavens! what a supper it was! The table was covered with lobster salads and cold turkey and chicken and ham and everything one could think of. On the side-table were rows of bottles of beer and claret and stout and whisky, and as if a concession to the social status of his guests, uncle dismissed the servants, and we waited on ourselves. The little man sat at the head of the table and blinked and nodded and winked at us, and he kept on repeating:
"Now, boys and girls, enjoy yourselves. Albert, cut a bit o' fowl for Nancy. 'Erbert, my boy, pass the 'am to yer aunt."
Uncle was the life and soul of the party, and it need hardly be said that we soon melted to his mood. I observed that he himself ate very little and did not drink at all. For an oldish man, whose digestion was probably not what it had been, this was not a very remarkable phenomenon. I should probably not have commented upon it but for the fact that it was the first personal trait of my uncle that arrested my attention, and that, in conjunction with more peculiar characteristics, caused me to keep a closer watch upon him in the days that followed. For this supper-party was but the nucleus of a series of supper-parties. It was given out that "Silversands" was an open house. We were all welcome at any time. Uncle was never so happy as when the house was full of laughing children, or when his large circle of relatives chattered round the groaning board and ate and drank the prodigal delicacies he supplied. Not only were we welcome, but any friends we cared to take were welcome also. I have known thirty-three of us to sit down to supper there on a Sunday evening. On these occasions all the house was lighted up, and, in fact, I have no recollection of going there when every electric light and fitting was not fulfilling its utmost function.
Apart from abstemiousness, the characteristic of uncle which immediately gripped my attention was what I will call abstraction.
It was, indeed, a very noticeable characteristic. He had a way of suddenly shrinking within himself and apparently being oblivious to his surroundings. He would make some gay remark and then suddenly stop and stare into space, and if you spoke to him, he would not answer for some moments.
Another peculiarity was that he would never speak of Africa or of his own affairs. He had a convenient deafness that assailed him at awkward moments. He seemed to be in a frenzy of anxiety to be always surrounded by his own family and the ubiquitous electric lights. When the house was quite in order I do not think he went out at all except into the garden.
He was scrupulously impartial in his treatment of us all; in fact he had a restless, impersonal way of distributing his favors as though he were less interested in us as individual persons as anxious to surround himself with a loving and sympathetic atmosphere. Nevertheless,—and it may quite possibly have been an illusion,—I always felt that he leaned a little more toward me than toward the others, perhaps because I was called after him. He always called me "'Erb, boy," and there were times when he seemed instinctively to draw me apart as though he wanted to hide behind me. Realizing his disinclination to indulge in personal explanation, I respected the peculiarity and talked of impersonal things or remained silent.
It was, I think, Albert who was the most worried by uncle's odd tricks. I remember he came to me one night in the smoking-room after a particularly riotous supper-party, and he said:
"I say, 'Erbert,"—all my family call me 'Erbert,—"what I'd like to know is, what is uncle staring at all the time?"
I knew quite well what he meant, but I pretended not to, and Albert continued:
"Of course it's all right. It's no business of ours, but it's a very rum thing. He laughs and talks and suddenly he leaves off and then he stares—and stares—and stares into space."
I mumbled something about uncle's age and his memory wandering, but Albert was not to be satisfied and he whispered:
"How do you think the old boy made his money? Why don't he never say anything about it?"
I could offer no satisfactory explanation, and we dropped the subject. But a month or so later our interests were all set more vividly agog by uncle's behavior, for he suddenly expressed his determination not merely to entertain us as usual, but to help us in a more substantial way. He bought and stocked a new shop for Albert, He set Richard up in business and gave Christopher a partnership in it. He paid Will's passage out to Canada and gave him two hundred pounds to start on. (I believe Will had already been trying to borrow money from him, with what result I do not know.) He offered me some light secretarial work to do for him in my spare time, for which he agreed to pay me sixty pounds a year. As for the girls, he bought them a life annuity bringing them in fifty pounds a year.
I need hardly say that this new development created considerable joy and sensation in our family, and our interest in and respect for Uncle Herbert became intense. I felt very keen to start on my "light secretarial duties," and at the back of my mind was the thought that now I should have an opportunity to get some little insight into uncle's affairs. But in this I was disappointed. He only asked me to go on two evenings a week, and then it was to help check certain expenses in connection with the household, and also to begin collecting a library for him. I made no further progress of an intimate nature. The next step of progression in this direction, indeed, was made by Albert, somewhat under cover of the old adage, in vino Veritas. For on the night after Albert's new shop was opened we all supped at uncle's, and Albert, I'm afraid, got a little drunk. He was, in any case, very excited and garrulous, and he and Christopher and I met in the smoking-room late in the evening, and Albert was very mysterious. I would like to reproduce what he said in his own words. He shut the door carefully and tiptoed across the room.
"Look here, boys," he said. "The old man beats me. There's something about all this I don't like."
"Don't be a fool," I remarked. "What's the trouble?"
Albert walked restlessly up and down the room; then he said:
"I've been watching all the evening. He gets worse. I begin to feel frightened by him at moments. To-night when they were all fooling about, I happened to stroll through the conservatory, and suddenly I comes across uncle. He was sitting all alone, his elbows on his knees, staring into space. ''Ullo, Uncle!' I says. He starts and trembles like, and then he says, ''Ullo, Albert, my boy!' I says, 'You feeling all right. Uncle?' and he splutters about and says: 'Yes, yes, I'm all right. 'Ow do yer think your business will go, Albert?' he says. I felt in a queer sort of defiant mood—I'd had nearly half a bottle of port—and suddenly I says straight out, 'What sort of place is Africa, Uncle?' His little eyes blazed at me for a moment, and I thought he was going to lose his temper. Then he stops, and gives a sort of whimper, and sinks down again on his knees. He made a funny noise as if he was goin' to cry. Then he says in that husky voice: 'Efrica? Efrica? Oh, Efrica's a funny place, Albert. It's big—' He stretched out his little arms, and sat there as though he was dreamin'. Then he continues, 'In the cities it's struggle and struggle and struggle, one man 'gainst another, no mercy, no quarter.' And suddenly he caught hold of my arm and he says, 'You can't help it, can yer, Albert, if one man gets on, and another man goes under?' I didn't know what to say, and he seems to shrink away from me, and he stops and he stares and stares and stares, and then he says in a kind of whisper: 'Then you get out on the plains—and it's all silent—and you 're away up in the karoo, and there's just the great stone slabs—and nothing but yer solitude and yer thoughts and the moon above. And it is all so still—' Then he stops again, and suddenly raises his little arm and points. Christ! for all the world as though he was pointin' at somethin' 'appenin' out there on the karoo!"
Christopher rose from his seat and walked to the window. He was pale.
"Don't be a fool, Albert," he said. "What does it matter? Ain't 'e done you all right? Ain't 'e set you up in the green-grocery?"
Albert looked wildly round, and licked the end of a cigarette which had gone out.
"I don't see that there's anything we can do," I remarked unconvincingly.
Albert wiped his brow.
"No," he argued; "it ain't our business. It's only that sometimes I—"
He did not finish his remark, and we three brothers looked at one another furtively.
And then began one of those curious telepathic experiences that play so great a part in the lives of all of us. I have complained that none of my brothers or sisters showed any leaning toward education or mental advancement of any sort, but I have not perhaps insisted that despite this it was one of our boasts that we were an honest family. Even Will, despite his recklessness and certain vicious traits, had always played the game. Albert and Richard and Christopher had been perilously poor, but I do not believe that they would have ever acted in a deliberately dishonest or mean fashion. I don't think I would myself, although I had had perhaps rather less temptation. And despite our variety of disposition and trade, we were a fairly united family. We understood one another.
The advent of Uncle Herbert and his peculiar behavior reacted upon us unfavorably. With the accession of this unexpected wealth and security we became suspicious of one another. Moreover, when we brothers met together after the evening I have just described, we looked at one another half knowingly, and the slogan, "It ain't no business of mine," became charged with the acid of mutual recrimination. As far as possible we avoided any intimate discussion, and kept the conversation on a detached plane. We were riotously merry, unduly affectionate, and, according to all the rules of the game, undeniably guilty.
What was uncle staring at? I would sometimes wake up in the night and begin feverishly visualizing all sorts of strange and untoward episodes. What were these haunting fears at the back of his mind? Why was he so silent on the primal facts of his position? I knew that in their individual ways all my brothers and sisters were undergoing a similar period of trial. I could tell by their eyes.
The naked truth kept jogging our elbows, that this money from which we were benefiting, that brought us SO much pleasure and comfort, had been acquired in some dishonest way or even over the corpse of some tragic episode.
He spent nearly all his time in the garden, dividing it into little circles and oblongs and triangles of geranium-beds, and at the bottom he had a rock garden, and fruit trees on the south wall. He seemed to know a lot about it.
In the winter he stayed indoors, and became frailer and more pathetic in his manner, and more dependent upon our society. It is difficult to know how much he followed the effects of his liberality. He developed a manner of asking one excitedly all about one's affairs and then not listening to the reply. If he had observed things closely he would have noted that in nearly every case his patronage had had unfortunate results. Richard and Christopher quarreled and dissolved their partnership. Albert's business failed. Nancy's husband threw up his work and led a frankly depraved life on the strength of his wife's settled income. An adventurer named Ben Cotton married my sister Louie, obviously because she had a little money. Laura quarreled with her husband, the Baptist, and on the strength of her new independence left him, and the poor man hanged himself a few months later.
To all these stories of misadventure and trouble Uncle Herbert listened with a great show of profuse sympathy, but it was patent that their real significance did not get through to him. He always acted lavishly and impulsively. He set Albert up in business again. He started both Christopher and Richard independently. He gave the girls more money, and sent a preposterous wreath to the Baptist's funeral. He did not seem to mind what he did for us, provided we continued to laugh and jest round his generous board.
It is curious that this cataclysm in our lives affected Albert more than any of us. Perhaps because he was in his way more temperamental. He began to lose a grip on his business and to drink.
He came to me one night in a very excited state. It appeared that on the previous evening he had come home late and had been drinking. One of the children annoyed him, a boy named Andrew, and Albert had struck him on the head harder that he had meant to. There had very nearly been a tragedy. His wife had been very upset and threatened to leave him.
Albert cried in a maudlin fashion, and said he was very unhappy. He wished Uncle Herbert had never turned up. Then he recalled the night in the conservatory, when Uncle Herbert had talked about Africa.
"I believe there was dirty work," said Albert. "I believe he did some one down. He killed him out there on the karoo and robbed him of his money."
"It ain't no business of ours." The phrase came to my mind, but I did not use it. I was worried myself. I suggested that we should have a family meeting and discuss the best thing to do, and Albert agreed. But the meeting itself nearly ended in another tragedy. Albert dominated it. He said we must all go to uncle and say to him straight out:
"Look here, this is all very well, but you've got to tell us how you made your money."
And Christopher replied:
"Yes, I dare say. And then he'll cut up rusty, and tell us all to go to hell, and go away. And then where will we be?"
Louie and I agreed with Albert, but all the rest backed Christopher, and the discussion became acrimonious and at times dangerous. We broke up without coming to any decision, but with Albert asserting vehemently that he was going the next day on his own responsibility to settle the matter. He and Christopher nearly came to blows.
We were never in a position to do more than speculate upon what the result of that interview would have been, because it never took place. In the morning we heard that uncle was dead. He had died the previous evening while receiving a visitor, suddenly, of heart failure, at the very time when we were arguing about him.
When we went round to the house, the servants told us that an elderly gentleman had called about nine o'clock the night before. He gave the name of Josh. He looked like a seaman of some sort. Uncle Herbert had appeared dazed when he heard the name. He told them in a faint voice to show the stranger in. They were alone less than five minutes, when the stranger came out, and called them into the hall.
"Something queer has happened," was all he said.
They found uncle lying in a huddled heap by the Chesterfield. A doctor was sent for, but he was dead. During the excitement of the shock Mr. Josh disappeared and had not been seen since. But later in the afternoon he called and said that if there was to be any inquest, he was willing to come and give evidence. He left an address.
Of course there was a post-mortem, and I need hardly say that all our interest was concentrated on this mysterious visitor. He was a tall, elderly man with a gray pointed beard, a sallow complexion, and a face on which the marks of a hard and bitter life of struggle had left their traces.
The case was very simple and uneventful. The doctor said that death was due to heart-failure, possibly caused by some sudden shock. The heart in any case was in a bad state. The servants gave evidence of the master's general disposition and of the visit of the stranger. When Mr. Josh was called, he spoke in a loud, rather raspish voice, like a man calling into the wind. He simply stated that he was an old friend of Mr. Herbert Read's. He had known him for nearly twenty-five years in South Africa. Happening to be in London, he looked him up in a telephone directory, and paid him an unexpected visit. They had spoken for a few moments, and Mr. Read had appeared very pleased and excited at meeting him again. Then suddenly he had put up his hands and fallen forward. That was all. The coroner thanked him for his evidence, and a verdict of "Death from natural causes" was brought in.
When the case was over, I approached Mr. Josh and asked him if he would come back to the house with us. He nodded in a nonchalant manner and followed me out. On the way back I made vain attempts to draw him out, but he was as uncommunicative as Uncle Herbert himself. He merely repeated what he had said at the inquest. We had lunch, and a curiously constrained meal it was, all of us speaking in little self-conscious whispers, with the exception of Albert, who didn't speak at all, and Mr. Josh, who occasionally shouted "Yes," or "No, thank you," in a loud voice.
At three o'clock Uncle Herbert's lawyer arrived, and we were all called into the drawing-room for the reading of the will. I asked Mr. Josh to wait for us, and he said he would. It need hardly be said that we were all in a great state of trepidation. I really believe that both Albert and I would have been relieved if it were proved that uncle had died bankrupt. If we did indulge in this unaccountable arrière-pensée we were quickly doomed to disappointment. The lawyer, speaking in a dry, unimpressive voice, announced that "as far as he could for the moment determine," Herbert Read had left between sixty-five and seventy thousand pounds. Thirty thousand of this was bequeathed to various charitable institutions in South Africa, and the residue of the estate was to be divided equally between his nephews and nieces. I shall never forget the varied expressions on the faces of my brothers and sisters when each one realized that he or she was to inherit between four and five thousand pounds. We gasped and said nothing, though I remember Christopher, when the reading was finished, mumbling something to the lawyer. I think he asked him if he'd like a drink. I know the lawyer merely glared at him, coughed, and said nothing.
When he had taken his departure in a frigidly ceremonious manner, we all seemed too numbed to become garrulous. It was a dull day, and a fine rain was driving against the window-panes. We sat about smoking and looking at one another and occasionally whispering in strained voices. We might have been a collection of people waiting their turn on the guillotine rather than a united family who had just inherited a fortune. Mr. Josh had gone out for a stroll during the reading of the will, and we were all strangely anxious to see him. He appeared to be our last link that might bind the chain of our earthly prospects to a reasonable stake.
He returned about five o'clock and strolled carelessly into the room, nodding at us in a casual and indifferent manner as he seated himself.
We gave him some tea, and he lighted a cheroot. And then each of us in turn made our effort to draw him out. We began casually; then we put leading questions and tried to follow them up quickly. But Mr. Josh was apparently not to be drawn. He evidently disliked us or was bored with us and made no attempt to illuminate the dark shadows of our doubts. Perhaps he rather enjoyed the game. The room began to get dark, and we slunk back into the gloom and gradually subsided into silence. We sat there watching the stranger; the red glow of his cheroot seemed the only vital thing.
It was Albert, as usual, who broke the spell. He suddenly got up and walked to the window; then he turned and cried out:
"Well, I don't know about all you. But I know about myself. I'm not going to touch a penny of this damned money."
I was sitting quite near our visitor, and in the half-light I saw a strange look come into his eye. It was as though for the first time something interested him. He started, and I said as quickly as I could:
"Why not, Albert?"
"Because the money's not clean," he shouted into the room.
I don't know how it was that none of the others took this up. But we all sat there looking at the stranger. It was as though we waited breathlessly upon a verdict that he alone could give. He looked round at us, and carefully flicking the end of his cheroot, he obliged us with this epigram:
"No money is clean. It passes through too many hands."
We waited for more, but nothing came. Then Albert bore down on him with a tempestuous movement.
"Look here," he said. "I don't know anything about you. But you knew Uncle 'Erbert for twenty-five years. For God's sake, tell us how he made his money."
The stranger looked at him, and blew smoke between his teeth; then he said slowly:
"Made his money? Your uncle never made more than two or three hundred a year in his life."
"Ah, I knew it!" exclaimed Albert.
Whether it was the result of my brother's forceful manner or whether it was the atmosphere of suspense that urged him to it, I do not know. But certain it is that at that point our visitor sank back languidly in his chair and spoke:
"I'll tell you what I know."
We none of us moved, but we leaned forward and watched him as he proceeded:
"In the spring of eighteen-forty-five," he began, "two young men set out from England to seek their fortunes in South Africa. Their names were Jules Lynneker and Karl Banstow. They were of the same age, and were filled with the wildest hopes and dreams. They were, moreover, devoted to each other, and their only difference was one of temperament. Lynneker was essentially a dreamer and something of a poet, with a great gift of imagination. Banstow was a hard-headed, hard-working man of affairs. Now in this case, which do you think would be the successful one? You would naturally put your money on Banstow. And you would be wrong every time. For a year or two they worked together, and then Banstow was offered an overseer's job in a tin-mine. They continued to live together, but their work separated them. Lynneker was employed on an ostrich farm. The ostrich farm was a huge success, but the tin-mine failed."
That seemed to make the beginning of their divergence. Whatever Lynneker touched, succeeded; whatever Banstow touched, failed.
"Lynneker was a careless, easy-going person, but he had a native genius. He could control men. Men loved him and followed him and would do anything he told them. He was casual in his details. He dreamed in millions and had the unique faculty of spotting the right man for a job. There was something about the man, a curious mesmeric fascination, a breadth—" Mr. Josh paused, and knocked the ash of his cheroot into a tray. Then he continued: "Banstow worked like a slave. He sat up half the night scheming and plotting. He was infallible in his calculations and then—he just missed. He didn't inspire any one. He misjudged men, and men didn't believe in him. As the years went on, and Lynneker became more and more successful, and Banstow made no progress, the thing began to get on Banstow's nerves. He quarreled with his friend, and they became rivals. The injustice of it all infuriated Banstow. He worked, and Lynneker lazed and dreamed and yet won every time. They went into the diamond-mining industry, and Lynneker began amassing a great fortune in a careless, haphazard way. Again Banstow failed. In ten years' time Lynneker was an immensely rich man, and Banstow was a bankrupt clerk in a labor bureau. Then one day in a mood of sullen resentment he hatched a diabolical plot against Lynneker. He bribed some Kafirs, and tried to get Lynneker convicted of illicit diamond-buying. By the merest fluke the plot was discovered, and it was Banstow who was convicted. He was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. He served his term in full. In the meantime Lynneker became a bigger man in Africa. He lived in Johannesburg and owned great blocks of offices. But he always remained a dreamer. Sometimes he would ride out at night into the karoo. They say he dreamed of a united Africa. I don't know. He certainly wrote poetry in the intervals of amassing money. Two weeks after Banstow was released from prison Lynneker's body was found out in the karoo, with a bullet through his heart. He had ridden out alone one night, and as he hadn't returned, they sent out a search-party and found him the next day. Banstow was suspected, but apparently he had escaped. Nothing more was seen of him."
The stranger paused and then languidly lighted another cheroot. The interval seemed so indefinite that at last Albert said:
"Where does Uncle Herbert come in?"
"Your Uncle Herbert was a cipher," replied our visitor. "He was merely one of the people who came under the influence of Lynneker. As a matter of fact, I believe he was one of the worst cases. He worshiped Lynneker. Lynneker was the obsession of his life. He acted as secretary for him for his vast charitable concerns. And when Lynneker was found dead, he nearly went off his head. He howled like a terrier who has lost his master." He glanced round at us, and in the dim light I thought I detected a sneer of contempt.
"Lynneker died a millionaire," he proceeded, "and among other legacies he left your uncle certain blocks of mining shares which were probably worth about forty or fifty thousand pounds. That's how he made his money."
There was a gasp of relief round the room, and Albert wiped his brow.
"Then the money was straight enough, after all," he said huskily.
The chilling voice of the stranger came through the darkness:
"As straight as any money can be."
Richard stood up and moved to the mantelpiece.
"Why the hell couldn't he tell us about this before, then? Why was he so secret?"
"Herbert Read had no nerves. The thing broke him up. Banstow had also been a friend of his at one time, and he was convinced that Banstow had killed his master. He had periods of melancholia. The doctors told him that unless he went away for a change and tried to get it out of his head, he would be in an asylum in a few months. And so I suppose he came over here. But his heart was still affected, and when I gave him the news I did last week, the shock finished him."
We all started.
"That Banstow was innocent. I was able to show him a certificate from the master of the Birmingham, proving that on the night of the murder Banstow was a steerage-passenger on board his ship, seventy-three miles east-northeast of the Azores. Lynneker was probably shot by some vagrant thief. Certainly his watch and all his money were missing."
We all peered at the man hidden in the recesses of the easy-chair, and Albert said:
"How was it you had this information?"
The figure crossed its legs, and the voice replied languidly:
"I was interested. I happen to be Karl Banstow!"
Albert groped past me on tiptoe, muttering:
"In God's name, where is the electric-light switch?"
It is a curious fact regarding these telepathic processes I have hinted at in this chronicle of our uncle's return that from the day when it was demonstrated that the money we had inherited was to all intents and purposes clean, our own little affairs seemed to take their cue from this consciousness. Certain it is that since that time everything seems to have prospered for us. You should see Albert's shops, particularly the one on the Broadway, where he is still not too proud to serve himself. As for myself, as I am now in a position to lead the indolent life of a scribe in this little manor-house up in the Cotswolds, and as this position is due entirely to the generosity of Uncle Herbert, it seems only right and proper that I should begin my literary career by recounting the story of his return.
The Century Magazine, November 1918
The Century Magazine, December 1918
They only who build on Ideas, build for Eternity.—Emerson
It is many years now since I knew you, Anna. We used to meet on certain fine mornings in the gardens of the Tuileries. I don't think we had ever been introduced, but we were great friends. I was quite a man already; nearly sixteen, in fact. I don't know how old you were, Anna, you were always such a baffling mixture of motherliness and sheer infancy. I remember you now in your plaid frock, with your pigtail tied with a large black bow, your chubby face, and your shining eyes. Life was simply a tremendous business to you. You used to arrive encumbered by two brothers, a bull-dog, a nurse with a real baby, a toy pram with two unreal babies, one plain, the other colored, a large kite, some colored picture-books, and occasionally a father. Once in the gardens you would shake off these encumbrances, or, if you did not entirely shake them off, you dominated them. Your vitality was irresistible, your laughter contagious, your immediate power over men and women, and even small boys, a thing not to be denied. And there were so many important things to be done in the gardens, and all to be done quickly, tempestuously, and at the same time. Action, invention, romance tumbled over one another in the terrific fulfilment of those crowded hours.
I was your slave from the first, Anna. You told me frankly all about yourself as we sat upon the grass under the chestnut-trees. You told me all about your brothers and your nurse and your bull-dog and your kite and your father and the two dolls, Iris and Daphne (I am sure you remember Daphne, the colored one), and about your home in Connecticut, embellishing it with vivid stories about a mule and a colored gardener, and Aunt Alice and Uncle Ted and popcorn and a dandy canoe you and your brothers had upon the lake at home, where you played redskins and cow-boys. I was breathless under the spell of these epic adventures. Sometimes I was allowed to release the slack as you ran with the kite. In more favored moments I was allowed to run with the kite myself. So great was your power over me that I even humbled my manly pride by making a patchwork quilt for Daphne, that the colored darling should sleep peacefully in the shade while we sought more stirring adventures in the remote parts of the gardens.
It was in connection with this that the great and tragic episode occurred. I am writing this after all these years in the hope that you may remember it. In one corner of the gardens a group of small and rather dirty boys used to congregate. One of their favorite amusements was to bring an old egg-box stuffed with straw, which served as a cage wherein were kept some half-dozen white mice. The boys would set this on the ground and then release the mice and play with them. They would sometimes let the whole lot go for a considerable distance, and then would follow a round-up. I recollect how intensely interested you were in the white mice, but you always looked upon the "round-up" with some misgiving. The boys would shriek, and chivvy the mice until the wretched things were in a perfect state of panic. One day you felt it incumbent upon you to address them on the subject, and you told them they ought not to do it, and that it was very cruel to frighten dumb creatures. The boys were quite surprised and cowed by your outburst for the moment; but I fear that that devilish streak of cruelty and perversity which lurks in the breast of nearly every small boy was only whipped to a finer point of reaction by your tirade, for on the following day I have the idea that they were lying in wait for us. In any case, when we approached there was such a yelling and shouting and rushing hither and thither that all the Apaches from the Paris prisons might have been let loose. I observed your face light up with a sudden passion, and you rushed forward into the group, calling out:
You singled out the biggest boy, who was leaping backward and forward over a mouse, and clutched the tail of his coat. And then the tragedy happened. Coming down before he intended to, he brought his heel right down on to the hind quarters of the mouse. It was not a moment for sweet reasonableness. You, with tears of passion in your eyes, screamed:
"You little devil!"
