A week later, Bones, reading his morning paper, reached and passed, without receiving any very violent impression, the information that Mr. John Siker, the well-known private detective, had died at his residence at Clapham Park. Bones read the item without interest. He was looking for bargains—an early morning practice of his because the buying fever was still upon him.
Hamilton, sitting at his desk, endeavouring to balance the firm's accounts from a paying-in book and a cheque-book, the counterfoils of which were only occasionally filled in, heard the staccato "Swindle! ... Swindle!" and knew that Bones had reached the pages whereon were displayed the prospectuses of new companies.
He had the firm conviction that all new companies were founded on frauds and floated by criminals. The offer of seven per cent. debenture stock moved him to sardonic laughter. The certificates of eminent chartered accountants brought a meaning little smile to his lips, followed by the perfectly libellous statement that "These people would do anything for money, dear old thing."
Presently Bones threw down the paper.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," he said, and walked to the door of the outer office, knocked upon it, and disappeared into the sanctum of the lady whom Bones never referred to except in terms of the deepest respect as his "young typewriter!"
"Young miss," he said, pausing deferentially at the door, "may I come in?"
She smiled up at him—a proceeding which was generally sufficient to throw Bones into a pitiful condition of incoherence. But this morning it had only the effect of making him close his eyes as though to shut out a vision too radiant to be borne.
"Aren't you well, Mr. Tibbetts?" she asked quickly and anxiously.
"It's nothing, dear old miss," said Bones, passing a weary and hypocritical hand across his brow. "Just a fit of the jolly old staggers. The fact is, I've been keeping late hours—in fact, dear young miss," he said huskily, "I have been engaged in a wicked old pursuit—yes, positively naughty...."
"Oh, Mr. Tibbetts"—she was truly shocked—"I'm awfully sorry! You really shouldn't drink—you're so young...."
"Drink!" said the hurt and astounded Bones. "Dear old slanderer! Poetry!"
He had written sufficient poetry to make a volume—poems which abounded in such rhymes as "Marguerite," "Dainty feet," "Sweet," "Hard to beat," and the like. But this she did not know.
By this time the girl was not only accustomed to these periodical embarrassments of Bones, but had acquired the knack of switching the conversation to the main line of business.
"There's a letter from Mr. de Vinne," she said.
Bones rubbed his nose and said, "Oh!"
Mr. de Vinne was on his mind rather than on his conscience, for Mr. de Vinne was very angry with Bones, who, as he had said, had "niped" in and had cost Mr. de Vinne L17,500.
"It is not a nice letter," suggested the girl.
"Let me see, dear young head-turner," said Bones firmly.
The letter called him "Sir," and went on to speak of the writer's years of experience as a merchant of the City of London, in all of which, said the writer, he had never heard of conduct approaching in infamy that of Augustus Tibbetts, Esquire.
"It has been brought to my recollection" (wrote the infuriated Mr. de Vinne) "that on the day you made your purchase of Browns, I dined at the Kingsway Restaurant, and that you occupied a table immediately behind me. I can only suppose that you overheard a perfectly confidential" (heavily underscored) "conversation between myself and a fellow-director, and utilised the information thus disgracefully acquired."
"Never talk at meals, dear old typewriter," murmured Bones. "Awfully bad for your jolly young tum—for your indigestion, dear young keytapper."
The letter went on to express the writer's intention of taking vengeance for the "dishonest squeeze" of which he had been the victim.
Bones looked at his secretary anxiously. The censure of Mr. de Vinne affected him not at all. The possible disapproval of this lady filled him with dire apprehension.
"It's not a nice letter," said the girl. "Do you want me to answer it?"
"Do I want you to answer it?" repeated Bones, taking courage. "Of course I want you to answer it, my dear old paper-stainer and decorator. Take these words."
He paced the room with a terrible frown.
"Dear old thing," he began.
"Do you want me to say 'Dear old thing'?" asked the girl.
"No, perhaps not, perhaps not," said Bones. "Start it like this: 'My dear peevish one——"
The girl hesitated and then wrote down: "Dear Sir."
"'You are just showing your naughty temper,'" dictated Bones, and added unnecessarily, "t-e-m-p-e-r."
It was a practice of his to spell simple words.
"You are just showing your naughty temper," he went on, "and I simply refuse to have anything more to do with you. You're being simply disgusting. Need I say more?" added Bones.
The girl wrote: "Dear Sir,—No useful purpose would be served either in replying to your letter of to-day's date, or re-opening the discussion on the circumstances of which you complain."
Bones went back to his office feeling better. Hamilton left early that afternoon, so that when, just after the girl had said "Good night," and Bones himself was yawning over an evening paper, and there came a rap at the door of the outer office, he was quite alone.
"Come in!" he yelled, and a young man, dressed in deep mourning, eventually appeared through the door sacred to the use of Miss Marguerite Whitland.
"I'm afraid I've come rather late in the day."
"I'm afraid you have, dear old thing," said Bones. "Come and sit down, black one. Deepest sympathy and all that sort of thing."
The young man licked his lips. His age was about twenty-four, and he had the appearance of being a semi-invalid, as, indeed, he was.
"It's rather late to see you on this matter," he said, "but your name was only suggested to me about an hour ago."
Bones nodded. Remember that he was always prepared for a miracle, even at closing time.
"My name is Siker," said the visitor.
"And a jolly good name, too," said Bones, dimly conscious of the fact that he had heard this name mentioned before.
"You probably saw the account of my father's death. It was in this morning's newspaper, though he died last week," said Mr. Siker.
Bones screwed up his forehead.
"I remember that name," he said. "Now, let me think. Why, of course—Siker's Detective Agency."
It was the young man's turn to nod.
"That's right, sir," he said. "John Siker was my father. I'm his only son."
"I've heard it said, Mr. Tibbetts," said the young man—"at least, it has been represented to me—that you are on the look-out for likely businesses that show a profit."
"That's right," agreed Bones; "that show me a big profit," he added.
"Well, Siker's Detective Agency has made two thousand a year clear for twenty years," said the young man. "We've got one of the best lists of clients in the kingdom, and almost every big business man in the City is on our list. With a little more attention than my father has been able to give to it for the last two years, there's a fortune in it."
Bones was sitting upright now, his eyes shining. The amazing possibilities of such an acquisition were visible to his romantic eye.
"You want to sell it, my poor old Sherlock?" he demanded, then, remembering the part he was called upon to play, shook his head. "No, no, old thing. Deeply sorry and all that sort of thing, but it can't be done. It's not my line of business at all—not," he added, "that I don't know a jolly sight more about detectivising than a good many of these clever ones. But it's really not my game. What did you want for it?"
"Well," said the young man, hesitating, "I thought that three years' purchase would be a bargain for the man who bought it."
"Six thousand pounds," said Bones.
"Yes," agreed the other. "Of course, I won't ask you to buy the thing blindfolded. You can put the accounts in the hands of your lawyer or your accountant, and you will find that what I have said is true—that my father took two thousand a year out of his business for years. It's possible to make it four thousand. And as to running it, there are three men who do all the work—or, rather, one, Hilton, who's in charge of the office and gives the other fellows their instructions."
"But why sell it, my sad old improvidence?" said Bones. "Why chuck away two thousand a year for six thousand cash?"
"Because I'm not well enough to carry it on," said young Mr. Siker, after a moment's hesitation. "And, besides, I can't be bothered. It interferes, with my other profession—I'm a musician."
"And a jolly good profession, too," said Bones, shaking hands with him across the table. "I'll sleep on this. Give me your address and the address of your accountants, and I'll come over and see you in the morning."
Hamilton was at his desk the next morning at ten o'clock. Bones did not arrive until eleven, and Bones was monstrously preoccupied. When Hamilton saluted him with a cheery "Good morning," Bones returned a grave and non-committal nod. Hamilton went on with his work until he became conscious that somebody was staring at him, and, looking up, caught Bones in the act.
"What the devil are you looking at?" asked Hamilton.
"At your boots," was the surprising reply.
"My boots?" Hamilton pulled them back through the kneehole of the desk and looked at them. "What's the matter with the boots?"
"Mud-stains, old carelessness," said Bones tersely. "You've come from Twickenham this morning."
"Of course I've come from Twickenham. That's where I live," said Hamilton innocently. "I thought you knew that."
"I should have known it," said Bones, with great gravity, "even if I hadn't known it, so to speak. You may have observed, my dear Hamilton, that the jolly old mud of London differs widely—that is to say, is remarkably different. For instance, the mud of Twickenham is different from the mud of Balham. There's what you might call a subtle difference, dear junior partner, which an unimaginative old rascal like you wouldn't notice. Now, the mud of Peckham," said Bones, waving his forefinger, "is distinguished by a certain darkness——"
"Wait a bit," said Hamilton. "Have you bought a mud business or something?"
"No," said Bones.
"And yet this conversation seems familiar to me," mused Hamilton. "Proceed with your argument, good gossip."
"My argument," said Bones, "is that you have Twickenham mud on your boots, therefore you come from Twickenham. It is evident that on your way to the station you stopped to buy a newspaper, that something was on your mind, something made you very thoughtful—something on your jolly old conscience, I'll bet!"
