"You will notice the able way—ha, ha!—in which the wire netting is arranged," I continued feverishly. "Took some doing, that. By Jove! yes. It was hot work. Nice lot of fowls, aren't they? Rather a mixed lot, of course. Ha, ha! That's the dealer's fault, though. We are getting quite a number of eggs now. Hens wouldn't lay at first. Couldn't make them."
I babbled on till from the corner of my eye I saw the flush fade from the professor's face and his back gradually relax its pokerlike attitude. The situation was saved for the moment, but there was no knowing what further excesses Ukridge might indulge in. I managed to draw him aside as we went through the fowl run, and expostulated.
"For goodness' sake, be careful," I whispered. "You've no notion how touchy the professor is."
"But I said nothing," he replied, amazed.
"Hang it, you know, nobody likes to be called a fat little buffer to his face."
"What else could I call him? Nobody minds a little thing like that. We can't be stilted and formal. It's ever so much more friendly to relax and be chummy."
Here we rejoined the others, and I was left with a leaden foreboding of grewsome things in store. I knew what manner of man Ukridge was when he relaxed and became chummy. Friendships of years' standing had failed to survive the test.
For the time being, however, all went well. In his role of lecturer he offended no one, and Phyllis and her father behaved admirably. They received the strangest theories without a twitch of the mouth.
"Ah," the professor would say, "now, is that really so? Very interesting, indeed."
Only once, when Ukridge was describing some more than usually original device for the furthering of the interests of his fowls, did a slight spasm disturb Phyllis's look of attentive reverence.
"And you have really had no previous experience in chicken farming?" she said.
"None," said Ukridge, beaming through his glasses, "not an atom. But I can turn my hand to anything, you know. Things seem to come naturally to me, somehow."
"I see," said Phyllis.
It was while matters were progressing with such beautiful smoothness that I observed the square form of the hired retainer approaching us. Somehow—I cannot say why—I had a feeling that he came with bad news. Perhaps it was his air of quiet satisfaction which struck me as ominous.
"Beg pardon, Mr. Ukridge, sir."
Ukridge was in the middle of a very eloquent excursus on the feeding of fowls. The interruption annoyed him.
"Well, Beale," he said, "what is it?"
"That there cat, sir, what came to-day."
"O Beale," cried Mrs. Ukridge in agitation, "what has happened?"
"Having something to say to the missus—"
"What has happened? O Beale, don't say that Edwin has been hurt? Where is he? Oh, poor Edwin!"
"Having something to say to the missus—"
"If Bob has bitten him, I hope he had his nose well scratched," said Mrs. Ukridge vindictively.
"Having something to say to the missus," resumed the hired retainer tranquilly, "I went into the kitchen ten minutes back. The cat was sitting on the mat."
Beale's narrative style closely resembled that of a certain book I had read in my infancy. I wish I could remember its title. It was a well-written book.
"Yes, Beale, yes?" said Mrs. Ukridge. "Oh, do go on!"
"'Halloo, puss,' I says to him, 'and 'ow are you, sir?' 'Be careful,' says the missus. ''E's that timid,' she says, 'you wouldn't believe,' she says. ''E's only just settled down, as you may say,' she says. 'Ho, don't you fret,' I says to her, ''im and me we understands each other. 'Im and me,' I says, 'is old friends. 'E's me dear old pal, Corporal Banks, of the Skrimshankers.' She grinned at that, ma'am, Corporal Banks being a man we'd 'ad many a 'earty laugh at in the old days. 'E was, in a manner of speaking, a joke between us."
"Oh, do—go—on, Beale! What has happened to Edwin?"
The hired retainer proceeded in calm, even tones.
"We was talking there, ma'am, when Bob, which had followed me unknown, trotted in. When the cat ketched sight of 'im sniffing about, there was such a spitting and swearing as you never 'eard, and blowed," said Mr. Beale amusedly, as if the recollection tickled him, "blowed if the old cat didn't give one jump and move in quick time up the chimley, where 'e now remains, paying no 'eed to the missus's attempts to get him down again."
Sensation, as they say in the reports.
"But he'll be cooked," cried Phyllis, open-eyed.
Ukridge uttered a roar of dismay.
"No, he won't. Nor will our dinner. Mrs. Beale always lets the kitchen fire out during the afternoon. It's a cold dinner we'll get to-night, if that cat doesn't come down."
The professor's face fell. I had remarked on the occasion when I had lunched with him his evident fondness for the pleasures of the table. Cold, impromptu dinners were plainly not to his taste.
We went to the kitchen in a body. Mrs. Beale was standing in front of the empty grate making seductive cat noises up the chimney.
"What's all this, Mrs. Beale?" said Ukridge.
"He won't come down, sir, not while he thinks Bob's about. And how I'm to cook dinner for five with him up the chimney I don't see, sir."
"Prod at him with a broom handle, Mrs. Beale," urged Ukridge.
"I 'ave tried that, sir, but I can't reach him, and I've only bin and drove 'im further up. What must be," added Mrs. Beale philosophically, "must be. He may come down of his own accord in the night. Bein' 'ungry."
"Then what we must do," said Ukridge in a jovial manner which to me at least seemed out of place, "is to have a regular, jolly, picnic dinner, what? Whack up whatever we have in the larder, and eat that."
"A regular, jolly, picnic dinner," repeated the professor gloomily. I could read what was passing in his mind.
"That will be delightful," said Phyllis.
"Er—I think, my dear sir," said her father, "it would be hardly fair of us to give any further trouble to Mrs. Ukridge and yourself. If you will allow me, therefore, I will—"
Ukridge became gushingly hospitable. He refused to think of allowing his guests to go empty away. He would be able to whack up something, he said. There was quite a good deal of the ham left, he was sure. He appealed to me to indorse his view that there was a tin of sardines and part of a cold fowl and plenty of bread and cheese.