You managed to seize a handful of his face, and push him over backward. And the boy jumped up and kicked your shins. In truly heroic fashion I knocked the boy down again and held him there (I suppose I must remind you that I was much bigger than he was). And then the other boys collected, and the pandemonium became indescribable. One of them pulled your hair, but you soon dealt satisfactorily with him, and they all talked and gesticulated at once. Fortunately, the majority of them were more immediately concerned with rounding up the other mice, which by this time had got a long way off. And your attention was concentrated on the wounded mouse. You looked at it with horror. It was obviously past recall. Both its back legs were broken and its body crushed. It was dying. You wrung your hands.
"Kill it!" you said to me, peremptorily.
And then came to me one of those weak moments which I suppose we are all prone to, and which we ever afterward regret. I blinked at the mouse hopelessly, but I simply couldn't bring myself to kill it. You looked at the other boys and stamped your feet.
"Tuez! tuez!" you exclaimed.
But the big boy, whom by this time I had let go, merely broke out into a torrent of incomprehensible argot, and the others were still busy catching the other mice. I observed you glance desperately around. Suddenly you picked up a piece of board that had come off the egg-box. Your face was white and set. Your movements were deliberate and tense. You knelt on the grass above the mouse, and the idea occurred to me, ridiculously perhaps, that at that moment you looked like Joan of Arc kneeling at prayer, her head bent over her sword. And then you killed the mouse. You killed it thoroughly.
You arose without a word, and your face was still pale and set, and you strode away across the grass. I followed you, and the boys followed me, talking volubly. At length, I remember, I gave them a franc. I salved my conscience with the reflection that a white mouse must have a monetary value, and that we might have been indirectly responsible for its loss. If we had not interfered it would probably have had a longer and more harassed existence. In any case, the boys left us apparently satisfied.
When we were out of sight of them, you suddenly sat down on the grass and cried. And you cried and cried and cried. And, like the booby I was, all I could say was:
"Anna, don't cry! Anna! Anna!"
After a time you sat up and wiped your eyes.
"It's all right," you said. Then you got up, and we walked on. I felt curiously self-conscious and ashamed. I was aware of not having played so glorious a part in the morning's proceedings as I should have liked; moreover, I felt that you had gone beyond me. You had proved yourself a more competent, a more advanced being. I had disappointed you, and you might never again give me your complete confidence.
However, at the exit to the gardens, where we met nurse, you were quite yourself again. Do you remember all this, Anna? You told nurse that you had had "a dandy time." And when we parted you gave me the old smile, and with a malicious twinkle you added, "Mornin', Mr. Hayseed!"
I know all about that, Anna. I am slow-going and old-fashioned. When I find the world tumbling to pieces I am paralyzed by it, and I yearn for you with your impulse and your genius of youth. The years have come and gone since I saw you. I even doubt whether you would remember me, but I am sure you would remember the incident of the white mice. In these days the gardens of the Tuileries themselves seem shut to me forever, and the world is peopled with querulous old men. Old dynasties tremble and crumble up. Political intrigues reap the fruit of their own sowing. Everything becomes more involved and more difficult. Secret treaties are forged by the few, and quite reasonably repudiated by the many. The old make the laws, and the young pay the price. And how splendidly, how loyally, they do it! And it is always that—the old in their secret chambers, scheming, controlling, and shaking their heads, and the young dying unquestioningly out in the open field, believing. For the young always believe, and the old always doubt.
And if in these days, Anna, I am driven to think of you, it is for a very definite reason. It concerns you and it concerns your country. The Old World is rocking in a death-grip. Everything is thrown into the crucible of hate. The horror of these days is borne only because there lurks in the heart of man a subconscious belief that the horror is to prove a solution; that all the troubles of old days, that all differences and antagonisms, are to vanish. The sword of Damocles will be indeed a myth. If I think of you so intently it is because I am perplexed and worried, and I long for the sound of a young voice again. Let me tell you, for I know that you will understand. I have listened to them all these sages of the Eastern World. And they are very wise and knowing, very cunning and very circumspect; but when it comes to the great thing, the thing which touches all our hearts, they shake their heads.
"No," they say lugubriously. "There always have been wars and there always will be wars."
And when I argue with them, they are so recondite, so full of worldly wisdom. And they quote this act and that act and multiply historical precedents. They speak ponderously of "our national responsibilities," "our ancient rights and privileges"; they crush me with their weight of logic. From across the water I hear the thunder of the guns and the reiteration of the ominous phrases, "The German god," "The German sword." "The German peace." And nearer at home I am further depressed by the arguments of our sages.
"What?" they say, "a league of the nations! An idle term! How could such a thing be worked? Should every nation elect an equal number of delegates? Is the British Empire and all that it entails, embodying a population of four hundred million souls, to be on a par with, let us say, the sovereign state of Bogota, which has a million souls and mostly poets!"
And the politicians' contempt for poets is driven home by that contemptuous shrug.
"There would be no way," they say, "of regulating or controlling such a league. Why, some quite backward states might outvote the British, the French, and the United States! There always have been wars and there always will be wars." I remember it was in such a state of bewilderment as this, and it was in another garden not very far from where I live, that on an evening just as the sun was going down I thought of you again. I had read for the first time some words by a man who will one day be very dear to all the world. He is the President of your country. I was distressed and troubled. The problems and anxieties of national life seemed more and more involved and insoluble, the men in power more rigid and inflexible; and suddenly, as I read the words of President Wilson, I realized that here at last was a man who stood apart from his fellows. Amidst the bitter recrimination of national antagonisms, clear-cut through the chopped logic of the politician, he at least seemed to see things clearly with the eyes of a child. While the others were shouting of "The German god" or of "their national aspirations," he suddenly appeared in the due order of things and spoke quite simply of men and ideas. If he spoke of his country at all, it was only as a medium for the advancement of men, for the freedom of their ideas, for the liberty of their thought. One felt at once that one was in the presence of something big and fundamental, without malice, without ulterior motive, without political intrigue or imperial ambition. And when I read his words, I thought of you, and I thought of America as I shall always think of her, as of a child with shining eyes, disturbed in the pursuit of splendid dreams, quick to grasp realities, quick to act, and quick to forgive. And when the terrible business of killing the mouse has got to be done, it will be done quickly, relentlessly, thoroughly, and though one may weep for the sheer horror of it, the day will come when the tears will be wiped away, and one may smile again in the recognition of the fact that there was no alternative.
And the Old World is waiting for you, for it will not believe, and it knows that you will believe, for you alone have the masterful genius of youth, unaware of perils and difficulties, but with eyes set upon the clear horizon you have set out to reach. And in these days, amidst the maelstrom of conflicting opinion of these wise men of the Eastern World, all who love humanity, all who believe in its ultimate destiny toward a better order of society, are driven to turn their eyes more and more to the west. For the turn of the Western World has come, a world where everything is more fluid and free, where everything is possible and hopeful; in short, the world of youth. It was a Western philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said:
Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions rooted like oak-trees in the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that Society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it.
Emerson may say "the old statesman," but he is essentially the old statesman of the Western World; that is to say, he speaks with the authority of youth. And in these days how terribly we want to believe this, that "some particle may become the center of the movement," that some new hope, some free and novel expression of human ideas, may compel "the whole system to gyrate round it." And that is why we turn with breathless expectancy to the Western World, for it is from there that this new star should rise, guiding the stumbling feet of men to the manger where a new birth will prove to them the salvation of their wavering beliefs. Some little thing may fire this sudden spark; the words of a President, the mood of a congress, an article in a newspaper, some grim material necessity producing a climax of horror, the rise of a world-preacher, the tears of a woman. Whatever it is, it will come, this little point round which the ultimate solutions will revolve. And there is no one I would rather have as a leader in these days than this President of yours; for he reminds me of you, Anna, when you ran with flashing eyes among the boys, and when you knelt there looking like Joan of Arc, and calling out:
And forever after one will weep at the terror of that memory; but the heart is uplifted, and the soul of man made stronger and freer.
Many who play an important part in my life come and go, and I see them no more. And you are one of them, Anna. And in these days I like to think of you. I like to think of you married and surrounded by many fine and "real" children. Perhaps you have sons in France and Flanders, and in that case my heart goes out to you. I know what a mother you will be, and I know that, whatever happens, you will be fine and splendid, strong and courageous, "a mother of men," doing your best, believing in the best, the equipoise of your faith untouched by trouble or anxiety. And on the day when the sun once more looks down serenely on those fair fields now stricken with the horrors of war, I can see those eyes of yours shining with a thankfulness and a wistful pity almost too great to bear, and I can almost hear that mellow voice as you look up at me maliciously, saying "Mornin', Mr. Hayseed!"
The Century Magazine, Jan 1919
The Strand Magazine, February, 1919
Mrs. Huggins's manifestation of antipathy to her prospective son-in-law was a thing to be seen to be believed. She bridled at the sight of him. She lashed him with her tongue on every conceivable occasion. She snubbed, derided, buffeted him. She could find no virtue in his appearance, manners, or character. She hated him with consuming wrath, and did not hesitate to flaunt her animadversion in his face or in the face of her friends or of her daughter Maggie. Maggie was Mrs. Muggins's only child, and Mrs. Huggins was a widow running a boarding-house in Camden Town. Maggie was her ewe-lamb, the light of her existence, whose simple, unsophisticated character had been suddenly, within two months, entirely demoralized by the advent of this meteoric youth. Quentin Livermore had appeared from the blue, when Mrs. Huggins was very distracted at her unlet rooms, and had applied for her first floor, for which he offered a good price. He was a weak-faced, flashy, old-young man, anything between thirty and forty. He dressed gorgeously, lived sumptuously, and was employed in some government department. He was in the house less than twenty-four hours when he began to make love to Maggie, and it was the change in Maggie which particularly annoyed Mrs. Huggins. Maggie was a stenographer in a local store, earning good money, and a simple, natural girl; but when Mr. Livermore appeared on the scene, she began to speak with an affected lisp, to wear fal-lals and gew-gaws, and to do her hair in strange bangs and buns. In a few days they were going out for strolls together after supper. In a fortnight he was taking her to theaters and cinemas. In six weeks they were to all intents and purposes engaged. At least, they said they were engaged. Mrs. Huggins said they were not. In fact, she told her friend Mrs. O'Neil, in-the private bar of the Staff of Life, that she would "see that slobberin' shark damned" before he should go off with her Mag.
But on the morning when this story begins Mrs. Huggins was in a very perturbed state. It was a pleasant June morning, and she had finished her housework. She sat down to enjoy a well-merited glass of stout and to review the situation. Maggie had gone away for a few days' holiday, to stay with some cousins in Essex, and the evening before she had left there had been a terrible rumpus. Maggie had come home with her hair bobbed, looking like some wretched office-boy. After Mrs. Huggins had vented her opinion upon this contemptible metamorphosis and had cried a little, she went out, and, returning late in the evening, found her Maggie lolling on a couch in Mr. Livermore's room, smoking cigarettes and drinking port wine! It was a climax in every sense, and to add to her misfortune the Bean family, who occupied the third and a part of the fourth floor, suddenly left to go and live at Mendon, near the aeroplane works, where they were nearly all employed.
Mrs. Huggins had now no lodgers except the insufferable Mr. Livermore. It would be impossible to keep up her refined establishment on the twenty-five shillings a week that Livermore paid her without breaking into her hard-earned savings. But this fact did not disturb Mrs. Huggins so much as the difficulty of furthering a more ambitious project, which was nothing less than to get rid of Mr. Livermore while Maggie was away.
Mrs. Huggins blew the froth off the stout, took a long draft, wiped her mouth on her apron, and then continued to ponder upon the problem. No light came to her, and she was about to repeat the operation when she was disturbed by the clatter of a four-wheeled cab driving up to the front door. She looked up through the kitchen window and beheld a strange sight. The cab was laden with a most peculiar collection of trunks and boxes, and, standing by the front doorstep, was a fat man holding a cage with a canary in one hand and a violin-case in the other.
"Ah, a new lodger at last!" thought Mrs. Huggins, and she slipped off her apron and hurried up-stairs. When she opened the front door, she noticed that the fat man had thick spectacles, a Homburg hat much too small for his head, and a tuft of yellow beard between two of his innumerable chins. He put down the canary and removed his hat.
"Have I the honor to speak to the honored Mrs. Huggins?" he said.
"Mrs. Huggins is my name," answered that lady.
"Ah, so? May I a word with you?" He walked deliberately into the hall and once more set down the canary and the violin. He then produced a sheaf of papers.
"I have been recommended. May I have the pleasure of your hospitality for some time?"
"I have some rooms to let," replied Mrs. Huggins, evasively.
He bowed, and blew his nose.
"I must eggsplain in ze first place, goot lady, I am a Sherman."
There was a perceptible pause while the two eyed each other; then Mrs. Huggins said explosively:
"Oh, I can't take no dirty 'Uns in my 'ouse."
It might perhaps be mentioned at this point that the speech of Mrs. Huggins was always characterized by directness and force. The Hun bowed once more and replied:
"The matter is already at your disposition, good lady. I state my case. If you gan gonsider it, I gan assure you that all my papers are in order. The London poliss officers know me. I report to zem. I have my passports, my permits. Everything in order. I pay you vell."
Mrs. Huggins blinked at the German and blinked at the cab. The cab looked somewhat imposing, with its large trunks, and the German's face was eminently homely and kind. Her eye wandered from it to the canary, and then along the wall to the hall stand, and came to a stop at Livermore's felt hat. She equivocated.
"What sort of rooms do you want?" she said.
At this compromise of tone the Hun assumed the arbitrariness of his race. He put his things down on the hall chairs and became voluble and convincing. He was a watch- and clock-maker. His business in Hackney had been destroyed by fire. He had been offered an excellent position at a colleague's in Camden Town, the said colleague being sick and in urgent need of help. He was simple in his requirements; a bed, a breakfast, occasionally a supper. His name was Schmidt, Karl Schmidt. He was willing to pay three pounds a week for the rooms, payment in advance. He had endless "regommendations." Mrs. Huggins found herself following him up and down stairs, helping him in with trunks, and listening abstractedly. In a vague way she took to the Hun, and her mind was active with a scheme to use him for her own ends. All the trunks were installed in the third-floor rooms, and she observed him take out an old string purse and say to the cabman:
"Now have we all the paggages installed. So."
He paid the cabman, came into the hall, and shut the door. He walked ponderously up-stairs, humming to himself. Mrs. Huggins heard him busy with bunches of keys, opening and shutting trunks and putting things away in drawers. The whole thing had happened so suddenly that Mrs. Huggins still could not decide her course of action. She went down-stairs and put some potatoes on to boil. After a time she heard the Hun coming heavily down to the hall again. She went up to meet him. He waved three one-pound treasury-notes in the air and placed them on the hall-table.
"Mrs. Huggins," he said, "please to be goot enough to allow me to present you with zese. I shall be very gomfortable here. It is all satisfactory. I go now to my colleague in pizness. Then I go to eggsplain to the poliss. It is all in order. Yes. I shall not be returnable since zis evening, perhaps eight o'gloch, perhaps nine o'gloch. In any vay, I gom back before ten o'gloch. Oh, yes, before ten o'gloch." He laughed boisterously, bowed, and went out. Mrs. Huggins stared at the door, then went to the window and watched him cross the street.
"Well, I'm demned!" she muttered to herself, and fingered the three crisp treasury-notes in her hand. She went up to his room and touched all his trunks and small effects. Most of his things were locked up. She said, "Cheep! cheep!" to the canary three times, and then went down-stairs and had her dinner.
And that afternoon Mrs. Huggins became very busy. In apron, and with bare arms and a broom, she worked as she had not worked for months. The details may be spared, but the principal effect must be observed that by six-thirty that evening all Herr Fritz's luggage and effects had been installed in the first-floor room, and all Mr. Quentin Livermore's property had been piled up in a heap in the hall!
We shall also take the liberty of passing over the details of the interview which took place between Mrs. Huggins and Mr. Livermore when he came in at seven o'clock that evening on his way to change his clothes and go down West to dine. It need only be said that the accumulated antipathy of their two months' intercourse reached a climax. There may have been faults on both sides, but Mrs. Huggins was in one of her most masterful moods, and she was, moreover, armed with a brush. Mr. Livermore had only a cane and his superciliousness. He was, indeed, rather frightened, and his sneering comments on her personal appearance had little sting. His ultimate decision to leave at once and go over to Mrs. Hayward's, so that he would still be where Maggie would find him, and where, in any case, it was tolerably clean, and the landlady knew how to cook, was the only shaft which told at all, for Mrs. Hayward and Mrs. Huggins were notorious rivals. In the end a cab was secured, and by eight o'clock the triumphant Mrs. Huggins had slammed the door on her hated lodger, with a final threat that "if she saw 'im going about with 'er gal she'd bang 'im over the chops with a broom."
So excited and exhilarated was Mrs. Huggins by her victory that when he had gone, she felt it incumbent upon her to dash down to the Staff of Life for ten minutes to get a glass of beer and to unburden herself to Mrs. O'Neil. Not finding her friend there, she had two glasses of beer and hurried back. On arriving at the corner of her street she had another surprise. A taxi was standing outside her door, and a short gentleman with a dark mustache and pointed beard was banging on her door and looking up at the windows.
"Gawd's truth! What is it now?" muttered Mrs. Huggins, hurrying up.
On approaching the stranger, he turned and looked at her.
"Well, what is it?" she asked.
The gentleman smiled very charmingly and made an elaborate bow.
"Ah," he exclaimed, "so at last I have the pleasure of addressing the charming Madame Huggins! Madame, my compliments. May I address you on a professional mattare?"
He slipped a visiting-card into her hand on which was printed, "M. Jules de la Roche, 29B rue Dormi, Paris."
Mrs. Huggins stared at the card and opened her front door.
"O my Gawd!" was all that occurred to her to remark. The Frenchman—for so he apparently was—bowed again, and followed her into the hall.
"You must pardon my precipitate manners," he said. "I am very pressed. I am in London on business connected with the French Red Cross. I have a peculiar dislike to hotels, and a lady I met in the train was kind enough to refer me to your charming pension. I shall owe you a thousand thanks if you will be kind enough to allow me to enjoy your hospitality if only for a few days, or perhaps weeks. Whatever you can do—" He waved his arms and looked quickly, almost beseechingly, round the little hall.
Mrs. Huggins wiped her mouth on her apron, and stared at the Frenchman.
"Well, this is a rum go!" she remarked I at last. "I've got a German on the first floor, a nice, quiet feller. And now you 're a Frenchy! Now, look here; if I take you in, I'm not goin' to 'ave any fightin' goin' on. D' you understand that?"
The Frenchman gave her one of his quick glances and laughed.
"My dear madame," he exclaimed, "what ees eet to me? I am of entirely a gentle disposition, and if your friend is of gentle disposition, vy should we quarrel?"
"'E's no friend of mine," interjected Mrs. Huggins. "'E's a 'Un, but 'e's a lodger. I don't make friends of my lodgers, but I treats 'em fair. If I do the fair and square thing by them, I expect 'em to do the fair and square by me; but I won't 'ave the place turned into a bear-garden by a lot of foreigners."
M. de la Roche threw back his head and laughed.
"An admirable sentiment, chère madame. Then it is settled. I take my effects immediately to—vich floor did you mention?"
"I didn't mention no floor," replied Mrs. Huggins, "but if you like to leave it at that, I dessay I can fix you up on the third, and the terms will be three pounds a week."
The face of Mrs. Huggins was perfectly straight when she demanded this extortionate sum, neither did it show any evidence of surprise when the Frenchman quite avidly agreed, and immediately paid her three pounds down in advance. He seemed a gay and companionable gentleman. He had only one valise, which he ran up-stairs with. He paid the cabman a sum which seemed to leave that gentleman so speechless he could not even express his thanks. He chatted to Mrs. Huggins merrily about the weather, the war, the food problems, the difficulties of running a lodging-house. He was intensely sympathetic about various minor ailments of which Mrs. Huggins was a victim. He listened attentively to the history of various former lodgers, but beyond eliciting the fact that the German occupied the first floor, he showed no particular interest in his fellow-lodger. He explained that he had considerable correspondence to attend to that evening, so he did not purpose to go out; but if Mrs. Huggins could scramble him a couple of eggs on toast and make him a cup of tea, he would be eternally grateful.
Mrs. Huggins was a good cook. It was a matter she took a keen personal delight in. She would neglect her housework in order to produce some savory trifle for a pet lodger. On this occasion she surprised M. de la Roche by serving him with a large ham omelet and an apple tart.
"After yer long journey, you'll want a bite of somethin'," she explained.
Any apprehensions she entertained that her house was to be turned into a beer-garden by a lot of quarrelsome foreigners were early dissipated. At half-past nine that evening Herr Schmidt came in and went up to his room. Ten minutes later M. Jules de la Roche, coming down-stairs, beheld the canary in its cage on a chair outside Herr Fritz's door.
"Ah, le petit bossu!" he remarked.
The door was ajar, and Herr Fritz stepped out.
"Bonsoir, monsieur," he said in his deep-chested voice. "Are you interested in canaries?"
The Frenchman bowed a friendly manner.
"My sympathies always go out to the caged, monsieur," he replied. "But what a pretty fellow! Am I right in suggesting that he is of the Belgian species?"
"No, sir," said the German. "Although they vas somet'ing similiar, zis is ze Scottish."
"Pardon," replied the Frenchman. "I ought to have known. I have lived at Terceira, in the Azores, where one hears canaries singing in the open all day. Eet ees entrancing."
"Gom inzide," said Herr Schmidt and sighed, "and let us talk. I am lonely."
Mrs. Huggins overheard this conversation from the hall beneath, and she smiled contentedly. It was a triumph, a bolt from the blue. She had ousted the wretched Livermore, and like manna from heaven these two gentle, simple foreigners, who were willing to pay through the neck, had dropped right into her lap. Her conscience mildly smote her that she had demanded so much from Herr Schmidt, but a rapid mental calculation had decided that he must pay at least double as a penalty for being a Hun, but at the same time it wouldn't be fair to him to take another lodger for less. She had been, in any case, prepared to bargain, and to reduce considerably her terms, and had been quite nonplussed at not being called upon to do so. So far, so good; but the difficulty of detaching the wretched Livermore from her Maggie still remained to be accomplished, for Maggie was to return the day after to-morrow, and Livermore would be sure to be always hanging about the street.
In the meantime the conversation between the two foreigners up-stairs never flagged. They became extremely friendly. The violin case laid the foundation for an intimate chat on technic, personality. Bach, nationality. From these easily devolved discussions on politics, religion, and hence, inevitably, "this regrettable war." Each man was patently sensitive of the other's feelings. They talked of everything in the abstract, and avoided as far as possible the personal equation. They found each other extremely interesting, but there arrived a point when each was aware that the other was fencing. Herr Schmidt produced a bottle of whisky and a syphon of soda, but he could not persuade M. de la Roche to partake of more than one glass. It was nearly twelve o'clock when the Frenchman suddenly said:
"Well, my dear Herr Schmidt, I have had a most entrancing evening. I suggest that you dine vif me to-morrow evening. I have made de happy discovery dat our good Mrs. Huggins is a most excellent chef. Why should ve two lonely bachelors not share our meal?"
"I gannot gonzidder anyt'ing more delightful," replied Herr Schmidt. "Only I insist that you dine vif me in my room. I glaim preeminence as ze first-floor lodger." He laughed boisterously, and after further mildly disputing the matter, it was arranged accordingly.
The dinner which Herr Schmidt prevailed upon Mrs. Huggins to supply the following evening in honor of his friend M. de la Roche was of such a nature that not only had the like never been served in Mrs. Huggins's household, but probably never before in the whole environment of Camden Town. In the first place, there were oysters and grape-fruit, soup, a baked bream, a roast fowl and several vegetables; a lemon-curd tart, Welsh rarebit, and grapes, the whole mellowed with the exhilarating complement of Italian vermuth, sparkling Moselle, and a very old brandy, to say nothing of coffee, cigars, and the dazzling conversation of the two gentlemen.
The preparation of these alluring delicacies occupied Mrs. Huggins nearly the whole of the day—a day which was marred only by a regrettable scuffle in the early morning. It happened at about half-past eight. Mrs. Huggins was at work in the kitchen when she heard a commotion going on up in the hall. Hurrying up-stairs, she found M. de la Roche arguing with Quentin Livermore. The Frenchman turned to her.
"Who is dis man, madam? I know him not. He comes into the house unbidden."
And Livermore cut in:
"I've come to collect my letters. You 're not going to keep my letters from me."
Mrs. Huggins seized her broom and cried out:
"You get out, you dirty thief and blackmailer!"
She experienced no difficulty in routing Mr. Livermore and sending him flying up the street, and after his departure she told the whole story to M. de la Roche, who kept on repeating:
"Nom de Dieu! how shocking! Quel perfide! What a villain!" He was almost in tears.
