[Transcriber's Note for edition 11: in para. 4 of Chapter 19, the word "leafy" has been changed to "leaky". "leafy" was the word used in the printed edition, but was an obvious misprint. Some readers have noted that other editions have slightly different punctuation, notably some extra commas, and semi-colons where there are colons in this edition; but the punctuation herein does follow at least one printed text.—jt]
A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse
Inasmuch as the scene of this story is that historic pile, Belpher Castle, in the county of Hampshire, it would be an agreeable task to open it with a leisurely description of the place, followed by some notes on the history of the Earls of Marshmoreton, who have owned it since the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.
I may briefly remark that the present Lord Marshmoreton is a widower of some forty-eight years: that he has two children—a son, Percy Wilbraham Marsh, Lord Belpher, who is on the brink of his twenty-first birthday, and a daughter, Lady Patricia Maud Marsh, who is just twenty: that the chatelaine of the castle is Lady Caroline Byng, Lord Marshmoreton's sister, who married the very wealthy colliery owner, Clifford Byng, a few years before his death (which unkind people say she hastened): and that she has a step-son, Reginald. Give me time to mention these few facts and I am done. On the glorious past of the Marshmoretons I will not even touch.
Luckily, the loss to literature is not irreparable. Lord Marshmoreton himself is engaged upon a history of the family, which will doubtless be on every bookshelf as soon as his lordship gets it finished. And, as for the castle and its surroundings, including the model dairy and the amber drawing-room, you may see them for yourself any Thursday, when Belpher is thrown open to the public on payment of a fee of one shilling a head. The money is collected by Keggs the butler, and goes to a worthy local charity. At least, that is the idea. But the voice of calumny is never silent, and there exists a school of thought, headed by Albert, the page-boy, which holds that Keggs sticks to these shillings like glue, and adds them to his already considerable savings in the Farmers' and Merchants' Bank, on the left side of the High Street in Belpher village, next door to the Oddfellows' Hall.
With regard to this, one can only say that Keggs looks far too much like a particularly saintly bishop to indulge in any such practices. On the other hand, Albert knows Keggs. We must leave the matter open.
Of course, appearances are deceptive. Anyone, for instance, who had been standing outside the front entrance of the castle at eleven o'clock on a certain June morning might easily have made a mistake. Such a person would probably have jumped to the conclusion that the middle-aged lady of a determined cast of countenance who was standing near the rose-garden, talking to the gardener and watching the young couple strolling on the terrace below, was the mother of the pretty girl, and that she was smiling because the latter had recently become engaged to the tall, pleasant-faced youth at her side.
Sherlock Holmes himself might have been misled. One can hear him explaining the thing to Watson in one of those lightning flashes of inductive reasoning of his. "It is the only explanation, my dear Watson. If the lady were merely complimenting the gardener on his rose-garden, and if her smile were merely caused by the excellent appearance of that rose-garden, there would be an answering smile on the face of the gardener. But, as you see, he looks morose and gloomy."
As a matter of fact, the gardener—that is to say, the stocky, brown-faced man in shirt sleeves and corduroy trousers who was frowning into a can of whale-oil solution—was the Earl of Marshmoreton, and there were two reasons for his gloom. He hated to be interrupted while working, and, furthermore, Lady Caroline Byng always got on his nerves, and never more so than when, as now, she speculated on the possibility of a romance between her step-son Reggie and his lordship's daughter Maud.
Only his intimates would have recognized in this curious corduroy-trousered figure the seventh Earl of Marshmoreton. The Lord Marshmoreton who made intermittent appearances in London, who lunched among bishops at the Athenaeum Club without exciting remark, was a correctly dressed gentleman whom no one would have suspected of covering his sturdy legs in anything but the finest cloth. But if you will glance at your copy of Who's Who, and turn up the "M's", you will find in the space allotted to the Earl the words "Hobby—Gardening". To which, in a burst of modest pride, his lordship has added "Awarded first prize for Hybrid Teas, Temple Flower Show, 1911". The words tell their own story.
Lord Marshmoreton was the most enthusiastic amateur gardener in a land of enthusiastic amateur gardeners. He lived for his garden. The love which other men expend on their nearest and dearest Lord Marshmoreton lavished on seeds, roses and loamy soil. The hatred which some of his order feel for Socialists and Demagogues Lord Marshmoreton kept for roseslugs, rose-beetles and the small, yellowish-white insect which is so depraved and sinister a character that it goes through life with an alias—being sometimes called a rose-hopper and sometimes a thrips. A simple soul, Lord Marshmoreton—mild and pleasant. Yet put him among the thrips, and he became a dealer-out of death and slaughter, a destroyer in the class of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. Thrips feed on the underside of rose leaves, sucking their juice and causing them to turn yellow; and Lord Marshmoreton's views on these things were so rigid that he would have poured whale-oil solution on his grandmother if he had found her on the underside of one of his rose leaves sucking its juice.
The only time in the day when he ceased to be the horny-handed toiler and became the aristocrat was in the evening after dinner, when, egged on by Lady Caroline, who gave him no rest in the matter—he would retire to his private study and work on his History of the Family, assisted by his able secretary, Alice Faraday. His progress on that massive work was, however, slow. Ten hours in the open air made a man drowsy, and too often Lord Marshmoreton would fall asleep in mid-sentence to the annoyance of Miss Faraday, who was a conscientious girl and liked to earn her salary.
The couple on the terrace had turned. Reggie Byng's face, as he bent over Maud, was earnest and animated, and even from a distance it was possible to see how the girl's eyes lit up at what he was saying. She was hanging on his words. Lady Caroline's smile became more and more benevolent.
"They make a charming pair," she murmured. "I wonder what dear Reggie is saying. Perhaps at this very moment—"
She broke off with a sigh of content. She had had her troubles over this affair. Dear Reggie, usually so plastic in her hands, had displayed an unaccountable reluctance to offer his agreeable self to Maud—in spite of the fact that never, not even on the public platform which she adorned so well, had his step-mother reasoned more clearly than she did when pointing out to him the advantages of the match. It was not that Reggie disliked Maud. He admitted that she was a "topper", on several occasions going so far as to describe her as "absolutely priceless". But he seemed reluctant to ask her to marry him. How could Lady Caroline know that Reggie's entire world—or such of it as was not occupied by racing cars and golf—was filled by Alice Faraday? Reggie had never told her. He had not even told Miss Faraday.
"Perhaps at this very moment," went on Lady Caroline, "the dear boy is proposing to her."
Lord Marshmoreton grunted, and continued to peer with a questioning eye in the awesome brew which he had prepared for the thrips.
"One thing is very satisfactory," said Lady Caroline. "I mean that Maud seems entirely to have got over that ridiculous infatuation of hers for that man she met in Wales last summer. She could not be so cheerful if she were still brooding on that. I hope you will admit now, John, that I was right in keeping her practically a prisoner here and never allowing her a chance of meeting the man again either by accident or design. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Stuff! A girl of Maud's age falls in and out of love half a dozen times a year. I feel sure she has almost forgotten the man by now."
"Eh?" said Lord Marshmoreton. His mind had been far away, dealing with green flies.
"I was speaking about that man Maud met when she was staying with Brenda in Wales."
"Oh, yes!" echoed Lady Caroline, annoyed. "Is that the only comment you can find to make? Your only daughter becomes infatuated with a perfect stranger—a man we have never seen—of whom we know nothing, not even his name—nothing except that he is an American and hasn't a penny—Maud admitted that. And all you say is 'Oh, yes'!"
"But it's all over now, isn't it? I understood the dashed affair was all over."
"We hope so. But I should feel safer if Maud were engaged to Reggie. I do think you might take the trouble to speak to Maud."
"Speak to her? I do speak to her." Lord Marshmoreton's brain moved slowly when he was pre-occupied with his roses. "We're on excellent terms."
Lady Caroline frowned impatiently. Hers was an alert, vigorous mind, bright and strong like a steel trap, and her brother's vagueness and growing habit of inattention irritated her.
"I mean to speak to her about becoming engaged to Reggie. You are her father. Surely you can at least try to persuade her."
"Can't coerce a girl."
"I never suggested that you should coerce her, as you put it. I merely meant that you could point out to her, as a father, where her duty and happiness lie."
"Drink this!" cried his lordship with sudden fury, spraying his can over the nearest bush, and addressing his remark to the invisible thrips. He had forgotten Lady Caroline completely. "Don't stint yourselves! There's lots more!"
A girl came down the steps of the castle and made her way towards them. She was a good-looking girl, with an air of quiet efficiency about her. Her eyes were grey and whimsical. Her head was uncovered, and the breeze stirred her dark hair. She made a graceful picture in the morning sunshine, and Reggie Byng, sighting her from the terrace, wobbled in his tracks, turned pink, and lost the thread of his remarks.
The sudden appearance of Alice Faraday always affected him like that.