"How do you know that?" asked Hamilton.
"There's your Times on the table," said Bones triumphantly, "unopened."
"Quite true," said Hamilton; "I bought it just before I came into the office."
"H'm!" said Bones. "Well, I won't deceive you, dear old partner. I've bought Siker's."
Hamilton put down his pen and leaned back in his chair.
"Siker's Detective Agency," began Bones, "is known from one end——"
"Oh, I see. Whew!" whistled Hamilton. "You were doing a bit of detecting!"
"Got it at once, my dear old person," he said. "You know my methods——"
Hamilton's accusing eye met his, and Bones coughed.
"But what on earth do you expect to do with a detective agency, Bones?" asked Hamilton, strolling across and lighting a cigarette. "That's a type of business there isn't any big demand for. And how is it going to affect you personally? You don't want your name associated with that sort of thing."
Bones explained. It was a property he could "sit on." Bones had always been looking for such a business. The management was capable of carrying on, and all that Bones need do was to sit tight and draw a dividend.
As to his name, he had found a cunning solution to that difficulty.
"I take it over, by arrangement with the lawyer in the name of 'Mr. Senob,' and I'll bet you won't guess, dear old Ham, how I got that name!"
"It's 'Bones' spelt backwards," said Hamilton patiently. "You tried that bit of camouflage on me years ago."
Bones sniffed disappointedly and went on.
For once he was logical, brief in his explanation, and convincing. Yet Hamilton was not altogether convinced. He was waiting for the inevitable "but," and presently it came.
"But of course I'm not going to leave it entirely alone, old Ham," said Bones, shrugging his shoulders at the absurdity of such a suggestion. "The business can be doubled if a man with a capable, up-to-date conception of modern crime——"
Hamilton made a hooting noise, derisive and insulting.
"Meaning you?" he said, at the conclusion of his lamentable exhibition.
"Meaning me, Ham, my fat old sceptic," said Bones gently. "I don't think, dear old officer, you quite realise just what I know about criminal investigation."
"You silly ass," said Hamilton, "detective agencies don't criminally investigate. That's done by the real police. Detective agencies are merely employed by suspicious wives to follow their husbands."
"Exactly," said Bones, nodding. "And that is just where I come in. You see, I did a little bit of work last night—rather a pretty little bit of work." He took a slip of paper from his pocket. "You dined at the Criterion at half-past eight with a tall, fair lady—a jolly old dear she was too, old boy, and I congratulate you most heartily—named Vera."
Hamilton's face went red.
"You left the restaurant at ten past nine, and entered cab No. 667432. Am I right, sir?"
"Do you mean to tell me," exploded Hamilton, "that you were watching me?"
"I picked you up, old thing, outside the Piccadilly Tube. I shadowed you to the theatre. I followed you home. You got a taxi—No. 297431—and you were an awful long time before you got out when you reached the lady's destination—an awful long time," said Bones emphatically. "What you could find to talk about after the cab had drawn up at the dear old ancestral home of Vera——"
"Bones," said Hamilton awfully. "I think you've gone far enough."
"I thought you'd gone a bit too far, dear old thing, I did really," said Bones, shaking his head reprovingly. "I watched you very carefully."
He danced, with a little squeak of joy, into the office of his beautiful secretary, leaving a very red and a pardonably annoyed Hamilton breathing heavily.
Bones went to the office of Siker's Detective Agency early the next morning. He went, it may be remarked in passing, though these details can only be interesting to the psychologist, wearing the darkest of his dark suits and a large black wideawake hat. There was a certain furtiveness in his movements between the taxicab and the entrance of the office, which might suggest to anybody who had taken the trouble to observe him that he was an escaping bank-robber.
Siker's had spacious offices and a small staff. Only Hilton, the manager, and a clerk were in when Bones presented his card. He was immediately conducted by Mr. Hilton to a very plain inner office, surrounded with narrow shelves, which in turn were occupied by innumerable little deed boxes.
Mr. Hilton was a sober-faced man of fifty-five, sallow and unhappy. His tone was funereal and deliberate, his eyes steady and remorseless.
"Sit down, Mr. Senob," he said hollowly. "I have a message from the lawyers, and I presume I am welcoming to this establishment the new proprietor who has taken the place of my revered chief, whom I have faithfully served for twenty-nine years."
Bones closed his eyes and listened as to an address of welcome.
"Personally," said Mr. Hilton, "I think that the sale of this business is a great mistake on the part of the Siker family. The Sikers have been detectives for four generations," he said with a relish of an antiquarian. "George Siker first started work as an investigator in 1814 in this identical building. For thirty-five years he conducted Siker's Confidential Bureau, and was succeeded by his son James the grandfather of the late John George for twenty-three years——"
"Quite so, quite so," said Bones. "Poor old George! Well, well, we can't live for ever, dear old chief of staff. Now, the thing is, how to improve this jolly old business."
He looked around the dingy apartment without enthusiasm.
Bones had visitors that morning, many visitors. They were not, as he had anticipated, veiled ladies or cloaked dukes, nor did they pour into his discreet ears the stories of misspent lives.
There was Mr. Carlo Borker, of Borker's Confidential Enquiry Bureau, a gross man in a top hat, who complained bitterly that old man Siker had practically and to all intents and purposes offered him an option of the business years ago.
It was a one-sided conversation.
"I says to him: 'Siker, if you ever want to sell out' ... He says to me: 'Borker, my boy, you've only to offer me a reasonable figure' ... I says to him: 'Now, Siker, don't ever let anybody else get this business....'"
Then there was ex-Inspector Stellingworth, of Stellingworth's Detective Corps, a gloomy man, who painted in the blackest colours the difficulties and tragedies of private investigation, yet seemed willing enough to assume the burden of Siker's Agency, and give Bones a thousand pounds profit on his transaction.
Mr. Augustus Tibbetts spent three deliciously happy days in reorganising the business. He purchased from the local gunsmith a number of handcuffs, which were festooned upon the wall behind his desk and secured secretly—since he did not think that the melancholy Mr. Hilton would approve—a large cardboard box filled to the brim with adjustable beards of every conceivable hue, from bright scarlet to mouse colour.
He found time to relate to a sceptical Hamilton something of his achievements.
"Wonderful case to-day, dear old boy," he said enthusiastically on the third evening. "A naughty old lady has been flirting with a very, very naughty old officer. Husband tremendously annoyed. How that man loves that woman!"
"Which man?" said Hamilton cynically.
"I refer to my client," said Bones not without dignity.
"Look here, Bones," said Hamilton with great seriousness, "do you think this is a very nice business you are in? Personally, I think it's immoral."
"What do you mean—immoral?" demanded the indignant Bones.
"Prying into other people's lives," said Hamilton.
"Lives," retorted the oracular Bones, "are meant to be pried into, dear old thing. An examination of jolly old motives is essential to scientific progress. I feel I am doing a public duty," he went on virtuously, "exposing the naughty, chastising the sinful, and all that sort of thing."
"But, honestly," said Hamilton persistently, "do you think it's the game to chase around collecting purely private details about people's goings on?"
"Certainly," said Bones firmly, "certainly, dear old thing. It's a public duty. Never let it be written on the fair pages of Thiggumy that a Tibbetts shrank back when the call of patriotism—all that sort of thing—you know what I mean?"
"I don't," said Hamilton.
"Well, you're a jolly old dense one," said Bones. "And let me say here and now"—he rammed his bony knuckles on the table and withdrew them with an "Ouch!" to suck away the pain—"let me tell you that, as the Latin poet said, 'Ad What's-his name, ad Thiggumy.' 'Everything human's frightfully interesting'!"
Bones turned up at his detective office the next morning, full of zeal, and Hilton immediately joined him in his private office.
"Well, we finish one case to-day, I think," said Hilton with satisfaction. "It has been very hard trailing him, but I got a good man on the job, and here's the record."
He held in his hand a sheaf of papers.
"Very good," said Bones. "Excellent! I hope we shall bring the malefactor to justice."
"He's not exactly a malefactor," demurred Hilton. "It is a job we were doing for one of our best clients."
"Excellent, excellent!" murmured Bones. "And well we've done it, I'm sure." He leant back in his chair and half closed his eyes. "Tell me what you have discovered."
"This man's a bit of a fool in some ways," said Hilton.
"Which man—the client?"
"No, the fellow we've been trailing."
"Yes, yes," said Bones. "Go on."
"In fact, I wonder that Mr. de Vinne bothered about him."
"De Vinne?" said Bones sitting up. "Harold de Vinne, the moneyed one?"
"That's him. He's one of our oldest customers," said Hilton.
"Indeed," said Bones, this time without any enthusiasm at all.
"You see, a man did him in the eye," explained Mr. Hilton, "swindled him, and all that sort of thing. Well, I think we have got enough to make this chap look silly."
"Oh, yes," said Bones politely. "What have you got?"
"Well, it appears," said Hilton, "that this chap is madly in love with his typist."
"Which chap?" said Bones.