The rest of the day passed quietly. Both the gentlemen went out soon after breakfast. Herr Schmidt did not return till seven-thirty in the evening, in time for the dinner. M. de la Roche came in at five o'clock, and persuaded Mrs. Huggins to go to the nearest haberdasher's and obtain two clean shirts for him, as, owing to his imperfect knowledge of the English tongue, he was unable to obtain the sort he required. She returned in half an hour, and M. de la Roche thanked her profusely. At eight o'clock precisely he presented himself in Herr Schmidt's room, wearing an ill-fitting evening dress peculiar to Frenchmen. Herr Schmidt was also in evening dress of an ill-fitting kind peculiar to Germans. They bowed, and shook hands cordially.
"I am indeed fortunate," remarked Herr Schmidt, "in a city so desolate as London, and in a quarter so traurig as zis, to find zo sympathetic and charming a fellow-lodger."
"Tout au contraire," replied the Frenchman. "The good fortune is exclusively to me. Ah, this London! was there ever a city so abaissé, so triste?"
"Never, never," retorted Herr Schmidt.
"Now, let me offer you a glass of goot vermuth, and then ve vill these excellent oysters circumscribe while ze goot Frau Huggins prepares ze soup."
The two men sat down, and toasted each other solemnly.
"Doubtless you haf gonsiderably traveled, frient?" remarked Herr Schmidt as he disposed of his second dozen oysters.
"I would not venture to address myself as a traveler," replied M. de la Roche. "True, I have lived in the Azores, and I am at home in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, France, and Italy. But a traveler, parbleu! it means something more than that. And you, Herr Schmidt, have you adventured far?"
"No; ze fatherland—pardon me speaking of ze fatherland in zese delicate times—ze fatherland has occupied me for most a long vile, and zen zis dear Engeland, vich I love almost as much as, it occupies me too already. For ze rest, a little Dutchman, a little Svede, a little of the sea; I am a citizen of ze vide, vide vorld, isn't it?"
"Ees eet not curious," remarked M. de la Roche as Mrs. Huggins brought in the soup; "eet appears mostly that you visit countries I have not visit, and I visit countries you not visit. Strange!"
"So it happens most nearly alvays. Now I vish much to go to America. And you?"
"Ah, America! Yes, most interesting."
"You do not go to America?"
The German looked at the Frenchman with his mild eyes, and M. de la Roche shook his head.
"No, no; I don't like." he rejoined. "It does not call to me. Interesting, yes, trè intéressant; but to me too matériel. Life to me must be romance. Romance first, romance second, romance all de time."
"Efen in Camden Town?" queried Herr Schmidt, slicing the bream down the center. Then he laughed. "Well, after all, vy not? It is to be found, your romance, even in material zings. I lofe material zings, and I find zem romantic. It is a figure of ze mind. Allow me to offer you zome of zis sparkling vine, if it does not to trink a German vine you disgust."
"I am a Cat'olic," replied M. de la Roche, "bot' in my religion and in appreciation of goot t'ings. To your goot healt', Herr Schmidt, and happy days ven peace shall come."
"Happy days!" solemnly replied the German. "May the vorld vonce more to reason gom!"
The wine flowed freely. The fowl was done to a nicety. The conversation never flagged. Mrs. Huggins enjoyed the dinner almost as much as her two lodgers. They were the softest things she had ever encountered in her professional career. Visions of a bounteous time despite the war floated before her mind's eye. She even decided that she would treat them fairly and squarely. She would not take advantage of their innocence; but there would be a steady accumulation of "things left over," which were her natural perquisites. She was indeed surveying the remnants of the very solid fowl, as it reclined on a dish in the hall, and was mentally performing the skilful operation of "trimming it up" without altering the general effect of the mass, when she heard Herr Schmidt's door open and shut, and he came down the stairs quietly. In the hall he produced a large timepiece from his waistcoat-pocket, and resting one hand commandingly on her shoulder, he said:
"Mrs. Huggins, in seven minutes precisely two shentlemens vill gall to visit me. Ask no questions. Show them straight up to my room, open ze door, and say, 'Mr. Skinner and Mr. Trout.' Then close ze door and retire till I gall you vonce more again."
He gave her no opportunity to reply to these instructions, but returned to his room. As the door opened she heard him crying out:
"Pardon me, dear Monsieur de la Roche. You must try von of my Contadinos. I gan really regommend them. I brought zem myself from Amsterdam the year pefore zis distressful var."
"A thousand t'anks, my dear Herr Schmidt. It is a luxury I seldom allow myself dese days."
The gentle flow of these suave pleasantries reached their appointed crisis. Each man lay back in an easy-chair, with the divine Contadino between his teeth. On the table stood the little glasses filled with the old brandy.
"Life may be very pleasant and grassifying in the midst of vickedness and sin," murmured Herr Schmidt.
"C'est trés vrai," replied M. de la Roche. "It does not do even to t'ink of dese t'ings all de time."
"Friendship is vat I value beyond all else, M. de la Roche, to your goot healt'!"
As each man raised the little glass, the door opened, and Mrs. Huggins announced:
"Mr. Trinner and Mr. Snout."
Two stolid-looking gentlemen entered, and Mrs. Huggins retired.
Herr Schmidt removed the cigar from his mouth and said:
"Good evening, gentlemen," and then without changing his position, and in a voice without any trace of German accent, he addressed M. de la Roche as follows:
"Ephraim Hyems, I have the honor to arrest you on an extraordinary warrant issued by the United States Government for embezzlement in connection with the Pennsylvania Small Arms Trust, and moreover with an attempt to convey certain information to an enemy agent in this country, under Article 36 of the Defense of the Realm Act."
The Frenchman leaned forward, and clutching the arms of the chair, he gave vent to a very un-Frenchified expression. He said:
"It hardly required that native vernacular to convince me that you were not a Frenchman. As a matter of fact, I have lived for many years in Paris, and if I may say so without giving offense, Monsieur de la Roche, your French never convinced me at all."
The pseudo-Frenchman sat here apparently dazed. At length he said:
"Professionally speaking, Herr Schmidt, it is regrettable that our roles were not reversed. It is true that I know little French, but I happen to have spent some years in Germany. I studied medicine at Leipsic. Your German is appalling. It would not deceive a London policeman. In this present case I am fully prepared to throw up my arms and to cry 'Kamerad!' only I would ask you, as a last request, whether you or your assistants would kindly extract my pocket-book from my breast-pocket, and examine my card and any other papers you or they may find. And, finally, whether you will allow me to finish this glass of very excellent brandy."
Herr Schmidt bowed.
"Trout," he said, "turn out all his pockets and hand me his pocket-book. In the meantime the gentleman can enjoy his last plunge of dissipation."
The solemn-looking sub-inspector did as he was told, and handed Herr Schmidt the pocket-book. That gentleman turned it over slowly and drew out a card. When his eyes alighted on it, his face expressed sudden amazement, and then he threw back his head and laughed explosively.
"Cyrus G. Vines!" he exclaimed. "Cyrus G. Vines of the New York police! It's quite true we've been expecting Mr. Cyrus G. Vines for some time on this Hyems case. Holy Christopher! and are you really Cyrus G. Vines? Well, I'm damned! Also, I'm glad, if it's true. We shall require a little more evidence on that count. But in the meantime will you kindly explain your presence in Mrs. Huggins's house in Camden Town?"
Mr. Vines grinned. There was no longer any of the Frenchman about him. In fact, he carefully removed the little tuft of beard and mustache of the conventional stage Gaul. He puffed at his cigar and said:
"Unless my calculations are at fault, you will be Inspector Hartrigg. It is quite true my duty was to report right away to Scotland Yard. But it happens I'm a young man. Inspector, and I have ambitions to make good. I arrived at Liverpool last Friday; the boat was thirty hours ahead of time. I just thought I'd buzz around for a day or two on my own and see whether I couldn't get the case a bit straighter to hand over. I got wise that this Hyems galoot was boarding on the first floor of this shanty. I tracked him here and found him disguised as a Hun! Do you take me?"
The "Hun" pulled at the little tuft of beard between his chins, and twirled his genuine mustache.
"Well, this is a nice go!" he said. "Between us we have missed the quarry. I confess I only traced him to this house. I didn't know which floor. But when I discovered that there was only one other lodger, and he a Frenchman, the case seemed obvious."
"Say, Inspector," interjected the American, "what was your idea of this German stunt?"
"Hyems has been further suspected of dealing with a German agent, as I have told you. I thought a nice friendly German might draw him out. That is all. It is quite true I don't know German well, although I spent a long time in France. Now, tell me what was your idea of the French stunt, Vines?"
"A Frenchman enjoys certain prerogatives," Vines smilingly replied. "He can be talkative, inquiring, sympathetic. He can even make inquiries concerning 'things of the heart' without giving offense. Now, Mrs. Huggins is a very charming and sympathetic woman, and she has a daughter, I believe, although I've never had the pleasure of meeting her."
"That's true. But how does this affect Hyems?"
The "Frenchman" rose and said:
"Inspector, I understand that I am technically under arrest. But you have already granted me two favors while in that condition, and I am bold enough to appeal for a third. It is that you all three should accompany me to my room on the third floor and observe the devastating effect of love."
The four men trooped up-stairs, and Vines threw open the door of his bedroom. On his bed lay Mr. Livermore, neatly gagged and bound.
"This is our friend Hyems," remarked Vines. "We will remove the gag. I put it there because I didn't want our dinner disturbed by any fuss or excitement."
He removed the gag and said:
"How are you, Hyems?"
The wild-eyed man on the bed was in a state of collapse. He glanced at the other four men and closed his eyes, muttering:
"Go on. It's a do."
Inspector Hartrigg looked at the man carefully. Then he said:
"My God! you 're right. That's Hyems. Skinner and Trout, stay with this man for a few minutes. He's under arrest, remember, I'll call you in a few minutes. Vines, come down to my room again. There are one or two points I'd like to clear up."
"Herr Schmidt" and "M. de la Roche" returned to the room below and surveyed the scene of their repast, and then both laughed.
"Come, a little more of this excellent brandy. Monsieur de la Roche, and then tell me how you accomplished your capture."
They filled their glasses once more.
"It all came fairly easy," explained Vines, "when I had once ingratiated myself with Mrs. Huggins. She's a daisy, that woman. She was full of this story about Livermore and her Maggie; but it was not till this morning, when the mail came, that I got wise on the real trend of things. Wherever I am, I always like to be right there when the mail's delivered. There's information of all sorts to be picked up even from the outside. This morning there was a long envelop franked and sealed, addressed to 'Herr Schmidt.' I was just crazy to open that communication, and I was just on the point of securing it when Mrs. Huggins came fussing into the hall. I retired to my room again for about fifteen minutes. When I got back to the hall the long envelop addressed to you had vanished, and a stranger was fingering the mail. I called for Mrs. Huggins. When she came, she soon put the stranger to flight with a broom and her tongue. I was a very sympathetic Frenchman, and then it was she told me the whole story of Mr. Livermore and her Maggie. While she was speaking, the whole truth came to me in a flash. I realized that Livermore was Hyems, but I was darned if I could place you. The capture was dead easy. In the hurried removal of Livermore's things last night, our good landlady had overlooked one or two trifles. She had apparently dumped some on that old chest at the top of the kitchen stairs. I found there a small box in which I discovered several notes and billets doux signed by 'M.' I am no mug at faking calligraphy. That afternoon I despatched a note to Mr. Livermore in the handwriting of M.
"'Do come at five-thirty. Mother will be out. Tremendously important. M.'
"I underlined 'tremendously important' four times. It was one of the lady's minor characteristics. At five-thirty Mrs. Huggins was very considerately buying me a couple of shirts in the High Street. I was alone in the house. I let Mr. Livermore in. The rest was just dead easy—as easy as skinning a rabbit."
"Herr Fritz" laughed.
"Well, Vines," he said, "I congratulate you. It was a smart piece of work. I feel convinced you are destined to 'make good.' It looks as though our friend would even now be free if he hadn't been so enterprising as to rob the mail this morning and steal his own warrant of arrest."
"Ah, so that's what it was."
"I notified Chief Inspector Shapples yesterday that I had my man under observation, but when I left the Yard the warrant was not complete. The whole thing seemed so simple that he said he'd post it to me, which is quite an irregular proceeding, but one we occasionally indulge in. When it did not come this morning I judged that you had stolen it, and so I obtained a new one to-day. I must say, in fairness to our service, that you have been watched and followed all day and that you would have found it somewhat difficult to make an escape. I did not arrest you before because I did not wish to miss our little dinner this evening, and I also wanted to glean some information about other parties who are still at large. I thought you were fencing very skilfully, and, if you will allow me to say so, I am glad now that I was quite on the wrong tack."
"Inspector," replied the American, "I have not enjoyed such a dinner for a very, very long time, and I'm real glad to have made your acquaintance."
"After this success I hope the authorities will permit you to assist me in unraveling other little troubles in connection with the case before you return to New York. Here's to your good health and prosperity!"
"And yours. Inspector, to say nothing of Mrs. Huggins! My, isn't she a peach!"
"You know, dearie," said Mrs. Huggins, three weeks later, in the private bar of the Staff of Life, to her friend Mrs. O'Neil, "it's a very rum thing about gals. There's my Mag, now. Lord! how she took on when this 'ere case came up. She was going to do this, that, and the other; but when they reely took 'im away, she calmed down like the lamb she is. And now she's already walking out with Sandy Waters, as nice a young feller as you could wish to meet. He's a soldier, you know, an officer; 'e's got all these 'ere stripes on 'is arm. A quartermaster, that's what 'e is; gets 'is perks all over the place. Gets quite a good livin', and when 'e goes, she gets 'er maintenance and a bob a day what 'e allots 'er like, to say nothin' of seven and six for the first child, six shillings for the second, three and six for the third, and three bob apiece for the rest; that is, if the war lasts long enough. They 're as sweet on each other as a couple of gumdrops in a glass bottle."
Mrs. O'Neil blew the froth off the stout.
"It's a wonderful' interestin' case," she said, "what wif all this spyin' and cheatin' and stealin'. Lord! what a narrer escape you 'ad, Mrs. 'Uggins! 'Im comin', too, and stealin' the postman's letters in the mornin'. What a villain!"
Mrs. Huggins coughed, and cleared her throat. Then she looked thoughtfully across her glass and said:
"Well, you know, dearie, it's rather funny about that part. Of course, you know, it's nothing departmental to the case, as they say, or I might 'ave spoken out in court about it; but as a matter of fact, 'e never pinched that letter at all."
Mrs. O'Neil looked aghast, and Mrs. Huggins winked mysteriously.
"No. You see," she whispered, "it was like this 'ere. I was very rushed that mornin', what with the to-do of Mr. Smith's dinner, and that, and I couldn't get the b'iler to go. I never take no noospapers now. There's nothin' in 'em except about this bloomin' war. I takes my 'Reynold's' on Sunday, but as fire-paper that don't last long. Lately I've taken to usin' these 'ere circulars what come from the sales, you know—spring goods, white sales, and so on. I never looks at 'em. I simply rips 'em open and shoves 'em into the b'iler fire. On that mornin', being 'ard-pressed as it were, I runs up into the 'all, and seein' circulars there, I cops 'old of 'em and runs down to the scullery. I rips 'em open and shoves 'em in. It was not till I got the b'iler goin' that I realized that one of the circulars 'ad a great red sealin'-wax blob on the envelop, and it was all official-like. It was too late then, but I thinks to myself: 'I burnt somethin' I didn't ought to then. That was a summons or somethin'.' Soon after that I 'eard the rumpus up-stairs."
"Lord!" exclaimed Mrs. O'Neil. "You run a risk there, Annie."
"As I say," repeated Mrs. Huggins, "it wasn't departmental to the case. There was enough proved against 'im to 'ang 'im in this country and quarter 'im in America without draggin' in a silly old envelop like that."
"Well, I 'ope your Mag'll be 'appy," said Mrs. O'Neil, wiping her mouth.
"My Mag'll be all right. Don't you worry," replied Mrs. Huggins.
Hutchinson's Story Magazine, Sep 1919
[* dingle: A small wooded valley; a dell.]
It simply would not come right. David Stroud sat back in his chair and stared out of the window, with all the sheets of manuscript scattered on the table in front of him. Thus he had sat for nearly three hours, without once putting his pen to the paper. He knew that the main idea for the book was a good one, and there was a kind of second theme a little below the surface which intrigued him, but things would not, somehow, dovetail. He stared from the window to the fireplace; he bit his nails (a very bad habit); he lighted a cigarette and walked up and down the room. It was a meagrely furnished room, with a bedroom adjoining, the two comprising his lodgings in an obscure house in West Kensington.
David was young—barely twenty-three—and he had come to London from the cathedral town of Norwich, with the usual determination to set the big city by the ears. His father had been an organist and music-teacher, and on his death had left a small sum of money to be divided between David and his sister Hilda. It brought them in about eighty pounds a year each, but Hilda had since married a fairly prosperons young doctor and continued to live at Norwich. The mother had died when they were both quite young. David, consequently, was alone in London except for several chance acquaintances. Loneliness has its compensations as well as its bleak disadvantages. He did not entirely regret his loneliness. To a man who is going to set London by the ears, write the big novel, the world-disturbing play, a large amount of loneliness is essential.
He had been in London a year, and had had one or two short stories accepted and had done a little hack journalism, but the big novel was still in a very embryonic stage, and on this morning, after two hours' abortive thinking, he suddenly became intensely alive to his loneliness. It was June and pale sunlight was streaming through the windows. Somewhere the world must be very beautiful.
"I know what it is: I'm stale." he thought.
He contemplated a walk in the park—his usual recreation—but decided that this would hardly meet the case. It was change he wanted: something definite and magical at the same time. He thought for a long time, and then went and borrowed an old Cassells' time-table from his landlady. He knew nothing about the country near London, but he reckoned that one would have to travel for at least an hour to escape from bricks and mortar. At last he pitched on a place called Moblesham-by-the-Mill. He liked the name. It was on a side line not far from Guildford. The fare was cheap, and it would be somewhere near the Surrey Downs. It would serve.
Rather apathetically he boarded a motor-bus to Waterloo and took his ticket. The train journey wearied him, and when he arrived at a station where he had to change, he hesitated whether he should not return. He had a premonition of failure. The people in the train irritated him; the interminable suburbs gave him no hope.
Even when he arrived at Moblesham-by-the-Mill he was doomed to disappointment. It was a plain, villa-y little town, with an ugly main street, a large brewery, and innumerable tin chapels. There was no mill and and no evidence of there ever having been a mill. It was nearly midday when he arrived there, and he walked listlessly into an inn and ordered some bread and cheese and some shandy-gaff. Having negotiated this modest lunch he started out to walk. The road led for nearly a mile between high hedges with fields on either side, and then began to slope upwards. His legs ached; the prospect of a climb depressed him. Coming to a fork in the road, he chose the narrower road which still led upwards. After a time the country opened out more, and he sat on a gate and smoked a a cigarette.
"I'm in rotten condition," he thought. The cigarette had no attractions for him, and he wanted to lie down and sleep. So insistent was this desire that he decided that he must make a determined effort to counter it. He threw away the cigarette and began to walk briskly. He selected a narrow lane which led through a copse of young larch trees. His choice was influenced largely by the fact that the lane was steeper than the road, and he wanted to do what he didn't feel inclined to. He urged himself forward. The air was becoming very fresh and sweet and the birds were singing gaily. He began to think about his book, but nothing happened; the same old ideas still jumbled against each other. He crossed a common and caught a glimpse of blue distances; he was certainly up in the Surrey hills. An old man passed and touched his hat. David jerked out:
"Oh, how do yon do?" in the tight voice of a man who has been too long confined to city life.
He passed a farm where a team of large sleek horses were just returning to the fields in charge of an old carter and a boy. David sighed, and rested once more against the farm-gate. He was in bad condition. And yet there was something a little soothing in all this.
He went on. Suddenly the lane forked again. This time he took the lower turning, because it seemed the more deserted, better attuned to his melancholy mood. He had not progressed more than four hundred yards when he came to the dingle.
It nestled in the hollow of a disused chalk-pit. It was wild and overgrown with shrubs, gorse, and delicate birch trees. He instinctively plunged into it. The soil was sandy; fresh young green leaves tickled his face and hair, brambles caught at his trousers. He came to the carcase of an old fallen tree partially covered with moss and lichen. He chose a part of the stem where the bark had peeled away, and sat down.
It was extraordinarily quiet and remote. He had never felt so cut off from the world. Bees droned around him in the gorse, the little sounds of birds and living things unfamiliar to him soothed his senses. The sun, streaming through the leaves, made bewildering patterns. Martins swung in semicircles at the top of the pit.
It was..somehow, cosy. He sat with his elbows dug into his knees and his hands holding his head, and examined the activities of some red ants darting in and out from beneath the bark of the tree he sat on. He had an uncomfortable feeling that the ants would get on to his trousers or his coat, and crawl all over him. He edged farther away, and looked around him igain. He felt like a small boy scenting adventure, but slightly nervous of the unknown. In this arabesque of sunlight and foliage it was difficult to detach things. It was the kind of place that a small boy could imagine the eyes of a tiger, or a rattlesnake, or even—a Red Indian! He would like to be a small boy again, playing at Red Indians with his sister Hilda in the garden at Norwich. His mother's slim figure in the doorway...
"Why should the father-confessor himself not be the lover, his secret hidden behind his dark cowl? Why should he not tell the story?"
Strange! but as David sat there blinking in the sunlight he could almost swear that a voice whispered this into his ear! What did it mean? The father-confessor? Why, yes, of course there was a father-confessor in the story...It had not occurred to him. He was not thinking of his book, but suddenly he began to think very rapidly. The whole thing unfolded itself before his mind's eye. On those lines the story would be much more manageable. The various themes began to coordinate. His pulses were throbbing at an unaccustomed rate. He could see it all. The main idea became simple and dignified, inevitable. Everything took its place. His fingers itched to set it down; but he had not even a note-book.
He sat there till the sun began to set, and no one disturbed him. He glowed with a quiet contentment, feeling himself the medium of expression of forces greater than himself. Then, when the light began to fade, he rose up and shook himself.
"Queer," he thought, "that it should have come like that! Of course it was nonsense my fancying I heard the voice. I'm ridiculously run down; I must do this more often."
He walked quickly down the hill, humming to himself. When he arrived home he snatched a hasty meal, and then he sat down to write. He wrote all night.
He slept till the afternoon, and awoke still tingling with the sense of new-found power. Thoughts came easily, and had only to be set down. For nearly three weeks he worked at pressure. The story made astounding progress.
And then another day came when the feeling of emptiness and lassitude assailed him. He struggled through the day, restless, feverish, and discontented. He wanted to go on, but his brain seemed disinclined to work. On the other hand, in his anxiety to get the book finished, he resented having to waste a day in the country. When night came he realised that he had accomplished nothing. He slept badly and rose at dawn.
"I must go for another tramp." he thought. He caught the earliest train and went to Epsom. He walked up to the Downs. A light breeze was building up a splendid architectural arrangement of clouds. It was a glorious day. He walked, and walked, and walked. Sometimes rested and began to think of his book, but no ideas came.
"It will come as before, quite suddenly," he determined. "I feel better, anyway. It's foolish not to do this more often."
He walked till the evening, occasionally lying down by clumps of bushes, leaning on stiles and gates, humming, and—trying to think. When it became time to go he felt his limbs quivering with exhaustion, but no progress had been made with his work. He returned home disgruntled and crestfallen.
The next dav he found himself in no better case. He idled the day away, the issue of the book becoming more confused. At the end of the week he made another desperate sortie on to the fields and lanes. Still without result.
It was not till the following Wednesday that he decided that he would once more go back to the dingle. It was a grey day, but tolerably warm. He took the train to Moblesham-by-the-Mill, and started out to find the dingle. He had some difficulty in doing this, as he had made no note of the roads and turnings which he had taken on the previous occasion. He wandered afar, came back, and at length recognised the little lane which skirted the chalk-pit.
The dingle had lost its wild pattern of bewildering sunlight and shadow. It was in a benign mood. The air was tender and caressing. The young trees nodded in a companionable manner. A rabbit darted from a hole in the sand, stared at him with almost friendly eyes, and then scampered away among the bracken. He felt that he wanted to laugh. He sat on the fallen tree and began to think of amusing incidents of his boyhood. All his present troubles were forgotten. And then, suddenly, something seemed to whisper in his ear:
"The fisherman goes from the east side of the river to the west, from the west to the east. Is it only fish he carries in his basket?"
He started. What was this strange intrusion? What fisherman? What basket? What river? What did it all mean? His mind reverted instantly to the book. Fisherman? There was no fisherman in the book, but...yes, of course, the character of Fra Lomberto...It would be possible...the analogy was obvious. Clearly and swiftly his mind began to work. The ill-assorted arrangements of ideas fell into a proper perspective. He visualised the working-up, the development of character and plot, the climax, the slackening, and the easy passage to a surprising finish. The whole thing was complete and finished in his mind.