"I have copied out the notes you made last night, Lord Marshmoreton. I typed two copies."
Alice Faraday spoke in a quiet, respectful, yet subtly authoritative voice. She was a girl of great character. Previous employers of her services as secretary had found her a jewel. To Lord Marshmoreton she was rapidly becoming a perfect incubus. Their views on the relative importance of gardening and family histories did not coincide. To him the history of the Marshmoreton family was the occupation of the idle hour: she seemed to think that he ought to regard it as a life-work. She was always coming and digging him out of the garden and dragging him back to what should have been a purely after-dinner task. It was Lord Marshmoreton's habit, when he awoke after one of his naps too late to resume work, to throw out some vague promise of "attending to it tomorrow"; but, he reflected bitterly, the girl ought to have tact and sense to understand that this was only polite persiflage, and not to be taken literally.
"They are very rough," continued Alice, addressing her conversation to the seat of his lordship's corduroy trousers. Lord Marshmoreton always assumed a stooping attitude when he saw Miss Faraday approaching with papers in her hand; for he laboured under a pathetic delusion, of which no amount of failures could rid him, that if she did not see his face she would withdraw. "You remember last night you promised you would attend to them this morning." She paused long enough to receive a non-committal grunt by way of answer. "Of course, if you're busy—" she said placidly, with a half-glance at Lady Caroline. That masterful woman could always be counted on as an ally in these little encounters.
"Nothing of the kind!" said Lady Caroline crisply. She was still ruffled by the lack of attention which her recent utterances had received, and welcomed the chance of administering discipline. "Get up at once, John, and go in and work."
"I am working," pleaded Lord Marshmoreton.
Despite his forty-eight years his sister Caroline still had the power at times to make him feel like a small boy. She had been a great martinet in the days of their mutual nursery.
"The Family History is more important than grubbing about in the dirt. I cannot understand why you do not leave this sort of thing to MacPherson. Why you should pay him liberal wages and then do his work for him, I cannot see. You know the publishers are waiting for the History. Go and attend to these notes at once."
"You promised you would attend to them this morning, Lord Marshmoreton," said Alice invitingly.
Lord Marshmoreton clung to his can of whale-oil solution with the clutch of a drowning man. None knew better than he that these interviews, especially when Caroline was present to lend the weight of her dominating personality, always ended in the same way.
"Yes, yes, yes!" he said. "Tonight, perhaps. After dinner, eh? Yes, after dinner. That will be capital."
"I think you ought to attend to them this morning," said Alice, gently persistent. It really perturbed this girl to feel that she was not doing work enough to merit her generous salary. And on the subject of the history of the Marshmoreton family she was an enthusiast. It had a glamour for her.
Lord Marshmoreton's fingers relaxed their hold. Throughout the rose-garden hundreds of spared thrips went on with their morning meal, unwitting of doom averted.
"Oh, all right, all right, all right! Come into the library."
"Very well, Lord Marshmoreton." Miss Faraday turned to Lady Caroline. "I have been looking up the trains, Lady Caroline. The best is the twelve-fifteen. It has a dining-car, and stops at Belpher if signalled."
"Are you going away, Caroline?" inquired Lord Marshmoreton hopefully.
"I am giving a short talk to the Social Progress League at Lewisham. I shall return tomorrow."
"Oh!" said Marshmoreton, hope fading from his voice.
"Thank you, Miss Faraday," said Lady Caroline. "The twelve-fifteen."
"The motor will be round at a quarter to twelve."
"Thank you. Oh, by the way, Miss Faraday, will you call to Reggie as you pass, and tell him I wish to speak to him."
Maud had left Reggie by the time Alice Faraday reached him, and that ardent youth was sitting on a stone seat, smoking a cigarette and entertaining himself with meditations in which thoughts of Alice competed for precedence with graver reflections connected with the subject of the correct stance for his approach-shots. Reggie's was a troubled spirit these days. He was in love, and he had developed a bad slice with his mid-iron. He was practically a soul in torment.
"Lady Caroline asked me to tell you that she wishes to speak to you, Mr. Byng."
Reggie leaped from his seat.
"Hullo-ullo-ullo! There you are! I mean to say, what?"
He was conscious, as was his custom in her presence, of a warm, prickly sensation in the small of the back. Some kind of elephantiasis seemed to have attacked his hands and feet, swelling them to enormous proportions. He wished profoundly that he could get rid of his habit of yelping with nervous laughter whenever he encountered the girl of his dreams. It was calculated to give her a wrong impression of a chap—make her think him a fearful chump and what not!
"Lady Caroline is leaving by the twelve-fifteen."
"That's good! What I mean to say is—oh, she is, is she? I see what you mean." The absolute necessity of saying something at least moderately coherent gripped him. He rallied his forces. "You wouldn't care to come for a stroll, after I've seen the mater, or a row on the lake, or any rot like that, would you?"
"Thank you very much, but I must go in and help Lord Marshmoreton with his book."
"What a rotten—I mean, what a dam' shame!"
The pity of it tore at Reggie's heart strings. He burned with generous wrath against Lord Marshmoreton, that modern Simon Legree, who used his capitalistic power to make a slave of this girl and keep her toiling indoors when all the world was sunshine.
"Shall I go and ask him if you can't put it off till after dinner?"
"Oh, no, thanks very much. I'm sure Lord Marshmoreton wouldn't dream of it."
She passed on with a pleasant smile. When he had recovered from the effect of this Reggie proceeded slowly to the upper level to meet his step-mother.
"Hullo, mater. Pretty fit and so forth? What did you want to see me about?"
"Well, Reggie, what is the news?"
"Eh? What? News? Didn't you get hold of a paper at breakfast? Nothing much in it. Tam Duggan beat Alec Fraser three up and two to play at Prestwick. I didn't notice anything else much. There's a new musical comedy at the Regal. Opened last night, and seems to be just like mother makes. The Morning Post gave it a topping notice. I must trickle up to town and see it some time this week."
Lady Caroline frowned. This slowness in the uptake, coming so soon after her brother's inattention, displeased her.
"No, no, no. I mean you and Maud have been talking to each other for quite a long time, and she seemed very interested in what you were saying. I hoped you might have some good news for me."
Reggie's face brightened. He caught her drift.
"Oh, ah, yes, I see what you mean. No, there wasn't anything of that sort or shape or order."
"What were you saying to her, then, that interested her so much?"
"I was explaining how I landed dead on the pin with my spoon out of a sand-trap at the eleventh hole yesterday. It certainly was a pretty ripe shot, considering. I'd sliced into this baby bunker, don't you know; I simply can't keep 'em straight with the iron nowadays—and there the pill was, grinning up at me from the sand. Of course, strictly speaking, I ought to have used a niblick, but—"
"Do you mean to say, Reggie, that, with such an excellent opportunity, you did not ask Maud to marry you?"
"I see what you mean. Well, as a matter of absolute fact, I, as it were, didn't."
Lady Caroline uttered a wordless sound.
"By the way, mater," said Reggie, "I forgot to tell you about that. It's all off."
"Absolutely. You see, it appears there's a chappie unknown for whom Maud has an absolute pash. It seems she met this sportsman up in Wales last summer. She was caught in the rain, and he happened to be passing and rallied round with his rain-coat, and one thing led to another. Always raining in Wales, what! Good fishing, though, here and there. Well, what I mean is, this cove was so deucedly civil, and all that, that now she won't look at anybody else. He's the blue-eyed boy, and everybody else is an also-ran, with about as much chance as a blind man with one arm trying to get out of a bunker with a tooth-pick."
"What perfect nonsense! I know all about that affair. It was just a passing fancy that never meant anything. Maud has got over that long ago."
"She didn't seem to think so."
"Now, Reggie," said Lady Caroline tensely, "please listen to me. You know that the castle will be full of people in a day or two for Percy's coming-of-age, and this next few days may be your last chance of having a real, long, private talk with Maud. I shall be seriously annoyed if you neglect this opportunity. There is no excuse for the way you are behaving. Maud is a charming girl—"
"Oh, absolutely! One of the best."
"Very well, then!"
"But, mater, what I mean to say is—"
"I don't want any more temporizing, Reggie!"
"No, no! Absolutely not!" said Reggie dutifully, wishing he knew what the word meant, and wishing also that life had not become so frightfully complex.
"Now, this afternoon, why should you not take Maud for a long ride in your car?"
Reggie grew more cheerful. At least he had an answer for that.
"Can't be done, I'm afraid. I've got to motor into town to meet Percy. He's arriving from Oxford this morning. I promised to meet him in town and tool him back in the car."
"I see. Well, then, why couldn't you—?"
"I say, mater, dear old soul," said Reggie hastily, "I think you'd better tear yourself away and what not. If you're catching the twelve-fifteen, you ought to be staggering round to see you haven't forgotten anything. There's the car coming round now."
