"Great Scott! You surely don't class me with Harold?"
"Yes, in a way you are very much alike. You have both always had large private means, and have never had the wholesome discipline of work."
"But, dash it, Harold, on your showing, is an absolute nut. Why should you think that I would be anything like that?"
"There's always the risk."
A hot idea came to me.
"Look here, Ann," I said, "Suppose I pull off some stunt which only a deuced brainy chappie could get away with? Would you marry me then?"
"Certainly. What do you propose to do?"
"Do! What do I propose to do! Well, er, to be absolutely frank, at the moment I don't quite know."
"You never will know, Reggie. You're one of the idle rich, and your brain, if you ever had one, has atrophied."
Well, that seemed to me to put the lid on it. I didn't mind a heart-to-heart talk, but this was mere abuse. I changed the subject.
"What would you like after that fish?" I said coldly.
You know how it is when you get an idea. For awhile it sort of simmers inside you, and then suddenly it sizzles up like a rocket, and there you are, right up against it. That's what happened now. I went away from that luncheon, vaguely determined to pull off some stunt which would prove that I was right there with the gray matter, but without any clear notion of what I was going to do. Side by side with this in my mind was the case of dear old Harold. When I wasn't brooding on the stunt, I was brooding on Harold. I was fond of the good old lad, and I hated the idea of his slowly wrecking the home purely by being a chump. And all of a sudden the two things clicked together like a couple of chemicals, and there I was with a corking plan for killing two birds with one stone—putting one across that would startle and impress Ann, and at the same time healing the breach between Harold and Hilda.
My idea was that, in a case like this, it's no good trying opposition. What you want is to work it so that the chappie quits of his own accord. You want to egg him on to overdoing the thing till he gets so that he says to himself, "Enough! Never again!" That was what was going to happen to Harold.
When you're going to do a thing, there's nothing like making a quick start. I wrote to Harold straight away, proposing myself for a visit. And Harold wrote back telling me to come right along.
Harold and Hilda lived alone in a large house. I believe they did a good deal of entertaining at times, but on this occasion I was the only guest. The only other person of note in the place was Ponsonby, the butler.
Of course, if Harold had been an ordinary sort of chappie, what I had come to do would have been a pretty big order. I don't mind many things, but I do hesitate to dig into my host's intimate private affairs. But Harold was such a simple-minded Johnnie, so grateful for a little sympathy and advice, that my job wasn't so very difficult.
It wasn't as if he minded talking about Amelia, which was his first wife's name. The difficulty was to get him to talk of anything else. I began to understand what Ann meant by saying it was tough on Hilda.
I'm bound to say the old boy was clay in my hands. People call me a chump, but Harold was a super-chump, and I did what I liked with him. The second morning of my visit, after breakfast, he grabbed me by the arm.
"This way, Reggie. I'm just going to show old Reggie Amelia's portrait, dear."
There was a little room all by itself on the top floor. He explained to me that it had been his studio. At one time Harold used to do a bit of painting in an amateur way.
"There!" he said, pointing at the portrait. "I did that myself, Reggie. It was away being cleaned when you were here last. It's like dear Amelia, isn't it?"
I suppose it was, in a way. At any rate, you could recognize the likeness when you were told who it was supposed to be.
He sat down in front of it, and gave it the thoughtful once-over.
"Do you know, Reggie, old top, sometimes when I sit here, I feel as if Amelia were back again."
"It would be a bit awkward for you if she was."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, old lad, you happen to be married to someone else."
A look of childlike enthusiasm came over his face.
"Reggie, I want to tell you how splendid Hilda is. Lots of other women might object to my still cherishing Amelia's memory, but Hilda has been so nice about it from the beginning. She understands so thoroughly."
I hadn't much breath left after that, but I used what I had to say: "She doesn't object?"
"Not a bit," said Harold. "It makes everything so pleasant."
When I had recovered a bit, I said, "What do you mean by everything?"
"Well," he said, "for instance, I come up here every evening at seven and—er—think for a few minutes."
"A few minutes?!"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, a few minutes isn't long."
"But I always have my cocktail at a quarter past."
"You could postpone it."
"And Ponsonby likes us to start dinner at seven-thirty."
"What on earth has Ponsonby to do with it?"