David gazed around him, surprised, delighted and mystified. He peered into the bushes ans mounds of sand as though expecting some elf with gossamer wings to spring before him, playing upon a reed. He trembled with a kind of exultation. He did not believe in spirits or elves. But—there must something about the dingle!
He put his hands to his head and staggered to the lane. Of course it was absurd! It had just so happened. Ideas came to one at odd and unexpected moments, and they had happened to come on the two occasions when he had visited the dingle.
He hurried down the hill and caught his train.
For over a month he worked uninterruptedly. The book was finished and despatched to a publisher who had shown an interest in his work. But it was not published for six months. In the meantime he was at work on other things: a play, some poems and essays, and another novel. It was not till late in the autumn that he became convinced that—for him in any case—there was a genie of the dingle!
For he tried the experiment again and again, and it never appeared to fail. Directly his creative power became stagnant he took the train to Moblesham and sought his dingle. Sometimes the little whispers of the leaves were slower in their delivery of the revelation than at other times, but they never utterly disappointed him. On occasions the illumination would not come till he was returning from the dingle, or even till he went to bed that night.
One day he tried the experiment of writing in the dingle. He took a writing-pad and fountain-pen, but the result was not successful. Ideas came, but not the facility to set them down. He was distracted by the sunlight and the movement. It did not appear to be within the covenant of the high gods who presided over this enchanted spot. It was essentially a place for inspiration, for adjustment, but not for the deliberate prosecution of a routine.
In the winter, when the book was published, it happened to catch the eye of a luminary in a little office off the Strand, who foresaw the glories of a personal scoop in discovering a young and unknown writer. He let himself go in a weekly journal devoted to such things, and became maudlin over it in a large club in St. James's. It had no great sale, but it attained a succès d'estime. Other works were published and commented upon.
Even in the winter he visited the dingle. When the trees were bare and there were great squidgy pools of water, he would still go and plunge about, humming to himself, laughing gaily, feeling virile and joyous. And the little voice was always eloquent. He began to know every mound and tree and shrub in the dingle, and he watched their growth and colour and peculiarity.
David was not a mystic. He tried to explain the whole thing to himself.
"There's just something about this place that's sympathetic. The walk is good for me. By the time I get here I am feeling well. They are not really voices I hear. Only I like it; it's very beautiful, extraordinarily quiet and remote, and then the—combination of things stimulates me. That's all to it. But it's very queer."
It was two years later that David met the genie face to face. He was becoming a successful man, already recognised as being more than "promising." "This young author is going to count," announced the Delphic oracle of the literary world. He had moved to more commodious rooms and had even bought an upright piano, on which he groped his way to vague satisfactions.
One day late in June he was sitting in the dingle, musing upon the strange influence it had exercised upon his fate. The dingle was in its wild, patterned mood, the sunlight dancing through the leaves. He was staring idly at the quivering appearance of a stunted almond tree, and thinking how difficult it was in this effect to separate one tone from another, when suddenly he became uncomfortably aware that eyes were watching him through the pattern.
He stood up, and instantly a branch quivered vertically and the genie sprang lightly to the ground near his feet. She had bright, Puck-like eyes, and an oval, elfish face framed in a mass of dark brown hair, a dark green fustian kind of tunic and brown-stockinged legs. She said:
"Oh, I say! I'm awfully sorry!"
David stared at her foolishly, and re-echoed:
"I'm awfully sorry!"
It was obvious that each felt that they were prying into the privacy of the other's life.
"I didn't see you till just now," remarked the genie.
"Oh! I was only just sitting there," answered David limply.
"It's very jolly here." said the genie.
"Do you live here?" murmured the mystified young man.
Then the surprising visitor from the spirit-world laughed and shook her shining hair, and in the process displayed a line of small and perfect teeth.
"I do, pretty nearly," she answered. "I live down the road at that red house. It's called 'Clonbeggan' for some reason or other. I haven't any brothers or sisters, and I come here nearly every day. My father's a doctor, and he's always busy; and my mother's in London."
She sat on her haunches on the sand, with her legs crossed, facing him. David stared at her as though still doubtful of her reality. She was just a girl, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, the daughter of a country doctor. At least, that was what she said. But what was real and what imaginary in the dingle? He said huskily:
"You say you come here often?"
"I've been here nearly every day years and years and years."
"Strange that I have never seen you!"
"Why do you come to the dingle?"
David started. He felt curiously alarmed and self-conscious. He looked down at his hands and coughed. Then, leaning towards her, he said:
"Do you ask why I come? I'm a writer an author. I come to the dingle because—"
He paused, and suddenly she leapt to her feet and clapped her hands.
"Oh. I know! I know!" she said. "How lovely!"
And shaking her roguish curls at him, she darted away through the trees.
David stretched out his arms and called after her; then realised that he was behaving rather ridiculously, and sat down. After all, it was quite simple. A lonely little girl living not far away. She here to play. But why had he not seen her before? Had she been watching him? What did she mean when she said "I know!"? And, above all, would he see her again?
He returned home, thinking of his work and the elfin child. Her visit had been so brief and her movements so quick he not had the opportunity to study her as he wanted to. But she was very beautiful, very vital—a goddess worthy of the dingle. He was in an inspired mood the next day, and he began what proved to be his most successful work, an allegory called The Chalk Pit.
He visited the dingle three times before he saw his genie again. And then, one day, she slithered between the branches of the almond tree and threw herself on the ground by his feet. He gave an exclamation, and she said:
He put out his hand, but without touching her, he exclaimed:
"Oh! it is you. I've been looking for you."
"I've seen you twice."
"Why didn't you speak to me?"
"You were working."
"How do you know?"
"I could tell by your face."
"You queer child! Tell me your name." "Stella."
"I love the name of Stella."
"Read me something you've written."
"Alas! I've nothing here."
"Tell me a story, then."
David blinked at the sunshine, real and imaginary. He smiled, and wondered, and worshipped. Then suddenly he began to tell her the story which he had not yet written, The Chalk Pit. He pieced it together, watching the joy and sorrow and sympathy flicker across her sensitive face. And when he had finished it she was crying and he said:
"I'm sorry. Stella."
She did not look at him, but she replied:
"No. I like to cry. It's very beautiful."
And suddenly she snatched his hand and kissed it, and walked away through the trees.
After that she seemed bolder. Nearly every time he visited the dingle she came she came to meet him, and he found the place more inspiring and fruitful of ideas than ever. Before the end of the summer he called on her father, Dr. Parsons, a rotund, red-faced little man, quite unlike his daughter. He was courteous, but somewhat pre-occupied. He sat forward, leaning on his knees, and asked David a few questions about his professional life. He listened to the replies without giving the impression that they had sunk in. A dog-cart was waiting to take him on his rounds. He rose at the end of ten minutes and pressed David's hand, and murmured:
"Very delighted...any time," and he waved his hand vaguely towards the fireplace.
David heard afterwards from the villagers that Dr. Parsons' wife was a very beautiful Roumanian lady. But there had been some great trouble. They no longer lived together. She was in London or Paris, and she never visited her husband or child.
And in time David went beyond the dingle. He went for walks with Stella, and sat in her garden under the walnut tree, and told her of his ambitions, and his life, and his sister, and his work, and the people he met in the social life which was gradually enveloping him.
For three years this strange friendship grew and quickened, and David was then referred to as "this brilliant young author," and his sister, Hilda, in her placid home at Norwich, blushed with pride, and wealthy people sought him out and publishers began to jostle each other for his wares. And David was dazzled. He was accomplishing what he had set out to accomplish, and all within the space of five years. He began to adore flattery, and adulation was food and wine to him.
There was only one disconcerting element in this joyous scheme. He encountered it on the lawn of Dr. Parsons' house. It came in the person of Ephraim Barnes. Ephraim Barnes was a young, keen-faced man of Semitic origin. He was a successful builder and contractor, who drove about the country in his own car. Being cured of a bad attack of sciatica by Dr. Parsons, he had visited him, and there, of course, met Stella. Stella showed him no special attention, but Ephraim was persistent, keen, and thorough. And suddenly David realised that he was jealous. Finding him there on three successive occasions, he took his dingle-maiden to task.
"Stella, are you fond of this man?"
"Not a bit?"
"Not a scrap. He bores me."
"You would never marry him Stella?"
Stella peeped at him coyly, and remarked:
"Oh, dear! oh, dear! how foolishly you talk!"
On his way home David suddenly thought:
"Good God! I'm in love with that girl!"
And he began to reason with tumself. To be a "brilliant young author" and to have arrived are two very different things. David was by no means well off. He lived above his income. He found fashionable house-parties far more expensive than expensive hotels. He ached to buy antique furniture, pictures, to have a beautiful house; and he could sec no prospect of attaining anything so fantastic. His palate for success had been whetted, but the banquet had not begun. What was he to do? He had seen the distressing results of some of his friends marrying when they were not in a position to. They went down the sink; they prostituted their art in the sordid struggle; they became hemmed in by babies, domestic troubles, and insistent material demands. They soon ceased to count. And yet—Stella! Her eyes followed him through the dim shadows of the night. She was an obsession, an angel, a nymph, his genie of the dingle.
Ho hesitated, and did nothing. He visited her home and the dingle, and he drew inspiration from both. He fumed with jealousy at the sight of the unspeakable Ephraim. But the summer passed, and the winter, and the position remained the same.
And in the following spring he met Laura van Steyn. He met her at a house-party at the Frankinstein-Possets, the Bond Street picture-dealers. She was tall, fair, rather distinguished-looking, very emotional, and gorgeously apparelled. She was a widow, three years older than David, and enormously wealthy. Her husband had been an American canned-fruit magnate. There was nothing of the canned fruit about Laura. She was passionately devoted to art and artists; she devoted her life to helping and flattering young painters, and musicians, and writers. She did not spare herself with regard to David. She took lum aside under a pergola darkened by clusters of blood-red roses, and told him, more by the heaving of her bosom and her breathless intonation than by what she said, that he stood on the threshold of being what George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and others had tried to be. And David drank it in, and realised that here was a divinity. Little diamonds sparkled at her throat, a gold bag hung by a wondrous antique chain nestled between the folds of silk upon her lap. Her skin was incredibly fair, and there was a watchful beauty about her eyes, as though she were the high-priestess guarding the sacerdotal offerings of all that was more priceless and forbidden in human life.
David walked with her, and as he had nothing else to flatter, he flattered her beauty and her intelligence. Before the house-party broke up she invited him to visit her in town. Alas! poor Stella.
Followed then a year of doubt, contrition, and dazzling dreams.
On the eve of the day when he married Laura, she said:
"My darling, you shall be the greatest writer in the world. Everything shall be arranged for you. In London you shall have the walnut-panelled room overlooking the park, as your study; and at Fobbiesham we will build a bungalow hidden right away in the woods, where not a soul shall disturb you. But change, change, is the great thing to a creative artist. I understand the artist soul. We will travel."
"You shall have beautiful rooms to work in at Naples, Florence, Venice, and Sicily. Always a change, fresh experiences, fresh people. We will go to Egypt and Algeria, India and China. We will build a world of beauty around us, collecting as we go, adding to it, studying, finding more and more in each other. Kiss me, David."
They stayed two months at Naples in a villa overlooking the bay. David had a large study furnished with François Premier furniture and Persian rugs, and a writing-desk reputed to have been the property of Racine. And for six hours a day he sat there, staring at blank sheets of paper or reading over the things he had written last year. Sometimes he would start up and look out of the window at the bay, and other times he would bury his face in his hands and dream—of Stella and the dingle.
He would visualise the last time he had visited her, her laughing, innocent eyes, the chain of marigolds she had made and crowned him with, her babbling excitement over the things they were going to do together; and, O God! he had never told her! His courage had failed him. He was a coward, and he could not think. Thoughts were going round and round and jumbling each other, and there was no genie to set them right!
He plunged into social dissipations. He bought experiences to which he had been previously a stranger, and he could do nothing with them. He told his wife he could not work on his honeymoon, and she was enchanted.
"There is no hurry, mon brave," she said; and they went to Sicily.
They travelled from Sicily to Algiers, from Algiers to Cairo; then down the Nile as far as Fashoda, back from Fashoda to Cairo; crossed to Genoa, visited Florence, Sienna, and Venice. They stayed at Venice for two months, in the hope that David would settle down to work. By this time he had realised that his wife was shallow and superficial, all her enthusiasms were froth bubbling on the stream. She was always flying off at a tangent, being carried away by some new mood or fashion, discovering some new genius. She became irrirated that David did not produce new and interesting work. She tired a little of him, and he found her dull, and their days were filled with great emptiness.
In Venice he did no work, and one day he told her about the dingle. She listened apathetically, and did not seem to understand. When he had finished, she said:
"How peculiar! Now, my dear, we will go to Bonhghera. My sister has a villa up in the hils and she has written and offered to lend it to me. Venice is too distracting. At Bordighera it is quiet, and oh, so restful! There you will feel constrained to work, my love."
They crossed the peninsula and took up their abode at the Villa Gasparri at Bordighera. It was indeed a glorious spot, nestling in the hills, a garden overflowing with clematis, passion-flowers, and roses, and an avenue of cypresses pointing to the sea. For some days David enjoyed the garden, and he sat at the open window of his study, biting the end of his pen. And then the mood of remorse and dissatisfaction again assailed him. He wandered aimlessly about the country, and spoke bitterly. Laura sought other company, and had no difficulty in finding it along this gay and alluring coast. She left him to his own devices. One night at dinner he made another reference to the dingle, and she turned on him and said bitingly:
"Oh, that dingle! Why do you always talk of that dingle?"
And David pushed his plate away and walked out of the room and out of the villa. He walked bareheaded up into the hills. His heart overflowed with angry and disturbed feelings. He strode along quickly, and his breath came in little stabs between his nostrils. At length he returned and went straight into the salon, where Laura was arranging masses of blue delphinium in a tall vase. Without any preliminary explanation he bore down on her.
"I'll tell you why." he almost shouted. "In every man's life there is a dingle. Do you understand what I mean? A dingle, a dingle, a dingle! Some place that is just his and no other's. It's the environment he must have, or he's no good. You can't explain it; he can't explain it. It's what his soul demands, and nothing else will serve. It may be a room in a slum, a side-chapel in a cathedral, a clearing in a forest, a set of conditions, the touch of a friend's hands—almost anything it may be, but it must be just that. Nothing else is any good to him. One has to be loyal to one's dingle, or...one is finished!"
He picked up an embroidered mat from a side table, and scrunched it in his hands.
"I've not been true...I've deserted my dingle, and I'm lost!" He buried his face in his hands. "O God! we can't help it: we're made like that!"
By the door Laura turned. Her lips were white. She said quite calmly:
Five days later David Stroud arrived in London. He stayed the night at his old rooms in West Kensington. His face was drawn and thin, and dark rings encircled his eyes, but there was a buoyancy and hope about his bearing.
In the morning he awoke refreshed. He caught an early train to Moblesham-by-the-Mill. It was April, and little clusters of primroses peeped at him from the hedges. His heart was beating rapidly. Stella! Would she be in the dingle? Was she still there? Did she think of him? Would she understand? Could he ever get back to the old position?
At the turning where the lane forked he was disturbed to find a large red-brick house. He muttered curses on the activities of speculating builders, and plunged down the lane. He had not advanced two hundred yards when he suddenly stopped. He felt he was going to swoon. He staggered to a gate and supported himself. Beads of perspiration streamed down his face.
"It's finished," he said hoarsely. "Everything is finished!"
An iron gallery crossed the road. Great chimneys and cranes stood out against the sky. A wooden fence shut off what once had been the dingle. Above the top of it he could see a wilderness of corrugated iron and white chalk, smoke and corruption. A steam-navvy was puffing noisily, figures were coming and going, whilst standing out insolently at an angle to the road was a large slate-coloured board, on which was painted:
"Ephraim Barnes & Co., Lime and Cement Merchants."
David clung to the gate. He had ditficulty in getting his breath. An old woman who came hobbling down the lane stopped and said:
"Are you sick, mister? Is anything awry?"
He shook himself nervously and jerked out:
"No, no, thank you; it's all right."
"It's muggy for the time of year," remarked the old lady.
David was struggling to keep himself in hand. He controlled his voice as be replied:
"Yes. Can you tell me, madam, who lives at the red-brick house at the corner?"
She turned her old face in the direction he was looking, and answered:
"Ay, Mr. Barnes 'isself and 'is family lives there."
"Oh! Could you tell me...whom did Mr. Barnes marry?"
"Mr. Barnes? Oo—e married old Dr. Parsons' daughter."
"Ay. she do that. She's expecting a child, they say. She's a hard woman, though."
"How do you mean, she's hard?"
"Eh, they doan't like 'er about these parts. She's too quiet, sullen, bitter-like. She never talks to us cottage-folk, nor to no one else, they say. They say her made her good man make them lime-works in the dingle. Some whimsey or other. She's very queer-like. They say it's payin' though, hand over fist. 'E makes a lot of money, do Mr. Barnes."
"It's finished...it's all finished!" gasped David.
"It's all right. I beg your pardon. Thank you very much."
The strange young man lowered his head and walked rapidly away.
The old lady shook her head. "Drink, perhaps," she murmured. "A pleasant looking young man, too."
But David was only speaking the truth. It was finished. So relentless are the gods who preside over these mysterious comings and goings that if you look through Mudie's or any publisher's trade-catalogue, you will find that no work by David Stroud has ever been published since The Chalk Pit attained so conspicuous a success.
The Strand Magazine, August 1919
Old Ben Tilbury yawned and knocked his pipe out against the bars of the stove. He had a capacious tea, and felt at ease with the world. His wife sat opposite stitching some white linen garment. His daughter Mildred was kneeling on the floor, and by the light of a candle, to assist the uncertain glow of the paraffin lamp, was cutting out a skirt from a paper pattern.
These dressmaking activities always produced in him—as far as was possible in such a stolid nature—a mild feeling of irritation. Such a lot of fuss and talk! A restless, finicky job, dressmaking! He himself was a gardener, a man who dwelt in broad issues. He planted in the autumn for the spring, in the spring for the summer, slowly, methodically, reverently. It was big, noble work. Dressmaking? Why, what you made in the autumn was out of date, finished, in the spring!
He yawned again.
His wife remarked:—
"Them gals of Mrs. Skinner's was over this afternoon. They want to take Willie and Agnes to the treat at Betterleigh. I don't know, I'm sure. They only went to one a week come Friday. What be your moind about it, Ben?"
"Eh?" answered her husband. He was not listening very attentively. As a matter of fact, he was cogitating the attractions of a glass of ale and a chat with old Sam Bannerman at the Bunch of Grapes. It was Saturday evening, and old Sam would be there, and probably Sid Potton and Johnny Curtis. The conversation would be worth while. They would talk about the land and the weather, and dogs, and tobacco, and ratting, and other manly subjects.
He blew down his pipe and said, very slowly:—
"Oh! I doan't know. Might be all roight."
His wife added something about the frocks the Skinner girls were wearing, and after a few minutes Ben stood up and stretched himself. He walked to the cottage door and took down his cloth cap.
"O-er," he drawled, "I remember I must take that insurance money over to Carter's at Tringham."
"Don't be late, Ben," his wife called out as he raised the latch.
It was a fine, calm night as he ambled down the village street. He felt a quiet glow of contentment pervade him. A hard day's work in the open air, a good meal, and then the prospect of a glass of ale and a pipe, mellowed with an interesting talk about ratting—what more could any reasonable man demand?
He passed the time of night with several acquaintances, and was just turning the corner that led to the Bunch of Grapes when he ran right into an individual who started at the sight of him and gripped his arm, at the same time remarking:—
"I was looking for you."
It took Ben some seconds to recognize this gentleman in the fur coat; and then he realized that it was his employer's secretary. He had no great love for his employer. His name was Ephraim Pendlebury-Leyfus. He had inherited an enormous fortune from his father, who had made: it out of some patent medicine. Mr. and Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus were newfangled, bumptious upstarts of people who were always driving about in motor-cars, and took no interest in gardening. Fortunately for Ben, he never came in contact with them. They paid him well and appointed him head-gardener, and he had three assistants. He was allowed to do as he liked. It was a large and well-appointed estate. Neither had he much regard for the secretary, Mr. Smythe, a fussy, overdressed, patent-leather-booty person, but still—one had to be polite. He said:—
"Good evenin', Mr. Smythe!"
And then he observed for the first time that Mr. Smythe was in a state of frenzied agitation. His lips were quivering, and the pupils of his eyes were dilated. He said, breathlessly:—
"Come. Get into this car. Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus wants to see you at once."
"Wants to see I! At this toime o' noight!" The delicately-planned scheme of his vegetable beds flashed through his mind. What can a gardener do in the dark, on a Saturday night of all nights?
But the other seemed in no mood for explanations. He gasped something about being quick.
It was very important. A large car was panting against the hedge just down the road. The lights of the Bunch of Grapes winked at him enticingly.
"Well, I doan't know," he said. "I doant reckon to—"
But he found himself being bustled along. He got reluctantly into the car and the door snapped to. The secretary wound the thing up and jumped into the front seat, and they were off.
It was barely a mile to Cottersley Park, where the Pendlebury-Leyfuses lived, and the drive could not have occupied five minutes, but it gave Ben an opportunity for reflection. It was a closed car, so he could not converse with the secretary. Having dismissed the gardening idea, he wondered whether it was anything to do with his pay. But no, he had only been paid that morning. Had something been stolen and they were going to accuse him? Perhaps Mr. P.-L. wanted him to go to Scotland, where he had another large estate? He had once mentioned the subject. But Ben had no intention of falling in with any wild ideas like that. Born and bred in Cambridgeshire, and he meant to die there.
The car swung through the lodge gates, up the avenue of elms, then took a broad circular sweep and came to a stop by the front door. It had given him very little time for thinking, but coming up the drive he remembered that yesterday there had arrived a party of dark-skinned people, tremendous swells he understood. One was a kind of emperor of a foreign country. There had been a great to-do. The Pendlebury-Leyfuses loved to entertain anyone like that. But still they would be hardly likely to want to see the gardener. Eating and drinking was more their mark.
He found himself ushered into the oak-panelled library, where a fire was glowing in the grate. As he crossed the hall he had heard the hum of conversation and the chink of glass in the dining-room.
"Everything seems all right," he thought.
In less than two minutes the door opened and Mr. and Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus both entered. They were in evening dress, and he observed the same air of feverish anxiety about them which had characterized Mr. Smythe. Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus was so agitated that she shook hands with him, and her husband said:—
"Sit down, Tilbury."
He darted about the room as though he were looking for something. Then he came to a halt by the fireplace, and his wife sank back into an easy chair and sniffed at a bottle of smelling-salts. She was a large, florid woman, dressed in pink. Diamonds glittered from unexpected portions of her anatomy. She kept swaying backwards and forwards, the jewels on her fingers flashing as she waved the bottle of scent in front of her heavilv-powdered face.
"You're a painted-up-looking cow!" thought Ben, but out loud he said:—
"What might you be wantin' me for, sir?"
Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus stretched his legs wide apart and looked down at his white waistcoat. Then he coughed and cleared his throat.
"We've had a terrible upset here, Tilbury, and we want you to help us out of it."
Having said this, he looked at his wife as though for encouragement. The lady still being occupied with the scent-bottle, he came boldly to the point. He said:—
"We want you to dig a grave at once at the bottom of the vegetable garden."
It was almost a shout which escaped the head-gardener. Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus held up his hand.
"Pray be calm," he said. "I will explain it all to you. We have had the honour of a visit from His Highness the Ameer of Barochistan and his suite. Unfortunately, last night there was a deplorable—er—accident. His Highness comes from a country which, as you may imagine, has a rather different moral code to ours. Things are quite different. He is all-powerful, an autocrat. It appears that last night one of his servants angered him by some carelessness, and in a misguided moment His Highness struck the servant with a metal pipe. Unfortunately, the servant died...do you understand?"
Ben was on his feet, his cloth cap gripped firmly in his hand.
"Look-ee here, Mr. Leyfus," he proclaimed, in a stentorian voice, "I'll have nowt to do wi' this. I'm a gardener. I'll do a honest day's work with any man on the country-side, but you won't get me assistin' of a lot of black people to murder each other."
Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus frowned and twirled his small waxed moustache. Then he spoke like a father addressing a small child.
"That isn't exactly the position, Tilbury. It's much more involved than that. You see, in his own country it isn't a crime. There would be no question of that."
"Murderin' is murderin', wherever it's done!"'
"It was in any case only an accident, a most unfortunate accident. And the public scandal must not be faced. You can have no idea what the political results might be. Barochistan is a very important and powerful State on the borders of India. If His Highness were to be involved and disgraced in our courts it might lead to war. Think of this, Tilbury; by doing as you are asked, by just digging this grave, you may save England from war!"
"Only a little one. It needn't be very deep," said Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus, who spoke for the first time.
"I tell 'ee I'll have nowt to do wi' 't. It's most irregler. It's a case for the police. But if they want to hush it up they must do their own buryin'. It's not my place. I'm a God-fearin' man."