"The fellow who did Mr. de Vinne in the eye," replied the patient Mr. Hilton. "He used to be an officer on the West Coast of Africa, and was known as Bones. His real name is Tibbetts."
"Oh yes," said Bones.
"Well, we've found out all about him," continued Hilton. "He's got a flat in Jermyn Street, and this girl of his, this typist girl, dines with him. She's not a bad-looking girl, mind you."
Bones rose to his feet, and there was in his face a terrible look.
"Hilton," he said, "do you mean that you have been shadowing a perfectly innocent man and a charming, lovely old typewriter, that couldn't say 'Goo' to a boose?"
Bones was pardonably agitated.
"Do you mean to tell me that this office descends to this low practice of prying into the private lives of virtuous gentlemen and typewriters? Shame upon you, Hilton!" His voice shook. "Give me that report!" He thrust the report into the fire. "Now call up Mr. Borker, and tell him I want to see him on business, and don't disturb me, because I am writing a letter."
He pulled a sheet of paper from his stationery rack and wrote furiously. He hardly stopped to think, he scarcely stopped to spell. His letter was addressed to Mr. de Vinne, and when, on the following day, Mr. Borker took over the business of Siker's Agency, that eminent firm of investigators had one client the less.
A COMPETENT JUDGE OF POETRY
There were times when Mr. Cresta Morris was called by that name; there were other moments when he was "Mr. Staleyborn." His wife, a placid and trusting woman, responded to either name, having implicit faith in the many explanations which her husband offered to her, the favourite amongst them being that business men were seldom known by the names they were born with.
Thus the eminent firm of drapers Messrs. Lavender & Rosemary were—or was—in private life one Isadore Ruhl, and everybody knew that the maker of Morgan's Superfatted Soap—"the soap with foam"—was a certain member of the House of Lords whose name was not Morgan.
Mrs. Staleyborn, or Morris, had a daughter who ran away from home and became the secretary to Augustus Tibbetts, Managing Director of Schemes Limited, and there were odd moments of the day when Mrs. Staleyborn felt vaguely uneasy about her child's future. She had often, indeed, shed tears between five o'clock in the afternoon and seven o'clock in the evening, which as everybody knows, is the most depressing time of the day.
She was, however, one of those persons who are immensely comforted by the repetition of ancient saws which become almost original every time they are applied, and one of these sayings was "Everything is for the best." She believed in miracles, and had reason, for she received her weekly allowance from her erratic husband with monotonous regularity every Saturday morning.
This is a mere digression to point the fact that Mr. Morris was known by many names. He was called "Cress," and "Ike," and "Tubby," and "Staley," according to the company in which he found himself.
One evening in June he found himself in the society of friends who called him by names which, if they were not strictly original, were certainly picturesque. One of these companions was a Mr. Webber, who had worked more swindles with Morris than had any other partner, and the third, and most talkative, was a gentleman named Seepidge, of Seepidge & Soomes, printers to the trade.
Mr. Seepidge was a man of forty-five, with a well-used face. It was one of those faces which look different from any other angle than that from which it is originally seen. It may be said, too, that his colouring was various. As he addressed Mr. Morris, it varied between purple and blue. Mrs. Morris was in the habit of addressing her husband by endearing titles. Mr. Seepidge was not addressing Mr. Morris in a way which, by any stretch of imagination, could be described as endearing.
"Wait a bit, Lew," pleaded Mr. Morris. "Don't let's quarrel. Accidents will occur in the best of regulated families."
"Which you're not," said the explosive Mr. Seepidge, violently. "I gave you two hundred to back Morning Glory in the three o'clock race. You go down to Newbury with my money, and you come back and tell me, after the horse has won, that you couldn't get a bookmaker to take the bet!"
"And I give you the money back," replied Mr. Morris.
"You did," reported Mr. Seepidge meaningly, "and I was surprised to find there wasn't a dud note in the parcel. No, Ike, you double-crossed me. You backed the horse and took the winnings, and come back to me with a cock-and-bull story about not being able to find a bookmaker."
Mr. Morris turned a pained face to his companion.
"Jim," he said, addressing Mr. Webber, "did you ever in all your born days hear a pal put it across another pal like that? After the work we've done all these years together, me and Lew—why, you're like a serpent in the bush, you are really!"
It was a long time, and there was much passing of glasses across a lead-covered bar, before Mr. Seepidge could be pacified—the meeting took place in the private bar of "The Bread and Cheese," Camden Town—but presently he turned from the reproachful into the melancholy stage, explained the bad condition of business, what with the paper bills and wages bills he had to pay, and hinted ominously at bankruptcy.
In truth, the firm of Seepidge was in a bad way. The police had recently raided the premises and nipped in the bud a very promising order for five hundred thousand sweepstake tickets, which were being printed surreptitiously, for Mr. Seepidge dealt in what is colloquially known as "snide printing."
Whether Mr. Cresta Morris had indeed swindled his partner of many crimes, and had backed Morning Glory at a remunerative price for his own profit, is a painful question which need not be too closely examined. It is certain that Seepidge was in a bad way, and as Mr. Morris told himself with admirable philosophy, even if he had won a packet of money, a thousand or so would not have been sufficient to get Mr. Seepidge out of the cart.
"Something has got to be done," said Mr. Cresta Morris briskly.
"Somebody," corrected the taciturn Webber. "The question is, who?"
"I tell you, boys, I'm in a pretty bad way," said Seepidge earnestly. "I don't think, even if I'd backed that winner, I could have got out of trouble. The business is practically in pawn; I'm getting a police inspection once a week. I've got a job now which may save my bacon, if I can dodge the 'splits'—an order for a million leaflets for a Hamburg lottery house. And I want the money—bad! I owe about three thousand pounds."
"I know where there's money for asking," said Webber, and they looked at him.
His interesting disclosure was not to follow immediately, for they had reached closing-time, and were respectfully ushered into the street.
"Come over to my club," said Mr. Seepidge.
His club was off the Tottenham Court Road, and its membership was artistic. It had changed its name after every raid that had been made upon it, and the fact that the people arrested had described themselves as artists and actresses consolidated the New Napoli Club as one of the artistic institutions of London.
"Now, where's this money?" asked Seepidge, when they were seated round a little table.
"There's a fellow called Bones——" began Mr. Webber.
"Oh, him!" interrupted Mr. Morris, in disgust. "Good Heavens! You're not going to try him again!"
"We'd have got him before if you hadn't been so clever," said Webber. "I tell you, he's rolling in money. He's just moved into a new flat in Devonshire Street that can't cost him less than six hundred a year."
"How do you know this?" asked the interested Morris.
"Well," confessed Webber, without embarrassment, "I've been working solo on him, and I thought I'd be able to pull the job off myself."
"That's a bit selfish," reproached Morris, shaking his head. "I didn't expect this from you, Webbie."
"Never mind what you expected," said Webber, unperturbed. "I tell you I tried it. I've been nosing round his place, getting information from his servants, and I've learned a lot about him. Mind you," said Mr. Webber, "I'm not quite certain how to use what I know to make money. If I'd known that, I shouldn't have told you two chaps anything about it. But I've got an idea that this chap Bones is a bit sensitive on a certain matter, and Cully Tring, who's forgotten more about human men than I ever knew, told me that, if you can get a mug on his sensitive spot, you can bleed him to death. Now, three heads are better than one, and I think, if we get together, we'll lift enough stuff from Mr. Blinking Bones to keep us at Monte Carlo for six months."
"Then," said Mr. Seepidge impressively, "let us put our 'eads together."
In emotional moments that enterprising printer was apt to overlook the box where the little "h's" were kept.
Bones had indeed moved into the intellectual atmosphere of Devonshire Street. He had hired a flat of great beauty and magnificence, with lofty rooms and distempered walls and marble chimney-pieces, for all the world like those rooms in the catalogues of furniture dealers which so admirably show off the fifty-pound drawing-room suite offered on the easiest terms.
"My dear old thing," he said, describing his new splendours to Hamilton, "you ought to see the jolly old bathroom!"
"What do you want a bath for?" asked Hamilton innocently. "You've only got the place for three years."
"Now, dear old thing, don't be humorous," said Bones severely. "Don't be cheap, dear old comic one."
"The question is," said Hamilton, "why the dickens do you want a new flat? Your old flat was quite a palatial establishment. Are you thinking of setting up housekeeping?"
Bones turned very red. In his embarrassment he stood first upon one leg and then the other, lifting his eyebrows almost to the roof of his head to let in his monocle, and lifted them as violently to let it out again.
"Don't pry, don't pry, dear old Ham," he said testily. "Great Heavens and Moses! Can't a fellow take a desirable flat, with all modern conveniences, in the most fashionable part of the West End, and all that sort of thing, without exciting the voice of scandal, dear old thing? I'm surprised at you, really I am, Ham. I am, Ham," he repeated. "That sounds good," he said, brightening up. "Am Ham!"
"But what is the scheme?" persisted Hamilton.
"A bargain, a bargain, dear old officer," said Bones, hurriedly, and proceeded to the next business.