"I wish now I had decided to go by a later train."
"No, no, mustn't miss the twelve-fifteen. Good, fruity train. Everybody speaks well of it. Well, see you anon, mater. I think you'd better run like a hare."
"You will remember what I said?"
"Good-bye, then. I shall be back tomorrow."
Reggie returned slowly to his stone seat. He breathed a little heavily as he felt for his cigarette case. He felt like a hunted fawn.
Maud came out of the house as the car disappeared down the long avenue of elms. She crossed the terrace to where Reggie sat brooding on life and its problem.
"Hullo, Maud, dear old thing. Take a seat."
Maud sat down beside him. There was a flush on her pretty face, and when she spoke her voice quivered with suppressed excitement.
"Reggie," she said, laying a small hand on his arm. "We're friends, aren't we?"
Reggie patted her back paternally. There were few people he liked better than Maud.
"Always have been since the dear old days of childhood, what!"
"I can trust you, can't I?"
"There's something I want you to do for me, Reggie. You'll have to keep it a dead secret of course."
"The strong, silent man. That's me. What is it?"
"You're driving into town in your car this afternoon, aren't you, to meet Percy?"
"That was the idea."
"Could you go this morning instead—and take me?"
Maud shook her head.
"You don't know what you are letting yourself in for, Reggie, or I'm sure you wouldn't agree so lightly. I'm not allowed to leave the castle, you know, because of what I was telling you about."
"Yes. So there would be terrible scenes if anybody found out."
"Never mind, dear old soul. I'll risk it. None shall learn your secret from these lips."
"You're a darling, Reggie."
"But what's the idea? Why do you want to go today particularly?"
Maud looked over her shoulder.
"Because—" She lowered her voice, though there was no one near. "Because he is back in London! He's a sort of secretary, you know, Reggie, to his uncle, and I saw in the paper this morning that the uncle returned yesterday after a long voyage in his yacht. So—he must have come back, too. He has to go everywhere his uncle goes."
"And everywhere the uncle went, the chappie was sure to go!" murmured Reggie. "Sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt."
"I must see him. I haven't seen him since last summer—nearly a whole year! And he hasn't written to me, and I haven't dared to write to him, for fear of the letter going wrong. So, you see, I must go. Today's my only chance. Aunt Caroline has gone away. Father will be busy in the garden, and won't notice whether I'm here or not. And, besides, tomorrow it will be too late, because Percy will be here. He was more furious about the thing than anyone."
"Rather the proud aristocrat, Percy," agreed Reggie. "I understand absolutely. Tell me just what you want me to do."
"I want you to pick me up in the car about half a mile down the road. You can drop me somewhere in Piccadilly. That will be near enough to where I want to go. But the most important thing is about Percy. You must persuade him to stay and dine in town and come back here after dinner. Then I shall be able to get back by an afternoon train, and no one will know I've been gone."
"That's simple enough, what? Consider it done. When do you want to start?"
"I'll toddle round to the garage and fetch the car." Reggie chuckled amusedly. "Rum thing! The mater's just been telling me I ought to take you for a drive."
"You are a darling, Reggie, really!"
Reggie gave her back another paternal pat.
"I know what it means to be in love, dear old soul. I say, Maud, old thing, do you find love puts you off your stroke? What I mean is, does it make you slice your approach-shots?"
"No. It hasn't had any effect on my game so far. I went round in eighty-six the other day."
Reggie sighed enviously.
"Women are wonderful!" he said. "Well, I'll be legging it and fetching the car. When you're ready, stroll along down the road and wait for me."
* * *
When he had gone Maud pulled a small newspaper clipping from her pocket. She had extracted it from yesterday's copy of the Morning Post's society column. It contained only a few words:
"Mr. Wilbur Raymond has returned to his residence at No. 11a Belgrave Square from a prolonged voyage in his yacht, the Siren."
Maud did not know Mr. Wilbur Raymond, and yet that paragraph had sent the blood tingling through every vein in her body. For as she had indicated to Reggie, when the Wilbur Raymonds of this world return to their town residences, they bring with them their nephew and secretary, Geoffrey Raymond. And Geoffrey Raymond was the man Maud had loved ever since the day when she had met him in Wales.
The sun that had shone so brightly on Belpher Castle at noon, when Maud and Reggie Byng set out on their journey, shone on the West-End of London with equal pleasantness at two o'clock. In Little Gooch Street all the children of all the small shopkeepers who support life in that backwater by selling each other vegetables and singing canaries were out and about playing curious games of their own invention. Cats washed themselves on doorsteps, preparatory to looking in for lunch at one of the numerous garbage cans which dotted the sidewalk. Waiters peered austerely from the windows of the two Italian restaurants which carry on the Lucretia Borgia tradition by means of one shilling and sixpenny table d'hte luncheons. The proprietor of the grocery store on the corner was bidding a silent farewell to a tomato which even he, though a dauntless optimist, had been compelled to recognize as having outlived its utility. On all these things the sun shone with a genial smile. Round the corner, in Shaftesbury Avenue, an east wind was doing its best to pierce the hardened hides of the citizenry; but it did not penetrate into Little Gooch Street, which, facing south and being narrow and sheltered, was enabled practically to bask.
Mac, the stout guardian of the stage door of the Regal Theatre, whose gilded front entrance is on the Avenue, emerged from the little glass case in which the management kept him, and came out to observe life and its phenomena with an indulgent eye. Mac was feeling happy this morning. His job was a permanent one, not influenced by the success or failure of the productions which followed one another at the theatre throughout the year; but he felt, nevertheless, a sort of proprietary interest in these ventures, and was pleased when they secured the approval of the public. Last night's opening, a musical piece by an American author and composer, had undoubtedly made a big hit, and Mac was glad, because he liked what he had seen of the company, and, in the brief time in which he had known him, had come to entertain a warm regard for George Bevan, the composer, who had travelled over from New York to help with the London production.
George Bevan turned the corner now, walking slowly, and, it seemed to Mac, gloomily towards the stage door. He was a young man of about twenty-seven, tall and well knit, with an agreeable, clean-cut face, of which a pair of good and honest eyes were the most noticeable feature. His sensitive mouth was drawn down a little at the corners, and he looked tired.
"Good morning, sir."
"Anything for me?"
"Yes, sir. Some telegrams. I'll get 'em. Oh, I'll get 'em," said Mac, as if reassuring some doubting friend and supporter as to his ability to carry through a labour of Hercules.
He disappeared into his glass case. George Bevan remained outside in the street surveying the frisking children with a sombre glance. They seemed to him very noisy, very dirty and very young. Disgustingly young. Theirs was joyous, exuberant youth which made a fellow feel at least sixty. Something was wrong with George today, for normally he was fond of children. Indeed, normally he was fond of most things. He was a good-natured and cheerful young man, who liked life and the great majority of those who lived it contemporaneously with himself. He had no enemies and many friends.
But today he had noticed from the moment he had got out of bed that something was amiss with the world. Either he was in the grip of some divine discontent due to the highly developed condition of his soul, or else he had a grouch. One of the two. Or it might have been the reaction from the emotions of the previous night. On the morning after an opening your sensitive artist is always apt to feel as if he had been dried over a barrel.
Besides, last night there had been a supper party after the performance at the flat which the comedian of the troupe had rented in Jermyn Street, a forced, rowdy supper party where a number of tired people with over-strained nerves had seemed to feel it a duty to be artificially vivacious. It had lasted till four o'clock when the morning papers with the notices arrived, and George had not got to bed till four-thirty. These things colour the mental outlook.
"Here you are, sir."
George put the telegrams in his pocket. A cat, on its way back from lunch, paused beside him in order to use his leg as a serviette. George tickled it under the ear abstractedly. He was always courteous to cats, but today he went through the movements perfunctorily and without enthusiasm.
The cat moved on. Mac became conversational.
"They tell me the piece was a hit last night, sir."
"It seemed to go very well."
"My Missus saw it from the gallery, and all the first-nighters was speaking very 'ighly of it. There's a regular click, you know, sir, over here in London, that goes to all the first nights in the gallery. 'Ighly critical they are always. Specially if it's an American piece like this one. If they don't like it, they precious soon let you know. My missus ses they was all speakin' very 'ighly of it. My missus says she ain't seen a livelier show for a long time, and she's a great theatregoer. My missus says they was all specially pleased with the music."
"The Morning Leader give it a fine write-up. How was the rest of the papers?"
"Splendid, all of them. I haven't seen the evening papers yet. I came out to get them."
Mac looked down the street.
"There'll be a rehearsal this afternoon, I suppose, sir? Here's Miss Dore coming along."
George followed his glance. A tall girl in a tailor-made suit of blue was coming towards them. Even at a distance one caught the genial personality of the new arrival. It seemed to go before her like a heartening breeze. She picked her way carefully through the children crawling on the side walk. She stopped for a moment and said something to one of them. The child grinned. Even the proprietor of the grocery store appeared to brighten up at the sight of her, as at the sight of some old friend.