"The reason we have called on you is obvious. The dug-up soil of the vegetable garden is the most suitable and least likely to attract notice. But if our friends had done it themselves it is more than probable that you or your assistants would have quickly discovered it. It is important for you to select a likely spot and to arrange matters so that none of the gardeners have occasion to dig anywhere near it in the future. You must cover the spot with tomato frames or something. If you will do this I will give you fifty pounds, and raise your salary another fifty pounds a year."
Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus said this very clearly and deliberately, and his wife leant forward, flashing her large rings, almost as though she were about to tear them off her fingers and hand them to him.
Ben stood there gripping his cap. The horrid little visions of what could be done with fifty pounds danced before his eyes. But he managed to thrust them back. He turned round and spat in the fire. Then he pulled himself up and repeated:—
"No. I'll have nowt to do wi' it."
"Oh, Mr. Tilbury," pleaded the lady. "Think of your country!"'
Ben shrugged his shoulders, and Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus said, sharply:—
"Very well, then. We must go and report the matter to the Ameer."
He walked to the door, and the three of them trooped out into the hall.
It was a vast hall with crowds of doors and recesses and old furniture. Ben was anxious to find the way out, but a little uncertain of his sense of direction. He found himself by the open door of the dining-room, and his host said:—
"Just a moment, Tilbury. Come in."
It was very difficult to avoid doing so. He peered into the room. A large mahogany table gleamed under the diffused light of several standard lamps. There were silver bowls of fruit, nuts, and sweets, decanters of winc, and diminutive glasses filled with some bright green liquid. The secretary stood fidgeting by the fireplace. Three dusky gentlemen, one in evening dress, the other two in turbans and curious coloured wrappings, were seated round the table sipping their wine and talking in low voices. Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus walked in and said:—
"Gentlemen, this is my gardener I spoke of. He refuses to do what we ask."
Ben stood just inside the door. The three Orientals stood up and bowed very solemnly. The one in evening dress immediately whispered to the other two in some queer lingo. He was apparently the interpreter. It was easy for Ben to decide which was the Ameer. He was the biggest of the three. He had a fat, puffy face and a bright green turban with a star in the centre.
"He looks a disagreeable-lookin' swine," thought Ben. "Just the sort to murder a servant and then hush it up."
The interpreter was a thin, cadaverous-looking individual. He rubbed his hands together in a cringing sort of way as he talked to the Ameer. Then he nodded several times and, leaning with onc hand on the table, he said, in a smooth, staccato voice:—
"His Highness say if the man-gardener do his bidding he give him a lakh of rupees and the order of the Three Flamingos.'
"Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus. "Do you hear that, Tilbury? He'll give you a lakh of rupees. A fortune! An absolute fortune!"
Then he bobbed three times very quickly in the direction of the Ameer and muttered:—
"Very kind! Very kind indeed, I'm sure."
Ben sturdily shook his head at the room.
"No-a!" he said. "I wo-an't do it."
The interpreter was biting his nails, and whispering again to the Ameer. Ben turned and said:—
"And now I'll be gettin' back."
The interpreter exclaimed in a high-pitched Voice:—
"Wait, wait! Let us discuss some more. Will not the man occupy himself with some little refreshment while we further consider what may be done?"
Ben thought of the good beer waiting him at the Bunch of Grapes. The sight of these foreign drinks nauseated him. Besides, who would trust this crowd? How could he know that the drink was not doped? Nevertheless, a bright idea occurred to him. He stepped up to the table and took an apple.
"Thanks!" he said. "I'll munch this along the road."
Then he turned his back on the room and faced Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus standing by the door.
"Im surprised at you, sir," he said. "I thowt I was workin' for a gen'leman. I'm goin' now, and I'd like to know what's to prevent me lodging a information about these goin's on to the police?"
He looked at the little beady eyes of his employer, and then became aware of a strange contraction in them. They were looking past him. At the same time a voice at his back said:—
He turned sharply. Three paces from him stood the oleaginous Mr. Smythe, covering him with a horrid glittering little barrel. The room danced before his eyes. He was conscious of a great confusion of sounds and feelings. Mrs. Pendlebury-Levfus screamed. The Orientals were whispering excitedly together. Someone at the back was talking at the same time. It was some time after the event that he recollected that during this curious strained confusion the voice of Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus said once quite clearly:—
"Do be careful. It's so difficult to get a gardener!"'
The whole thing was now on a different planc. It was one thing to be a man, to stick up for one's rights, to do what one thought was honest; but quite another thing to throw away one's life when there were those others depending on one. The vision of the cottage flashed before his mind. His wife quietly stitching, Mildred cutting out a skirt on the floor, the two young ones asleep upstairs; their rooms, their furniture, the bit of garden, the sweet air of the fields and lanes, the smell of shag, all the pleasant associations of a satisfying life. Mr. Smythe was saying:—
"Don't you be a great fool, Tilbury. It's got to be done, and you've got to do it, and moreover you've got to keep it quiet. You've got the choice of a large fortune and an increase in salary, or alternatively—we'll be digging a grave for two!"
After all, he hadn't actually got to murder anyone himself. If the poor fellow had been done in, well, there it was! Someone had got to bury him. And, of course, a black man wasn't like a nice clean Christian. It was an affair all among themselves. All he had to do was to dig. But what about the servants? He would surely be detected!
Some of these apprehensions were probably apparent on his face, for Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus said, quite affably:—
"There, there, Tilbury, that's right! Do not let it worry you. His Highness and suite occupy the Trianon wing on the ground floor beyond the conservatory. None of our servants have access to it while His Highness is there. From the door on the east side you are immediately among the thick shrubs which lead all the way to the vegetable garden. The night is fairly dark. I have sent Torkins and Peel downstairs to prepare the billiard-table. Don't forget to be careful about the spot you choose, so that you will know how to cover up your tracks later on. Mr. Smythe and one of His Highness's representatives will accompany you."
Ben stood dubiously by the door twirling his cap.
"It's a nice thing, I must say!" he grumbled.
The Eastern gentlemen were still talking with great volubility. At length the interpreter said:—
"It is well. His Eminence Khan Shuan will accompany the man-gardener."
Ben didn't like it at all, but he walked surlily out into the hall. Two pocket-torches were produced, and the party started. His Eminence Khan Shuan and Mr. Smythe tip-toed across the hall, but the hob-nailed boots of Ben seemed to make a deafening noise on the marble tiles. They entered the long conservatory, dimly lighted, and then went silently through the door at the end into a corridor which was the artery of the Trianon wing. It was very dark there, and there was a faint perfume of some exotic scent. Ben thought he heard someone moving in the rooms. His heart beat quickly. He felt almost friendly towards Mr. Smythe, who walked behind him with a loaded revolver. He was in any case a white blackguard. But these dark-skinned swine! They might do anything. He wouldn't trust them at the end of a yard rope. Good Lord! In one of these rooms was one of them lying murdered!
They kicked against the door at the end, and slipped the bolt.
"Now, quiet!" whispered Mr. Smythe, huskily.
That was all that was said. They groped their way along the shrubs, Ben going first and the secretary close on his heels, the Oriental silently bringing up the rear. They reached the tool-shed and Ben got out his spade.
And then a curious itchy feeling came to him. A spade was a very useful implement. A man could do a lot with a spade. A sudden biff and down would go the armed brigand. Ben felt capable of coping with the Oriental alone. But then—well, in that case he would probably be a murderer himself! Moreover, Mr. Smythe seemed to have some prevision of this hidden potentiality. He kept well clear. He covered Ben with the torch from a distance of six or seven yards; a comfortable distance to fire, but too far to do really useful spade-work. Also the Oriental swell had an unfortunate habit of hovering all over the place. You could never be quite certain where he was.
Ben selected the spot. It was just beyond the vegetable marrows. The soil was very loose and there was a great pile of manure handy with which he would be able to temporarily cover up the effect of his operations. He marked it out and then began to dig. And he dug, and dug, and dug! By nature, being a good gardener, he had acquired the genius of doing everything very slowly, but on this occasion he dug like a mad-man. He made up his mind that he could not escape his fate, so he decided to get through it as quickly as possible.
In half an hour he had dug quite a nice grave. Not very deep and not very trim at the edges, but still a useful, workmanlike job. The manure would cover up the minor deficiencies. Now and then he would rest for half a minute and spit on his hands. Mr. Smythe was hovering restlessly a few yards away, but His Excellency Khan Shuan remained absolutely inert and impassive, holding a torch to reveal the gardener's handiwork. When it was finished Ben was perspiring freely. He mopped his brow and said:—
"Well, that's done, and now I'll be off!"
"Oh, no!" sharply replied Mr. Smythe. "You must come back, and we must all report the result. They may require you further."
"I'm danged if I'm goin' to have anythin' to do with the buryin'," quoth the gardener.
Khan Shuan made gestures with his hands, as though he suspected Ben's intentions, and was prepared to thwart them. Mr. Smythe nodded, implying that he had the matter well in hand. He said:—-
"That's all right, your Excellency. He'll do what he's told!"
The little revolver once more came vividly to the fore.
"By gosh!" thought Ben. "You wait till I get you alone, you smug worm!"
"Leave the spade and go ahead!" ordered the man with the revolver.
Ben growled and did as he was told.
They groped their way back through the shrubs and regained the corridor. It seemed darker and more unpleasant than ever. Khan Shuan made signs to the other two to wait. He then vanished through one of the doors. Ben thought he heard a sound of low wailing or chanting. Doubtless some of their ridiculous monkey-tricks performed in honour of the dead. There was a distinct smell of incense. Khan Shuan kept them waiting nearly five minutes. At last he reappeared, and noiselessly lead the way back to the white quarters. When they regained the main hall there was a sound of singing. They found the rest of the party in the French drawing-room. A large gramophone was emitting the vibrato of some fruity Italian tenor. This was obviously done for the benefit of the servants. To give an air of normality.
The Ameer was seated in a large gilt chair with his hands crossed over his protruding front. He was just staring at the gramophone with no expression on his face at all. The interpreter was leaning forward nervously playing with his fingers. Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus was standing pompously leaning against the grand piano like a showman. Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus was lying back in an upholstered chair fanning herself, as though entertaining foreign potentates were the most usual experience of her life.
"Hm! they're a merry-lookin' bunch!" thought Ben. "Give me the bar-parlour of the Bunch of Grapes any day in the week!"
They all started as the trio entered the room. Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus walked quickly across and shut the door.
"Don't turn off the gramophone," he said. "Let's talk round the fire."
The Ameer didn't stir. But the others gathered by the fireplace.
"It's all ready," said Mr. Smythe.
"Well, then, you had better go and—put it in, you three," replied Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus.
"I'll have nowt to do with buryin'," growled Ben.
No one took any notice of him. The interpreter seemed nervous. He asked one or two questions in English, and one or two in "Barochistan," or whatever the language was. Khan Shuan appeared to be very emphatic about something. They went and reported matters to the Ameer. The doleful potentate nodded slowly, and after some time he raised his right hand and whispered in the interpreter's ear. There was more talk, and then the interpreter returned to the hearth-rug. He bowed jerkily and said:—
"Sir and Lady, His Highness has spoken, This is a delicate matter wnich concerns the Ho-Bidyeh Soh-Kranto faith. If you will kindly permit, we will retire and in quite soon a little while report the dictates of The Master."
"Yes, yes, of course! Charmed," replied Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus, bowing.
The Barochistan party retired ceremoniously. When they had gone the watchful Mr. Smythe hovered by the door. Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus walked up and down the room with his hands behind his back. Ben, who was becoming indifferent to this social atmosphere, and somewhat desperate at the confinement, threw himself negligently into the large settee facing the fire, and crossed his legs. Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus was in the easy chair at right angles to Ben. He stared at her, and he noticed that her eyes were fascinated by his boots. She could not look at anything else. The gramophone was still screaming forth excerpts from Leoncavallo, and suddenly Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus burst out crying. She dabbed her eyes, and sniffed. Her husband turned and patted her shoulder.
"Come, come!" he said. "What is it, my dear?"
"It's a nice thing you've let us in for," she cried, hysterically, "asking all these black people here. And then they go murdering their servants and make all this upset! And we have to put up with it, and have the gardener's hob-nailed boots in the drawing-room and all that!"
"But I'd like to know," replied Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus, irritably, "who it was who insisted on having them asked? When the introduction came, who sent off the telegram almost at once? Who sent the announcement about the visit to the Morning Post?"
"I—I never wanted them to come!"
"Well, for God's sake don't carry on now. We've got to see it through. They'll be back soon, and if they see you crying it will put the lid on it."
"I wish they'd go! The dirty black scum!"
The storm lasted some time, and the lady never took her eyes from Ben's boots, except to cry. The gardener felt quite convinced that the presence of his boots annoyed her much more than the murder of the servant. And he felt pleased about this. He stuck them out and dangled one insultingly across his knee.
It must have been about twenty minutes before the guests returned, and when they did it was patent that some important decision had been arrived at. They all looked more solemn and ceremonious than ever. Khan Shuan and the interpreter ushered the Ameer to his former seat, where he sat impassively staring at the gramophone, which had now left off. They then bowed very low to him, and then to each other. Khan Shuan took a seat a few yards away by the side of the Ameer, and the interpreter remained standing. He again bowed to Mr. and Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus, and crossed his arms. Then, speaking very slowly and distinctly, he said:—
"Honoured sir and lady, His Highness has consulted with the inner circle of Fuhan-Shi. It is all now plainly written how in the circumstances one should act. The servant of His Highness who met with the regrettable accident was a low menial of the seventh grade of Kali-Tsor. Nevertheless, he was a true believer and follower of Soh-Kranto faith. And it is written that none must touch the body of a disciple of The Master without being himself a follower of one who has been initiated into the mysteries of the Ho-Bidyeh."
"Quite so! Quite so!" jerked out Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus. "You mean that your people must bury him themselves, eh?"
"Not so," replied the interpreter. "Or only partly so. The position of His Highness, and of His Eminence Khan Shuan, preclude them from fulfilling this office. Even I, unworthy as I am, am of the second grade of a Kali-Tsor. There remains, therefore, among His Highness's personnel only the serving-man Ku Tan."
"Ah! Oh, yes, quite so! What do you propose to do, then?"
"It wil be necessary to initiate the man-gardener into the mysteries of the Ho-Bidyeh!"
"No! I'm danged if I do!" roared Ben, and he pushed past the interpreter and made for the door. "I doan't want to know nothin' about the blamed mysteries!"
The disgusting Mr. Smythe stood guarding the door, and the sight of him infuriated Ben beyond endurance.
"You!" he cried out. "You shoot and be blistered!"
He took a step forward to his inevitable destruction, when suddenly he found himself gripped from behind. He caught sight of a pair of long black hands clutching his chest. Ben, though not so young as he once was, put up a sturdy fight.
"They mean to kill me," he thought, and determined that they should pay the full price for it. His arms, legs, mouth, and bullet head were all brought into violent play. But they were strong, these Orientals, and they seemed to know something about this kind of game. One of them gripped him low round the ankles. Another whipped a silk handkerchief across his mouth. His arms were locked in some tricky fashion. He was bound up like a fly in a spider's web. The struggle was over in three or four minutes. Mrs. Pendlebury-Leyfus started to scream, and her husband yelled out:—
"Don't scream, you fool!"
Ben's eyes were also bandaged, but he could hear Mr. Pendlebury-Leyfus calling out to him, nervously:—
"It's all right, Tilbury! It's only a matter of form! They won't hurt you if you do what they tell you!"
He wanted to yell out "Form be blowed!" but the bandage prevented him from doing anything more than growl. He felt himself lifted up and carried out of the room. They crossed the hall and entered the corridor of the Eastern quarter. It seemed a long way, much farther than when he had walked it just previously.
"They mean to bury me in that grave!" he kept thinking. He did not struggle. He was husbanding his strength for the last great fight. Suddenly the procession stopped. Evidently Mr. Smythe was still there, for he heard the interpreter say:—
"Honoured sir, it will not be necessary for us to further detain you. The room consecrated for the time being to the Holy Faith may be entered only by the followers of Soh-Kranto, and those about to be initiated into the mysteries of the Ho-Bidyeh."
Mr. Smythe muttered something and apparently departed. They went through another door and Ben heard it snap to behind them. He was alone—alone with these heathens and believers in the black arts. He would have given anything to have retained Mr. Smythe and his sociable little pistol. Alone in a dark and forbidding world. If he was to die, might he die quickly and directly. He had heard terrible stories of these black foreigners—stories of tortures and lingering agonies.
He was placed in an upright chair with his hands tied behind. He heard whispering going on, and very faintly the clang of some queer musical instrument. His nose, his only fully active organ, was keenly alive to the penetrating incense. Then hands lightly flicked his head. He felt his eye-bandage being removed. It came away and he blinked at the full light. For some seconds he could visualize nothing, and then suddenly an object directly opposite him took shape, and he wanted to cry out with horror!
Against the dark window curtain was a low couch, and on it was a body covered with a white sheet. It was the murdered man! This was the beginning of their disgusting ceremony! In the corner of the room was a dark figure playing on some metallic toneless instrument. The Ameer himself was walking to and fro and making peculiar passes in the direction of the corpse. Behind him was the man who had removed his bandage.
Ben felt the veins in his temples swelling. He wanted to shout, but he felt too nerveless even to struggle. He had no idea how long he sat there transfixed before the amazing climax came upon him. He could not detach what was real from what was the tissue of his imagination. He remained for a long time both before and after the climax in a state of immovability. The truth did not get through to him. Was it the heat of the room? The peculiar effect of the incense? The weird chanting? Or some more malevolent narcotic? But as he saw it the whole situation become inexplicably metamorphosed. The corpse suddenly sat up and pushed back the sheet and appearcd to be a young man in a grey suit and a fresh complexion, who said:—
"I say, confound it, you chaps! I'm fed up with this!"
And the Ameer behaved in a most peculiar way. His heavy mournful face suddenly seemed to expand into a broad, fat, jovial grin. And then he threw back his head and laughed. And the interpreter and His Eminence Khan Shuan seemed to be punching each other in the ribs, while the revivified corpse was exclaiming:—
"Don't make such a bally row! They'll hear!" But of course all this couldn't be true. It was some mad dream. The other thing was true—the murdered servant, the mystic rites. It couldn't be true that the dignified Khan Shuan was digging him in the ribs and calling him "a priceless old thing!" But it certainly seemed to be true that someone was unbinding his hands and feet. He shook himself free, still staring incredibly at his captors. There was a lot of talk and noise, and his slow-moving brain had not yet grasped the significance of it. But after a time the interpreter took a chair and sat on the back of it, and said:—
"Let's see, old thing, what's your name?"
"Ah! Ben, allow me to introduce you to Micky O'Burn from Jesus."
The Ameer came forward and gripped his hand; and, speaking in a slight Irish brogue, he said:—
"Ben, ye're a rare old sportsman!"
Khan Shuan was introduced as Tiny Winkleson, the young man in the grey suit as Monty, and the interpreter announced himsclf as James Mulberry Trimmingham.
"Now that's all square," he added. "We're sorry to have led you up the garden in every sense, but you see what it is? We've all come over from Jesus just to put it across these bally snobs, the Pendlebury-Leyfuses. They're the talk of the county. But Monty has got to get away to-night. He's playing in a golf tournament to-morrow. But as he arrived with us and they probably counted us we thought the best way to get rid of him was to bury him in the garden. It will also be a pretty little memento for our host. We've got to stay on till Monday. There's a bet on that we don't get detected. Now look here, Ben, have you got anything you can shove in that grave?"
Ben was still eminently solemn. He still had not had time to adjust his vision to this violent perspective. He scratched his chin and thought. At last he said:— "Why, yes! At the back of shed just up agin the stone wall afore you comes to the ricks is a litter of dead rats. Mr. Gateshead put down p'ison o' Toosday. I been meanin' to bury they."
"Capital!" exclaimed the interpreter, and the Ameer cut in with:—
"Sure, that's foine; and, look here, Ben, you've to take that extra fifty quid. And if any time this blackguard of an employer tries to come it over ye, just point over here to the vegetable garden and whisper 'rats'!"
They all laughed and clapped him on the back, and the young man named Monty slipped on a dark overcoat and a felt hat.
"Now," he said, "come on, Ben, we'll step out together. And you chaps keep the tom-tom stunt going while we perform the holy rites. I've just got time to catch the 10.17."
The other three shook Ben's hand, and the Ameer said:—
"You needn't come back, Ben. I'll make your apologies and explain that we've sent you back to your home under a spell of the Oke-poke, or something. We'll say ye're a real hot Soh-krantic, and don't you forget to work the rats for all you're worth."
Ben shook hands solemnly, but after further discussion Khan Shuan and the interpreter also came as far as the grave and helped inter the rats, leaving the Ameer in all his glory to play the tom-tom on a biscuit tin. The task was accomplished in comparative silence. When it was finished and the pile of manure distributed over the mound, the conspirators again shook hands with Ben, and he walked slowly off, making his way out of the park by the east gate. He trudged slowly along, swinging his long arms. After a time he took the apple out of his pocket and munched it thoughtfully. He got into the lane by Purvey's meadow and crossed the high road. The night was still fine and calm. It was just as he was passing the copse by the outskirts of Walley's Farm, which as you know is barely a quarter of a mile from the village church, that he suddenly stopped and threw the apple-core into the hedge. Then he slapped his leg, and uttered a low "Haw, haw, haw." Then he gathered breath and repeated the operation in a louder key. He must have stood three or four minutes. He was unable to go on. His "Haw, haw, haws" reached to heaven. A car passing along the high-road heard it, and someone remarked about "these disgusting villagers—always drunk!"
The tears ran down his cheeks and his body shook, and still he laughed. At length he took a large red handkerchief and cleaned himself up. He lighted his pipe, and his face again resumed its solemn repose.
It was exactly 10.35 when he entered the cottage. Mildred had gone to bed and his wife was just preparing to do so. She said:—
"Halloa, Ben, you're a bit late. What's it like out?"
He hung his cloth cap up on the peg behind the door. Then he walked slowly to the fire and relighted his pipe from a red ember. His wife sat down and yawned. And Ben sat opposite her, and for several minutes there was silence. At length, looking along the bowl of his pipe, he said:—
"Let's see, what was you sayin' about them Skinner gals?"
The New Magazine (UK), September 1920
The Living Age, September 4 1926
There was something essentially Chinese about the appearance of George as he lay there propped up against the pillows. His large, flabby face had an expression of complete detachment. His narrowing eyes regarded me with a fatalistic repose. Observing him I felt that nothing mattered, nothing ever had mattered, and nothing ever would matter. And I was angry. Pale sunlight filtered through the curtains.
"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. "Still in bed! Do you know it's nearly twelve o'clock?"
An almost inaudible sigh greeted my explosion. George occupied the maisonnette below me. Some fool of an uncle had left him a small private income, and he lived alone, attended by an old housekeeper. He did nothing, absolutely nothing at all, not even amuse himself; and whenever I went in to see him he was invariably in bed. There was nothing wrong with his health. It was sheer laziness. But not laziness of a negative kind, mark you, but the outcome of a calm and studied policy. I knew this, and it angered me the more.
"What would happen if the whole world went on like you?" I snapped.
He sighed again, and then replied in his thin, mellow voice:—
"We should have a series of ideal states. There would be no wars, no crimes, no divorce, no competition, no greed, envy, hatred, or malice."
"Yes, and no food."
He turned slightly on one side. His accents became mildly expostulating—the philosopher fretted by an ignorant child.
"How unreasonable you are, dear boy. How unthinking! The secret of life is complete immobility. The tortoise lives four hundred years; the fox terrier wears itself out in ten. Wild beasts, fishes, savages, and stockbrokers fight and struggle and eat each other up. The only place for a cultivated man is bed. In bed he is supreme—the arbiter of his soul. His limbs and the vulgar carcass of his being constructed for purely material functioning are concealed. His head rules him. He is the autocrat of the bolster, the gallant of fine linen, the master of complete relaxation. Believe me, there are a thousand tender attitudes of repose unknown to people like you. The four corners of a feather bed are an inexhaustible field of luxurious adventure. I have spent more than half my life in bed, and even now I have not explored all the delectable crannies and comforts that it holds for me."
"No," I sneered. "And in the meantime, other people have to work to keep you there."
"That is not my fault. A well-ordered state should be a vast caravansary of dormitories. Ninety-nine per cent of these activities you laud so extravagantly are gross and unnecessary. People should be made to stay in bed till they have found out something worth doing. Who wants telephones, and cinemas, and safety razors? All that civilization has invented are vulgar luxuries and time-saving devices. And when they have saved the time they don't know what to do with it. All that is required is bread, and wine, and fine linen. I, even I, would not object to getting up for a few hours every week to help to produce these things."
He stroked the three weeks' growth on his chin, and smiled magnanimously. Then he continued:
"The world has yet to appreciate the real value of passivity. In a crude form the working classes have begun to scratch the edge of the surface. They have discovered the strike. Now, observe that the strike is the most powerful political weapon of the present day. It can accomplish nearly everything it requires, and yet it is a condition of immobility. So you see already that immobility may be more powerful that activity. But this is only the beginning. When the nations start going to bed and stopping there, then civilization will take a leap forward. You can do nothing with a man in bed—not even knock him down. My ambition is to form a league of bedfellows. So that if one day some busybody or group of busybodies says, 'We're going to war with France, or Germany, or America,' we can reply, 'Very well. Then I'm going to bed.' Then, after a time, they would have to go to bed too. And they would eventually succumb to the gentle caresses of these sheets and eiderdowns. All their evil intentions would melt away. The world should be ruled, not by Governments or Soviets, but by national doss-houses."