That next business included the rejection of several very promising offers which had arrived from different directors of companies, and people. Bones was known as a financier. People who wanted other people to put money into things invariably left Bones to the last, because they liked trying the hard things first. The inventor and patentee of the reaping machine that could be worked by the farmer in his study, by means of push keys, was sure, sooner or later, to meet a man who scratched his chin and said:
"Hard luck, but why don't you try that man Tibbetts? He's got an office somewhere around. You'll find it in the telephone book. He's got more money than he knows what to do with, and your invention is the very thing he'd finance."
As a rule, it was the very thing that Bones did not finance.
Companies that required ten thousand pounds for the extension of their premises, and the fulfilment of the orders which were certain to come next year, drafted through their secretaries the most wonderful letters, offering Bones a seat on their board, or even two seats, in exchange for his autograph on the south-east corner of a cheque. These letters usually began somehow like this:
"At a moment when the eyes of the world are turned upon Great Britain, and when her commercial supremacy is threatened, it behoves us all to increase production...." And usually there was some reference to "the patriotic duty of capital."
There was a time when these appeals to his better nature would have moved Bones to amazing extravagance, but happily that time was before he had any money to speak about.
For Bones was growing in wisdom and in wiliness as the days passed. Going through the pile of correspondence, he came upon a letter which he read thoughtfully, and then read again before he reached to the telephone and called a number. In the City of London there was a business-like agency which supplied him with a great deal of useful information, and it was to these gentlemen that he addressed his query: "Who are Messrs. Seepidge & Soomes?"
He waited for some time with the receiver at his ear, a far-away look in his eyes, and then the reply came:
"A little firm of printers run by a rascal named Seepidge, who has been twice bankrupt and is now insolvent. His firm has been visited by the police for illegal printing several times, and the firm is in such a low condition that it has a job to pay its wages bill."
"Thank you," said Bones. "Thank you, dear old commercial guardian. What is the business worth?"
"It's worth your while to keep away from it," said the humorous reply, and Bones hung up the receiver.
"Ham, old dear," he said, and Hamilton looked up. "Suppose," said Bones, stretching out his legs and fixing his monocle, "suppose, my jolly old accountant and partner, you were offered a business which was worth"—he paused—"which was worth your while keeping away from it—that's a pretty good line, don't you think, old literary critic?"
"A very good line," said Hamilton calmly; "but you have rather a loud-speaking telephone, and I think I have heard the phrase before."
"Oh, have you?" said Bones by no means abashed. "Still, it's a very good line. And suppose you were offered this printing business for fifteen thousand pounds, what would you say?"
"It depends on who was present," said Ham, "and where I was. For example, if I were in the gorgeous drawing-room of your wonderful flat, in the splendid presence of your lovely lady wife to be——"
Bones rose and wagged his finger.
"Is nothing sacred to you, dear old Ham?" he choked. "Are the most tender emotions, dear old thing, which have ever been experienced by any human being——"
"Oh, shut up," said Hamilton, "and let's hear about this financial problem of yours."
Bones was ruffled, and blinked, and it was some time before he could bring himself back to sordid matters of business.
"Well, suppose this jolly old brigand offered you his perfectly beastly business for fifteen thousand pounds, what would you do?"
"Send for the police," said Hamilton.
"Would you now?" said Bones, as if the idea struck him for the first time. "I never have sent for the police you know, and I've had simply terrible offers put up to me."
"Or put it in the waste-paper basket," said Hamilton, and then in surprise: "Why the dickens are you asking all these questions?"
"Why am I asking all these questions?" repeated Bones. "Because, old thing, I have a hump."
Hamilton raised incredulous eyebrows.
"I have what the Americans call a hump."
"A hump?" said Hamilton, puzzled. "Oh, you mean a 'hunch.'"
"Hump or hunch, it's all the same," said Bones airily. "But I've got it."
"What exactly is your hunch?"
"There's something behind this," said Bones, tapping a finger solemnly on the desk. "There's a scheme behind this—there's a swindle—there's a ramp. Nobody imagines for one moment that a man of my reputation could be taken in by a barefaced swindle of this character. I think I have established in the City of London something of a tradition," he said.
"You have," agreed Hamilton. "You're supposed to be the luckiest devil that ever walked up Broad Street."
"I never walk up Broad Street, anyway," said Bones, annoyed. "It is a detestable street, a naughty old street, and I should ride up it—or, at least, I shall in a day or two."
"Buying a car?" asked Hamilton, interested.
"I'll tell you about that later," said Bones evasively, and went on:
"Now, putting two and two together, you know the conclusion I've reached?"
"Four?" suggested Hamilton.
Bones, with a shrug ended the conversation then and there, and carried his correspondence to the outer office, knocking, as was his wont, until his stenographer gave him permission to enter. He shut the door—always a ceremony—behind him and tiptoed toward her.
Marguerite Whitland took her mind from the letter she was writing, and gave her full attention to her employer.
"May I sit down, dear young typewriter?" said Bones humbly.
"Of course you can sit down, or stand up, or do anything you like in the office. Really," she said, with a laugh, "really, Mr. Tibbetts, I don't know whether you're serious sometimes."
"I'm serious all the time, dear old flicker of keyboards," said Bones, seating himself deferentially, and at a respectful distance.
She waited for him to begin, but he was strangely embarrassed even for him.
"Miss Marguerite," he began at last a little huskily, "the jolly old poet is born and not——"
"Oh, have you brought them?" she asked eagerly, and held out her hand. "Do show me, please!"
Bones shook his head.
"No, I have not brought them," he said. "In fact, I can't bring them yet."
She was disappointed, and showed it.
"You've promised me for a week I should see them."
"Awful stuff, awful stuff!" murmured Bones disparagingly. "Simply terrible tripe!"
"Tripe?" she said, puzzled.
"I mean naughty rubbish and all that sort of thing."
"Oh, but I'm sure it's good," she said. "You wouldn't talk about your poems if they weren't good."
"Well," admitted Bones, "I'm not so sure, dear old arbitrator elegantus, to use a Roman expression, I'm not so sure you're not right. One of these days those poems will be given to this wicked old world, and—then you'll see."
"But what are they all about?" she asked for about the twentieth time.
"What are they about?" said Bones slowly and thoughtfully. "They're about one thing and another, but mostly about my—er—friends. Of course a jolly old poet like me, or like any other old fellow, like Shakespeare, if you like—to go from the sublime to the ridiculous—has fits of poetising that mean absolutely nothing. It doesn't follow that if a poet like Browning or me writes fearfully enthusiastically and all that sort of thing about a person... No disrespect, you understand, dear old miss."
"Quite," she said, and wondered.
"I take a subject for a verse," said Bones airily, waving his hand toward Throgmorton Street. "A 'bus, a fuss, a tram, a lamb, a hat, a cat, a sunset, a little flower growing on the river's brim, and all that sort of thing—any old subject, dear old miss, that strikes me in the eye—you understand?"
"Of course I understand," she said readily. "A poet's field is universal, and I quite understand that if he writes nice things about his friends he doesn't mean it."
"Oh, but doesn't he?" said Bones truculently. "Oh, doesn't he, indeed? That just shows what a fat lot you know about it, jolly old Miss Marguerite. When I write a poem about a girl——"
"Oh, I see, they're about girls," said she a little coldly.
"About a girl," said Bones, this time so pointedly that his confusion was transferred immediately to her.
"Anyway, they don't mean anything," she said bravely.
"My dear young miss"—Bones rose, and his voice trembled as he laid his hand on the typewriter where hers had been a second before—"my dear old miss," he said, jingling with the letters "a" and "e" as though he had originally put out his hand to touch the keyboard, and was in no way surprised and distressed that the little hand which had covered them had been so hastily withdrawn, "I can only tell you——"
"There is your telephone bell," she said hurriedly. "Shall I answer it?" And before Bones could reply she had disappeared.
He went back to his flat that night with his mind made up. He would show her those beautiful verses. He had come to this conclusion many times before, but his heart had failed him. But he was growing reckless now. She should see them—priceless verses, written in a most expensive book, with the monogram "W.M." stamped in gold upon the cover. And as he footed it briskly up Devonshire Street, he recited:
"O Marguerite, thou lovely flower, I think of thee most every hour, With eyes of grey and eyes of blue, That change with every passing hue, Thy lovely fingers beautifully typing, How sweet and fragrant is thy writing!
He thought he was reciting to himself, but that was not the case. People turned and watched him, and when he passed the green doorway of Dr. Harkley Bawkley, the eminent brain specialist, they were visibly disappointed.
He did not unlock the rosewood door of his flat, but rang the silver bell.
He preferred this course. Ali, his Coast servant, in his new livery of blue and silver, made the opening of the door something only less picturesque than the opening of Parliament. This intention may not have been unconnected with the fact that there were two or three young ladies, and very young at that, on the landing, waiting for the door of the opposite flat to open.
Ali opened the door. The lower half of him was blue and silver, the upper half was Oxford shirt and braces, for he had been engaged in cleaning the silver.
"What the deuce do you mean by it?" demanded Bones wrathfully. "Haven't I given you a good uniform, you blithering jackass? What the deuce do you mean by opening the door, in front of people, too, dressed like a—a—dashed naughty boy?"