"And after all," he said, speaking for the whole company in the generous, comprehensive way enthusiasts have, "what more do we want in weather like this? A nice, light, cold dinner is ever so much better for us than a lot of hot things."
The professor said nothing. He looked wan and unhappy.
We strolled out again into the garden, but somehow things seemed to drag. Conversation was fitful, except on the part of Ukridge, who continued to talk easily on all subjects, unconscious of the fact that the party was depressed, and at least one of his guests rapidly becoming irritable. I watched the professor furtively as Ukridge talked on, and that ominous phrase of Mr. Chase's concerning four-point-seven guns kept coming into my mind. If Ukridge were to tread on any of his pet corns, as he might at any minute, there would be an explosion. The snatching of the dinner from his very mouth, as it were, and the substitution of a bread-and-cheese and sardines menu had brought him to the frame of mind when men turn and rend their nearest and dearest.
The sight of the table, when at length we filed into the dining room, sent a chill through me. It was a meal for the very young or the very hungry. The uncompromising coldness and solidity of the viands was enough to appall a man conscious that his digestion needed humoring. A huge cheese faced us in almost a swash-buckling way, and I noticed that the professor shivered slightly as he saw it. Sardines, looking more oily and uninviting than anything I had ever seen, appeared in their native tin beyond the loaf of bread. There was a ham, in its third quarter, and a chicken which had suffered heavily during a previous visit to the table.
We got through the meal somehow, and did our best to delude ourselves into the idea that it was all great fun, but it was a shallow pretense. The professor was very silent by the time we had finished. Ukridge had been terrible. When the professor began a story—his stories would have been the better for a little more briskness and condensation—Ukridge interrupted him before he had got halfway through, without a word of apology, and began some anecdote of his own. He disagreed with nearly every opinion he expressed. It is true that he did it all in such a perfectly friendly way, and was obviously so innocent of any intention of giving offense, that another man might have overlooked the matter. But the professor, robbed of his good dinner, was at the stage when he had to attack somebody. Every moment I had been expecting the storm to burst.
It burst after dinner.
We were strolling in the garden when some demon urged Ukridge, apropos of the professor's mention of Dublin, to start upon the Irish question. My heart stood still.
Ukridge had boomed forth some very positive opinions of his own on the subject of Ireland before I could get near enough to him to stop him. When I did, I suppose I must have whispered louder than I had intended, for the professor heard my words, and they acted as the match to the powder.
"He's touchy on the Irish question, is he?" he thundered. "Drop it, is it? And why? Why, sir? I'm one of the best-tempered men that ever came from Ireland, let me tell you, and I will not stay here to be insulted by the insinuation that I cannot discuss Irish affairs as calmly as anyone."
"Take your hand off my arm, Mr. Garnet. I will not be treated like a child. I am as competent to discuss the affairs of Ireland without heat as any man, let me tell you."
"And let me tell you, Mr. Ukridge, that I consider your opinions poisonous. Poisonous, sir. And you know nothing whatever about the subject, sir. I don't wish to see you or to speak to you again. Understand that, sir. Our acquaintance began to-day, and it will cease to-day. Good night to you. Come, Phyllis, me dear. Mrs. Ukridge, good night."
Mr. Chase, when he spoke of four-point-seven guns, had known what he was talking about.
Why is it, I wonder, that stories of Retribution calling at the wrong address strike us as funny instead of pathetic? I myself had been amused by them many a time. In a book which I had just read, a shop woman, being vexed with an omnibus conductor, had thrown a superannuated orange at him. It had found its billet not on him, but on a perfectly inoffensive spectator. The missile, we are told, "'it a young copper full in the hyeball." I had enjoyed this when I read it, but now that fate had arranged a precisely similar situation, with myself in the role of the young copper, the fun of the thing appealed to me not at all.
It was Ukridge who was to blame for the professor's regrettable explosion and departure, and he ought by all laws of justice to have suffered for it. As it was, I was the only person materially affected. It did not matter to Ukridge. He did not care twopence one way or the other. If the professor were friendly, he was willing to talk to him by the hour on any subject, pleasant or unpleasant. If, on the other hand, he wished to have nothing more to do with us, it did not worry him. He was content to let him go. Ukridge was a self-sufficing person.
But to me it was a serious matter. More than serious. If I have done my work as historian with any adequate degree of skill, the reader should have gathered by this time the state of my feelings.
My love had grown with the days. Mr. J. Holt Schooling, or somebody else with a taste for juggling with figures, might write a very readable page or so of statistics in connection with the growth of love in the heart of a man. In some cases it is, I believe, slow. In my own I can only say that Jack's beanstalk was a backward plant in comparison. It is true that we had not seen a great deal of one another, and that, when we had met, our interviews had been brief and our conversation conventional; but it is the intervals between the meetings that do the real damage. Absence, as the poet neatly remarks, makes the heart grow fonder. And now, thanks to Ukridge's amazing idiocy, a barrier had been thrust between us. As if the business of fishing for a girl's heart were not sufficiently difficult and delicate without the addition of needless obstacles! It was terrible to have to reestablish myself in the good graces of the professor before I could so much as begin to dream of Phyllis.
Ukridge gave me no balm.
"Well, after all," he said, when I pointed out to him quietly but plainly my opinion of his tactlessness, "what does it matter? There are other people in the world besides the old buffer. And we haven't time to waste making friends, as a matter of fact. The farm ought to keep us busy. I've noticed, Garny, old boy, that you haven't seemed such a whale for work lately as you might be. You must buckle to, old horse. We are at a critical stage. On our work now depends the success of the speculation. Look at those cocks. They're always fighting. Fling a stone at them. What's the matter with you? Can't get the novel off your chest, what? You take my tip, and give your mind a rest. Nothing like manual labor for clearing the brain. All the doctors say so. Those coops ought to be painted to-day or to-morrow. Mind you, I think old Derrick would be all right if one persevered—"
"And didn't call him a fat old buffer, and contradict everything he said and spoil all his stories by breaking in with chestnuts of your own in the middle," I interrupted with bitterness.