He yawned, and I pulled up the blind.
"What about the good activities?" I replied.
For a second I thought I had stumped him, or that he was not going to deign to reply. Then the thin rumble of his voice reached me from across the sheets:—
"What you call the good activities can all be performed in bed.. That is to say, they can be substituted by a good immobility. The activities of man are essentially predatory. He has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He is a hunter and slayer, and nothing else at all. All his activities are diversions of this instinct. Commerce is war, capital is a sword, labor is a stomach. Progress means either filling the stomach, or chopping someone else's head off with the sword. Science is an instrument that speeds up the execution. Politics is a game of fan-tan. Colonization is straightforward daylight robbery."
"I'm not going to waste my morning with a fool," I said. "But what about art, and beauty, and charity, and love?"
"In bed," he mumbled. "All in bed. They are all of them spiritual things. Bed is the place for them. Was Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' any finer because he got up and wrote it down, and sent it to a fool of a publisher? Charity! Give a man a bed, and charity ceases to have any significance. You have given him a kingdom. There he may weave beauty and romance. Love! What a fool you are! Is a bed a less suitable place for love than a County Council tramcar?"
His voice died away above the coverlet. I was about to deliver a vitriolic tirade against his ridiculous theories, but I did not know where to begin, and before I had framed a suitable opening the sound of gentle snoring reached me.
I record this conversation as faithfully as I can recollect, because it will help you to share with me the sense of extreme surprise at certain events which followed, two months later. Of course, George did occasionally get up. Sometimes he went for a gentle stroll in the afternoon, and he belonged to a club down town where he would go and dine in the evening. After dinner he would watch some of the men play billiards, but he invariably returned to his bed about ten o'clock. He never played any game himself; neither did he, apparently, write or receive letters. Occasionally he read in bed, but he never looked at a newspaper or a magazine. He once said to me that if you read the newspapers you might as well play golf; and the tremulous shiver of disgust in his voice when he uttered the word 'golf' is a thing I shall never forget.
I ask you, then, to imagine my amazement when, two months later, George shaved himself, got up to breakfast, reached a City office at nine o'clock, worked all day, and returned at seven in the evening. You will no doubt have a shrewd idea of the reason, and you are right. She was the prettiest little thing you can imagine, with chestnut hair, and a solemn babyish pucker of the lips. She was as vital as he was turgid. Her name was Maisie Brand. I don't know how he met her, but Maisie, in addition to being pretty and in every way attractive, was a practical modern child. George's two hundred a year might be sufficient to keep him in bed, but it wasn't going to be enough to run a household on. Maisie had no use for this bed theory. She was a daughter of sunshine and fresh air, and frocks and theatres, and social life. If George was to win her he must get up in the morning.
On the Sunday after the dramatic change I visited him in his bedroom. He was like a broken man. He groaned when he recognized me.
"I suppose you'll stop in bed all day to-day?" I remarked jauntily.
"I've got to get up this afternoon," he growled. "I've got to take her to a concert."
"Well, how do you like work?" I asked.
"It's torture. Agony. It's awful. Fortunately, I found a fellow sufferer. He works next to me. We take it in turns to have twenty-minute naps, while the other keeps watch."
I laughed, and quoted:
"'Custom lies upon us with a weight, heavy as frost and deep almost as night.'" Then I added venomously:—
"Well, I haven't any sympathy for you. It serves you right for the way you've gone on all these years."
I thought he was asleep again, but at last his drowsy accents proclaimed:—
"What a perfect fool you are! You always follow the line of least resistance."
I laughed outright at that, and exclaimed, "Well, if ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black!"
There was a long interval, during which I seemed to observe a slow, cumbrous movement in the bed. Doubtless he was exploring. When he spoke again there was a faint tinge of animation in his voice:—
"You are not capable, I suppose, of realizing the danger of it all. You fool! Do you think I follow the line of least resistance in bed? Do you think I haven't often wanted to get up and do all these ridiculous things you and your kind indulge in? Can't you see what might happen? Suppose these dormant temptations were thoroughly aroused! My heavens! It's awful to contemplate. Habit, you say? Yes, I know. I know quite well the risk I am running. Am I to sacrifice all the epic romance of this life between the sheets for the sordid round of petty actions you call life? I was a fool to get up that day. I had a premonition of danger when I awoke at dawn. I said to myself, 'George, restrain yourself. Do not be deceived by the hollow sunlight. Above all things, keep clear of the park.' But, like a fool, I betrayed my sacred trust. The premonitions which come to one in bed are always right. I got up. And now—By jove! It's too late!"
Smothered sobs seemed to shake the bed.
"Well," I said, "if you feel like that about it, if you think more of your bed than of the girl, I should break it off. She won't be missing much."
He suddenly sat up and exclaimed:
"Don't you dare—"
Then he sank back on the pillow, and added dispassionately:—
"There, you see already the instinct of activity. A weak attitude. I could crush you more successfully with complete immobility. But these movements are already beginning. They shake me at every turn. Nothing is secure."
Inwardly chuckling at his discomfiture, I left him.
During the months that followed I did not have opportunities of studying George to the extent that I should have liked, as my work carried me to various parts of the country; but what opportunities I did have I found sufficiently interesting. He certainly improved in health. A slight color tinged his cheeks. He seemed less puffy and turgid. His movements were still slow, but they were more deliberate than of old. His clothes were neat and brushed. The girl was delightful. She came up and chatted with me, and we became great friends. She talked to me quite frankly about George. She laughed about his passion for bed, but declared she meant to knock all that sort of thing out of him. She was going to wake him up thoroughly. She said laughingly that she thought it was perfectly disgusting the way he had been living. I used to try to visualize George making love to her, but somehow the picture would never seem convincing. I do not think it could have been a very passionate affair. Passion was the last thing you would associate with George. I used to watch them walking down the street, the girl slim and vivid, swinging along with broad strides; George, rather flustered and disturbed, pottering along by her side; like a performing bear that is being led away from its bun. He did not appear to look at her, and when she addressed him vivaciously he bent forward his head and held his large ear close to her face. It was as though he were timid of her vitality.
At first the spectacle amused me, but after a time it produced in me another feeling.
"This girl is being thrown away on him. It's horrible. She's much too good for George." And when I was away I was constantly thinking of her, and dreading the day of the wedding, praying that something would happen to prevent it. But, to my deep concern, nothing did happen to prevent it, and they were duly married in April.
They went for a short honeymoon to Brittany, and then returned and occupied George's old maisonnette below me. The day after their return I had to face a disturbing realization. I was falling hopelessly in love with Maisie myself. I could not think of George, or take any interest in him. I was always thinking of her. Her face haunted me. Her charm and beauty, and the pathos of her position, gripped me. I made up my mind that the only thing to do was to go away. I went to Scotland, and on my return took a small flat in another part of London. I wrote to George and gave him my address, and wished him all possible luck. I said I hoped 'some day' to pay them a visit, but if at any time I could be of service would he let me know?
I cannot describe to you the anguish I experienced during the following twelve months. I saw nothing of George or Maisie at all, but the girl was ever present in my thoughts. I could not work. I lived in a state of feverish restlessness. Time and again I was on the point of breaking my resolve, but I managed to keep myself in hand.
It was in the following June that I met Maisie herself, walking down Regent Street. She looked pale and worried. Dark rings encircled her eyes. She gave a little gasp when she saw me, and clutched my hand. I tried to be formal, but she was obviously laboring under some tense emotion.
"My flat is in Baker Street," I said. "Will you come and visit me?"
She answered huskily, "Yes, I will come to-morrow afternoon. Thank you."
She slipped away in the crowd. I spent a sleepless night. What had happened? Of course, I could see it all. George had gone back to bed. Having once secured her, his efforts had gradually flagged. He had probably left his business—or been sacked—and spent the day sleeping. The poor girl was probably living a life of loneliness and utter poverty. What was I to do? All day long I paced up and down my flat. I dreaded that she might not come. It was just after four that the bell rang. I hastened to answer it myself. It was she. I led her into the sitting-room and tried to be formal and casual. I made some tea and chatted impersonally about the weather and the news of the day. She hardly answered me. Suddenly she buried her face in her hands and broke into tears. I sprang to her and patted her shoulder.
"There, there!" I said. "What is it? Tell me all about it, Maisie."
"I can't live with him. I can't live with him any longer," she sobbed.
I must acknowledge that my heart gave a violent bump, not entirely occasioned by contrition. I murmured as sympathetically as I could, but with prophetic assurance:—
"He's gone back to bed?"
"Oh, no," she managed to stammer. "It's not that. It's just the opposite."
"Just the opposite!"
"He's so restless, so exhausting. Oh, dear! Yes, please, Mr. Wargrave, give me a cup of tea, and I will tell you all about it."
For a moment I wondered whether the poor girl's mental balance had been upset. I poured her out the tea in silence. George restless! George exhausting! Whatever did she mean? She sipped the tea meditatively; then she dabbed her beautiful eyes and told me the following remarkable story.
"It was all right at first, Mr. Wargrave. We were quite happy. He was still—you know, very lazy, very sleepy. It all came about gradually. Every week, however, he seemed to get a little more active and vital. He began to sleep shorter hours and work longer. He liked to be entertained in the evening or to go to a theatre. On Sundays he would go for quite long walks. It went on like that for months. Then they raised his position in the firm. He seemed to open out. It was as though during all those years he had spent in bed he had been hoarding up remarkable stores of energy. And suddenly some demon of restlessness got possession of him. He began to work frenziedly. At first he was pleasant to me; then he became so busy he completely ignored me. At the end of six months they made him manager of a big engineering works at Waltham Green. One of the directors, a Mr. Sturge, said to me one day, 'This husband of yours is a remarkable man. He is the most forceful person we have ever employed. What has he been doing all these years? Why haven't we heard of him before?' He would get up at six in the morning, have a cold bath, and study for two hours before he went off to work. He would work all day like a fury. They say he was a perfect slave-driver in the works. Only last week he sacked a man for taking a nap five minutes over his lunch hour. He would get home about eight o'clock, have a hurried dinner, and then insist on going to the opera or playing bridge. When we got back he would read till two or three in the morning. Oh, Mr. Wargrave, he has got worse and worse. He never sleeps at all. He terrifies me. On Sunday it is just the same. He works all the morning. After lunch he motors out to North wood and plays eighteen holes before tea and eighteen after."
"What!" I exclaimed. "Golf!"
"Golf, and science, and organization are his manias. They say he's invented some wonderful labor-saving appliances on the plant, and he's planning all kinds of future activities. The business of the firm is increasing enormously. They pay him well, but he still persists in living in that maisonnette. He says he's too busy to move."
"Is he cruel to you?"
"If complete indifference and neglect is cruelty, he is most certainly cruel. Sometimes he gives me a most curious look, as though he hated me and yet he can't account for me! He allows me no intimacy of any sort. If I plead with him he doesn't answer. I believe he holds me responsible for all these dormant powers which have got loose and which he cannot now control. I do not think his work gives him any satisfaction. It is as though he were driven on by some blind force. Oh, Mr. Wargrave, I can't go on. It is killing me. I must run away and leave him."
"Maisie," I murmured, and I took her hand.
The immediate subsequent proceedings are not perhaps entirely necessary to record in relating this story, which is essentially George's story. The story of Maisie and myself could comfortably fill a stout volume, but as it concerns two quite unremarkable people, who were just human and workaday, I do not expect that you would be interested to read it. In any case, we have no intention of writing it, so do not be alarmed.
I can only tell you that during that year of her surprising married life Maisie had thought of me not a little, and this denouement rapidly brought things to a head. After this confession we used to meet every day. We went for rambles, and picnics, and to matinees; and, of course, that kind of thing cannot go on indefinitely. We both detested the idea of an intrigue. And eventually we decided that we would cut the Gordian knot and make a full confession. Maisie left him and went to live with a married sister.
That same morning I called on George. I arrived at the maisonnette just before six o'clock, as I knew that that was the most likely time to catch him. Without any preliminary ceremony I made my way into the familiar bedroom. George was in bed. I stood by the door and called out to him loudly: "George!"
Like a flash he was out of bed and standing in his pyjamas; facing me. He had changed considerably. His face was lined and old, but his eyes blazed with a fury of activity. He awed me. I stammered out my confession.
"George, I'm awfully sorry, old chap. I have a confession to make to you. It comes in the first place from Maisie. She has decided that she cannot live with you any longer. She thinks you have neglected her and treated her badly. She refuses to come back to you under any circumstances. Indeed, she—she and I—er—"
I tailed off dismally, and looked at him. For a moment I thought he was going to bear down on me. I know that if he had I should have been supine. I should have stood there and let him slaughter me. I felt completely overpowered by the force of his personality. I believe I shivered. He hovered by the edge of the bed, then he turned and looked out of the window. He stood there solemnly for nearly a minute, then he emitted a profound sigh. Without more ado he got back into bed. There was an immense upheaval of the sheets. He seemed to be burrowing down into some vast and as yet unexplored cave of comfort. He rolled and heaved, and at length became inert. I stood there, waiting for my answer. Sparrows twittered outside on the window box. I don't know how long I waited. I felt that I could not go until he had spoken.
At length his voice came. It seemed to reach me across dim centuries of memory, an old, tired, cosy, enormously contented, sleep-encrusted voice:—
"'S 'll right," said the voice. "Tell Mrs. Chase she needn't bring up my shaving water this morning."
The Century Magazine, February 1920
London has taken over the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and now shares its influence with the United States. Historians, poets, and dramatists write of the great American. All London, and soon all England, will he happier and wiser in knowing about "the great heart of humanity."
An event is happening in London which every American ought to know of. It may not in itself appear to be of great importance, but on reflection it becomes a matter of pregnant significance. In an obscure suburb, buried away among shops and booths, is a small theater with the somewhat grandiloquent title of the Lyric Opera House. A year or so ago not one Londoner in ten thousand could have told you where the Lyric Opera House was. Then one day some enthusiasts from Birmingham, with a passion for reforming the stage, came to London. Finding themselves crowded out of all the West End theaters, where revues and pyjama farces were in complete sway, they came across this obscure theater and put on a play. It was a purely experimental play, the kind of thing that any theatrical expert would have prophesied as being good for a few matinees, or probably a week's run at a loss. The play concerned the life of an American. It is true, it was a great—probably the greatest American who ever lived. But that was all it was. It could not be called a good play in any sense. It certainly had none of the ingredients of a popular success. There was no plot, no sensational development, very little humor, and, strangest of all, no love interest. It just portrayed the character, and some of the human episodes in the political career, of a rugged man.
But the Londoner, who is slow in the uptake, but persistent when he wants a thing, gradually began to trace his footsteps, as though compelled by some mesmeric force, in the direction of the Lyric Opera House. To say that the play caught on would be too mild a way of expressing the peculiar grip which the life of Abraham Lincoln has got upon us. London has fallen under the spell of "Uncle Abe." The thing has been an enormous popular success. It has been going on months, and still every performance is crowded out. Only last week a bishop drove up. He had come to town specially from the country to see the play, and he could not get a seat! Now everybody knows the Lyric Opera House and is anxious to direct you thither. But it isn't only the box-office which interests us. The play has been more than a popular success. It has been a symbol, an inspiration.
The people who crowd the theater are not a clique of literary or theatrical dilettante; they are the people. You see them sitting there in rows,—the seats are all low-priced,—mixed up and familiar, princes and publicans, bankers, bishops (I hope he got a seat the next night), clerks and green-grocers, horsy-looking men and poets, little shop girls and old duchesses. They are peculiarly silent, thrilled, moved. If you ask them, they can't tell you why, but they say, "It's wonderful," and they go away and come again and again.
How much of this wonder may be due to the genius of Mr. John Drinkwater, who wrote the play and produced it, or to the clever company who interpret it, is difficult to determine. I have spoken to hundreds of people who have been, and many have criticized the acting or the producing or the play itself; but I have not met one who did not think that somehow it was "wonderful" and they wanted to go again. The solution may be that in the mind of Abraham Lincoln we find a salve, healing the complicated disruption of our own present troubles. The conditions are somewhat analogous. We observe the reactions of our own distresses through this spectacle of great simplicity. It is as though we had been groping in the dark for something which we had lost, when a friend appears who produces an electric torch, and we observe that that which we had lost is lying at our feet. We recall the phenomena of our own upheaval, the basic causes of war and civil strife. The greed and intolerance of those in high places, the insincerity and chop-logic of politicians, the sycophantic attitude of place-seekers, the machinations of profiteers, the fear and cowardice and heroism of the individual man, and through it all this one simple man, of inflexible purpose, high courage, broad vision, and unbounded humanity. His horror and loathing of war permeate the play. He is incapable of bitterness and hatred. He can hate only an idea. He represents to us what is best in us, the attitude we ourselves would like to take in our best moments. When the dear old society lady rejoices in the slaughter of many thousands of "these disgusting rebels,"—we can almost hear her say "disgusting Huns,"—the heart of Lincoln is as nearly stirred to hate as it is capable of. He turns on her in a flood of scorn and orders her from the house. That was not the spirit in which he plunged his country into war. Men were dying that a broader humanity might emerge. The colored man should be free, the brother of the white man, not the slave. All men were equal in the sight of God, and all men must obey the dictates of this human impulse. Let justice be done though the heavens fall, but justice with mercy, and with your eye always fixed upon the ultimate goal.
It was an American who toasted "Our country. In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."
But Lincoln was bigger than that. And it is because we believe that he was bigger than that that we rejoice in him. We do not believe that he would have backed his country in what he believed to be an unjust war. He would have been a rebel. He would rather have died at the stake. One sees in him the birth of a force acting socially rather than nationally. That is why in these days when national issues are involved and confused, when they who, we are told by our governments, are one day our friends and another day our enemies, we turn to Lincoln as we would turn to a draft of water at a surfeited banquet in an overheated room. And there dawns upon us at the Lyric Opera House a new and comforting generalization. It is this: there could never be serious trouble between England and America, because the day is dawning when things are acting socially rather than nationally. The workers of the world are becoming as great a force as governments themselves, indeed greater. It will no longer be possible to wave a flag, put head-lines in the newspapers, and send a band into the street and say, "We are at war!" Government is going to be by the people and for the people. There might conceivably be some quite serious point of dispute between the governments, but the people will require to know all about it. And then there will be a national cleavage. Parties will be formed on each side favoring the other country's point of view. There will be no national unity in the old sense. The world—or in any case, for the time being, our world—will act socially.
That which is called "industrial unrest" is not a purely material thing. It does not concern only work and wages. It is a spiritual revolt. Five million men were slain on the battle-fields of Europe, and nine tenths of those men were sent to their deaths without being consulted or without fully understanding the fundamental cause of the strife. And this holocaust has made the people of these various countries suspicious. They are for the most part patient, long-suffering people, good sportsmen, quite willing to die in a good cause; but they are beginning to feel that if this sort of thing is going to happen often, they would like to know all about it. Indeed, they would like to be consulted. Incidentally, they want to make it impossible to happen again.
The London cockney made as good showing in the war as any, and he was in it from the very first. He is not very clever perhaps, but he's no fool. He does'nt believe all the newspapers tell him. The war has broadened his outlook considerably. He has rubbed shoulders with every other national, white and colored, in all parts of the world. Whereas before he may not have traveled farther than from Putney to the Welsh Harp, or from Hendon to Brighton, now he is familiar with France and Italy, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India. He has boxed with Australians, made love to French girls, and swapped cigarettes with German prisoners. Death has been his near and familiar companion for four and a half years. And on the top of it all he is thoroughly surfeited with cant. These newspapers and old ladies and arm-chair patriots, phew! Suddenly he finds himself listening to some one he understands, a big and simple citizen like himself, albeit a foreigner. A fine old boy, "Uncle Abe." No nonsense about him. He doesn't get tied up in a knot with highfalutin rhetoric. He hasn't got one eye on the enemy and the other on the next general election. He doesn't say one thing and mean another. He's big, universal, and his spirit is communicable.
This is what the cockney thinks, the cockney who has seen the world and carried other men's burdens upon his back. And his spirit, too, is communicable. That is why the dowager duchesses go, too, and the war exploiters and the old clubmen and the arm-chair patriots. They go and feel humbled, universal, as though their spirit were being transposed from the minor key of their small self-centered lives into a broader key of a great composition. They cannot remain unmoved, and so, while they cannot explain it, they say it's "wonderful."
Yes, London has fallen to "Uncle Abe." The curtain has come down on the great drama, and our voices are hushed. We know that it is too soon for its significance to come home to us. We are still dazed and bewildered. The eager faces of the young men who will never return are still with us. The sound of their laughter is still fresh in our ears. In such a condition men cannot think or forget or even remember. It will take a hundred years. And so they dance and dance and dance, as though they were trying to readjust the normal rhythm of human intercourse, so long a broken discord. And when everything seems meaningless, what better occupation can there be than dancing? In time the systole and the diastole will resume its healthy beat. Beneath the hatred and malice and misunderstanding we are learning to know that, as Nurse C a veil discovered, "Patriotism is not enough." Beneath it all there remains the great heart of humanity, the great heart of Lincoln, beating for our eternal good. London is wiser and better and vastly happier for her discovery of "Uncle Abe."
The Strand Magazine, March 1922
It may be said of Isobel Bloom that in her Garden of Eden apples were not sufficient. She demanded nectarines, pomegranates, hot-house grapes, even crystallized fruit in boxes, tied up with pink ribbons. She was that kind of woman, if you know what I mean. You must not infer from this that she was a weak woman, easily captive to the bow and spear of the most highly favoured hunter. It is only that she was discriminating, critical, elusive, paradoxical, ablative, passionate, romance-ridden, film-soaked, shrewd, precocious, and devastating. To some people a wall is a wall, and a glass of water a glass of water; but to Isobel this was not, and never would be, the case. Her beauty had come with too great a rush and too unexpectedly to allow her time to bow acknowledgments to apparent phenomena. She had been a plain child with thin legs, irregular features, and a too small nose. But at the age of eighteen something suddenly seemed to happen. The legs filled out and became extremely graceful. The features balanced themselves. Then you saw that the nose wasn't a bit too small. Nature had been preparing for this all the time. Her father, who was the son of a man who had made a large fortune out of lawn-mowers, said to his wife one evening, just after they had returned from a six months' jaunt in Egypt:—
"Good Lord! Have you noticed Isobel?"
And his wife said:—
"What about her, darling?"
"She's suddenly turned into an extraordinarily beautiful girl."
No harm in this. Fond parents indulge in these infra-familiar platitudes; but Isobel had overheard the remark, and she rushed upstaits to her bedroom and looked in the mirror. From that day onwards a wall no longer became a wall or a glass of water a glass of water to her. To make my meaning clearer, it may be as well to labour this point a little. Everything is relative. When we say that a wall is a wall we have to allow the fact that a wall is something different to everyone. To one man it may be a prison, to another a protection, to a third an eyesore; to a builder it's a job, to a cat an ecstasy. To one man it will appeal as a commercial proposition; to another as a romantic episode stirring the memory of ancient architecture. Its symmetry will jag the nerves of some, its irregularity offend the senses of another. On the other hand, a dreamer may gaze into a three-walled garden for the best part of his life, and the fact that it has three walls may make no impression on his consciousness at all. Indeed, a wall, like any other material thing, can be lived down, overlooked, or ignored.
Human beings in a highly vitalized state are always unconscious of any matter not immediately concerned with the frenzy which holds them. For instance, a great actor declaiming a soliloquy from "Hamlet" is entirely ignorant of the progress of his internal digestive functioning; neither is his mind the least bit affected by the physical processes going on in the electric light globes in the footlights upon which his eyes may be fixed. Consequently Isobel Bloom, abruptly transcended by the dazzling radiance of her own beauty, and by its obvious effect upon her fellow-creatures, saw things no longer in terms of actuality. She did not become exactly vain. One cannot call vain a magnificent panther posing in the sun, or an apple-tree in full bloom. Besides, her days were far too crowded for vanity. It is only the idle who are vain. Breathless romance began with the first twitter of the starlings on her window-sill at dawn, and did not by any means end when she laid her beautiful head on her pillow at night. Indeed, her dreams were a very busy time. They were invariably concerned with daring episodes of knight-errantry. She lived in the Middle Ages with a large Daimler and frocks from Paris. She had so much to give, and what she had was of such value that the utmost risks and sacrifices must be demanded. Moreover, the weather must keep fine for it.
By the time she was twenty she had had seventeen proposals of marriage, including two offer of an elopement with her father's chauffeur. It was this that made her discriminating and critical. Not that she did not admire Jules, the Belgian chauffeur, and consider him a romantic figure, but that, at his second and more urgent appeal for elopement, she had become painfully aware that he had been eating garlic. With her shrewd sense she realized that this discovery might not have been manifest till too late!