"Silverous forks require lubrication for evening repast," said Ali reproachfully.
Bones stalked on to his study.
It was a lovely study, with a carpet of beautiful blue. It was a study of which a man might be proud. The hangings were of silk, and the suite was also of silk, and also of blue silk. He sat down at his Louis XVI. table, took a virgin pad, and began to write. The inspiration was upon him, and he worked at top speed.
"I saw a litle bird—a litle bird—a litle bird, floating in the sky," he wrote. "Ever so high! Its pretty song came down, down to me, and it sounded like your voice the other afternoon at tea, at tea. And in its flite I remembered the night when you came home to me."
He paused at the last, because Marguerite Whitland had never come home to him, certainly not at night. The proprieties had to be observed, and he changed the last few lines to: "I remember the day when you came away to Margate on the sea, on the sea."
He had not seen his book of poems for a week, but there was a blank page at the end into which the last, and possibly the greatest, might go. He pulled the drawer open. It was empty. There was no mistaking the fact that that had been the drawer in which the poems had reposed, because Bones had a very excellent memory.
He rang the bell and Ali came, his Oxford shirt and braces imperfectly hidden under a jersey which had seen better days.
"Ali"—and this time Bones spoke rapidly and in Coast Arabic—"in this drawer was a beautiful book in which I had written many things."
"Master, that I know, for you are a great poet, and I speak your praises whenever I go into the cafe, for Hafiz did not write more beautifully than you."
"What the dooce," spluttered Bones in English, "do you mean by telling people about me—eh, you scoundrel? What the dooce do you mean by it, you naughty old ebony?"
"Master," said All "eulogistic speechification creates admiration in common minds."
He was so unruffled, so complacent, that Bones, could only look at him in wonder. There was, too, about Ali Mahomet a queer look of guilty satisfaction, as of one who had been surprised in a good act.
"Master," he said, "it is true that, contrary to modest desires of humble poets, I have offered praises of your literature to unauthorised persons, sojourning in high-class cafe 'King's Arms,' for my evening refreshment. Also desiring to create pleasant pleasure and surprise, your servant from his own emoluments authorised preparation of said poems in real print work."
"You were going to get my things printed? Oh, you ... oh, you...."
Ali was by no means distressed.
"To-morrow there shall come to you a beautiful book for the master's surprise and joyousness. I myself will settle account satisfactorily from emoluments accrued."
Bones could only sit down and helplessly wag his head. Presently he grew calmer. It was a kindly thought, after all. Sooner or later those poems of his must be offered to the appreciation of a larger audience. He saw blind Fate working through his servitor's act. The matter had been taken out of his hands now.
"What made you do it, you silly old josser?" he asked.
"Master, one gentleman friend suggested or proffered advice, himself being engaged in printery, possessing machines——"
A horrible thought came into Bones's head.
"What was his name?" he asked.
Ali fumbled in the capacious depths of his trousers pocket and produced a soiled card, which he handed to Bones. Bones read with a groan:
MESSRS. SEEPIDGE & SOOMES, Printers to the Trade.
Bones fell back in the padded depths of his writing chair.
"Now, you've done it," he said hollowly, and threw the card back again.
It fell behind Ali, and he turned his back on Bones and stooped to pick up the card. It was a target which, in Bones's then agitated condition, he could scarcely be expected to resist.
* * * * *
Bones spent a sleepless night, and was at the office early. By the first post came the blow he had expected—a bulky envelope bearing on the flap the sign-manual of Messrs. Seepidge & Soomes. The letter which accompanied the proof enclosed merely repeated the offer to sell the business for fifteen thousand pounds.
"This will include," the letter went on, "a great number of uncompleted orders, one of which is for a very charming series of poems which are now in our possession, and a proof-sheet of which we beg to enclose."
Bones read the poems and they somehow didn't look as well in print as they had in manuscript. And, horror of horrors—he went white at the thought—they were unmistakably disrespectful to Miss Marguerite Whitland! They were love poems. They declared Bones's passion in language which was unmistakable. They told of her hair which was beyond compare, of her eyes which rivalled the skies, and of her lips like scarlet strips. Bones bowed his head in his hands, and was in this attitude when the door opened, and Miss Whitland, who had had a perfect night and looked so lovely that her poems became pallid and nauseating caricatures, stepped quietly into the room.
"Aren't you well, Mr. Tibbetts?" she said.
"Oh, quite well," said Bones valiantly. "Very tra-la-la, dear old thing, dear old typewriter, I mean."
"Is that correspondence for me?"
She held out her hand, and Bones hastily thrust Messrs. Seepidge & Soomes's letter, with its enclosure, into his pocket.
"No, no, yes, yes," he said incoherently. "Certainly why not this is a letter dear old thing about a patent medicine I have just taken I am not all I was a few years ago old age is creeping on me and all that sort of stuff shut the door as you go in."
He said this without a comma or a full-stop. He said it so wildly that she was really alarmed.
Hamilton arrived a little later, and to him Bones made full confession.
"Let's see the poems," said Hamilton seriously.
"You won't laugh?" said Bones.
"Don't be an ass. Of course I won't laugh, unless they're supposed to be comic," said Hamilton. And, to do him justice, he did not so much as twitch a lip, though Bones watched his face jealously.
So imperturbable was Hamilton's expression that Bones had courage to demand with a certain smugness:
"Well, old man, not so bad? Of course, they don't come up to Kipling, but I can't say that I'm fearfully keen on Kipling, old thing. That little one about the sunset, I think, is rather a gem."
"I think you're rather a gem," said Hamilton, handing back the proofs. "Bones, you've behaved abominably, writing poetry of that kind and leaving it about. You're going to make this girl the laughing-stock of London."
"Laughing-stock?" snorted the annoyed Bones. "What the dickens do you mean, old thing? I told you there are no comic poems. They're all like that."
"I was afraid they were," said Hamilton. "But poems needn't be comic," he added a little more tactfully, as he saw Bones's colour rising, "they needn't be comic to excite people's amusement. The most solemn and sacred things, the most beautiful thoughts, the most wonderful sentiments, rouse the laughter of the ignorant."
"True, true," agreed Bones graciously. "And I rather fancy that they are a little bit on the most beautiful side, my jolly old graven image. All heart outpourings you understand—but no, you wouldn't understand, my old crochety one. One of these days, as I've remarked before, they will be read by competent judges ... midnight oil, dear old thing—at least, I have electric light in my flat. They're generally done after dinner."
"After a heavy dinner, I should imagine," said Hamilton with asperity. "What are you going to do about it, Bones?"
Bones scratched his nose.
"I'm blessed if I know," he said.
"Shall I tell you what you must do?" asked Hamilton quietly.
"Certainly, Ham, my wise old counsellor," said the cheerful Bones. "Certainly, by all means, Why not?"
"You must go to Miss Whitland and tell her all about it."
Bones's face fell.
"Good Heavens, no!" he gasped. "Don't be indelicate, Ham! Why, she might never forgive me, dear old thing! Suppose she walked out of the office in a huff? Great Scotland! Great Jehoshaphat! It's too terrible to contemplate!"
"You must tell her," said Hamilton firmly. "It's only fair to the girl to know exactly what is hanging over her."
Bones pleaded, and offered a hundred rapid solutions, none of which were acceptable to the relentless Hamilton.
"I'll tell her myself, if you like," he said. "I could explain that they're just the sort of things that a silly ass of a man does, and that they were not intended to be offensive—even that one about her lips being like two red strips. Strips of what—carpet?"
"Don't analyse it, Ham, lad, don't analyse it!" begged Bones. "Poems are like pictures, old friend. You want to stand at a distance to see them."
"Personally I suffer from astigmatism," said Hamilton, and read the poems again. He stopped once or twice to ask such pointed questions as how many "y's" were in "skies," and Bones stood on alternate feet, protesting incoherently.
"They're not bad, old boy?" he asked anxiously at last. "You wouldn't say they were bad?"
"Bad," said Hamilton in truth, "is not the word I should apply."
Bones cheered up.
"That's what I think, dear ex-officer," he smirked. "Of course, a fellow is naturally shy about maiden efforts, and all that sort of thing, but, hang it all, I've seen worse than that last poem, old thing."
"So have I," admitted Hamilton, mechanically turning back to the first poem.
"After all"—Bones was rapidly becoming philosophical—"I'm not so sure that it isn't the best thing that could happen. Let 'em print 'em! Hey? What do you say? Put that one about young Miss Marguerite being like a pearl discovered in a dustbin, dear Ham, put it before a competent judge, and what would he say?"
"Ten years," snarled Hamilton, "and you'd get off lightly!"
Bones smiled with admirable toleration, and there the matter ended for the moment.
It was a case of blackmail, as Hamilton had pointed out, but, as the day proceeded, Bones took a more and more lenient view of his enemy's fault. By the afternoon he was cheerful, even jocose, and, even in such moments as he found himself alone with the girl, brought the conversation round to the subject of poetry as one of the fine arts, and cunningly excited her curiosity.
"There is so much bad poetry in the world," said the girl on one such occasion, "that I think there should be a lethal chamber for people who write it."