"Well, he likes to get off by nine, you know. I think he goes off and plays bowls at the madhouse. You see, Reggie, old man, we have to study Ponsonby a little. He's always on the verge of giving notice—in fact, it was only by coaxing him on one or two occasions that we got him to stay on—and he's such a treasure that I don't know what we should do if we lost him. But, if you think that I ought to stay longer——?"
"Certainly I do. You ought to do a thing like this properly, or not at all."
"It's a frightful risk, but in future we'll dine at eight."
It seemed to me that there was a suspicion of a cloud on Ponsonby's shining morning face, when the news was broken to him that for the future he couldn't unleash himself on the local bowling talent as early as usual, but he made no kick, and the new order of things began.
My next offensive movement I attribute to a flash of absolute genius. I was glancing through a photograph album in the drawing-room before lunch, when I came upon a face which I vaguely remembered. It was one of those wide, flabby faces, with bulging eyes, and something about it struck me as familiar. I consulted Harold, who came in at that moment.
"That?" said Harold. "That's Percy." He gave a slight shudder. "Amelia's brother, you know. An awful fellow. I haven't seen him for years."
Then I placed Percy. I had met him once or twice in the old days, and I had a brainwave. Percy was everything that poor old Harold disliked most. He was hearty at breakfast, a confirmed back-slapper, and a man who prodded you in the chest when he spoke to you.
"You haven't seen him for years!" I said in a shocked voice.
"Thank heaven!" said Harold devoutly.
I put down the photograph album, and looked at him in a deuced serious way. "Then it's high time you asked him to come here."
Harold blanched. "Reggie, old man, you don't know what you are saying. You can't remember Percy. I wish you wouldn't say these things, even in fun."
"I'm not saying it in fun. Of course, it's none of my business, but you have paid me the compliment of confiding in me about Amelia, and I feel justified in speaking. All I can say is that, if you cherish her memory as you say you do, you show it in a very strange way. How you can square your neglect of Percy with your alleged devotion to Amelia's memory, beats me. It seems to me that you have no choice. You must either drop the whole thing and admit that your love for her is dead, or else you must stop this infernal treatment of her favorite brother. You can't have it both ways."
He looked at me like a hunted stag. "But, Reggie, old man! Percy! He asks riddles at breakfast."
"I don't care."
"Hilda can't stand him."
"It doesn't matter. You must invite him. It's not a case of what you like or don't like. It's your duty."
He struggled with his feelings for a bit. "Very well," he said in a crushed sort of voice.
At dinner that night he said to Hilda: "I'm going to ask Amelia's brother down to spend a few days. It is so long since we have seen him."
Hilda didn't answer at once. She looked at him in rather a curious sort of way, I thought. "Very well, dear," she said.
I was deuced sorry for the poor girl, but I felt like a surgeon. She would be glad later on, for I was convinced that in a very short while poor old Harold must crack under the strain, especially after I had put across the coup which I was meditating for the very next evening.
It was quite simple. Simple, that is to say, in its working, but a devilish brainy thing for a chappie to have thought out. If Ann had really meant what she had said at lunch that day, and was prepared to stick to her bargain and marry me as soon as I showed a burst of intelligence, she was mine.
What it came to was that, if dear old Harold enjoyed meditating in front of Amelia's portrait, he was jolly well going to have all the meditating he wanted, and a bit over, for my simple scheme was to lurk outside till he had gone into the little room on the top floor, and then, with the aid of one of those jolly little wedges which you use to keep windows from rattling, see to it that the old boy remained there till they sent out search parties.
There wasn't a flaw in my reasoning. When Harold didn't roll in at the sound of the dinner gong, Hilda would take it for granted that he was doing an extra bit of meditating that night, and her pride would stop her sending out a hurry call for him. As for Harold, when he found that all was not well with the door, he would probably yell with considerable vim. But it was odds against anyone hearing him. As for me, you might think that I was going to suffer owing to the probable postponement of dinner. Not so, but far otherwise, for on the night I had selected for the coup I was dining out at the neighboring inn with my old college chum Freddie Meadowes. It is true that Freddie wasn't going to be within fifty miles of the place on that particular night, but they weren't to know that.