The curate never made any deep impression. He was of the sporting parson breed, who had founded a boxing club in the village. He actually made his third proposal to her with his left eye discoloured by the effect of a pretty forearm jab from Beal, the blacksmith. She was convinced that he came to her to be mothered.
Sir Andrew Abadam was middle-aged and enormously rich. He told her the full story of his life. How he had been to school and to a commercial college. How, when a child, a nurse had left him out in a pram in the rain; so that to this day he was liable to fierce attacks of cramp in the stomach; how he had in the end inherited a sardine-canning factory from an uncle, and what an enormous success he had made of it. How she, Isobel, was the first woman he had ever loved—in quite the way he loved her. Whatever meagre chances of success his courtship might have had were completely destroyed by his abrupt refusal to dive into the artificial lake one chilly September evening to rescue her fan. The implied cruelty of the request to a man subject to attacks of cramp in the stomach never impressed her; neither did his avowed willingness to "buy her ten thousand fans to-morrow" have the slightest effect. He had missed his chance.
Her other suitors included a lord, an Austrian pianist, an oil magnate, an under-gardener, two medical students, a bone-setter, and a sanitary engineer. But all these men, although having many noble qualities, still lacked in some essential. And so at the age of twenty-one we find her (see adjectives in opening paragraph) unmarried, a little embittered, and with old age tapping at the door.
You may aver that the particular nectarine, hothouse aspect of Isobel would never have developed had it not been that her grandfather had made a fortune out of lawn-mowers, and you are to a certain extent right. A person to whom there is no difference between a thousand pounds and three-halfpence is less liable to appreciate the fact that a door is a door, and a glass of water a glass of water, than the unhappy individual to whom three-halfpence is a solid proposition, and a thousand pounds a fantastic dream.
But this is not exactly Isobel's fault. She was an only child. Her father was hypnotized by the discovery of her beauty. He used to peep at her furtively out of the bathroom window, when she was in the garden, and mutter: "Well, I'm hanged." He then regarded his roly-poly figure in the mirror, twirled his little sandy moustache, and added: "The age of miracles! The age of miracles!" This shows the amazing egoism of man.
Mrs. Bloom also regarded her daughter with astonishment, but the revelation only brought her a kind of cosy sense of pleasure. With laboured scrutiny she discovered the basis of all Isobel's perfections in her own mirror. "Nature is wonderful," she thought; but there was no darn miracle about it.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that from the day on which her parents returned from their trip down the Nile (during the course of which Mr. Bloom had lost one hundred and sixty pounds at bridge, and his wife had made twe hundred and twenty), they both melted to Isobel. They subsided into a background. They became merely a united fount of adulation and material supplies. In the great scheme of her life they ceased to count, except as the sleepers on the main line count to the Scotch Express. They made no attempt to control, influence, or even annotate the procession of suitors who began to form. As Mr. Bloom very wisely said: "She will do as she likes."
But when her twenty-second birthday approached, and Isobel still remained unmarried and unpledged, Mr. and Mrs. Bloom began to get alarmed, and in halting phrases Mr. Bloom recounted to her the old fable about the woman who went to collect faggots in a wood. When he had finished Isobel pointed out to him that he had a smut on the white slip of his waistcoat, and that the best people said "faggot," not "faggit." She had not been listening to him. Her mind was too occupied with the details of a crisis in her romantic development. She was in love. For the first time she was in love, and with the ill-luck which she was convinced had come to dog her destiny for ever, she was in love with two men.
The realization had come to her in a flash that morning as she was feeding the peacocks. What was she to do? Their names were Jeremiah Jermy and Augustus Smallrage, and in order to develop Isobel's story properly, it may be necessary to recount something about these two men.
They were great friends, both wealthy, and both young. Jeremiah Jermy was a tall, fair, aesthetic young man. He had been an officer in the Stiffs, but had resigned his commission owing to a difference with the colonel with regard to the right sauce to serve with grey mullet. He was amiable and kind, could imitate the noise of a steam saw or a lift, did very clever tricks with string and matches, had a remarkable collection of cigar-bands, and was always Cambridge in the Boat Race. The latter was a startling characteristic, as he was up at Oxford for four years, and had never even visited Cambridge.
Augustus Smallrage, on the other hand, was dark, rather stocky, and essentially a sportsman. He had killed specimens of nearly every living creature except man. (The exception, of course, does not include coloured men or gamekeepers.) He played polo, squash rackets, fives, badminton, billboard, pelota, and beggar-my-neighbour. He was rather a silent man, but as a gymnast he was unique. He would do the grand circle on the bough of an elm tree in Mr. Bloom's park. He would walk the full length of the terrace five times on his hands. Indeed, the attitude of being upside down appeared to be as natural to him as an upright one. One of his favourite methods of courting Isobel was to balance himself on his head on the balustrade of the terrace outside her window. Sometimes in the early morning she would peep out and behold him balanced there with his legs wide apart and his eyes fixed supplicatingly on her window.
She was enormously impressed. She liked to persuade herself that he had been there all night, but the thought of the amount of blood that must have rushed to his head disturbed her, and she would lean out of the window and say:—
"Thank you, so much."
Then he would spin round half-a-dozen times, come down, and go in to breakfast. Jeremiah had no accomplishment so moving as that, but he had other endearing qualities. His string and match tricks denoted an intellectuality and imagination in which perhaps Augustus was a trifle lacking. Isobel had wavered between these two for the best part of a year, and that morning she realized that a definite crisis had arisen. She could be happy with either.
We have said that she was disturbed. This is true, but the disturbance was not entirely an unpleasant one. The capacity for loving two men is rare, and it fitted well with her rich and compendious nature. The romantic possibilities were not to be frittered away. And so it came about that one day in June she sent for them both. She chose the Pompeian room in her father's house on Chelsea Embankment for the venue, and she wore a gown of whortleberry crêpe-de-Chine trimmed with a silk trimming the colour of elephant's breath. When they had assembled, she walked majestically to the window and pointed to the river and said:—
"Look! the river flowing towards the open sea!"
"Yes," answered Jeremiah. "That's right—the Thames."
Then she turned, and addressed them in these periods:—
"Augustus, Jeremiah, it's no good pretending. You know and I know. The truth has got to be faced."
They both faced it.
"You have both sworn you love me, and that you wish to marry me. Is that true?"
"It is true," they replied, hoarsely, and went down on their knees.
"Very well, then; are you prepared to venture something for my sake?"
"Good! Then I have prepared a test, a simple, painless, interesting test, and I am prepared to stand by the result."
They looked up at her in a frenzy of anxiety.
"It is simple—very, very simple. You shall make a girdle round the earth, starting from this room to-day. One shall go east, and the other west. I will remain here. Whoever gets back to me first, I will marry. Are you willing?"
"Let us, then, draw lots as to who shall go West and who shall go East."
She took two sheets of embossed note-paper, and on one she wrote "West," and then she folded them up.
"But you haven't written on the other," said Augustus.
"Of course not," said Jeremiah. "If one is West, the other must be East."
"Why?" said Augustus, who was white to the lips.
Neither of the others replied to his inept remark, and Isobel placed the two papers in a hat and shook them up. Then she turned to Augustus and said:—
"You shall draw in alphabetical order. Augustus—first."
Augustus snatched the paper and opened it. He appeared stupefied.
"I've drawn a blank," he said.
"That means you go East," replied Isobel.
"Because I have drawn West!" exclaimed Jeremiah, who felt that he was already triumphing over his opponent by a greater show of intelligence. Isobel walked gracefully across the room and seated herself in a chair of ebony and gold.
"I shall remain heart-whole," she said, dramatically. "I shall wait here for you, for the first of you gentlemen who returns. You, Augustus, go East. You understand, you may take any route you like, use any conveyance you like, employ any means you like, but you must make a complete circle round the earth. You, Jeremiah, will go West. The same rules apply to you. My thoughts will be with you both in whatever part of the world you are, and whatever adventures befall you. Now go!"
The two men looked at each other, and shook hands. Then they knelt for the last time before Isobel, and kissed her hand in turn. When it came to the moment of departure, the advantage which Jeremiah appeared to have gained by his more prehensile grip of the details of the difficult problem Isobel had set them was, to an extent, negatived by the action of Augustus. It seemed, indeed, as though Augustus wished to show his contempt for purely theoretical adventures and to establish the fact that he, in any case, was a man of action. No sooner had he kissed the tips of Isobel's 'fingers than he leapt to the window and opened it. Without a moment's hesitation he mounted the sill and slid down the water-pipe, eventually alighting on the top of his car, which was waiting below. Before Jeremiah had smoothed the nap of his silk hat in the hall Augustus was half a mile on his way. Each man carried away with him the vision of Isobel seated on her black-and-gold throne, watching through the window for his return. Both were convinced that thus she would remain until that fateful day.
But we must first of all deal with the actions of Jeremiah. When he had brushed his silk hat he stepped slowly and thoughtfully out into the sunshine. He was by no means eager or inspired by the scheme. In the first place, he was an exceptionally bad sailor, and to-morrow perhaps he would be on the broad Atlantic. As if this were not sufficient, he was condemned to cross the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, every unfriendly sea that was ever invented. He saw, moreover, that all the advantages would be with Augustus, who was a good sailor and a flying man. He might quite conceivably fly round the earth and be back in about a fortnight. He visualized himself having an extremely uncomfortable and boring time scrambling round the earth, and then on arriving back discovering that Isobel had been on her honeymoon for some weeks. Confound women! Why couldn't they be more sensible and simple?
And for Jeremiah there was another little fly in the ointment. During the previous week he had met a girl in a tobacconist's shop. Of course, she was nothing like Isobel, not so beautiful or bewitching, but still—there she was, and for some mysterious reason she haunted Jeremiah. She was a lovable, simple little thing named Mary Cash. She was in any case—coupled with the thought of unfriendly seas—sufficient to make Jeremiah hesitate as he stood outside Isobel's house and blinked up at the sun. He was about to amble off in the direction of Sloane Square, when he heard his name called. For a few moments he could not determine whence the call came, and then, looking up, he beheld Isobel leaning out of the window. She beckoned to him to return.
"Um!" thought Jeremiah. "She is doing this to delay me. She favours Augustus."
He rang the bell, and what might have proved the determining five minutes in the great race was frittered away in the usual formalities of entering the house and returning to the Pompeian room. When at length he found himself alone with Isobel he was conscious that a change had come over her. She held out her hands and said:—
"Jerry, I have changed my mind. Directly Augustus disappeared down the water-pipe I realized that it was you I loved."
"But the race! The race round the earth!"
"Do not go, Jerry. I do not wish you to go. Let Augustus go by himself, and before he returns we shall be married."
Jeremiah stared at her, and stared out of the window. His mind for the fraction of a second fluttered to the girl in the tobacconist's shop, but in the actual presence of Isobel no other woman's memory could remain very vivid. He looked down at his boots, and muttered:—
"Don't you think perhaps it seems just a teeny-weeny bit unfair?"
"All's fair in love and war!" exclaimed Isobel, and then, after a pause, added: "Besides, we can always say you got back first."
Jeremiah could not see how this made it any less unfair, but the ways of women are strange. He pictured Augustus already, perhaps, half way to Hendon to pick up a Handley-Page. He thought of him dashing round the earth, perhaps getting killed or dying from fever in some remote land. Perhaps, after terrible privations, returning to England and finding that the other two had been married all the time. It did seem a little cruel, cruel and unnecessary. Why not send him a wire?—"Race off Isobel favours me." But, on the other hand, where was Augustus? It did not at all follow he had gone to Hendon or even to Paris. He might try and get on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Augustus was capable of anything. His meditations on this theme were interrupted by Isobel, who threw her arms round his neck and said:—
"Don't you understand? It is you I love, Jerry?"
That put the semicolon on his fears and apprehensions; he took her in his arms and behaved exactly as though he had won the race round the earth.
"We will wait," said Isobel, when she could get her breath, "till Augustus has got to Africa or China, or wherever it is he passes through, and then we will get married quietly in Paris."
"Yes," answered Jeremiah. "That would be a nice, quiet, inconspicuous spot."
Neither of them had any idea as to how long it would take to get round the earth, and at length Jeremiah called at Cook's in Piccadilly and made inquiries. He found that with luck and by taking express trains and specials, and perhaps flying a bit, Augustus might accomplish it in five weeks, but it would more probably be seven or eight. The conspirators decided to get married in three weeks' time, and to return to Chelsea at the end of the fifth weck, and Jeremiah was to pretend that he had just arrived. Through a private detective agency Jeremiah, feeling rather sheepish and guilty, tried to find out which way Augustus had gone, but from the moment his car had vanished round the corner of Tite Street they could find no trace of him at all, beyond the fact that he had called at his bankers, and obtained a letter of credit for a large sum.
This is almost a propaganda story. In any case, it has a deep and far-reaching moral, demonstrating the fact that villainy always reacts on itself, that treachery never goes unpunished, and that in the end goodness and honour are worth while, and that beauty has no call to hold itself superior to homely virtues. The plot hatched in that diabolical manner by Isobel, and supported half-heartedly by Jeremiah, was doomed from its very inception.
They got married secretly at a notary's office in St. Malo and went to Dinard for their honeymoon. The marriage was a hopeless failure. The trouble began because Jeremiah was always thinking about the girl in the tobacconist's shop. Isobel, on the other hand, got thoroughly bored with Jeremiah and with his interminable string and match tricks. On the second evening he had exhausted his repertoire of tricks and began all over again. Neither did the imitations of a steam saw or a lift rouse her spirits aftef the tenth repetition.
"Good gracious!" she thought. "All through life I am condemned to listen to that wretched saw and lift and to watch the twiddlings of those ridiculous pieces of string."
And, Jeremiah on his part, when watching Isobel powder her nose, thought:—
"I wonder how Mary Cash is. How simple and sweet she looked when she handed me down that box of Golden Dawn navy-cut."
And he sighed. Neither of them mentioned Augustus, and yet he occupied their thoughts in very divergent ways. They had been at Dinard a week, and they were sitting one evening outside a café, listening to the band. They had not spoken for an hour. At last Jeremiah took out a box of matches and began to break off the ends. With an impatient gesture Isobel swept the box off the table.
"No," she said. "Not again. I can't stand it."
Jeremiah picked up the broken matches (matches are very expensive in France) and put them back in his pocket.
"You are right," he said. "I realize that you don't love me any more, Isobel."
She leant across the table and pressed his hand.
"It is more than that," she answered. "I realize that I never have loved you. I was wrong. It is Augustus I love. It came to me in a flash this morning when you were shaving. I'm not angry with you, Jerry; it's not your fault. You have good qualities—your imitation of the saw is amazing—but, as a man, you do not come up to my ideal."
"No," he replied, hoarsely. "It is best, then, that we part."
Wealth and influence can accomplish many things. Even the law can be jostled and jogged by the fortunate individual with the deep purse. Their divorce was rushed through at breathless speed. Isobel had her reasons for this.
On the last day of the fifth week Isobel was once again seated in the Pompeian room on Chelsea Embankment, awaiting the return of Augustus. As for Jeremiah, within a month of his release he had married the girl from the tobacconist's shop, and they went out to the Hampstead Garden Suburb, and were never heard of again.
But to return to Isobel...there she waited. To her annoyance, Augustus did not appear. She went to bed at last, but left a purple shaded lamp burning and the window open. (She knew Augustus would come that way.) Also she set an old family retainer to watch, with instructions to call her immediately the head of Augustus appeared above the sill. But the night passed, and the following day, and the next night, and the whole week, two weeks, three weeks.
Twelve weeks had passed since Augustus set out to circumnavigate the earth, and on the last night of the twelfth week, Isobel looked up at the star-lit sky and said to herself:
"This is a wash-out. He has been drowned or killed. To-morrow I shall go back to pa and ma, and then I shall take the veil. Yes, I shall go into a nunnery in some vine-clad corner of Italy, away from the cruel world. Perhaps I had better wait till after Henley, and perhaps Newmarket, but go I assuredly will."
She sighed and thought of a new arrangement of a frock that would be just suitable for the river. She was about to put out the light and retire, when suddenly she heard her name called. She glanced at the window. It was he.
Augustus clambered through and went down upon his knees.
"I am too late," he said.
Isobel sank back in her chair and closed her eyes. The moment was too exquisite to hurry. Her cavalier! The Middle Ages became a back number. She muttered, soulfully:—
She then realized that he was wet through, and that his clothes were all in rags. He looked at her sheepishly and repeated:—
"I am too late! Alas!"
"Then she said in her deep, quiet voice:—
"No. You are the first."
"What!" almost yelled Augustus.
"You are the first. Jeremiah has not yet returned."
"I am the first! I am the first! Jeremiah has not yet returned!"
Augustus appeared to be beside himself, but he made no attempt to advance towards her. He continued to kneel there, looking incredibly nonplussed. Poor fellow! She must try to help him. His privations had probably affected his brain, never the sturdiest portion of his anatomy.
"You are wet, Augustus."
"Yes. I was shipwrecked."
"How awful! And you came straight to me without changing your clothes!"
"Yes, but too late! Even then—too late!"
"No, you don't seem to understand, Augustus. Jeremiah has not returned. I have been waiting here for you—heart-whole!"
Augustus shook himself like a dog, and the water splashed all over the beautiful Pompeian carpet. At last he said:—
"No. I cannot take advantage of my oldest friend. Perhaps he—perhaps he missed his train somewhere. I have been too lucky. Everything went right—trains, steamers, buses, aeroplanes, everything. No, I cannot do it, Chrystabel."
"My name is Isobel. Have you forgotten; Augustus? Tell me the story of your wanderings. Come, kneel beside me."
"No, I am too, wet, too—unworthy. I was shipwrecked, nearly eaten by sharks, lost in a jungle in Africa, captured by brigands. It has been awful, but it was quicker than I expected. Poor old Jerry! Poor old Jerry! Where is he? My greatest friend. And perhaps through me we have sent him to destruction."
"All's fair in love and war," murmured Isobel, aptly.
"Oh, no, no, it isn't. Neither in love nor in war. There's a limit. Certain things aren't done, don't you know."
"It was a fair race. I don't understand you, Augustus. Did we not all agree? Come, you are distraught. Let me get you a change of clothes from the butler, and then warm yourself at the fire, and have a hot meal. The race is to the swift, the battle to the strong."
"But he could have got round the earth in a rowing boat in three months."
Isobel came down from her throne and held out her arms.
"You might have, Augustus, dear. You are strong. It is strength I love. Come."
"No, no, Pm not strong. I'm as weak as the deuce. I'm unworthy of you. I'm a worm. I'm—I'm—off!"
And before Isobel had had time to anticipate his action he had leapt to the window and was sliding down the water-pipe.
"Home!" he yelled to the chauffeur.
The drive to Kensington Gardens only occupied ten minutes. Augustus let himself in and ran upstairs. He opened a bedroom door. A pretty, fair-haired woman was sitting up in bed, reading an illustrated paper. For the sake of the propriety of this journal, let me hasten to add that she was his wife.
"Gee! whats up?" she exclaimed. "You look scared!"'
"He hadn't got back!"
"What! You mean to say that the other guy hadn't got round the world in three months?"
"No. Phew! It was an experience! I had the greatest difficulty to get away. She swallowed it all about the shipwreck and the brigands."
The girl in the bed doubled up with laughter.
"I know what it was. I guess the other feller didn't remain heart-whole either."
All of which requires a certain amount of explanation.
It is necessary to go back to the first departure of Augustus. To describe it briefly it is only necessary to say that he left the house in Chelsea in such a fever of anxiety to race round the earth that he did not devote sufficient thought to the essential details of the competition. He found that there was a big liner leaving for New Yotk that night, and he caught it by the skin of his teeth. He had been three days at sea before he realized that he was going round the world the wrong way! It probably all came about through their giving him a blank, instead of a paper on which it was definitely stated that he had to go East.
The realization staggered him. It was too late. There was no means of leaving the ship. They would not reach New York for a week. Assuming he caught a boat back at once, this would give Jeremiah a fortnight's start. Augustus was desolate, and one evening he confessed the whole story to Maisie Denver, the daughter of an American dentist. Her sympathy and homely charm were an enormous help to him. In two days' time he began to look at her, and then he realized that she, indeed, was the woman of his destiny. She set him no difficult problem to do. She just loved him quietly and effectively. She was certainly very impressed by some of his feats, but she did not demand them of him. For instance, when he stood on his head on the deck rail, she clapped her hands, and exclaimed to her father:—
"My! Can you beat it?"
As her father was a portly old gentleman in the early sixties, you must understand that the remark was not issued as a challenge, but only as a term of approbation. They got married in New York, and Augustus was bewildered with happiness. At the same time the affair of the competition worried him. Jeremiah was his greatest friend. One had to play the game. Some things aren't done, don't you know. It was Maisie's suggestion that was ultimately adopted—a harmless compromise. To return too late, when the other fellow had had plenty of time to get round the earth twice. It was also her idea about the shipwreck and the brigands. Women are thorough. No wonder she laughed in bed.
And so to-day you find both Jeremiah and Augustus happily married, and a long life of usefulness and entertainment stretched out before them.
But what of Isobel? Alas! She is now rapidly approaching her twenty-fourth year, and remains a lonely woman. Thus do we see how our evil actions come back on us. She had bought all her outfit for the nunnery, but decided eventually to wait another season—or two. She was last seen lunching at the Carlton with a bishop. The bishop was drinking port, and Isobel was helping herself to a nectarine. Our aunt, who was seated at the next table, and has astonishingly good hearing, said that there was nothing Biblical about the remarks that the bishop was making to her. She had cherry-brandy with her coffee, and was wearing a frock that no "really nice woman" would wish to wear in the daytime, nor even in the evening. And so, oh! sisters of Isobel, beware! Nemesis lurks in the stones of these exotic fruits. We all have our Garden of Eden. Let me implore you, as you wander thither—be content with the homely apple, lest in due course you find yourself in similar case to that of Isobel Bloom.
The Strand Magazine Oct 1926
One evening in November two brothers were seated in a little café in the Rue de la Roquette discussing murders. The evening papers lay in front of them, and they all contained a lurid account of a shocking affair in the Landes district, where a charcoal-burner had killed his wife and two children with a hatchet. From discussing this murder in particular they went on to discussing murder in general.
'I've never yet read a murder case without being impressed by the extraordinary clumsiness of it,' remarked Paul, the younger brother. 'Here's this fellow murders his victims with his own hatchet, leaves his hat behind in the shed, and arrives at a village hard by with blood on his boots.'
'They lose their heads,' said Henri, the elder. 'In cases like that they are mentally unbalanced, hardly responsible for their actions.'
'Yes,' replied Paul, 'but what impresses me is—what a lot of murders must be done by people who take trouble, who leave not a trace behind.'
Henri shrugged his shoulders. 'I shouldn't think it was so easy, old boy; there's always something that crops up.'
'Nonsense! I'll guarantee there are thousands done every year. If you are living with anyone, for instance, it must be the easiest thing in the world to murder them.'
'Oh, some kind of accident—and then you go screaming into the street, "Oh, my poor wife! Help!" You burst into tears, and everyone consoles you. I read of a woman somewhere who murdered her husband by leaving the window near the bed open at night when he was suffering from pneumonia. Who's going to suspect a case like that? Instead of that, people must always select revolvers, or knives, or go and buy poison at the chemist's across the way.'
'It sounds as though you were contemplating a murder yourself,' laughed Henri.
'Well, you never know,' answered Paul; 'circumstances might arise when a murder would be the only way out of a difficulty. If ever my time comes I shall take a lot of trouble about it. I promise you I shall leave no trace behind.'
As Henri glanced at his brother making this remark he was struck by the fact that there was indeed nothing irreconcilable between the idea of a murder and the idea of Paul doing it. He was a big, saturnine-looking gentleman with a sallow, dissolute face, framed in a black square beard and swathes of untidy grey hair. His profession was that of a traveller in cheap jewellery, and his business dealings were not always of the straightest. Henri shuddered. With his own puny physique, bad health, and vacillating will, he was always dominated by his younger brother. He himself was a clerk in a drapery store, and he had a wife and three children. Paul was unmarried.
The brothers saw a good deal of each other, and were very intimate. But the word friendship would be an extravagant term to apply to their relationship. They were both always hard up, and they borrowed money from each other when every other source failed.
They had no other relatives except a very old uncle and aunt who lived at Chantilly. This uncle and aunt, whose name was Taillandier, were fairly well off, but they would have little to do with the two nephews. They were occasionally invited there to dinner, but neither Paul nor Henri ever succeeded in extracting a franc out of Uncle Robert. He was a very religious man, hard-fisted, cantankerous, and intolerant. His wife was a little more pliable. She was in effect an eccentric. She had spasms of generosity, during which periods both the brothers had at times managed to get money out of her. But these were rare occasions. Moreover, the old man kept her so short of cash that she found it difficult to help her nephews even if she desired to.
As stated, the discussion between the two brothers occurred in November. It was presumably forgotten by both of them immediately afterwards. And indeed there is no reason to believe that it would ever have recurred, except for certain events which followed the sudden death of Uncle Robert in the February of the following year.