"How's business, Bill?" she called to him as she passed the spot where he stood brooding on the mortality of tomatoes. And, though he replied "Rotten", a faint, grim smile did nevertheless flicker across his tragic mask.
Billie Dore, who was one of the chorus of George Bevan's musical comedy, had an attractive face, a mouth that laughed readily, rather bright golden hair (which, she was fond of insisting with perfect truth, was genuine though appearances were against it), and steady blue eyes. The latter were frequently employed by her in quelling admirers who were encouraged by the former to become too ardent. Billie's views on the opposite sex who forgot themselves were as rigid as those of Lord Marshmoreton concerning thrips. She liked men, and she would signify this liking in a practical manner by lunching and dining with them, but she was entirely self-supporting, and when men overlooked that fact she reminded them of it in no uncertain voice; for she was a girl of ready speech and direct.
"'Morning, George. 'Morning, Mac. Any mail?"
"I'll see, miss."
"How did your better four-fifths like the show, Mac?"
"I was just telling Mr. Bevan, miss, that the missus said she 'adn't seen a livelier show for a long time."
"Fine. I knew I'd be a hit. Well, George, how's the boy this bright afternoon?"
"Limp and pessimistic."
"That comes of sitting up till four in the morning with festive hams."
"You were up as late as I was, and you look like Little Eva after a night of sweet, childish slumber."
"Yes, but I drank ginger ale, and didn't smoke eighteen cigars. And yet, I don't know. I think I must be getting old, George. All-night parties seem to have lost their charm. I was ready to quit at one o'clock, but it didn't seem matey. I think I'll marry a farmer and settle down."
George was amazed. He had not expected to find his present view of life shared in this quarter.
"I was just thinking myself," he said, feeling not for the first time how different Billie was from the majority of those with whom his profession brought him in contact, "how flat it all was. The show business I mean, and these darned first nights, and the party after the show which you can't sidestep. Something tells me I'm about through."
Billie Dore nodded.
"Anybody with any sense is always about through with the show business. I know I am. If you think I'm wedded to my art, let me tell you I'm going to get a divorce the first chance that comes along. It's funny about the show business. The way one drifts into it and sticks, I mean. Take me, for example. Nature had it all doped out for me to be the Belle of Hicks Corners. What I ought to have done was to buy a gingham bonnet and milk cows. But I would come to the great city and help brighten up the tired business man."
"I didn't know you were fond of the country, Billie."
"Me? I wrote the words and music. Didn't you know I was a country kid? My dad ran a Bide a Wee Home for flowers, and I used to know them all by their middle names. He was a nursery gardener out in Indiana. I tell you, when I see a rose nowadays, I shake its hand and say: 'Well, well, Cyril, how's everything with you? And how are Joe and Jack and Jimmy and all the rest of the boys at home?' Do you know how I used to put in my time the first few nights I was over here in London? I used to hang around Covent Garden with my head back, sniffing. The boys that mess about with the flowers there used to stub their toes on me so often that they got to look on me as part of the scenery."
"That's where we ought to have been last night."
"We'd have had a better time. Say, George, did you see the awful mistake on Nature's part that Babe Sinclair showed up with towards the middle of the proceedings? You must have noticed him, because he took up more room than any one man was entitled to. His name was Spenser Gray."
George recalled having been introduced to a fat man of his own age who answered to that name.
"It's a darned shame," said Billie indignantly. "Babe is only a kid. This is the first show she's been in. And I happen to know there's an awfully nice boy over in New York crazy to marry her. And I'm certain this gink is giving her a raw deal. He tried to get hold of me about a week ago, but I turned him down hard; and I suppose he thinks Babe is easier. And it's no good talking to her; she thinks he's wonderful. That's another kick I have against the show business. It seems to make girls such darned chumps. Well, I wonder how much longer Mr. Arbuckle is going to be retrieving my mail. What ho, within there, Fatty!"
Mac came out, apologetic, carrying letters.
"Sorry, miss. By an oversight I put you among the G's."
"All's well that ends well. 'Put me among the G's.' There's a good title for a song for you, George. Excuse me while I grapple with the correspondence. I'll bet half of these are mash notes. I got three between the first and second acts last night. Why the nobility and gentry of this burg should think that I'm their affinity just because I've got golden hair—which is perfectly genuine, Mac; I can show you the pedigree—and because I earn an honest living singing off the key, is more than I can understand."
Mac leaned his massive shoulders comfortably against the building, and resumed his chat.
"I expect you're feeling very 'appy today, sir?"
George pondered. He was certainly feeling better since he had seen Billie Dore, but he was far from being himself.
"I ought to be, I suppose. But I'm not."
"Ah, you're getting blarzy, sir, that's what it is. You've 'ad too much of the fat, you 'ave. This piece was a big 'it in America, wasn't it?"
"Yes. It ran over a year in New York, and there are three companies of it out now."
"That's 'ow it is, you see. You've gone and got blarzy. Too big a 'elping of success, you've 'ad." Mac wagged a head like a harvest moon. "You aren't a married man, are you, sir?"
Billie Dore finished skimming through her mail, and crumpled the letters up into a large ball, which she handed to Mac.
"Here's something for you to read in your spare moments, Mac. Glance through them any time you have a suspicion you may be a chump, and you'll have the comfort of knowing that there are others. What were you saying about being married?"
"Mr. Bevan and I was 'aving a talk about 'im being blarzy, miss."
"Are you blarzy, George?"
"So Mac says."
"And why is he blarzy, miss?" demanded Mac rhetorically.
"Don't ask me," said Billie. "It's not my fault."
"It's because, as I was saying, 'e's 'ad too big a 'elping of success, and because 'e ain't a married man. You did say you wasn't a married man, didn't you, sir?"
"I didn't. But I'm not."
"That's 'ow it is, you see. You pretty soon gets sick of pulling off good things, if you ain't got nobody to pat you on the back for doing of it. Why, when I was single, if I got 'old of a sure thing for the three o'clock race and picked up a couple of quid, the thrill of it didn't seem to linger somehow. But now, if some of the gentlemen that come 'ere put me on to something safe and I make a bit, 'arf the fascination of it is taking the stuff 'ome and rolling it on to the kitchen table and 'aving 'er pat me on the back."
"How about when you lose?"
"I don't tell 'er," said Mac simply.
"You seem to understand the art of being happy, Mac."
"It ain't an art, sir. It's just gettin' 'old of the right little woman, and 'aving a nice little 'ome of your own to go back to at night."
"Mac," said Billie admiringly, "you talk like a Tin Pan Alley song hit, except that you've left out the scent of honeysuckle and Old Mister Moon climbing up over the trees. Well, you're quite right. I'm all for the simple and domestic myself. If I could find the right man, and he didn't see me coming and duck, I'd become one of the Mendelssohn's March Daughters right away. Are you going, George? There's a rehearsal at two-thirty for cuts."
"I want to get the evening papers and send off a cable or two. See you later."
"We shall meet at Philippi."
Mac eyed George's retreating back till he had turned the corner.
"A nice pleasant gentleman, Mr. Bevan," he said. "Too bad 'e's got the pip the way 'e 'as, just after 'avin' a big success like this 'ere. Comes of bein' a artist, I suppose."
Miss Dore dived into her vanity case and produced a puff with which she proceeded to powder her nose.
"All composers are nuts, Mac. I was in a show once where the manager was panning the composer because there wasn't a number in the score that had a tune to it. The poor geek admitted they weren't very tuney, but said the thing about his music was that it had such a wonderful aroma. They all get that way. The jazz seems to go to their heads. George is all right, though, and don't let anyone tell you different."
"Have you know him long, miss?"
"About five years. I was a stenographer in the house that published his songs when I first met him. And there's another thing you've got to hand it to George for. He hasn't let success give him a swelled head. The money that boy makes is sinful, Mac. He wears thousand dollar bills next to his skin winter and summer. But he's just the same as he was when I first knew him, when he was just hanging around Broadway, looking out for a chance to be allowed to slip a couple of interpolated numbers into any old show that came along. Yes. Put it in your diary, Mac, and write it on your cuff, George Bevan's all right. He's an ace."
Unconscious of these eulogies, which, coming from one whose judgment he respected, might have cheered him up, George wandered down Shaftesbury Avenue feeling more depressed than ever. The sun had gone in for the time being, and the east wind was frolicking round him like a playful puppy, patting him with a cold paw, nuzzling his ankles, bounding away and bounding back again, and behaving generally as east winds do when they discover a victim who has come out without his spring overcoat. It was plain to George now that the sun and the wind were a couple of confidence tricksters working together as a team. The sun had disarmed him with specious promises and an air of cheery goodfellowship, and had delivered him into the hands of the wind, which was now going through him with the swift thoroughness of the professional hold-up artist. He quickened his steps, and began to wonder if he was so sunk in senile decay as to have acquired a liver.