"Agreed, dear old tick-tack," assented Bones, with an amused smile. "What is wanted is—well, I know, dear old miss. It may surprise you to learn that I once took a correspondence course in poetry writing."
"Nothing surprises me about you, Mr. Tibbetts," she laughed.
He went into her office before leaving that night. Hamilton, with a gloomy shake of his head by way of farewell, had already departed, and Bones, who had given the matter very considerable thought, decided that this was a favourable occasion to inform her of the amusing efforts of his printer correspondent to extract money.
The girl had finished her work, her typewriter was covered, and she was wearing her hat and coat. But she sat before her desk, a frown on her pretty face and an evening newspaper in her hand, and Bones's heart momentarily sank. Suppose the poems had been given to the world?
"All the winners, dear old miss?" he asked, with spurious gaiety.
She looked up with a start.
"No," she said. "I'm rather worried, Mr. Tibbetts. A friend of my step-father's has got into trouble again, and I'm anxious lest my mother should have any trouble."
"Dear, dear!" said the sympathetic Bones. "How disgustingly annoying! Who's the dear old friend?"
"A man named Seepidge," said the girl, and Bones gripped a chair for support. "The police have found that he is printing something illegal. I don't quite understand it all, but the things they were printing were invitations to a German lottery."
"Very naughty, very unpatriotic," murmured the palpitating Bones, and then the girl laughed.
"It has its funny side," she said. "Mr. Seepidge pretended that he was carrying out a legitimate order—a book of poems. Isn't that absurd?"
"Ha, ha!" said Bones hollowly.
"Listen," said the girl, and read:
"The magistrate, in sentencing Seepidge to six months' hard labour, said that there was no doubt that the man had been carrying on an illegal business. He had had the effrontery to pretend that he was printing a volume of verse. The court had heard extracts from that precious volume, which had evidently been written by Mr. Seepidge's office-boy. He had never read such appalling drivel in his life. He ordered the confiscated lottery prospectuses to be destroyed, and he thought he would be rendering a service to humanity if he added an order for the destruction of this collection of doggerel."
The girl looked up at Bones.
"It is curious that we should have been talking about poetry to-day, isn't it?" she asked. "Now, Mr. Tibbetts, I'm going to insist upon your bringing that book of yours to-morrow."
Bones, very flushed of face, shook his head.
"Dear old disciple," he said huskily, "another time ... another time ... poetry should be kept for years ... like old wine..."
"Who said that?" she asked, folding her paper and rising.
"Competent judges," said Bones, with a gulp.
THE LAMP THAT NEVER WENT OUT
"Have you seen her?" asked Bones.
He put this question with such laboured unconcern that Hamilton put down his pen and glared suspiciously at his partner.
"She's rather a beauty," Bones went on, toying with his ivory paper-knife. "She has one of those dinky bonnets, dear old thing, that makes you feel awfully braced with life."
Hamilton gasped. He had seen the beautiful Miss Whitland enter the office half an hour before, but he had not noticed her head-dress.
"Her body's dark blue, with teeny red stripes," said Bones dreamily, "and all her fittings are nickel-plated——"
"Stop!" commanded Hamilton hollowly. "To what unhappy woman are you referring in this ribald fashion?"
"Woman!" spluttered the indignant Bones. "I'm talking about my car."
"My car," said Bones, in the off-handed way that a sudden millionaire might refer to "my earth."
"You've bought a car?"
"It's a jolly good 'bus," he said. "I thought of running down to Brighton on Sunday."
Hamilton got up and walked slowly across the room with his hands in his pockets.
"You're thinking of running down to Brighton, are you?" he said. "Is it one of those kind of cars where you have to do your own running?"
Bones, with a good-natured smile, also rose from his desk and walked to the window.
"My car," he said, and waved his hand to the street.
By craning his neck, Hamilton was able to get a view of the patch of roadway immediately in front of the main entrance to the building. And undoubtedly there was a car in waiting—a long, resplendent machine that glittered in the morning sunlight.
"What's the pink cushion on the seat?" asked Hamilton.
"That's not a pink cushion, dear old myoptic," said Bones calmly; "that's my chauffeur—Ali ben Ahmed."
"Good lor!" said the impressed Hamilton. "You've a nerve to drive into the City with a sky-blue Kroo boy."
Bones shrugged his shoulders.
"We attracted a certain amount of attention," he admitted, not without satisfaction.
"Naturally," said Hamilton, going back to his desk. "People thought you were advertising Pill Pellets for Pale Poultry. When did you buy this infernal machine?"
Bones, at his desk, crossed his legs and put his fingers together.
"Negotiations, dear old Ham, have been in progress for a month," he recited. "I have been taking lessons on the quiet, and to-day—proof!" He took out his pocket-book and threw a paper with a lordly air towards his partner. It fell half-way on the floor.
"Don't trouble to get up," said Hamilton. "It's your motor licence. You needn't be able to drive a car to get that."
And then Bones dropped his attitude of insouciance and became a vociferous advertisement for the six-cylinder Carter-Crispley ("the big car that's made like a clock"). He became double pages with illustrations and handbooks and electric signs. He spoke of Carter and of Crispley individually and collectively with enthusiasm, affection, and reverence.
"Oh!" said Hamilton, when he had finished. "It sounds good."
"Sounds good!" scoffed Bones. "Dear old sceptical one, that car..."
And so forth.
All excesses being their own punishment, two days later Bones renewed an undesirable acquaintance. In the early days of Schemes, Ltd., Mr. Augustus Tibbetts had purchased a small weekly newspaper called the Flame. Apart from the losses he incurred during its short career, the experience was made remarkable by the fact that he became acquainted with Mr. Jelf, a young and immensely self-satisfied man in pince-nez, who habitually spoke uncharitably of bishops, and never referred to members of the Government without causing sensitive people to shudder.
The members of the Government retaliated by never speaking of Jelf at all, so there was probably some purely private feud between them.
Jelf disapproved of everything. He was twenty-four years of age, and he, too, had made the acquaintance of the Hindenburg Line. Naturally Bones thought of Jelf when he purchased the Flame.
From the first Bones had run the Flame with the object of exposing things. He exposed Germans, Swedes, and Turks—which was safe. He exposed a furniture dealer who had made him pay twice for an article because a receipt was lost, and that cost money. He exposed a man who had been very rude to him in the City. He would have exposed James Jacobus Jelf, only that individual showed such eagerness to expose his own shortcomings, at a guinea a column, that Bones had lost interest.
His stock of personal grievances being exhausted, he had gone in for a general line of exposure which embraced members of the aristocracy and the Stock Exchange.
If Bones did not like a man's face, he exposed him. He had a column headed "What I Want to Know," and signed "Senob." in which such pertinent queries appeared as:
"When will the naughty old lord who owns a sky-blue motor-car, and wears pink spats, realise that his treatment of his tenants is a disgrace to his ancient lineage?"
This was one of James Jacobus Jelf's contributed efforts. It happened on this particular occasion that there was only one lord in England who owned a sky-blue car and blush-rose spats, and it cost Bones two hundred pounds to settle his lordship.
Soon after this, Bones disposed of the paper, and instructed Mr. Jelf not to call again unless he called in an ambulance—an instruction which afterwards filled him with apprehension, since he knew that J. J. J. would charge up the ambulance to the office.
Thus matters stood two days after his car had made its public appearance, and Bones sat confronting the busy pages of his garage bill.
On this day he had had his lunch brought into the office, and he was in a maze of calculation, when there came a knock at the door.
"Come in!" he yelled, and, as there was no answer, walked to the door and opened it.
A young man stood in the doorway—a young man very earnest and very mysterious—none other than James Jacobus Jelf.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" said Bones unfavourably "I thought it was somebody important."
Jelf tiptoed into the room and closed the door securely behind him.
"Old man," he said, in tones little above a whisper, "I've got a fortune for you."
"Dear old libeller, leave it with the lift-man," said Bones. "He has a wife and three children."
Mr. Jelf examined his watch.
"I've got to get away at three o'clock, old man," he said.
"Don't let me keep you, old writer," said Bones with insolent indifference.
"I'd rather not say where I'm going," he volunteered. "It's a scoop, and if it leaked out, there would be the devil to pay."
"Oh!" said Bones, who knew Mr. Jelf well. "I thought it was something like that."
"I'd like to tell you, Tibbetts," said Jelf regretfully, "but you know how particular one has to be when one is dealing with matters affecting the integrity of ministers."
"I know, I know," responded Bones, wilfully dense, "especially huffy old vicars, dear old thing."
"Oh, them!" said Jelf, extending his contempt to the rules which govern the employment of the English language. "I don't worry about those poor funny things. No, I am speaking of a matter—you have heard about G.?" he asked suddenly.
"No," said Bones with truth.
Jelf looked astonished.
"What!" he said incredulously. "You in the heart of things, and don't know about old G.?"
"No, little Mercury, and I don't want to know," said Bones, busying himself with his papers.
"You'll tell me you don't know about L. next," he said, bewildered.
"Language!" protested Bones. "You really mustn't use Sunday words, really you mustn't."