In the meantime the affairs of both Paul and Henri had gone disastrously. Paul had been detected in a dishonest transaction over a paste trinket, and had just been released from a period of imprisonment. The knowledge of this had not reached his uncle before his death. Henri's wife had had another baby, and had been very ill. He was more in debt than ever.
The news of the uncle's death came as a gleam of hope in the darkness of despair. What kind of will had he left? Knowing their uncle, each was convinced that, however it was framed, there was likely to be little or nothing for them. However, the old villain might have left them a thousand or two. And in any case, if the money was all left to the wife, here was a possible field of plunder. It need hardly be said that they repaired with all haste to the funeral, and even with greater alacrity to the lawyer's reading of the will.
The will contained surprises both encouraging and discouraging. In the first place the old man left a considerably larger fortune than anyone could have anticipated. In the second place all the money and securities were carefully tied up, and placed under the control of trustees. There were large bequests to religious charities, whilst the residue was held in trust for his wife. But so far as the brothers were concerned the surprise came at the end. On her death this residue was still to be held in trust, but a portion of the interest was to be divided between Henri and Paul, and on their death to go to the Church. The old man had recognised a certain call of the blood after all!
They both behaved with tact and discretion at the funeral, and were extremely sympathetic and solicitous towards Aunt Rosalie, who was too absorbed with her own trouble to take much notice of them. It was only when it came to the reading of the will that their avidity and interest outraged perhaps the strict canons of good taste. It was Paul who managed to get it clear from the notary what the exact amount would probably be. Making allowances for fluctuations, accidents, and acts of God, on the death of Mme Taillandier the two brothers would inherit something between eight and ten thousand francs a year each. She was now eighty-two and very frail.
The brothers celebrated the good news with a carouse up in Montmartre. Naturally their chief topic of conversation was how long the old bird would keep on her perch. In any case, it could not be many years. With any luck it might be only a few weeks. The fortune seemed blinding. It would mean comfort and security to the end of their days. The rejoicings were mixed with recriminations against the old man for his stinginess. Why couldn't he have left them a lump sum down now? Why did he want to waste all this good gold on the Church? Why all this trustee business?
There was little they could do but await developments. Except that in the meantime—after a decent interval—they might try and touch the old lady for a bit. They parted, and the next day set about their business in cheerier spirits.
For a time they were extremely tactful. They made formal calls on Aunt Rosalie, inquiring after her health, and offering their services in any capacity whatsoever. But at the end of a month Henri called hurriedly one morning, and after the usual professions of solicitude asked his aunt if she could possibly lend him one hundred and twenty francs to pay the doctor who had attended his wife and baby. She lent him forty, grumbling at his foolishness at having children he could not afford to keep. A week later came Paul with a story about being robbed by a client. He wanted a hundred. She lent him ten.
When these appeals had been repeated three or four times, and received similar treatment—and sometimes no treatment at all—the old lady began to get annoyed. She was becoming more and more eccentric. She now had a companion, an angular, middle-aged woman named Mme Chavanne, who appeared like a protecting goddess. Sometimes when the brothers called Mme Chavanne would say that Mme Taillandier was too unwell to see anyone. If this news had been true it would have been good news indeed, but the brothers suspected that it was all prearranged. Two years went by, and they both began to despair.
'She may live to a hundred,' said Paul.
'We shall die of old age first,' grumbled Henri.
It was difficult to borrow money on the strength of the will. In the first place their friends were more of the borrowing than the lending class. And anyone who had a little was suspicious of the story, and wanted all kinds of securities. It was Paul who first thought of going to an insurance company to try to raise money on the reversionary interest. They did succeed in the end in getting an insurance company to advance them two thousand francs each, but the negotiations took five months to complete, and by the time they had insured their lives, paid the lawyer's fees and paid for the various deeds and stamps, and signed some thirty or forty forms, each man only received a little over a thousand francs, which was quickly lost in paying accrued debts and squandering the remainder. Their hopes were raised by the dismissal of Mme Chavanne, only to be lowered again by the arrival of an even more aggressive companion. The companions came and went with startling rapidity. None of them could stand for any time the old lady's eccentricity and ill-temper. The whole of the staff was always being changed. The only one who remained loyal all through was the portly cook, Ernestine. Even this may have been due to the fact that she never came in touch with her mistress. She was an excellent cook, and she never moved from the kitchen. Moreover, the cooking required by Mme Taillandier was of the simplest nature, and she seldom entertained. And she hardly ever left her apartment. Any complaints that were made were made through the housekeeper, and the complaints and their retaliations became mellowed in the process; for Ernestine also had a temper of her own.
Nearly another year passed before what appeared to Paul to be a mild stroke of good fortune came his way. Things had been going from bad to worse. Neither of the brothers was in a position to lend a sou to the other. Henri's family was becoming a greater drag, and people were not buying Paul's trinkets.
One day, during an interview with his aunt—he had been trying to borrow more money—he fainted in her presence. It is difficult to know what it was about this act which affected the old lady, but she ordered him to be put to bed in one of the rooms of the villa. Possibly she jumped to the conclusion that he had fainted from lack of food—which was not true—Paul never went without food and drink—and she suddenly realised that after all he was her husband's sister's son. He must certainly have looked pathetic, this white-faced man, well past middle age, and broken in life. Whatever it was, she showed a broad streak of compassion for him. She ordered her servants to look after him, and to allow him to remain until she countermanded the order.
Paul, who had certainly felt faint, but quickly seized the occasion to make it as dramatic as possible, saw in this an opportunity to wheedle his way into his aunt's favours. His behaviour was exemplary. The next morning, looking very white and shaky, he visited her, and asked her to allow him to go, as he had no idea of abusing her hospitality. If he had taken up the opposite attitude she would probably have turned him out, but because he suggested going she ordered him to stop. During the daytime he went about his dubious business, but he continued to return there at night to sleep, and to enjoy a good dinner cooked by the admirable Ernestine. He was in clover.
Henri was naturally envious when he heard of his brother's good fortune. And Paul was fearful that Henri would spoil the whole game by going and throwing a fit himself in the presence of the aunt. But this, of course, would have been too obvious and foolish for even Henri to consider seriously. And he racked his brains for some means of inveigling the old lady. Every plan he put forth, however, Paul sat upon. He was quite comfortable himself, and he didn't see the point of his brother butting in.
'Besides,' he said, 'she may turn me out any day. Then you can have your shot.'
They quarrelled about this, and did not see each other for some time. One would have thought that Henri's appeal to Mme Taillandier would have been stronger than Paul's. He was a struggling individual, with a wife and four children. Paul was a notorious ne'er-do-well, and he had no attachments. Nevertheless the old lady continued to support Paul. Perhaps it was because he was a big man, and she liked big men. Her husband had been a man of fine physique. Henri was puny, and she despised him. She had never had children of her own, and she disliked children. She was always upbraiding Henri and his wife for their fecundity. Any attempt to pander to her emotions through the sentiment of childhood failed. She would not have the children in her house. And any small acts of charity which she bestowed upon them seemed to be done more with the idea of giving her an opportunity to inflict her sarcasm and venom upon them than out of kindness of heart.
In Paul, on the other hand, she seemed to find something slightly attractive. She sometimes sent for him, and he, all agog—expecting to get his notice to quit—would be agreeably surprised to find that, on the contrary, she had some little commission she wished him to execute. And you may rest assured that he never failed to make a few francs out of all these occasions. The notice to quit did not come. It may be—poor deluded woman!—that she regarded him as some kind of protection. He was in any case the only 'man' who slept under her roof.
At first she seldom spoke to him, but as time went on she would sometimes send for him to relieve her loneliness. Nothing could have been more ingratiating than Paul's manners in these circumstances. He talked expansively about politics, knowing beforehand his aunt's views, and just what she would like him to say. Her eyesight was very bad, and he would read her the news of the day, and tell her what was happening in Paris. He humoured her every whim. He was astute enough to see that it would be foolish and dangerous to attempt to borrow money for the moment. He was biding his time, and trying to think out the most profitable plan of campaign. There was no immediate hurry. His bed was comfortable, and Ernestine's cooking was excellent.
In another year's time he had established himself as quite one of the permanent household. He was consulted about the servants, and the doctors, and the management of the house, everything except the control of money, which was jealously guarded by a firm of lawyers. Many a time he would curse his uncle's foresight. The old man's spirit seemed to be hovering in the dim recesses of the over-crowded rooms, mocking him. For the old lady, eccentric and foolish in many ways, kept a strict check upon her dividends. It was her absorbing interest in life, that and an old grey perroquet, which she treated like a child. Its name was Anna, and it used to walk up and down her table at meal-times and feed off her own plate. Finding himself so firmly entrenched, Paul's assurance gradually increased. He began to treat his aunt as an equal, and sometimes even to contradict her, and she did not seem to resent it.
In the meantime Henri was eating his heart out with jealousy and sullen rage. The whole thing was unfair. He occasionally saw Paul, who boasted openly of his strong position in the Taillandier household, and he would not believe that Paul was not getting money out of the old lady as well as board and lodging. With no additional expenses Paul was better dressed than he used to be, and he looked fatter and better in health. All—or nearly all—of Henri's appeals, although pitched in a most pathetic key, were rebuffed. He felt a bitter hatred against his aunt, his brother, and life in general. If only she would die! What was the good of life to a woman at eighty-five or six? And there was he—four young children, clamouring for food, and clothes, and the ordinary decent comforts. And there was Paul, idling his days away at cafés and his nights at cabarets—nothing to do, and no responsibilities.
Meeting Paul one day he said:
'I say, old boy, couldn't you spring me a hundred francs? I haven't the money to pay my rent next week.'
'She gives me nothing,' replied Paul.
Henri did not believe this, but it would be undiplomatic to quarrel. He said:
'Aren't there—isn't there some little thing lying about the villa you could slip in your pocket? We could sell it, see? Go shares. I'm desperately pushed.'
Paul looked down his nose. Name of a pig! Did Henri think he had never thought of that? Many and many a time the temptation had come to him. But no; every few months people came from the lawyer's office, and the inventory of the whole household was checked. The servants could not be suspected. They were not selected without irreproachable characters. If he were suspected—well, all kinds of unpleasant things might crop up. Oh, no, he was too well off where he was. The game was to lie in wait. The old lady simply must die soon. She had even been complaining of her chest that morning. She was always playing with the perroquet. Somehow this bird got on Paul's nerves. He wanted to wring its neck. He imitated the way she would say: 'There's a pretty lady! Oh, my sweet! Another nice grape for my little one. There's a pretty lady!' He told Henri all about this, and the elder brother went on his way with a grunt that only conveyed doubt and suspicion.
In view of this position it seemed strange that in the end it was Paul who was directly responsible for the dénouement in the Taillandier household. His success went to his rather weak head like wine. He began to swagger and bluster and abuse his aunt's hospitality. And, curiously enough, the more he advanced the further she withdrew. The eccentric old lady seemed to be losing her powers of resistance so far as he was concerned. And he began to borrow small sums of money from her, and, as she acquiesced so readily, to increase his demands. He let his travelling business go, and sometimes he would get lost for days at a time. He would spend his time at the races, and drinking with doubtful acquaintances in obscure cafés. Sometimes he won, but in the majority of cases he lost. He ran up bills and got into debt. By cajoling small sums out of his aunt he kept his debtors at bay for nearly nine months.
But one evening he came to see Henri in a great state of distress. His face, which had taken on a healthier glow when he first went to live with his aunt, had become puffy and livid. His eyes were bloodshot.
'Old boy,' he said, 'I'm at my wits' end. I've got to find seven thousand francs by the twenty-first of the month, or they're going to foreclose. How do you stand? I'll pay you back.'
To try to borrow money from Henri was like appealing to the desert for a cooling draught. He also had to find money by the twenty-first, and he was overdrawn at the bank. They exchanged confidences, and in their mutual distress they felt sorry for each other and for themselves. It was a November evening, and the rain was driving along the boulevards in fitful gusts. After trudging a long way they turned into a little café in the Rue de la Roquette, and sat down and ordered two cognacs. The café was almost deserted. A few men in mackintoshes were scattered around reading the evening papers. They sat at a marble table in the corner and tried to think of ways and means. But after a time a silence fell between them. There seemed nothing more to suggest. They could hear the rain beating on the skylight. An old man four tables away was poring over La Patrie.
Suddenly Henri looked furtively around the room and clutched his brother's arm.
'Paul!' he whispered.
'What is it?'
'Do you remember—it has all come back to me—suddenly—one night, a night something like this—it must be five or six years ago—we were seated here in this same café—do you remember?'
'No. I don't remember. What was it?'
'It was the night of that murder in the Landes district. We got talking about—don't you remember?'
Paul scratched his temple and sipped the cognac. Henri leant closer to him.
'You said—you said that if you lived with anyone, it was the easiest thing in the world to murder them. An accident, you know. And you go screaming into the street—'
Paul started, and stared at his brother, who continued:
'You said that if ever you—you had to do it, you would guarantee that you would take every trouble. You wouldn't leave a trace behind.'
Paul was acting. He pretended to half remember, to half understand. But his eyes narrowed. Imbecile! Hadn't he been through it all in imagination a hundred times? Hadn't he already been planning and scheming an act for which his brother would reap half the benefit? Nevertheless he was staggered. He never imagined that the suggestion would come from Henri. He was secretly relieved. If Henri was to receive half the benefit, let him also share half the responsibilities. The risk in any case would be wholly his. He grinned enigmatically, and they put their heads together. And so in that dim corner of the café was planned the perfect murder.
Coming up against the actual proposition, Paul had long since realised that the affair was not so easy of accomplishment as he had so airily suggested. For the thing must be done without violence, without clues, without trace. Such ideas as leaving the window open at night were out of the question, as the companion slept in the same room. Moreover, the old lady was quite capable of getting out of bed and shutting it herself if she felt a draught. Some kind of accident? Yes, but what? Suppose she slipped and broke her neck when Paul was in the room. It would be altogether too suspicious. Besides, she would probably only partially break her neck. She would regain sufficient consciousness to tell. To drown her in her bath? The door was always locked or the companion hovering around.
'You've always got to remember,' whispered Paul, 'if any suspicion falls on me, there's the motive. There's a strong motive why I should—it's got to be absolutely untraceable. I don't care if some people do suspect afterwards—when we've got the money.'
'What about her food?'
'The food is cooked by Ernestine, and the companion serves it. Besides, suppose I got a chance to tamper with the food, how am I going to get hold of—you know?'
'Yes, I should be in a pretty position if they traced the fact that I had bought weed-killer. You might buy some and let me have a little on the quiet.'
Henri turned pale. 'No, no; the motive applies to me too. They'd get us both.'
When the two pleasant gentlemen parted at midnight their plans were still very immature, but they arranged to meet the following evening. It was the thirteenth of the month. To save the situation the deed must be accomplished within eight days. Of course they wouldn't get the money at once, but, knowing the circumstances, creditors would be willing to wait. When they met the following evening in the Café des Sentiers, Paul appeared flushed and excited, and Henri was pale and on edge. He hadn't slept. He wanted to wash the whole thing out.
'And sell up your home, I suppose?' sneered Paul. 'Listen, my little cabbage. I've got it. Don't distress yourself. You proposed this last night. I've been thinking about it and watching for months. Ernestine is a good cook, and very methodical. Oh, very methodical! She does everything every day in the same way exactly to schedule. My apartment is on the same floor, so I am able to appreciate her punctuality and exactness. The old woman eats sparingly and according to routine. One night she has fish. The next night she has a soufflé made with two eggs. Fish, soufflé, fish, soufflé, regular as the beat of a clock. Now listen. After lunch every day Ernestine washes up the plates and pans. After that she prepares roughly the evening meal. If it is a fish night, she prepares the fish ready to pop into the pan. If it is a soufflé night, she beats up two eggs and puts them ready in a basin. Having done that, she changes her frock, powders her nose, and goes over to the convent to see her sister who is working there. She is away an hour and a half. She returns punctually at four o'clock. You could set your watch by her movements.'
'It is difficult to insert what I propose in fish, but I don't see any difficulty in dropping it into two beaten-up eggs, and giving an extra twist to the egg-whisk, or whatever they call it.'
Henri's face was quite grey.
'But—but—Paul, how are you going to get hold of the—poison?'
'Who said anything about poison?'
'Well, but what?'
'That's where you come in.'
'Yes, you're in it too, aren't you? You get half the spoils, don't you? Why shouldn't you—some time to-morrow when your wife's out—'
'Just grind up a piece of glass.'
'Yes, you've heard of glass, haven't you? An ordinary piece of broken wineglass will do. Grind it up as fine as a powder, the finer the better, the finer the more—effective.'
Henri gasped. No, no, he couldn't do this thing. Very well, then; if he was such a coward Paul would have to do it himself. And perhaps when the time came Henri would also be too frightened to draw his dividends. Perhaps he would like to make them over to his dear brother Paul? Come, it was only a little thing to do. Eight days to the twenty-first. To-morrow, fish day, but Wednesday would be soufflé. So easy, so untraceable, so safe.
'But you,' whined Henri, 'they will suspect you.'
'Even if they do they can prove nothing. But in order to avoid this unpleasantness I propose to leave home soon after breakfast. I shall return at a quarter-past three, letting myself in through the stable yard. The stables, as you know, are not used. There is no one else on that floor. Ernestine is upstairs. She only comes down to answer the front-door bell. I shall be in and out of the house within five minutes, and I shan't return till late at night, when perhaps—I may be too late to render assistance.'
Henri was terribly agitated. On one hand was—just murder, a thing he had never connected himself with in his life. On the other hand was comfort for himself and his family, an experience he had given up hoping for. It was in any case not exactly murder on his part. It was Paul's murder. At the same time, knowing all about it, being an accessory before the fact, it would seem contemptible to a degree to put the whole onus on Paul. Grinding up a piece of glass was such a little thing. It couldn't possibly incriminate him. Nobody could ever prove that he'd done it. But it was a terrible step to take.
'Have another cognac, my little cabbage.'
It was Paul's voice that jerked him back to actuality. He said: 'All right, yes, yes,' but whether this referred to the cognac or to the act of grinding up a piece of glass he hardly knew himself.
From that moment to twenty-four hours later, when he handed over a white packet to his brother across the same table at the Café des Sentiers, Henri seemed to be in a nightmarish dream. He had no recollection of how he had passed the time. He seemed to pass from that last cognac to this one, and the interval was a blank.
'Fish to-day, soufflé to-morrow,' he heard Paul chuckling. 'Brother, you have done your work well.'
When Paul went he wanted to call after him to come back, but he was frightened of the sound of his own voice. He was terribly frightened. He went to bed very late and could not sleep. The next morning he awoke with a headache, and he got his wife to telegraph to the office to say that he was too ill to come. He lay in bed all day, visualising over and over and over again the possible events of the evening.
Paul would be caught. Someone would catch him actually putting the powder into the eggs. He would be arrested. Paul would give him away. Why did Paul say it was so easy to murder anyone if you lived with them? It wasn't easy at all. The whole thing was chock-a-block with dangers and pitfalls. Pitfalls! At half-past three he started up in bed. He had a vision of himself and Paul being guillotined side by side! He must stop it at any cost. He began to get up. Then he realised that it was already too late. The deed had been done. Paul had said that he would be in and out of the house within five minutes at three-fifteen—a quarter of an hour ago! Where was Paul? Would he be coming to see him? He was going to spend the evening out somewhere, 'returning late at night.'
He dressed feverishly. There was still time. He could call at his aunt's. Rush down to the kitchen, seize the basin of beaten-up eggs, and throw them away. But where? How? By the time he got there Ernestine would have returned. She would want to know all about it. The egg mixture would be examined, analysed. God in Heaven! It was too late! The thing would have to go on, and he suffer and wait.
Having dressed, he went out after saying to his wife:
'It's all right. It's going to be all right,' not exactly knowing what he meant. He walked rapidly along the streets, with no fixed destination in his mind. He found himself in the café in the Rue de la Roquette, where the idea was first conceived, where he had reminded his brother.
He sat there drinking, waiting for the hours to pass.
Soufflé day, and the old lady dined at seven! It was now not quite five. He hoped Paul would turn up. A stranger tried to engage him in conversation. The stranger apparently had some grievance against a railway company. He wanted to tell him all the details about a contract for rivets, over which he had been disappointed. Henri didn't understand a word he was talking about. He didn't listen. He wanted the stranger to drop down dead, or vanish into thin air. At last he called the waiter and paid for his reckoning, indicated by a small pile of saucers. From there he walked rapidly to the Café des Sentiers, looking for Paul. He was not there. Six o'clock. One hour more. He could not keep still. He paid and went on again, calling at café after café. A quarter to seven. Pray God that she threw it away. Had he ground it fine enough?
Five minutes to seven. Seven o'clock. Now. He picked up his hat and went again. The brandy had gone to his head. At half-past seven he laughed recklessly. After all, what was the good of life to this old woman of eighty-six? He tried to convince himself that he had done it for the sake of his wife and children. He tried to concentrate on the future, how he could manage on eight or ten thousand francs a year. He would give notice at the office, be rude to people who had been bullying him for years—that old blackguard Mocquin!
At ten o'clock he was drunk, torpid, and indifferent. The whole thing was over for good or ill. What did it matter? He terribly wanted to see Paul, but he was too tired to care very much. The irrevocable step had been taken. He went home to bed and fell into a heavy drunken sleep.
'Henri! Henri! Wake up! What is the matter with you?'
His wife was shaking him. He blinked his way into a partial condition of consciousness. November sunlight was pouring into the room.
'It's late, isn't it?' he said, involuntarily.
'It's past eight. You'll be late at the office. You didn't go yesterday. If you go on like this you'll get the sack, and then what shall we do?'
Slowly the recollection of last night's events came back to him.
'There's nothing to worry about,' he said. 'I'm too ill to go to-day. Send them another telegram. It'll be all right.'
His wife looked at him searchingly. 'You've been drinking,' she said. 'Oh, you men! God knows what will become of us.'
She appeared to be weeping in her apron. It struck him forcibly at that instant how provoking and small women are. Here was Jeannette crying over her petty troubles. Whereas he—
The whole thing was becoming vivid again. Where was Paul? What had happened? Was it at all likely that he could go down to an office on a day like this, a day that was to decide his fate?
He groaned, and elaborated rather pathetically his imaginary ailments, anything to keep this woman quiet. She left him at last, and he lay there waiting for something to happen. The hours passed. What would be the first intimation? Paul or the gendarmes? Thoughts of the latter stirred him to a state of fevered activity. About midday he arose, dressed, and went out. He told his wife he was going to the office, but he had no intention of doing so. He went and drank coffee at a place up in the Marais. He was terrified of his old haunts. He wandered from place to place, uncertain how to act. Late in the afternoon he entered a café in the Rue Alibert. At a kiosk outside he bought a late edition of an afternoon newspaper. He sat down, ordered a drink and opened the newspaper. He glanced at the central news page, and as his eye absorbed one paragraph he unconsciously uttered a low scream. The paragraph was as follows:
MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT CHANTILLY
A mysterious affair occurred at Chantilly this morning. A middle-aged man, named Paul Denoyel, complained of pains in the stomach after eating an omelette. He died soon after in great agony. He was staying with his aunt, Mme Taillandier. No other members of the household were affected. The matter is to be inquired into.
The rest was a dream. He was only vaguely conscious of the events which followed. He wandered through it all, the instinct of self-preservation bidding him hold his tongue in all circumstances. He knew nothing. He had seen nothing. He had a visionary recollection of a plump, weeping Ernestine, at the inquest, enlarging upon the eccentricities of her mistress. A queer woman, who would brook no contradiction. He heard a lot about the fish day and the soufflé day, and how the old lady insisted that this was a fish day, and that she had had a soufflé the day before. You could not argue with her when she was like that. And Ernestine had beaten up the eggs all ready for the soufflé—most provoking! But Ernestine was a good cook, of method and economy. She wasted nothing. What should she do with the eggs? Why, of course, Mr Paul, who since he had come to live there was never content with a café complet. He must have a breakfast, like these English and other foreigners do. She made him an omelette, which he ate heartily.
Then the beaten-up eggs with their deadly mixture were intended for Mme Taillandier? But who was responsible for this? Ernestine? But there was no motive here. Ernestine gained nothing by her mistress's death. Indeed she only stood to lose her situation. Motive? Was it possible that the deceased—The inquiry went on a long while. Henri himself was conscious of being in the witness-box. He knew nothing. He couldn't understand it. His brother would not be likely to do that. He himself was prostrate with grief. He loved his brother.
There was nothing to do but return an open verdict. Shadowy figures passed before his mind's eye—shadowy figures and shadowy realisations. He had perfectly murdered his brother. The whole of the dividends of the estate would one day be his, and his wife's and children's. Eighteen thousand francs a year! One day—
One vision more vivid than the rest—the old lady on the day following the inquest, seated bolt upright at her table, like a figure of perpetuity, playing with the old grey perroquet, stroking its mangy neck.
'There's a pretty lady! Oh, my sweet! Another nice grape for my little one. There's a pretty lady!'
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