He discarded the theory as repellent. And yet there must be a reason for his depression. Today of all days, as Mac had pointed out, he had everything to make him happy. Popular as he was in America, this was the first piece of his to be produced in London, and there was no doubt that it was a success of unusual dimensions. And yet he felt no elation.
He reached Piccadilly and turned westwards. And then, as he passed the gates of the In and Out Club, he had a moment of clear vision and understood everything. He was depressed because he was bored, and he was bored because he was lonely. Mac, that solid thinker, had been right. The solution of the problem of life was to get hold of the right girl and have a home to go back to at night. He was mildly surprised that he had tried in any other direction for an explanation of his gloom. It was all the more inexplicable in that fully 80 per cent of the lyrics which he had set in the course of his musical comedy career had had that thought at the back of them.
George gave himself up to an orgy of sentimentality. He seemed to be alone in the world which had paired itself off into a sort of seething welter of happy couples. Taxicabs full of happy couples rolled by every minute. Passing omnibuses creaked beneath the weight of happy couples. The very policeman across the Street had just grinned at a flitting shop girl, and she had smiled back at him. The only female in London who did not appear to be attached was a girl in brown who was coming along the sidewalk at a leisurely pace, looking about her in a manner that suggested that she found Piccadilly a new and stimulating spectacle.
As far as George could see she was an extremely pretty girl, small and dainty, with a proud little tilt to her head and the jaunty walk that spoke of perfect health. She was, in fact, precisely the sort of girl that George felt he could love with all the stored-up devotion of an old buffer of twenty-seven who had squandered none of his rich nature in foolish flirtations. He had just begun to weave a rose-tinted romance about their two selves, when a cold reaction set in. Even as he paused to watch the girl threading her way through the crowd, the east wind jabbed an icy finger down the back of his neck, and the chill of it sobered him. After all, he reflected bitterly, this girl was only alone because she was on her way somewhere to meet some confounded man. Besides there was no earthly chance of getting to know her. You can't rush up to pretty girls in the street and tell them you are lonely. At least, you can, but it doesn't get you anywhere except the police station. George's gloom deepened—a thing he would not have believed possible a moment before. He felt that he had been born too late. The restraints of modern civilization irked him. It was not, he told himself, like this in the good old days.
In the Middle Ages, for example, this girl would have been a Damsel; and in that happy time practically everybody whose technical rating was that of Damsel was in distress and only too willing to waive the formalities in return for services rendered by the casual passer-by. But the twentieth century is a prosaic age, when girls are merely girls and have no troubles at all. Were he to stop this girl in brown and assure her that his aid and comfort were at her disposal, she would undoubtedly call that large policeman from across the way, and the romance would begin and end within the space of thirty seconds, or, if the policeman were a quick mover, rather less.
Better to dismiss dreams and return to the practical side of life by buying the evening papers from the shabby individual beside him, who had just thrust an early edition in his face. After all notices are notices, even when the heart is aching. George felt in his pocket for the necessary money, found emptiness, and remembered that he had left all his ready funds at his hotel. It was just one of the things he might have expected on a day like this.
The man with the papers had the air of one whose business is conducted on purely cash principles. There was only one thing to be done, return to the hotel, retrieve his money, and try to forget the weight of the world and its cares in lunch. And from the hotel he could despatch the two or three cables which he wanted to send to New York.
The girl in brown was quite close now, and George was enabled to get a clearer glimpse of her. She more than fulfilled the promise she had given at a distance. Had she been constructed to his own specifications, she would not have been more acceptable in George's sight. And now she was going out of his life for ever. With an overwhelming sense of pathos, for there is no pathos more bitter than that of parting from someone we have never met, George hailed a taxicab which crawled at the side of the road; and, with all the refrains of all the sentimental song hits he had ever composed ringing in his ears, he got in and passed away.
"A rotten world," he mused, as the cab, after proceeding a couple of yards, came to a standstill in a block of the traffic. "A dull, flat bore of a world, in which nothing happens or ever will happen. Even when you take a cab it just sticks and doesn't move."
At this point the door of the cab opened, and the girl in brown jumped in.
"I'm so sorry," she said breathlessly, "but would you mind hiding me, please."
George hid her. He did it, too, without wasting precious time by asking questions. In a situation which might well have thrown the quickest-witted of men off his balance, he acted with promptitude, intelligence and despatch. The fact is, George had for years been an assiduous golfer; and there is no finer school for teaching concentration and a strict attention to the matter in hand. Few crises, however unexpected, have the power to disturb a man who has so conquered the weakness of the flesh as to have trained himself to bend his left knee, raise his left heel, swing his arms well out from the body, twist himself into the shape of a corkscrew and use the muscle of the wrist, at the same time keeping his head still and his eye on the ball. It is estimated that there are twenty-three important points to be borne in mind simultaneously while making a drive at golf; and to the man who has mastered the art of remembering them all the task of hiding girls in taxicabs is mere child's play. To pull down the blinds on the side of the vehicle nearest the kerb was with George the work of a moment. Then he leaned out of the centre window in such a manner as completely to screen the interior of the cab from public view.
"Thank you so much," murmured a voice behind him. It seemed to come from the floor.
"Not at all," said George, trying a sort of vocal chip-shot out of the corner of his mouth, designed to lift his voice backwards and lay it dead inside the cab.
He gazed upon Piccadilly with eyes from which the scales had fallen. Reason told him that he was still in Piccadilly. Otherwise it would have seemed incredible to him that this could be the same street which a moment before he had passed judgment upon and found flat and uninteresting. True, in its salient features it had altered little. The same number of stodgy-looking people moved up and down. The buildings retained their air of not having had a bath since the days of the Tudors. The east wind still blew. But, though superficially the same, in reality Piccadilly had altered completely. Before it had been just Piccadilly. Now it was a golden street in the City of Romance, a main thoroughfare of Bagdad, one of the principal arteries of the capital of Fairyland. A rose-coloured mist swam before George's eyes. His spirits, so low but a few moments back, soared like a good niblick shot out of the bunker of Gloom. The years fell away from him till, in an instant, from being a rather poorly preserved, liverish greybeard of sixty-five or so, he became a sprightly lad of twenty-one in a world of springtime and flowers and laughing brooks. In other words, taking it by and large, George felt pretty good. The impossible had happened; Heaven had sent him an adventure, and he didn't care if it snowed.
It was possibly the rose-coloured mist before his eyes that prevented him from observing the hurried approach of a faultlessly attired young man, aged about twenty-one, who during George's preparations for ensuring privacy in his cab had been galloping in pursuit in a resolute manner that suggested a well-dressed bloodhound somewhat overfed and out of condition. Only when this person stopped and began to pant within a few inches of his face did he become aware of his existence.
"You, sir!" said the bloodhound, removing a gleaming silk hat, mopping a pink forehead, and replacing the luminous superstructure once more in position. "You, sir!"
Whatever may be said of the possibility of love at first sight, in which theory George was now a confirmed believer, there can be no doubt that an exactly opposite phenomenon is of frequent occurrence. After one look at some people even friendship is impossible. Such a one, in George's opinion, was this gurgling excrescence underneath the silk hat. He comprised in his single person practically all the qualities which George disliked most. He was, for a young man, extraordinarily obese. Already a second edition of his chin had been published, and the perfectly-cut morning coat which encased his upper section bulged out in an opulent semi-circle. He wore a little moustache, which to George's prejudiced eye seemed more a complaint than a moustache. His face was red, his manner dictatorial, and he was touched in the wind. Take him for all in all he looked like a bit of bad news.
George had been educated at Lawrenceville and Harvard, and had subsequently had the privilege of mixing socially with many of New York's most prominent theatrical managers; so he knew how to behave himself. No Vere de Vere could have exhibited greater repose of manner.
"And what," he inquired suavely, leaning a little further out of the cab, "is eating you, Bill?"
A messenger boy, two shabby men engaged in non-essential industries, and a shop girl paused to observe the scene. Time was not of the essence to these confirmed sightseers. The shop girl was late already, so it didn't matter if she was any later; the messenger boy had nothing on hand except a message marked "Important: Rush"; and as for the two shabby men, their only immediate plans consisted of a vague intention of getting to some public house and leaning against the wall; so George's time was their time. One of the pair put his head on one side and said: "What ho!"; the other picked up a cigar stub from the gutter and began to smoke.
"A young lady just got into your cab," said the stout young man.
"Surely not?" said George.
"What the devil do you mean—surely not?"
"I've been in the cab all the time, and I should have noticed it."