Then Jelf unburdened himself. It appeared that G. had been engaged to L.'s daughter, and the engagement had been broken off....
Bones stirred uneasily and looked at his watch.
"Dispense with the jolly old alphabet," he said wearily, "and let us get down to the beastly personalities."
Thereafter Jelf's conversation condensed itself to the limits of a human understanding. "G" stood for Gregory—Felix Gregory; "L" for Lansing, who apparently had no Christian name, nor found such appendage necessary, since he was dead. He had invented a lamp, and that lamp had in some way come into Jelf's possession. He was exploiting the invention on behalf of the inventor's daughter, and had named it—he said this with great deliberation and emphasis—"The Tibbetts-Jelf Motor Lamp."
Bones made a disparaging noise, but was interested.
The Tibbetts-Jelf Lamp was something new in motor lamps. It was a lamp which had all the advantages of the old lamp, plus properties which no lamp had ever had before, and it had none of the disadvantages of any lamp previously introduced, and, in fact, had no disadvantages whatsoever. So Jelf told Bones with great earnestness.
"You know me, Tibbetts," he said. "I never speak about myself, and I'm rather inclined to disparage my own point of view than otherwise."
"I've never noticed that," said Bones.
"You know, anyway," urged Jelf, "that I want to see the bad side of anything I take up."
He explained how he had sat up night after night, endeavouring to discover some drawback to the Tibbetts-Jelf Lamp, and how he had rolled into bed at five in the morning, exhausted by the effort.
"If I could only find one flaw!" he said. "But the ingenious beggar who invented it has not left a single bad point."
He went on to describe the lamp. With the aid of a lead pencil and a piece of Bones's priceless notepaper he sketched the front elevation and discoursed upon rays, especially upon ultra-violet rays.
Apparently this is a disreputable branch of the Ray family. If you could only get an ultra-violet ray as he was sneaking out of the lamp, and hit him violently on the back of the head, you were rendering a service to science and humanity.
This lamp was so fixed that the moment Mr. Ultra V. Ray reached the threshold of freedom he was tripped up, pounced upon, and beaten until he (naturally enough) changed colour!
It was all done by the lens.
Jelf drew a Dutch cheese on the table-cloth to Illustrate the point.
"This light never goes out," said Jelf passionately. "If you lit it to-day, it would be alight to-morrow, and the next day, and so on. All the light-buoys and lighthouses around England will be fitted with this lamp; it will revolutionise navigation."
According to the exploiter, homeward bound mariners would gather together on the poop, or the hoop, or wherever homeward bound manners gathered, and would chant a psalm of praise, in which the line "Heaven bless the Tibbetts-Jelf Lamp" would occur at regular intervals.
And when he had finished his eulogy, and lay back exhausted by his own eloquence, and Bones asked, "But what does it do?" Jelf could have killed him.
Under any other circumstances Bones might have dismissed his visitor with a lecture on the futility of attempting to procure money under false pretences. But remember that Bones was the proprietor of a new motor-car, and thought motor-car and dreamed motor-car by day and by night. Even as it was, he was framing a conventional expression of regret that he could not interest himself in outside property, when there dawned upon his mind the splendid possibilities of possessing this accessory, and he wavered.
"Anyway," he said, "it will take a year to make."
Mr. Jelf beamed.
"Wrong!" he cried triumphantly. "Two of the lamps are just finished, and will be ready to-morrow."
"Of course, dear old Jelf," he said, "I should like, as an experiment, to try them on my car."
"On your car?" Jelf stepped back a pace and looked at the other with very flattering interest and admiration. "Not your car! Have you a car?"
Bones said he had a car, and explained it at length. He even waxed as enthusiastic about his machine as had Mr. Jelf on the subject of the lamp that never went out. And Jelf agreed with everything that Bones said. Apparently he was personally acquainted with the Carter-Crispley car. He had, so to speak, grown up with it. He knew its good points and none of its bad points. He thought the man who chose a car like that must have genius beyond the ordinary. Bones agreed. Bones had reached the conclusion that he had been mistaken about Jelf, and that possibly age had sobered him (it was nearly six months since he had perpetrated his last libel). They parted the best of friends. He had agreed to attend a demonstration at the workshop early the following morning, and Jelf, who was working on a ten per cent. commission basis, and had already drawn a hundred on account from the vendors, was there to meet him.
In truth it was a noble lamp—very much like other motor lamps, except that the bulb was, or apparently was, embedded in solid glass. Its principal virtue lay in the fact that it carried its own accumulator, which had to be charged weekly, or the lamp forfeited its title.
Mr. Jelf explained, with the adeptness of an expert, how the lamp was controlled from the dashboard, and how splendid it was to have a light which was independent of the engine of the car or of faulty accumulators, and Bones agreed to try the lamp for a week. He did more than this: he half promised to float a company for its manufacture, and gave Mr. Jelf fifty pounds on account of possible royalties and commission, whereupon Mr. Jelf faded from the picture, and from that moment ceased to take the slightest interest in a valuable article which should have been more valuable by reason of the fact that it bore his name.
Three days later Hamilton, walking to business, was overtaken by a beautiful blue Carter-Crispley, ornamented, it seemed from a distance, by two immense bosses of burnished silver. On closer examination they proved to be nothing more remarkable than examples of the Tibbett-Jelf Lamp.
"Yes," said Bones airily, "that's the lamp, dear old thing. Invented in leisure hours by self and Jelf. Step in, and I'll explain."
"Where do I step in," asked Hamilton, wilfully dense—"into the car or into the lamp?"
Bones patiently smiled and waved him with a gesture to a seat by his side. His explanation was disjointed and scarcely informative; for Bones had yet to learn the finesse of driving, and he had a trick of thinking aloud.
"This lamp, old thing," he said, "never goes out—you silly old josser, why did you step in front of me? Goodness gracious! I nearly cut short your naughty old life"—(this to one unhappy pedestrian whom Bones had unexpectedly met on the wrong side of the road)—"never goes out, dear old thing. It's out now, I admit, but it's not in working order—Gosh! That was a narrow escape! Nobody but a skilled driver, old Hamilton, could have missed that lamp-post. It is going to create a sensation; there's nothing like it on the market—whoop!"
He brought the car to a standstill with a jerk and within half an inch of a City policeman who was directing the traffic with his back turned to Bones, blissfully unconscious of the doom which almost overcame him.
"I like driving with you, Bones," said Hamilton, when they reached the office, and he had recovered something of his self-possession. "Next to stalking bushmen in the wild, wild woods, I know of nothing more soothing to the nerves."
"Thank you," said Bones gratefully. "I'm not a bad driver, am I?"
"'Bad' is not the word I should use alone," said Hamilton pointedly.
In view of the comments which followed, he was surprised and pained to receive on the following day an invitation, couched in such terms as left him a little breathless, to spend the Sunday exploiting the beauties of rural England.
"Now, I won't take a 'No,'" said Bones, wagging his bony forefinger. "We'll start at eleven o'clock, dear old Ham, and we'll lunch at what-you-may-call-it, dash along the thingummy road, and heigho! for the beautiful sea-breezes."
"Thanks," said Hamilton curtly. "You may dash anywhere you like, but I'm dashed if I dash with you. I have too high a regard for my life."
"Naughty, naughty!" said Bones, "I've a good mind not to tell you what I was going to say. Let me tell you the rest. Now, suppose," he said mysteriously, "that there's a certain lady—a jolly old girl named Vera—ha—ha!"
Hamilton went red.
"Now, listen, Bones," he said; "we'll not discuss any other person than ourselves."
"What do you say to a day in the country? Suppose you asked Miss Vera——"
"Miss Vera Sackwell," replied Hamilton a little haughtily, "if she is the lady you mean, is certainly a friend of mine, but I have no control over her movements. And let me tell you, Bones, that you annoy me when——"
"Hoity, toity!" said Bones. "Heaven bless my heart and soul! Can't you trust your old Bones? Why practise this deception, old thing? I suppose," he went on reflectively, ignoring the approaching apoplexy of his partner, "I suppose I'm one of the most confided-in persons in London. A gay old father confessor, Ham, lad. Everybody tells me their troubles. Why, the lift-girl told me this morning that she'd had measles twice! Now, out with it, Ham!"
If Hamilton had any tender feeling for Miss Vera Sackwell, he was not disposed to unburden himself at that moment. In some mysterious fashion Bones, for the first time in his life, had succeeded in reducing him to incoherence.
"You're an ass, Bones!" he said angrily and hotly. "You're not only an ass, but an indelicate ass! Just oblige me by shutting up."
Bones closed his eyes, smiled, and put out his hand.
"Whatever doubts I had, dear old Ham," he murmured, "are dispelled. Congratulations!"
That night Hamilton dined with a fair lady. She was fair literally and figuratively, and as he addressed her as Vera, it was probably her name. In the course of the dinner he mentioned Bones and his suggestion. He did not tell all that Bones had said.
The suggestion of a day's motoring was not received unfavourably.
"But he can't drive," wailed Hamilton. "He's only just learnt."