"Oh, rot, old boy! He didn't mind being called a fat old buffer. You keep harping on that. A man likes one to be chatty with him. What was the matter with old Derrick was a touch of liver. You should have stopped him taking that cheese. I say, old man, just fling another stone at those cocks, will you? They'll eat one another."
I had hoped, fearing the while that there was not much chance of such a thing happening, that the professor might get over his feeling of injury during the night, and be as friendly as ever next day. But he was evidently a man who had no objection whatever to letting the sun go down upon his wrath, for, when I met him on the beach the following morning, he cut me in the most uncompromising fashion.
Phyllis was with him at the time, and also another girl who was, I supposed from the strong likeness between them, her sister. She had the same soft mass of brown hair. But to me she appeared almost commonplace in comparison.
It is never pleasant to be cut dead. It produces the same sort of feeling as is experienced when one treads on nothing where one imagined a stair to be. In the present instance the pang was mitigated to a certain extent—not largely—by the fact that Phyllis looked at me. She did not move her head, and I could not have declared positively that she moved her eyes; but nevertheless she certainly looked at me. It was something. She seemed to say that duty compelled her to follow her father's lead, and that the act must not be taken as evidence of any personal animus.
That, at least, was how I read off the message.
Two days later I met Mr. Chase in the village.
"Halloo! so you're back," I said.
"You've discovered my secret," said he. "Will you have a cigar or a cocoanut?"
There was a pause.
"Trouble, I hear, while I was away," he said.
"The man I live with, Ukridge, did it. Touched on the Irish question."
"He mentioned it among other things."
"And the professor went off?"
"Like a bomb."
"He would. It's a pity."
I am glad to say that I suppressed the desire to ask him to use his influence, if any, with Professor Derrick to effect a reconciliation. I felt that I must play the game.
"I ought not to be speaking to you, you know," said Mr. Chase. "You're under arrest."
"He's still—" I stopped for a word.
"Very much so. I'll do what I can."
"It's very good of you."
"But the time is not yet ripe. He may be said at present to be simmering down."
"I see. Thanks. Good-by."
And Mr. Chase walked on with long strides to the Cob.
* * * * *
The days passed slowly. I saw nothing more of Phyllis or her sister. The professor I met once or twice on the links. I had taken earnestly to golf in this time of stress. Golf, it has been said, is the game of disappointed lovers. On the other hand, it has further been pointed out that it does not follow that, because a man is a failure as a lover, he will be any good at all on the links. My game was distinctly poor at first. But a round or two put me back into my proper form, which is fair. The professor's demeanor at these accidental meetings on the links was a faithful reproduction of his attitude on the beach. Only by a studied imitation of the absolute stranger did he show that he had observed my presence.
Once or twice after dinner, when Ukridge was smoking one of his special cigars while Mrs. Ukridge petted Edwin (now moving in society once more, and in his right mind), I walked out across the fields through the cool summer night till I came to the hedge that shut off the Derricks' grounds. Not the hedge through which I had made my first entrance, but another, lower, and nearer the house. Standing there under the shade of a tree I could see the lighted windows of the drawing-room.
Generally there was music inside, and, the windows being opened on account of the warmth of the night, I was able to make myself a little more miserable by hearing Phyllis sing. It deepened the feeling of banishment.
I shall never forget those furtive visits. The intense stillness of the night, broken by an occasional rustling in the grass or the hedge; the smell of the flowers in the garden beyond; the distant drone of the sea.
"God makes sech nights, all white and still, Fur'z you can look and listen."
Another day had generally begun before I moved from my hiding place, and started for home, surprised to find my limbs stiff and my clothes bathed with dew.
Life seemed a poor institution during these days.
I ENLIST A MINION'S SERVICES
It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly for them, are the novels they write in that period of content colored with optimism? And if things are running crosswise, do they work off the resultant gloom on their faithful public? If, for instance, Mr. W. W. Jacobs had toothache, would he write like Mr. Hall Caine? If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by the Czar, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Mr. Dooley? Probably great authors have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, workaday self. For my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself completely altered the scheme of my novel. I had designed it as a light-comedy effort. Here and there a page or two to steady the reader, and show him what I could do in the way of pathos if I cared to try; but in the main a thing of sunshine and laughter. But now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it. Characters whom I had hitherto looked upon as altogether robust developed fatal illnesses. A magnificent despondency became the keynote of the book. Instead of marrying, my hero and heroine had a big scene in the last chapter, at the end of which she informed him that she was already secretly wedded to another, a man with whom she had not even a sporting chance of being happy. I could see myself correcting proofs made pulpy by the tears of emotional printers.
It would not do. I felt that I must make a determined effort to shake off my depression. More than ever the need for conciliating the professor was borne in upon me. Day and night I spurred my brain to think of some suitable means of engineering a reconciliation.
In the meantime I worked hard among the fowls, drove furiously on the links, and swam about the harbor when the affairs of the farm did not require my attention.
Things were not going very well on our model chicken farm. Little accidents marred the harmony of life in the fowl run. On one occasion a hen fell into a pot of tar, and came out an unspeakable object. Chickens kept straying into the wrong coops, and, in accordance with fowl etiquette, were promptly pecked to death by the resident. Edwin murdered a couple of Wyandottes, and was only saved from execution by the tears of Mrs. Ukridge.
In spite of these occurrences, however, his buoyant optimism never deserted Ukridge. They were incidents, annoying, but in no way affecting the prosperity of the farm.