At this juncture the block in the traffic was relieved, and the cab bowled smartly on for some fifty yards when it was again halted. George, protruding from the window like a snail, was entertained by the spectacle of the pursuit. The hunt was up. Short of throwing his head up and baying, the stout young man behaved exactly as a bloodhound in similar circumstances would have conducted itself. He broke into a jerky gallop, attended by his self-appointed associates; and, considering that the young man was so stout, that the messenger boy considered it unprofessional to hurry, that the shop girl had doubts as to whether sprinting was quite ladylike, and that the two Bohemians were moving at a quicker gait than a shuffle for the first occasion in eleven years, the cavalcade made good time. The cab was still stationary when they arrived in a body.
"Here he is, guv'nor," said the messenger boy, removing a bead of perspiration with the rush message.
"Here he is, guv'nor," said the non-smoking Bohemian. "What oh!"
"Here I am!" agreed George affably. "And what can I do for you?"
The smoker spat appreciatively at a passing dog. The point seemed to him well taken. Not for many a day had he so enjoyed himself. In an arid world containing too few goes of gin and too many policemen, a world in which the poor were oppressed and could seldom even enjoy a quiet cigar without having their fingers trodden upon, he found himself for the moment contented, happy, and expectant. This looked like a row between toffs, and of all things which most intrigued him a row between toffs ranked highest.
"R!" he said approvingly. "Now you're torkin'!"
The shop girl had espied an acquaintance in the crowd. She gave tongue.
"Mordee! Cummere! Cummere quick! Sumfin' hap'nin'!" Maudie, accompanied by perhaps a dozen more of London's millions, added herself to the audience. These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tyre. They are not impatient. They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time. They stared at George and George's cab with unblinking gaze. They did not know what would happen or when it would happen, but they intended to wait till something did happen. It might be for years or it might be for ever, but they meant to be there when things began to occur.
Speculations became audible.
"Wot is it? 'Naccident?"
"Nah! Gent 'ad 'is pocket picked!"
"Two toffs 'ad a scrap!"
"Feller bilked the cabman!"
A sceptic made a cynical suggestion.
"They're doin' of it for the pictures."
The idea gained instant popularity.
"Jear that? It's a fillum!"
"Wot o', Charlie!"
"The kemerer's 'idden in the keb."
"Wot'll they be up to next!"
A red-nosed spectator with a tray of collar-studs harnessed to his stomach started another school of thought. He spoke with decision as one having authority.
"Nothin' of the blinkin' kind! The fat 'un's bin 'avin' one or two around the corner, and it's gorn and got into 'is 'ead!"
The driver of the cab, who till now had been ostentatiously unaware that there was any sort of disturbance among the lower orders, suddenly became humanly inquisitive.
"What's it all about?" he asked, swinging around and addressing George's head.
"Exactly what I want to know," said George. He indicated the collar-stud merchant. "The gentleman over there with the portable Woolworth-bargain-counter seems to me to have the best theory."
The stout young man, whose peculiar behaviour had drawn all this flattering attention from the many-headed and who appeared considerably ruffled by the publicity, had been puffing noisily during the foregoing conversation. Now, having recovered sufficient breath to resume the attack, he addressed himself to George once more.
"Damn you, sir, will you let me look inside that cab?"
"Leave me," said George, "I would be alone."
"There is a young lady in that cab. I saw her get in, and I have been watching ever since, and she has not got out, so she is there now."
George nodded approval of this close reasoning.
"Your argument seems to be without a flaw. But what then? We applaud the Man of Logic, but what of the Man of Action? What are you going to do about it?"
"Get out of my way!"
"Then I'll force my way in!"
"If you try it, I shall infallibly bust you one on the jaw."
The stout young man drew back a pace.
"You can't do that sort of thing, you know."
"I know I can't," said George, "but I shall. In this life, my dear sir, we must be prepared for every emergency. We must distinguish between the unusual and the impossible. It would be unusual for a comparative stranger to lean out of a cab window and sock you one, but you appear to have laid your plans on the assumption that it would be impossible. Let this be a lesson to you!"
"I tell you what it is—"
"The advice I give to every young man starting life is 'Never confuse the unusual with the impossible!' Take the present case, for instance. If you had only realized the possibility of somebody some day busting you on the jaw when you tried to get into a cab, you might have thought out dozens of crafty schemes for dealing with the matter. As it is, you are unprepared. The thing comes on you as a surprise. The whisper flies around the clubs: 'Poor old What's-his-name has been taken unawares. He cannot cope with the situation!'"
The man with the collar-studs made another diagnosis. He was seeing clearer and clearer into the thing every minute.
"Looney!" he decided. "This 'ere one's bin moppin' of it up, and the one in the keb's orf 'is bloomin' onion. That's why 'e 's standin' up instead of settin'. 'E won't set down 'cept you bring 'im a bit o' toast, 'cos he thinks 'e 's a poached egg."
George beamed upon the intelligent fellow.
"Your reasoning is admirable, but—"
He broke off here, not because he had not more to say, but for the reason that the stout young man, now in quite a Berserk frame of mind, made a sudden spring at the cab door and clutched the handle, which he was about to wrench when George acted with all the promptitude and decision which had marked his behaviour from the start.
It was a situation which called for the nicest judgment. To allow the assailant free play with the handle or even to wrestle with him for its possession entailed the risk that the door might open and reveal the girl. To bust the young man on the jaw, as promised, on the other hand, was not in George's eyes a practical policy. Excellent a deterrent as the threat of such a proceeding might be, its actual accomplishment was not to be thought of. Gaols yawn and actions for assault lie in wait for those who go about the place busting their fellows on the jaw. No. Something swift, something decided and immediate was indicated, but something that stopped short of technical battery.
George brought his hand round with a sweep and knocked the stout young man's silk hat off.
The effect was magical. We all of us have our Achilles heel, and—paradoxically enough—in the case of the stout young man that heel was his hat. Superbly built by the only hatter in London who can construct a silk hat that is a silk hat, and freshly ironed by loving hands but a brief hour before at the only shaving-parlour in London where ironing is ironing and not a brutal attack, it was his pride and joy. To lose it was like losing his trousers. It made him feel insufficiently clad. With a passionate cry like that of some wild creature deprived of its young, the erstwhile Berserk released the handle and sprang in pursuit. At the same moment the traffic moved on again.
The last George saw was a group scene with the stout young man in the middle of it. The hat had been popped up into the infield, where it had been caught by the messenger boy. The stout young man was bending over it and stroking it with soothing fingers. It was too far off for anything to be audible, but he seemed to George to be murmuring words of endearment to it. Then, placing it on his head, he darted out into the road and George saw him no more. The audience remained motionless, staring at the spot where the incident had happened. They would continue to do this till the next policeman came along and moved them on.
With a pleasant wave of farewell, in case any of them might be glancing in his direction, George drew in his body and sat down.
The girl in brown had risen from the floor, if she had ever been there, and was now seated composedly at the further end of the cab.
"Well, that's that!" said George.
"I'm so much obliged," said the girl.
"It was a pleasure," said George.
He was enabled now to get a closer, more leisurely and much more satisfactory view of this distressed damsel than had been his good fortune up to the present. Small details which, when he had first caught sight of her, distance had hidden from his view, now presented themselves. Her eyes, he discovered, which he had supposed brown, were only brown in their general colour-scheme. They were shot with attractive little flecks of gold, matching perfectly the little streaks gold which the sun, coming out again on one of his flying visits and now shining benignantly once more on the world, revealed in her hair. Her chin was square and determined, but its resoluteness was contradicted by a dimple and by the pleasant good-humour of the mouth; and a further softening of the face was effected by the nose, which seemed to have started out with the intention of being dignified and aristocratic but had defeated its purpose by tilting very slightly at the tip. This was a girl who would take chances, but would take them with a smile and laugh when she lost.
George was but an amateur physiognomist, but he could read what was obvious in the faces he encountered; and the more he looked at this girl, the less he was able to understand the scene which had just occurred. The thing mystified him completely. For all her good-humour, there was an air, a manner, a something capable and defensive, about this girl with which he could not imagine any man venturing to take liberties. The gold-brown eyes, as they met his now, were friendly and smiling, but he could imagine them freezing into a stare baleful enough and haughty enough to quell such a person as the silk-hatted young man with a single glance. Why, then, had that super-fatted individual been able to demoralize her to the extent of flying to the shelter of strange cabs? She was composed enough now, it was true, but it had been quite plain that at the moment when she entered the taxi her nerve had momentarily forsaken her. There were mysteries here, beyond George.
The girl looked steadily at George and George looked steadily at her for the space of perhaps ten seconds. She seemed to George to be summing him up, weighing him. That the inspection proved satisfactory was shown by the fact that at the end of this period she smiled. Then she laughed, a clear pealing laugh which to George was far more musical than the most popular song-hit he had ever written.
"I suppose you are wondering what it's all about?" she said.
This was precisely what George was wondering most consumedly.
"No, no," he said. "Not at all. It's not my business."