"I want to meet Bones," said the girl, "and I think it a most excellent opportunity."
"But, my dear, suppose the beggar upsets us in a ditch? I really can't risk your life."
"Tell Bones that I accept," she said decisively, and that ended the matter.
The next morning Hamilton broke the news.
"Miss Sackwell thanks you for your invitation, Bones."
"And accepts, of course?" said Bones complacently. "Jolly old Vera."
"And I say, old man," said Hamilton severely, "will you be kind enough to remember not to call this lady Vera until she asks you to?"
"Don't be peevish, old boy, don't be jealous, dear old thing. Brother-officer and all that. Believe me, you can trust your old Bones."
"I'd rather trust the lady's good taste," said Hamilton with some acerbity. "But won't it be a bit lonely for you, Bones?"
"But what do you mean, my Othello?"
"I mean three is a pretty rotten sort of party," said Hamilton. "Couldn't you dig up somebody to go along and make the fourth?"
Bones coughed and was immensely embarrassed.
"Well, dear old athlete," he said unnecessarily loudly, "I was thinking of asking my—er——"
"Your—er—what? I gather it's an er," said Hamilton seriously, "but which er?"
"My old typewriter, frivolous one," said Bones truculently. "Any objection?"
"Of course not," said Hamilton calmly. "Miss Whitland is a most charming girl, and Vera will be delighted to meet her."
Bones choked his gratitude and wrung the other's hand for fully two minutes.
He spent the rest of the week in displaying to Hamilton the frank ambitions of his mind toward Miss Marguerite Whitland. Whenever he had nothing to do—which seemed most of the day—he strolled across to Hamilton's desk and discoursed upon the proper respect which all right-thinking young officers have for old typewriters. By the end of the week Hamilton had the confused impression that the very pretty girl who ministered to the literary needs of his partner, combined the qualities of a maiden aunt with the virtues of a grandmother, and that Bones experienced no other emotion than one of reverential wonder, tinctured with complete indifference.
On the sixty-fourth lecture Hamilton struck.
"Of course, dear old thing," Bones was saying, "to a jolly old brigand like you, who dashes madly down from his mountain lair and takes the first engaging young person who meets his eye——"
Hamilton protested vigorously, but Bones silenced him with a lordly gesture.
"I say, to a jolly old rascal like you it may seem—what is the word?"
"'Inexplicable,' I suppose, is the word you are after," said Hamilton.
"That's the fellow; you took it out of my mouth," said Bones. "It sounds inexplicable that I can be interested in a platonic, fatherly kind of way in the future of a lovely old typewriter."
"It's not inexplicable at all," said Hamilton bluntly. "You're in love with the girl."
"Good gracious Heavens!" gasped Bones, horrified. "Ham, my dear old boy. Dicky Orum, Dicky Orum, old thing!"
Sunday morning brought together four solemn people, two of whom were men, who felt extremely awkward and showed it, and two of whom behaved as though they had known one another all their lives.
Bones, who stood alternately on his various legs, was frankly astounded that the meeting had passed off without any sensational happening. It was an astonishment shared by thousands of men in similar circumstances. A word of admiration for the car from Vera melted him to a condition of hysterical gratitude.
"It's not a bad old 'bus, dear old—Miss Vera," he said, and tut-tutted audibly under his breath at his error. "Not a bad old 'bus at all, dear old—young friend. Now I'll show you the gem of the collection."
"They are big, aren't they?" said Vera, properly impressed by the lamps.
"They never go out," said Bones solemnly. "I assure you I'm looking forward to the return journey with the greatest eagerness—I mean to say, of course, that I'm looking forward to the other journey—I don't mean to say I want the day to finish, and all that sort of rot. In fact, dear old Miss Vera, I think we'd better be starting."
He cranked up and climbed into the driver's seat, and beckoned Marguerite to seat herself by his side. He might have done this without explanation, but Bones never did things without explanation, and he turned back and glared at Hamilton.
"You'd like to be alone, dear old thing, wouldn't you?" he said gruffly. "Don't worry about me, dear old lad. A lot of people say you can see things reflected in the glass screen, but I'm so absorbed in my driving——"
"Get on with it!" snarled Hamilton.
It was, nevertheless, a perfect day, and Bones, to everybody's surprise, his own included, drove perfectly. It had been his secret intention to drive to Brighton; but nobody suspected this plan, or cared very much what his intentions had been, and the car was running smoothly across Salisbury Plain.
When they stopped for afternoon tea, Hamilton did remark that he thought Bones had said something about Brighton, but Bones just smiled. They left Andover that night in the dusk; but long before the light had faded, the light which was sponsored by Mr. Jelf blazed whitely in the lamp that never went out. And when the dark came Bones purred with joy, for this light was a wonderful light. It flooded the road ahead with golden radiance, and illuminated the countryside, so that distant observers speculated upon its origin.
"Well, old thing," said Bones over his shoulder, "what do you think of the lamps?"
"Simply wonderful, Bones," agreed Hamilton. "I've never seen anything so miraculous. I can even see that you're driving with one hand."
Bones brought the other hand up quickly to the wheel and coughed. As for Miss Marguerite Whitland, she laughed softly, but nobody heard her.
They were rushing along a country road tree-shaded and high-hedged, and Bones was singing a little song—when the light went out.
It went out with such extraordinary unexpectedness, without so much as a warning flicker, that he was temporarily blinded, and brought the car to a standstill.
"What's up, Bones?" asked Hamilton.
"The light, dear old thing," said Bones. "I think the jolly old typewriter must have touched the key with her knee."
"Indeed?" said Hamilton politely; and Bones, remembering that the key was well over on his side of the car, coughed, this time fiercely.
He switched the key from left to right, but nothing happened.
"Most extraordinary!" said Bones.
"Most," said Hamilton.
There was a pause.
"I think the road branches off a little way up I'll get down and see which is the right road to take," said Bones with sudden cheerfulness. "I remember seeing the old signpost before the—er—lamp went out. Perhaps, Miss Marguerite, you'd like to go for a little walk."
Miss Marguerite Whitland said she thought she would, and they went off together to investigate, leaving Hamilton to speculate upon the likelihood of their getting home that night.
Bones walked ahead with Marguerite, and instinctively their hands sought and found one another. They discovered the cross-roads, but Bones did not trouble to light his match. His heart was beating with extraordinary violence, his lips were dry, he found much difficulty in speaking at all.
"Miss Marguerite," he said huskily, "don't think I'm an awful outsider and a perfect rotter, dear old typewriter."
"Of course I don't," she said a little faintly for Bones's arm was about her.
"Don't think," said Bones, his voice trembling, "that I am a naughty old philanderer; but somehow, dear old miss, being alone with you, and all that sort of stuff——"
And he bent and kissed her, and at that moment the light that never went out came on again with extraordinary fierceness, as though to make up for its temporary absence without leave.
And these two young people were focused as in a limelight, and were not only visible from the car, but visible for miles around.
"Dear me!" said Bones.
The girl said nothing. She shaded her eyes from the light as she walked back. As for Bones, he climbed into the driver's seat with the deliberation of an old gentleman selecting a penny chair in the park, and said, without turning his head:
"It's the road to the left."
"I'm glad," said Hamilton, and made no comment even when Bones took the road to the right.
They had gone a quarter of a mile along this highway when the lamp went out. It went out with as unexpected and startling suddenness as before. Bones jingled the key, then turned.
"You wouldn't like to get out, dear old Ham, and have a look round, would you?"
"No, Bones," said Hamilton drily. "We're quite comfortable."
"You wouldn't like to get down, my jolly old typewriter?"
"No, thank you," said Miss Marguerite Whitland with decision.
"Oh!" said Bones. "Then, under the circumstances, dear old person, we'd all better sit here until——"
At that moment the light came on. It flooded the white road, and the white road was an excellent wind-screen against which the bending head of Bones was thrown into sharp relief.
The car moved on. At regular intervals the light that never went out forsook its home-loving habits and took a constitutional. The occupants of the ear came to regard its eccentricities with philosophy, even though it began to rain, and there was no hood.
On the outskirts of Guildford, Bones was pulled up by a policeman, who took his name because the lights were too bright. On the other side of Guildford he was pulled up by another policeman because he had no light at all. Passing through Kingston, the lamp began to flicker, sending forth brilliant dots and dashes, which continued until they were on Putney Common, where the lamp's message was answered from a camp of Boy Scouts, one signalman of the troop being dragged from his bed for the purpose, the innocent child standing in his shirt at the call of duty.
"A delightful day," said Hamilton at parting that night. (It was nearly twelve o'clock.) "I'm sorry you've had so much trouble with that lamp, Bones. What did you call it?"
"I say, old fellow," said Bones, ignoring the question, "I hope, when you saw me picking a spider off dear old Miss Marguerite's shoulder, you didn't—er—think anything?"
"The only thing I thought was," said Hamilton, "that I didn't see the spider."
"Don't stickle, dear old partner," said Bones testily. "It may have been an earwig. Now, as a man of the world, dear old blase one, do you think I'd compromise an innocent typewriter? Do you think I ought to——" He paused, but his voice was eager.