Did I describe the peculiar isolation of that room on the top floor, where the portrait was? I don't think I did. It was, as a matter of fact, the only room in those parts, for, in the days when he did his amateur painting, old Harold was strong on the artistic seclusion business and hated noise, and his studio was the only room in use on that floor.
In short, to sum up, the thing was a cinch.
Punctually at ten minutes to seven, I was in readiness on the scene. There was a recess with a curtain in front of it a few yards from the door, and there I waited, fondling my little wedge, for Harold to walk up and allow the proceedings to start. It was almost pitch-dark, and that made the time of waiting seem longer. Presently—I seemed to have been there longer than ten minutes—I heard steps approaching. They came past where I stood, and went on into the room. The door closed, and I hopped out and sprinted up to it, and the next moment I had the good old wedge under the wood—as neat a job as you could imagine. And then I strolled downstairs, and toddled off to the inn.
I didn't hurry over my dinner, partly because the browsing and sluicing at the inn was really astonishingly good for a roadhouse and partly because I wanted to give Harold plenty of time for meditation. I suppose it must have been a couple of hours or more when I finally turned in at the front door. Somebody was playing the piano in the drawing room. It could only be Hilda who was playing, and I had doubts as to whether she wanted company just then—mine, at any rate.
Eventually I decided to risk it, for I wanted to hear the latest about dear old Harold, so in I went, and it wasn't Hilda at all; it was Ann Selby.
"Hello," I said. "I didn't know you were coming down here." It seemed so odd, don't you know, as it hadn't been more than ten days or so since her last visit.
"Good evening, Reggie," she said.
"What's been happening?" I asked.
"How do you know anything has been happening?"
"I guessed it."
"Well, you're quite right, as it happens, Reggie. A good deal has been happening." She went to the door, and looked out, listening. Then she shut it, and came back. "Hilda has revolted!"
"Yes, put her foot down—made a stand—refused to go on meekly putting up with Harold's insane behavior."
"I don't understand."
She gave me a look of pity. "You always were so dense, Reggie. I will tell you the whole thing from the beginning. You remember what I spoke to you about, one day when we were lunching together? Well, I don't suppose you have noticed it—I know what you are—but things have been getting steadily worse. For one thing, Harold insisted on lengthening his visits to the top room, and naturally Ponsonby complained. Hilda tells me that she had to plead with him to induce him to stay on. Then the climax came. I don't know if you recollect Amelia's brother Percy? You must have met him when she was alive—a perfectly unspeakable person with a loud voice and overpowering manners. Suddenly, out of a blue sky, Harold announced his intention of inviting him to stay. It was the last straw. This afternoon I received a telegram from poor Hilda, saying that she was leaving Harold and coming to stay with me, and a few hours later the poor child arrived at my apartment."
You mustn't suppose that I stood listening silently to this speech. Every time she seemed to be going to stop for breath I tried to horn in and tell her all these things which had been happening were not mere flukes, as she seemed to think, but parts of a deuced carefully planned scheme of my own. Every time I'd try to interrupt, Ann would wave me down, and carry on without so much as a semi-colon.
But at this point I did manage a word in. "I know, I know, I know! I did it all. It was I who suggested to Harold that he should lengthen the meditations, and insisted on his inviting Percy to stay."
I had hardly got the words out, when I saw that they were not making the hit I had anticipated. She looked at me with an expression of absolute scorn, don't you know.
"Well, really, Reggie," she said at last, "I never have had a very high opinion of your intelligence, as you know, but this is a revelation to me. What motive you can have had, unless you did it in a spirit of pure mischief——" She stopped, and there was a glare of undiluted repulsion in her eyes. "Reggie! I can't believe it! Of all the things I loathe most, a practical joker is the worst. Do you mean to tell me you did all this as a practical joke?"
"Great Scott, no! It was like this——"
I paused for a bare second to collect my thoughts, so as to put the thing clearly to her. I might have known what would happen. She dashed right in and collared the conversation.