"And of course you're much too well bred to be inquisitive about other people's business?"
"Of course I am. What was it all about?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you."
"But what am I to say to the cabman?"
"I don't know. What do men usually say to cabmen?"
"I mean he will feel very hurt if I don't give him a full explanation of all this. He stooped from his pedestal to make enquiries just now. Condescension like that deserves some recognition."
"Give him a nice big tip."
George was reminded of his reason for being in the cab.
"I ought to have asked before," he said. "Where can I drive you?"
"Oh, I mustn't steal your cab. Where were you going?"
"I was going back to my hotel. I came out without any money, so I shall have to go there first to get some."
The girl started.
"What's the matter?" asked George.
"I've lost my purse!"
"Good Lord! Had it much in it?"
"Not very much. But enough to buy a ticket home."
"Any use asking where that is?"
"None, I'm afraid."
"I wasn't going to, of course."
"Of course not. That's what I admire so much in you. You aren't inquisitive."
"There's only one thing to be done. You will have to wait in the cab at the hotel, while I go and get some money. Then, if you'll let me, I can lend you what you require."
"It's much too kind of you. Could you manage eleven shillings?"
"Easily. I've just had a legacy."
"Of course, if you think I ought to be economical, I'll go third-class. That would only be five shillings. Ten-and-six is the first-class fare. So you see the place I want to get to is two hours from London."
"Well, that's something to know."
"But not much, is it?"
"I think I had better lend you a sovereign. Then you'll be able to buy a lunch-basket."
"You think of everything. And you're perfectly right. I shall be starving. But how do you know you will get the money back?"
"I'll risk it."
"Well, then, I shall have to be inquisitive and ask your name. Otherwise I shan't know where to send the money."
"Oh, there's no mystery about me. I'm an open book."
"You needn't be horrid about it. I can't help being mysterious."
"I didn't mean that."
"It sounded as if you did. Well, who is my benefactor?"
"My name is George Bevan. I am staying at the Carlton at present."
The taxi moved slowly down the Haymarket. The girl laughed.
"Yes?" said George.
"I was only thinking of back there. You know, I haven't thanked you nearly enough for all you did. You were wonderful."
"I'm very glad I was able to be of any help."
"What did happen? You must remember I couldn't see a thing except your back, and I could only hear indistinctly."
"Well, it started by a man galloping up and insisting that you had got into the cab. He was a fellow with the appearance of a before-using advertisement of an anti-fat medicine and the manners of a ring-tailed chimpanzee."
The girl nodded.
"Then it was Percy! I knew I wasn't mistaken."
"That is his name."
"It would be! I could have betted on it."
"What happened then?"
"I reasoned with the man, but didn't seem to soothe him, and finally he made a grab for the door-handle, so I knocked off his hat, and while he was retrieving it we moved on and escaped."
The girl gave another silver peal of laughter.
"Oh, what a shame I couldn't see it. But how resourceful of you! How did you happen to think of it?"
"It just came to me," said George modestly.
A serious look came into the girl's face. The smile died out of her eyes. She shivered.
"When I think how some men might have behaved in your place!"
"Oh, no. Any man would have done just what I did. Surely, knocking off Percy's hat was an act of simple courtesy which anyone would have performed automatically!"
"You might have been some awful bounder. Or, what would have been almost worse, a slow-witted idiot who would have stopped to ask questions before doing anything. To think I should have had the luck to pick you out of all London!"
"I've been looking on it as a piece of luck—but entirely from my viewpoint."
She put a small hand on his arm, and spoke earnestly.
"Mr. Bevan, you mustn't think that, because I've been laughing a good deal and have seemed to treat all this as a joke, you haven't saved me from real trouble. If you hadn't been there and hadn't acted with such presence of mind, it would have been terrible!"
"But surely, if that fellow was annoying you, you could have called a policeman?"
"Oh, it wasn't anything like that. It was much, much worse. But I mustn't go on like this. It isn't fair on you." Her eyes lit up again with the old shining smile. "I know you have no curiosity about me, but still there's no knowing whether I might not arouse some if I went on piling up the mystery. And the silly part is that really there's no mystery at all. It's just that I can't tell anyone about it."
"That very fact seems to me to constitute the makings of a pretty fair mystery."
"Well, what I mean is, I'm not a princess in disguise trying to escape from anarchists, or anything like those things you read about in books. I'm just in a perfectly simple piece of trouble. You would be bored to death if I told you about it."
She shook her head.
"No. Besides, here we are." The cab had stopped at the hotel, and a commissionaire was already opening the door. "Now, if you haven't repented of your rash offer and really are going to be so awfully kind as to let me have that money, would you mind rushing off and getting it, because I must hurry. I can just catch a good train, and it's hours to the next."
"Will you wait here? I'll be back in a moment."
The last George saw of her was another of those exhilarating smiles of hers. It was literally the last he saw of her, for, when he returned not more than two minutes later, the cab had gone, the girl had gone, and the world was empty.
To him, gaping at this wholly unforeseen calamity the commissionaire vouchsafed information.
"The young lady took the cab on, sir."
"Took the cab on?"
"Almost immediately after you had gone, sir, she got in again and told the man to drive to Waterloo."
George could make nothing of it. He stood there in silent perplexity, and might have continued to stand indefinitely, had not his mind been distracted by a dictatorial voice at his elbow.
"You, sir! Dammit!"
A second taxi-cab had pulled up, and from it a stout, scarlet- faced young man had sprung. One glance told George all. The hunt was up once more. The bloodhound had picked up the trail. Percy was in again!
For the first time since he had become aware of her flight, George was thankful that the girl had disappeared. He perceived that he had too quickly eliminated Percy from the list of the Things That Matter. Engrossed with his own affairs, and having regarded their late skirmish as a decisive battle from which there would be no rallying, he had overlooked the possibility of this annoying and unnecessary person following them in another cab—a task which, in the congested, slow-moving traffic, must have been a perfectly simple one. Well, here he was, his soul manifestly all stirred up and his blood-pressure at a far higher figure than his doctor would have approved of, and the matter would have to be opened all over again.
"Now then!" said the stout young man.
George regarded him with a critical and unfriendly eye. He disliked this fatty degeneration excessively. Looking him up and down, he could find no point about him that gave him the least pleasure, with the single exception of the state of his hat, in the side of which he was rejoiced to perceive there was a large and unshapely dent.
"You thought you had shaken me off! You thought you'd given me the slip! Well, you're wrong!"
George eyed him coldly.
"I know what's the matter with you," he said. "Someone's been feeding you meat."
The young man bubbled with fury. His face turned a deeper scarlet. He gesticulated.
"You blackguard! Where's my sister?"
At this extraordinary remark the world rocked about George dizzily. The words upset his entire diagnosis of the situation. Until that moment he had looked upon this man as a Lothario, a pursuer of damsels. That the other could possibly have any right on his side had never occurred to him. He felt unmanned by the shock. It seemed to cut the ground from under his feet.
"You heard what I said. Where is she?"
George was still endeavouring to adjust his scattered faculties. He felt foolish and apologetic. He had imagined himself unassailably in the right, and it now appeared that he was in the wrong.
For a moment he was about to become conciliatory. Then the recollection of the girl's panic and her hints at some trouble which threatened her—presumably through the medium of this man, brother or no brother—checked him. He did not know what it was all about, but the one thing that did stand out clearly in the welter of confused happenings was the girl's need for his assistance. Whatever might be the rights of the case, he was her accomplice, and must behave as such.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
The young man shook a large, gloved fist in his face.
A rich, deep, soft, soothing voice slid into the heated scene like the Holy Grail sliding athwart a sunbeam.
"What's all this?"
A vast policeman had materialized from nowhere. He stood beside them, a living statue of Vigilant Authority. One thumb rested easily on his broad belt. The fingers of the other hand caressed lightly a moustache that had caused more heart-burnings among the gentler sex than any other two moustaches in the C-division. The eyes above the moustache were stern and questioning.
"What's all this?"
George liked policemen. He knew the way to treat them. His voice, when he replied, had precisely the correct note of respectful deference which the Force likes to hear.
"I really couldn't say, officer," he said, with just that air of having in a time of trouble found a kind elder brother to help him out of his difficulties which made the constable his ally on the spot. "I was standing here, when this man suddenly made his extraordinary attack on me. I wish you would ask him to go away."
The policeman tapped the stout young man on the shoulder.
"This won't do, you know!" he said austerely. "This sort o' thing won't do, 'ere, you know!"
"Take your hands off me!" snorted Percy.
A frown appeared on the Olympian brow. Jove reached for his thunderbolts.
"'Ullo! 'Ullo! 'Ullo!" he said in a shocked voice, as of a god defied by a mortal. "'Ullo! 'Ullo! 'Ul-lo!"
His fingers fell on Percy's shoulder again, but this time not in a mere warning tap. They rested where they fell—in an iron clutch.