"After all," he said, "what's one bird more or less? Yes, I know I was angry when that beast of a cat lunched off those two, but that was more for the principle of the thing. I'm not going to pay large sums for chickens so that a beastly cat can lunch well. Still, we've plenty left, and the eggs are coming in better now, though we've a deal of leeway to make up yet in that line. I got a letter from Whiteley's this morning asking when my first consignment was to arrive. You know, these people make a mistake in hurrying a man. It annoys him. It irritates him. When we really get going, Garny, my boy, I shall drop Whiteley's. I shall cut them out of my list, and send my eggs to their trade rivals. They shall have a sharp lesson. It's a little hard. Here am I, worked to death looking after things down here, and these men have the impertinence to bother me about their wretched business!"
It was on the morning after this that I heard him calling me in a voice in which I detected agitation. I was strolling about the paddock, as was my habit after breakfast, thinking about Phyllis and my wretched novel. I had just framed a more than usually murky scene for use in the earlier part of the book, when Ukridge shouted to me from the fowl run.
"Garnet, come here," he cried, "I want you to see the most astounding thing."
I joined him.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Blest if I know. Look at those chickens. They've been doing that for the last half hour."
I inspected the chickens. There was certainly something the matter with them. They were yawning broadly, as if we bored them. They stood about singly and in groups, opening and shutting their beaks. It was an uncanny spectacle.
"What's the matter with them?"
"It looks to me," I said, "as if they were tired of life. They seem hipped."
"Oh, do look at that poor little brown one by the coop," said Mrs. Ukridge sympathetically, "I'm sure it's not well. See, it's lying down. What can be the matter with it?"
"Can a chicken get a fit of the blues?" I asked. "Because, if so, that's what they've got. I never saw a more bored-looking lot of birds."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Ukridge. "We'll ask Beale. He once lived with an aunt who kept fowls. He'll know all about it. Beale!"
A sturdy form in shirt sleeves appeared through the bushes, carrying a boot. We seemed to have interrupted him in the act of cleaning it.
"Beale, you know about fowls. What's the matter with these chickens?"
The hired retainer examined the blase birds with a wooden expression on his face.
"Well?" said Ukridge.
"The 'ole thing 'ere," said the hired retainer, "is these 'ere fowls have bin and got the roop."
I had never heard of the disease before, but it sounded quite horrifying.
"Is that what makes them yawn like that?" said Mrs. Ukridge.
"And have they all got it?"
"What ought we to do?" asked Ukridge.
The hired retainer perpended.
"Well, my aunt, sir, when 'er fowls 'ad the roop, she give them snuff. Give them snuff, she did," he repeated with relish, "every morning."
"Snuff!" said Mrs. Ukridge.
"Yes, ma'am. She give them snuff till their eyes bubbled."
Mrs. Ukridge uttered a faint squeak at this vivid piece of word painting.
"And did it cure them?" asked Ukridge.
"No, sir," responded the expert soothingly. "They died."
"Oh, go away, Beale, and clean your beastly boots," said Ukridge. "You're no use. Wait a minute. Who would know about this infernal roop thing? One of those farmer chaps would, I suppose. Beale, go off to farmer Leigh at Up Lyme, and give him my compliments, and ask him what he does when his fowls get the roop."
"No, I'll go, Ukridge," I said, "I want some exercise."
I whistled to Bob, who was investigating a mole heap in the paddock, and set off to consult farmer Leigh. He had sold us some fowls shortly after our arrival, so might be expected to feel a kindly interest in their ailing families.
The path to Up Lyme lies across deep-grassed meadows. At intervals it passes over a stream by means of foot bridges. The stream curls through the meadows like a snake.
And at the first of these bridges I met Phyllis.
I came upon her quite suddenly. The other end of the bridge was hidden from my view. I could hear somebody coming through the grass, but not till I was on the bridge did I see who it was. We reached the bridge simultaneously. She was alone. She carried a sketching block. All nice girls sketch a little.
There was room for one alone on the foot bridge, and I drew back to let her pass.
As it is the privilege of woman to make the first sign of recognition, I said nothing. I merely lifted my hat in a noncommitting fashion.
"Are you going to cut me, I wonder?" I said to myself.
She answered the unspoken question as I hoped it would be answered.
"Mr. Garnet," she said, stopping at the end of the bridge.
"I couldn't tell you so before, but I am so sorry this has happened."
"You are very kind," I said, realizing as I said it the miserable inadequacy of the English language. At a crisis when I would have given a month's income to have said something neat, epigrammatic, suggestive, yet withal courteous and respectful, I could only find a hackneyed, unenthusiastic phrase which I should have used in accepting an invitation from a bore to lunch with him at his club.
"Of course you understand my friends must be my father's friends."
"Yes," I said gloomily, "I suppose so."
"So you must not think me rude if I—I—"
"Cut me," said I with masculine coarseness.
"Don't seem to see you," said she, with feminine delicacy, "when I am with my father. You will understand?"
"I shall understand."
"You see"—she smiled—"you are under arrest, as Tom says."
"I see," I said.
I watched her out of sight, and went on to interview Mr. Leigh.
We had a long and intensely uninteresting conversation about the maladies to which chickens are subject. He was verbose and reminiscent. He took me over his farm, pointing out as he went Dorkings and Cochin Chinas which he had cured of diseases generally fatal, with, as far as I could gather, Christian Science principles.
I left at last with instructions to paint the throats of the stricken birds with turpentine—a task imagination boggled at, and one which I proposed to leave exclusively to Ukridge and the hired retainer. As I had a slight headache, a visit to the Cob would, I thought, do me good. I had missed my bath that morning, and was in need of a breath of sea air.
It was high tide, and there was deep water on three sides of the Cob.