"Well, never mind. As it happens, there is no harm done. Quite the reverse, in fact. Hilda left a note for Harold telling him what she had done and where she had gone and why she had gone, and Harold found it. The result was that, after Hilda had been with me for some time, in he came in a panic and absolutely grovelled before the dear child. It seems incredible but he had apparently had no notion that his absurd behavior had met with anything but approval from Hilda. He went on as if he were mad. He was beside himself. He clutched his hair and stamped about the room, and then he jumped at the telephone and called this house and got Ponsonby and told him to go straight to the little room on the top floor and take Amelia's portrait down. I thought that a little unnecessary myself, but he was in such a whirl of remorse that it was useless to try and get him to be rational. So Hilda was consoled, and he calmed down, and we all came down here in the automobile. So you see——"
At this moment the door opened, and in came Harold.
"I say—hello, Reggie, old man—I say, it's a funny thing, but we can't find Ponsonby anywhere."
There are moments in a chappie's life, don't you know, when Reason, so to speak, totters, as it were, on its bally throne. This was one of them. The situation seemed somehow to have got out of my grip. I suppose, strictly speaking, I ought, at this juncture, to have cleared my throat and said in an audible tone, "Harold, old top, I know where Ponsonby is." But somehow I couldn't. Something seemed to keep the words back. I just stood there and said nothing.
"Nobody seems to have seen anything of him," said Harold. "I wonder where he can have got to."
Hilda came in, looking so happy I hardly recognized her. I remember feeling how strange it was that anybody could be happy just then.
"I know," she said. "Of course! Doesn't he always go off to the inn and play bowls at this time?"
"Why, of course," said Harold. "So he does."
And he asked Ann to play something on the piano. And pretty soon we had settled down to a regular jolly musical evening. Ann must have played a matter of two or three thousand tunes, when Harold got up.
"By the way," he said. "I suppose he did what I told him about the picture before he went out. Let's go and see."
"Oh, Harold, what does it matter?" asked Hilda.
"Don't be silly, Harold," said Ann.
I would have said the same thing, only I couldn't say anything.
Harold wasn't to be stopped. He led the way out of the room and upstairs, and we all trailed after him. We had just reached the top floor, when Hilda stopped, and said "Hark!"
It was a voice.
"Hi!" it said. "Hi!"
Harold legged it to the door of the studio. "Ponsonby?"
From within came the voice again, and I have never heard anything to touch the combined pathos, dignity and indignation it managed to condense into two words.
"What on earth are you doing in there?"
"I came here, sir, in accordance with your instructions on the telephone, and——"
Harold rattled the door. "The darned thing's stuck."
"How on earth did that happen?"
"I could not say, sir."
"How can the door have stuck like this?" said Ann.
Somebody—I suppose it was me, though the voice didn't sound familiar— spoke. "Perhaps there's a wedge under it," said this chappie.
"A wedge? What do you mean?"
"One of those little wedges you use to keep windows from rattling, don't you know."
"But why——? You're absolutely right, Reggie, old man, there is!"
He yanked it out, and flung the door open, and out came Ponsonby, looking like Lady Macbeth.
"I wish to give notice, sir," he said, "and I should esteem it a favor if I might go to the pantry and procure some food, as I am extremely hungry."
And he passed from our midst, with Hilda after him, saying: "But, Ponsonby! Be reasonable, Ponsonby!"
Ann Selby turned on me with a swish. "Reggie," she said, "did you shut Ponsonby in there?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did."
"But why?" asked Harold.
"Well, to be absolutely frank, old top, I thought it was you."
"You thought it was me? But why—what did you want to lock me in for?"
I hesitated. It was a delicate business telling him the idea. And while I was hesitating, Ann jumped in.
"I can tell you why, Harold. It was because Reggie belongs to that sub-species of humanity known as practical jokers. This sort of thing is his idea of humor."
"Humor! Losing us a priceless butler," said Harold. "If that's your idea of——"
Hilda came back, pale and anxious. "Harold, dear, do come and help me reason with Ponsonby. He is in the pantry gnawing a cold chicken, and he only stops to say 'I give notice.'"
"Yes," said Ann. "Go, both of you. I wish to speak to Reggie alone."
That's how I came to lose Ann. At intervals during her remarks I tried to put my side of the case, but it was no good. She wouldn't listen. And presently something seemed to tell me that now was the time to go to my room and pack. Half an hour later I slid silently into the night.
Wasn't it Shakespeare or somebody who said that the road to Hell—or words to that effect—was paved with good intentions? If it was Shakespeare, it just goes to prove what they are always saying about him—that he knew a bit. Take it from one who knows, the old boy was absolutely right.