"It won't do, you know," he said. "This sort o' thing won't do!" Madness came upon the stout young man. Common prudence and the lessons of a carefully-taught youth fell from him like a garment. With an incoherent howl he wriggled round and punched the policeman smartly in the stomach.
"Ho!" quoth the outraged officer, suddenly becoming human. His left hand removed itself from the belt, and he got a businesslike grip on his adversary's collar. "Will you come along with me!"
It was amazing. The thing had happened in such an incredibly brief space of time. One moment, it seemed to George, he was the centre of a nasty row in one of the most public spots in London; the next, the focus had shifted; he had ceased to matter; and the entire attention of the metropolis was focused on his late assailant, as, urged by the arm of the Law, he made that journey to Vine Street Police Station which so many a better man than he had trod.
George watched the pair as they moved up the Haymarket, followed by a growing and increasingly absorbed crowd; then he turned into the hotel.
"This," he said to himself; "is the middle of a perfect day! And I thought London dull!"
George awoke next morning with a misty sense that somehow the world had changed. As the last remnants of sleep left him, he was aware of a vague excitement. Then he sat up in bed with a jerk. He had remembered that he was in love.
There was no doubt about it. A curious happiness pervaded his entire being. He felt young and active. Everything was emphatically for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The sun was shining. Even the sound of someone in the street below whistling one of his old compositions, of which he had heartily sickened twelve months before, was pleasant to his ears, and this in spite of the fact that the unseen whistler only touched the key in odd spots and had a poor memory for tunes. George sprang lightly out of bed, and turned on the cold tap in the bath-room. While he lathered his face for its morning shave he beamed at himself in the mirror.
It had come at last. The Real Thing.
George had never been in love before. Not really in love. True, from the age of fifteen, he had been in varying degrees of intensity attracted sentimentally by the opposite sex. Indeed, at that period of life of which Mr. Booth Tarkington has written so searchingly—the age of seventeen—he had been in love with practically every female he met and with dozens whom he had only seen in the distance; but ripening years had mellowed his taste and robbed him of that fine romantic catholicity. During the last five years women had found him more or less cold. It was the nature of his profession that had largely brought about this cooling of the emotions. To a man who, like George, has worked year in and year out at the composition of musical comedies, woman comes to lose many of those attractive qualities which ensnare the ordinary male. To George, of late years, it had begun to seem that the salient feature of woman as a sex was her disposition to kick. For five years he had been wandering in a world of women, many of them beautiful, all of them superficially attractive, who had left no other impress on his memory except the vigour and frequency with which they had kicked. Some had kicked about their musical numbers, some about their love-scenes; some had grumbled about their exit lines, others about the lines of their second-act frocks. They had kicked in a myriad differing ways—wrathfully, sweetly, noisily, softly, smilingly, tearfully, pathetically and patronizingly; but they had all kicked; with the result that woman had now become to George not so much a flaming inspiration or a tender goddess as something to be dodged—tactfully, if possible; but, if not possible, by open flight. For years he had dreaded to be left alone with a woman, and had developed a habit of gliding swiftly away when he saw one bearing down on him.
The psychological effect of such a state of things is not difficult to realize. Take a man of naturally quixotic temperament, a man of chivalrous instincts and a feeling for romance, and cut him off for five years from the exercise of those qualities, and you get an accumulated store of foolishness only comparable to an escape of gas in a sealed room or a cellarful of dynamite. A flicker of a match, and there is an explosion.
This girl's tempestuous irruption into his life had supplied flame for George. Her bright eyes, looking into his, had touched off the spiritual trinitrotoluol which he had been storing up for so long. Up in the air in a million pieces had gone the prudence and self-restraint of a lifetime. And here he was, as desperately in love as any troubadour of the Middle Ages.
It was not till he had finished shaving and was testing the temperature of his bath with a shrinking toe that the realization came over him in a wave that, though he might be in love, the fairway of love was dotted with more bunkers than any golf course he had ever played on in his life. In the first place, he did not know the girl's name. In the second place, it seemed practically impossible that he would ever see her again. Even in the midst of his optimism George could not deny that these facts might reasonably be considered in the nature of obstacles. He went back into his bedroom, and sat on the bed. This thing wanted thinking over.
He was not depressed—only a little thoughtful. His faith in his luck sustained him. He was, he realized, in the position of a man who has made a supreme drive from the tee, and finds his ball near the green but in a cuppy lie. He had gained much; it now remained for him to push his success to the happy conclusion. The driver of Luck must be replaced by the spoon—or, possibly, the niblick—of Ingenuity. To fail now, to allow this girl to pass out of his life merely because he did not know who she was or where she was, would stamp him a feeble adventurer. A fellow could not expect Luck to do everything for him. He must supplement its assistance with his own efforts.
What had he to go on? Well, nothing much, if it came to that, except the knowledge that she lived some two hours by train out of London, and that her journey started from Waterloo Station. What would Sherlock Holmes have done? Concentrated thought supplied no answer to the question; and it was at this point that the cheery optimism with which he had begun the day left George and gave place to a grey gloom. A dreadful phrase, haunting in its pathos, crept into his mind. "Ships that pass in the night!" It might easily turn out that way. Indeed, thinking over the affair in all its aspects as he dried himself after his tub, George could not see how it could possibly turn out any other way.
He dressed moodily, and left the room to go down to breakfast. Breakfast would at least alleviate this sinking feeling which was unmanning him. And he could think more briskly after a cup or two of coffee.
He opened the door. On a mat outside lay a letter.
The handwriting was feminine. It was also in pencil, and strange to him. He opened the envelope.
"Dear Mr. Bevan" (it began).
With a sudden leap of the heart he looked at the signature.
The letter was signed "The Girl in the Cab."
"DEAR MR. BEVAN,
"I hope you won't think me very rude, running off without waiting to say good-bye. I had to. I saw Percy driving up in a cab, and knew that he must have followed us. He did not see me, so I got away all right. I managed splendidly about the money, for I remembered that I was wearing a nice brooch, and stopped on the way to the station to pawn it.
"Thank you ever so much again for all your wonderful kindness.
Yours, THE GIRL IN THE CAB."
George read the note twice on the way down to the breakfast room, and three times more during the meal; then, having committed its contents to memory down to the last comma, he gave himself up to glowing thoughts.
What a girl! He had never in his life before met a woman who could write a letter without a postscript, and this was but the smallest of her unusual gifts. The resource of her, to think of pawning that brooch! The sweetness of her to bother to send him a note! More than ever before was he convinced that he had met his ideal, and more than ever before was he determined that a triviality like being unaware of her name and address should not keep him from her. It was not as if he had no clue to go upon. He knew that she lived two hours from London and started home from Waterloo. It narrowed the thing down absurdly. There were only about three counties in which she could possibly live; and a man must be a poor fellow who is incapable of searching through a few small counties for the girl he loves. Especially a man with luck like his.
Luck is a goddess not to be coerced and forcibly wooed by those who seek her favours. From such masterful spirits she turns away. But it happens sometimes that, if we put our hand in hers with the humble trust of a little child, she will have pity on us, and not fail us in our hour of need. On George, hopefully watching for something to turn up, she smiled almost immediately.
It was George's practice, when he lunched alone, to relieve the tedium of the meal with the assistance of reading matter in the shape of one or more of the evening papers. Today, sitting down to a solitary repast at the Piccadilly grill-room, he had brought with him an early edition of the Evening News. And one of the first items which met his eye was the following, embodied in a column on one of the inner pages devoted to humorous comments in prose and verse on the happenings of the day. This particular happening the writer had apparently considered worthy of being dignified by rhyme. It was headed:
"THE PEER AND THE POLICEMAN."
"Outside the 'Carlton,' 'tis averred, these stirring happenings occurred. The hour, 'tis said (and no one doubts) was half-past two, or thereabouts. The day was fair, the sky was blue, and everything was peaceful too, when suddenly a well-dressed gent engaged in heated argument and roundly to abuse began another well-dressed gentleman. His suede-gloved fist he raised on high to dot the other in the eye. Who knows what horrors might have been, had there not come upon the scene old London city's favourite son, Policeman C. 231. 'What means this conduct? Prithee stop!' exclaimed that admirable slop. With which he placed a warning hand upon the brawler's collarband. We simply hate to tell the rest. No subject here for flippant jest. The mere remembrance of the tale has made our ink turn deadly pale. Let us be brief. Some demon sent stark madness on the well-dressed gent. He gave the constable a punch just where the latter kept his lunch. The constable said 'Well! Well! Well!' and marched him to a dungeon cell. At Vine Street Station out it came—Lord Belpher was the culprit's name. But British Justice is severe alike on pauper and on peer; with even hand she holds the scale; a thumping fine, in lieu of gaol, induced Lord B. to feel remorse and learn he mustn't punch the Force."