In a small boat in the offing Professor Derrick appeared, fishing. I had seen him engaged in this pursuit once or twice before. His only companion was a gigantic boatman, by name Harry Hawk.
I sat on the seat at the end of the Cob, and watched the professor. It was an instructive sight, an object lesson to those who hold that optimism has died out of the race. I had never seen him catch a fish. He did not look to me as if he were at all likely to catch a fish. Yet he persevered.
There are few things more restful than to watch some one else busy under a warm sun. As I sat there, my mind ranged idly over large subjects and small. I thought of love and chicken farming. I mused on the immortality of the soul. In the end I always returned to the professor. Sitting, as I did, with my back to the beach, I could see nothing but his boat. It had the ocean to itself.
I began to ponder over the professor. I wondered dreamily if he were very hot. I tried to picture his boyhood. I speculated on his future, and the pleasure he extracted from life.
It was only when I heard him call out to Hawk to be careful, when a movement on the part of that oarsman set the boat rocking, that I began to weave romances round him in which I myself figured.
But, once started, I progressed rapidly. I imagined a sudden upset. Professor struggling in water. Myself (heroically): "Courage! I'm coming!" A few rapid strokes. Saved! Sequel: A subdued professor, dripping salt water and tears of gratitude, urging me to become his son-in-law. That sort of thing happened in fiction. It was a shame that it should not happen in real life. In my hot youth I once had seven stories in seven weekly penny papers in the same month all dealing with a situation of the kind. Only the details differed. In "Not Really a Coward," Vincent Devereux had rescued the earl's daughter from a fire, whereas in "Hilda's Hero" it was the peppery old father whom Tom Slingsby saved. Singularly enough, from drowning. In other words, I, a very mediocre scribbler, had effected seven times in a single month what the powers of the universe could not manage once, even on the smallest scale.
I was a little annoyed with the powers of the universe.
* * * * *
It was at precisely three minutes to twelve—for I had just consulted my watch—that the great idea surged into my brain. At four minutes to twelve I had been grumbling impotently at Providence. By two minutes to twelve I had determined upon a manly and independent course of action.
Briefly, it was this. Since dramatic accident and rescue would not happen of its own accord, I would arrange one for myself. Hawk looked to me the sort of man who would do anything in a friendly way for a few shillings.
* * * * *
That afternoon I interviewed Mr. Hawk at the Net and Mackerel.
"Hawk," I said to him darkly, over a mystic and conspirator-like pot, "I want you, the next time you take Professor Derrick out fishing"—here I glanced round, to make sure that we were not overheard—"to upset him."
His astonished face rose slowly from the rim of the pot, like a full moon.
"What 'ud I do that for?" he gasped.
"Five shillings, I hope," said I; "but I am prepared to go to ten."
I argued with the man. I was eloquent, but at the same time concise. My choice of words was superb. I crystallized my ideas into pithy sentences which a child could have understood.
At the end of half an hour he had grasped all the salient points of the scheme. Also he imagined that I wished the professor upset by way of a practical joke. He gave me to understand that this was the type of humor which was to be expected from a gentleman from London. I am afraid he must at one period of his career have lived at one of those watering places to which trippers congregate. He did not seem to think highly of the Londoner.
I let it rest at that. I could not give my true reason, and this served as well as any.
At the last moment he recollected that he, too, would get wet when the accident took place, and raised his price to a sovereign.
A mercenary man. It is painful to see how rapidly the old simple spirit is dying out in rural districts. Twenty years ago a fisherman would have been charmed to do a little job like that for a shilling.
THE BRAVE PRESERVER
I could have wished, during the next few days, that Mr. Harry Hawk's attitude toward myself had not been so unctuously confidential and mysterious. It was unnecessary, in my opinion, for him to grin meaningly whenever he met me in the street. His sly wink when we passed each other on the Cob struck me as in indifferent taste. The thing had been definitely arranged (half down and half when it was over), and there was no need for any cloak and dark-lantern effects. I objected strongly to being treated as the villain of a melodrama. I was merely an ordinary well-meaning man, forced by circumstances into doing the work of Providence. Mr. Hawk's demeanor seemed to say:
"We are two reckless scoundrels, but bless you, I won't give away your guilty secret."
The climax came one morning as I was going along the street toward the beach. I was passing a dark doorway, when out shimmered Mr. Hawk as if he had been a specter instead of the most substantial man within a radius of ten miles.
"St!" he whispered.
"Now look here, Hawk," I said wrathfully, for the start he had given me had made me bite my tongue, "this has got to stop. I refuse to be haunted in this way. What is it now?"
"Mr. Derrick goes out this morning, zur."
"Thank goodness for that," I said. "Get it over this morning, then, without fail. I couldn't stand another day of this."
I went on to the Cob, where I sat down. I was excited. Deeds of great import must shortly be done. I felt a little nervous. It would never do to bungle the thing. Suppose by some accident I were to drown the professor, or suppose that, after all, he contented himself with a mere formal expression of thanks and refused to let bygones be bygones. These things did not bear thinking of.
I got up and began to pace restlessly to and fro.
Presently from the farther end of the harbor there put off Mr. Hawk's boat, bearing its precious cargo. My mouth became dry with excitement.
Very slowly Mr. Hawk pulled round the end of the Cob, coming to a standstill some dozen yards from where I was performing my beat. It was evidently here that the scene of the gallant rescue had been fixed.
My eyes were glued upon Mr. Hawk's broad back. The boat lay almost motionless on the water. I had never seen the sea smoother.
It seemed as if this perfect calm might continue for ever. Mr. Hawk made no movement. Then suddenly the whole scene changed to one of vast activity. I heard Mr. Hawk utter a hoarse cry, and saw him plunge violently in his seat. The professor turned half round, and I caught sight of his indignant face, pink with emotion. Then the scene changed again with the rapidity of a dissolving view. I saw Mr. Hawk give another plunge, and the next moment the boat was upside down in the water, and I was shooting head foremost to the bottom, oppressed with the indescribably clammy sensation which comes when one's clothes are thoroughly wet.
I rose to the surface close to the upturned boat. The first sight I saw was the spluttering face of Mr. Hawk. I ignored him and swam to where the professor's head bobbed on the waters.
"Keep cool," I said. A silly remark in the circumstances.
He was swimming energetically but unskillfully. In his shore clothes it would have taken him at least a week to struggle to land.
I knew all about saving people from drowning. We used to practice it with a dummy in the swimming bath at school. I attacked him from the rear and got a good grip of him by the shoulders. I then swam on my back in the direction of land, and beached him at the feet of an admiring crowd. I had thought of putting him under once or twice just to show him he was being rescued, but decided against such a course as needlessly realistic. As it was, I fancy he had swallowed two or three hearty draughts of sea water.
The crowd was enthusiastic.
"Brave young feller," said somebody.
I blushed. This was fame.
"Jumped in, he did, sure enough, an' saved the gentleman!"
"Be the old soul drownded?"
"That girt fule, 'Arry 'Awk!"
I was sorry for Mr. Hawk. Popular opinion, in which the professor wrathfully joined, was against him. I could not help thinking that my fellow-conspirator did well to keep out of it all. He was now sitting in the boat, which he had restored to its normal position, baling pensively with an old tin can. To satire from the shore he paid no attention.
The professor stood up and stretched out his hand to me.
I grasped it.
"Mr. Garnet," he said, for all the world as if he had been the father of the heroine of "Hilda's Hero," "we parted recently in anger. Let me thank you for your gallant conduct, and hope that bygones will be bygones."
Like Mr. Samuel Weller, I liked his conversation much. It was "werry pretty."
I came out strong. I continued to hold his hand. The crowd raised a sympathetic cheer.
"Professor, the fault was mine. Show that you have forgiven me by coming up to the farm and putting on something dry."
"An excellent idea, me boy. I am a little wet."
We walked briskly up the hill to the farm. Ukridge met us at the gate.
He diagnosed the situation rapidly.
"You're all wet," he said.
I admitted it.
"Professor Derrick has had an unfortunate boating accident," I explained.
"And Mr. Garnet heroically dived in, in all his clothes, and saved me life," broke in the professor. "A hero, sir. A-choo!"
"You're catching cold, old horse," said Ukridge, all friendliness and concern, his little differences with the professor having vanished like thawed snow. "This'll never do. Come upstairs and get into something of Garnet's. My own toggery wouldn't fit, what? Come along, come along. I'll get you some hot water. Mrs. Beale—Mrs. Beale! We want a large can of hot water. At once. What? Yes, immediately. What? Very well, then, as soon as you can. Now, then, Garny, my boy, out with the duds. What do you think of this, now, professor? A sweetly pretty thing in gray flannel. Here's a shirt. Get out of that wet toggery, and Mrs. Beale shall dry it. Don't attempt to tell me about it till you've changed. Socks? Socks forward. Show socks. Here you are. Coat? Try this blazer. That's right. That's right."
He bustled about till the professor was clothed, then marched him downstairs and gave him a cigar.
"Now, what's all this? What happened?"
The professor explained. He was severe in his narration upon the unlucky Mr. Hawk.
"I was fishing, Mr. Ukridge, with me back turned, when I felt the boat rock violently from one side to the other to such an extent that I nearly lost me equilibrium. And then the boat upset. The man's a fool, sir. I could not see what had happened, my back being turned, as I say."
"Garnet must have seen. What happened, Marmaduke?"
I tried to smooth things over for Mr. Hawk.
"It was very sudden," I said. "It seemed to me as if the man had got an attack of cramp. That would account for it. He has the reputation of being a most sober and trustworthy fellow."
"Never trust that sort of man," said Ukridge. "They are always the worst. It's plain to me that this man was beastly drunk, and upset the boat while trying to do a dance."
The professor was in the best of tempers, and I worked strenuously to keep him so. My scheme had been so successful that its iniquity did not worry me. I have noticed that this is usually the case in matters of this kind. It is the bungled crime that brings remorse.
"We must go round the links together one of these days, Mr. Garnet," said the professor. "I have noticed you there on several occasions, playing a strong game. I have lately taken to using a Schenectady putter. It is wonderful what a difference it makes."
Golf is a great bond of union. We wandered about the grounds discussing the game, the entente cordiale growing more firmly established every moment.
"We must certainly arrange a meeting," concluded the professor. "I shall be interested to see how we stand with regard to one another. I have improved my game considerably since I have been down here—considerably."
"My only feat worthy of mention since I started the game," I said, "has been to halve a round with Angus McLurkin at St. Andrew's."
"The McLurkin?" asked the professor, impressed.
"Yes. But it was one of his very off days, I fancy. He must have had gout, or something. And I have certainly never played so well since."
"Still—" said the professor. "Yes, we must really arrange to meet."
With Ukridge, who was in one of his less tactless moods, he became very friendly.
Ukridge's ready agreement with his strictures on the erring Hawk had a great deal to do with this. When a man has a grievance he feels drawn to those who will hear him patiently and sympathize. Ukridge was all sympathy.
"The man is an unprincipled scoundrel," he said, "and should be torn limb from limb. Take my advice, Cholmondeley, and don't go out with him again. Show him that you are not a man to be trifled with. The spilled child dreads the water, what? Human life isn't safe with such men as Hawk roaming about."
"You are perfectly right, sir. The man can have no defense. I shall not employ him again."
I felt more than a little guilty while listening to this duet on the subject of the man whom I had lured from the straight and narrow path. But my attempts at excusing him were ill received. Indeed, the professor showed such distinct signs of becoming heated that I abandoned my fellow-conspirator to his fate with extreme promptness. After all, an addition to the stipulated reward—one of these days—would compensate him for any loss which he might sustain from the withdrawal of the professor's custom. Mr. Harry Hawk was in good enough case. I would see that he did not suffer.
Filled with these philanthropic feelings, I turned once more to talk with the professor of niblicks and approach shots and holes done in three without a brassy. We were a merry party at lunch—a lunch, fortunately, in Mrs. Beale's best vein, consisting of a roast chicken and sweets. Chicken had figured somewhat frequently of late on our daily bill of fare.
We saw the professor off the premises in his dried clothes, and I turned back to put the fowls to bed in a happier frame of mind than I had known for a long time. I whistled rag-time airs as I worked.
"Rum old buffer," said Ukridge meditatively. "My goodness, I should have liked to see him in the water. Why do I miss these good things?"
The fame which came to me through that gallant rescue was a little embarrassing. I was a marked man. Did I walk through the village, heads emerged from windows, and eyes followed me out of sight. Did I sit on the beach, groups formed behind me and watched in silent admiration. I was the man of the moment.
"If we'd wanted an advertisement for the farm," said Ukridge on one of these occasions, "we couldn't have had a better one than you, Garny, my boy. You have brought us three distinct orders for eggs during the last week. And I'll tell you what it is, we need all the orders we can get that'll bring us in ready money. The farm is in a critical condition, Marmaduke. The coffers are low, decidedly low. And I'll tell you another thing. I'm getting precious tired of living on nothing but chicken and eggs. So's Millie, though she doesn't say so."
"So am I," I said, "and I don't feel like imitating your wife's proud reserve. I never want to see a chicken again except alive."
For the last week monotony had been the keynote of our commissariat. We had cold chicken and eggs for breakfast, boiled chicken and eggs for lunch, and roast chicken and eggs for dinner. Meals became a nuisance, and Mrs. Beale complained bitterly that we did not give her a chance. She was a cook who would have graced an alderman's house, and served up noble dinners for gourmets, and here she was in this remote corner of the world ringing the changes on boiled chicken and roast chicken and boiled eggs and poached eggs. Mr. Whistler, set to paint signboards for public houses, might have felt the same restless discontent. As for her husband, the hired retainer, he took life as tranquilly as ever, and seemed to regard the whole thing as the most exhilarating farce he had ever been in. I think he looked on Ukridge as an amiable lunatic, and was content to rough it a little in order to enjoy the privilege of observing his movements. He made no complaints of the food. When a man has supported life for a number of years on incessant army beef, the monotony of daily chicken and eggs scarcely strikes him.
"The fact is," said Ukridge, "these tradesmen round here seem to be a sordid, suspicious lot. They clamor for money."
He mentioned a few examples. Vickers, the butcher, had been the first to strike, with the remark that he would like to see the color of Mr. Ukridge's money before supplying further joints. Dawlish, the grocer, had expressed almost exactly similar sentiments two days later, and the ranks of these passive resisters had been receiving fresh recruits ever since. To a man the tradesmen of Lyme Regis seemed as deficient in simple faith as they were in Norman blood.
"Can't you pay some of them a little on account?" I suggested. "It would set them going again."
"My dear old man," said Ukridge impressively, "we need every penny of ready money we can raise for the farm. The place simply eats money. That infernal roop let us in for I don't know what."
That insidious epidemic had indeed proved costly. We had painted the throats of the chickens with the best turpentine—at least, Ukridge and Beale had—but in spite of their efforts dozens had died, and we had been obliged to sink much more money than was pleasant in restocking the run.
"No," said Ukridge, summing up, "these men must wait. We can't help their troubles. Why, good gracious, it isn't as if they'd been waiting for the money long. We've not been down here much over a month. I never heard such a scandalous thing. 'Pon my word, I've a good mind to go round and have a straight talk with one or two of them. I come and settle down here, and stimulate trade, and give them large orders, and they worry me with bills when they know I'm up to my eyes in work, looking after the fowls. One can't attend to everything. This business is just now at its most crucial point. It would be fatal to pay any attention to anything else with things as they are. These scoundrels will get paid all in good time."
It is a peculiarity of situations of this kind that the ideas of debtor and creditor as to what constitutes good time never coincide.
I am afraid that, despite the urgent need for strict attention to business, I was inclined to neglect my duties about this time. I had got into the habit of wandering off, either to the links, where I generally found the professor and sometimes Phyllis, or on long walks by myself. There was one particular walk, along the Ware cliff, through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever set eyes on, which more than any other suited my mood. I would work my way through the woods till I came to a small clearing on the very edge of the cliff. There I would sit by the hour. Somehow I found that my ideas flowed more readily in that spot than in any other. My novel was taking shape. It was to be called, by the way, if it ever won through to the goal of a title, "The Brown-haired Girl."
I had not been inside the professor's grounds since the occasion when I had gone in through the boxwood hedge. But on the afternoon following my financial conversation with Ukridge I made my way thither after a toilet which, from its length, should have produced better results than it did.
Not for four whole days had I caught so much as a glimpse of Phyllis. I had been to the links three times, and had met the professor twice, but on both occasions she had been absent. I had not had the courage to ask after her. I had an absurd idea that my voice or my manner would betray me in some way.
The professor was not at home. Nor was Mr. Chase. Nor was Miss Norah Derrick, the lady I had met on the beach with the professor. Miss Phyllis, said the maid, was in the garden.
I went into the garden. She was sitting under the cedar by the tennis lawn, reading. She looked up as I approached.
To walk any distance under observation is one of the most trying things I know. I advanced in bad order, hoping that my hands did not really look as big as they felt. The same remark applied to my feet. In emergencies of this kind a diffident man could very well dispense with extremities. I should have liked to be wheeled up in a bath chair.
I said it was a lovely afternoon; after which there was a lull in the conversation. I was filled with a horrid fear that I was boring her. I had probably arrived at the very moment when she was most interested in her book. She must, I thought, even now be regarding me as a nuisance, and was probably rehearsing bitter things to say to the servant for not having had the sense to explain that she was out.
"I—er—called in the hope of seeing Professor Derrick," I said.
"You would find him on the links," she replied. It seemed to me that she spoke wistfully.
"Oh, it—it doesn't matter," I said. "It wasn't anything important."
This was true. If the professor had appeared then and there, I should have found it difficult to think of anything to say to him which would have accounted for my anxiety to see him.
We paused again.
"How are the chickens, Mr. Garnet?" said she.
The situation was saved. Conversationally, I am like a clockwork toy. I have to be set going. On the affairs of the farm I could speak fluently. I sketched for her the progress we had made since her visit. I was humorous concerning roop, epigrammatic on the subject of the hired retainer and Edwin.
"Then the cat did come down from the chimney?" said Phyllis.
We both laughed, and—I can answer for myself—felt the better for it.
"He came down next day," I said, "and made an excellent lunch off one of our best fowls. He also killed another, and only just escaped death himself at the hands of Ukridge."
"Mr. Ukridge doesn't like him, does he?"
"If he does, he dissembles his love. Edwin is Mrs. Ukridge's pet. He is the only subject on which they disagree. Edwin is certainly in the way on a chicken farm. He has got over his fear of Bob, and is now perfectly lawless. We have to keep a constant eye on him."
"And have you had any success with the incubator? I love incubators. I have always wanted to have one of my own, but we have never kept fowls."
"The incubator has not done all that it should have done," I said. "Ukridge looks after it, and I fancy his methods are not the right methods. I don't know if I have got the figures absolutely correct, but Ukridge reasons on these lines. He says you are supposed to keep the temperature up to a hundred and five degrees. I think he said a hundred and five. Then the eggs are supposed to hatch out in a week or so. He argues that you may just as well keep the temperature at seventy-two, and wait a fortnight for your chickens. I am certain there's a fallacy in the system somewhere, because we never seem to get as far as the chickens. But Ukridge says his theory is mathematically sound and he sticks to it."
"Are you quite sure that the way you are doing it is the best way to manage a chicken farm?"
"I should very much doubt it. I am a child in these matters. I had only seen a chicken in its wild state once or twice before we came down here. I had never dreamed of being an active assistant on a real farm. The whole thing began like Mr. George Ade's fable of the author. An author—myself—was sitting at his desk trying to turn out something that could be converted into breakfast food, when a friend came in and sat down on the table and told him to go right on and not mind him."
"Did Mr. Ukridge do that?"
"Very nearly that. He called at my rooms one beautiful morning when I was feeling desperately tired of London and overworked and dying for a holiday, and suggested that I should come to Lyme Regis with him and help him farm chickens. I have not regretted it."
"It is a lovely place, isn't it?"
"The loveliest I have ever seen. How charming your garden is."
"Shall we go and look at it? You have not seen the whole of it."
As she rose I saw her book, which she had laid face downward on the grass beside her. It was that same much-enduring copy of "The Maneuvers of Arthur." I was thrilled. This patient perseverance must surely mean something.
She saw me looking at it.
"Did you draw Pamela from anybody?" she asked suddenly.
I was glad now that I had not done so. The wretched Pamela, once my pride, was for some reason unpopular with the only critic about whose opinion I cared, and had fallen accordingly from her pedestal.
As we wandered down the gravel paths she gave me her opinion of the book. In the main it was appreciative. I shall always associate the scent of yellow lubin with the higher criticism.
"Of course I don't know anything about writing books," she said.
"Yes?" My tone implied, or I hoped it did, that she was an expert on books, and that if she was not it didn't matter.
"But I don't think you do your heroines well. I have got 'The Outsider'—"
(My other novel. Bastable & Kirby, six shillings. Satirical. All about society, of which I know less than I know about chicken farming. Slated by Times and Spectator. Well received by the Pelican.)
"—and," continued Phyllis, "Lady Maud is exactly the same as Pamela in 'The Maneuvers of Arthur.' I thought you must have drawn both characters from some one you knew."
"No," I said; "no."
"I am so glad," said Phyllis.
And then neither of us seemed to have anything to say.
My knees began to tremble. I realized that the moment had arrived when my fate must be put to the touch, and I feared that the moment was premature. We cannot arrange these things to suit ourselves. I knew that the time was not yet ripe, but the magic scent of the yellow lubin was too much for me.
"Miss Derrick—" I said hoarsely.
Phyllis was looking with more intentness than the attractions of the flower justified at a rose she held in her hand. The bees hummed in the lubin.
"Miss Derrick—" I said, and stopped again.
"I say, you people," said a cheerful voice, "tea is ready. Halloo, Garnet, how are you? That medal arrived yet from the humane society?"
I spun round. Mr. Tom Chase was standing at the end of the path. I grinned a sickly grin.
"Well, Tom," said Phyllis.
And there was, I thought, just the faintest trace of annoyance in her voice.
"I've been bathing," said Mr. Chase.
"Oh," I replied. "And I wish," I added, "that you'd drowned yourself."
But I added it silently to myself.
TEA AND TENNIS
"Met the professor's late boatman on the Cob," said Mr. Chase, dissecting a chocolate cake.
"Clumsy man," said Phyllis, "I hope he was ashamed of himself. I shall never forgive him for trying to drown papa."
My heart bled for Mr. Henry Hawk, that modern martyr.
"When I met him," said Tom Chase, "he looked as if he had been trying to drown his sorrow as well."
"I knew he drank," said Phyllis severely, "the very first time I saw him."
"You might have warned the professor," murmured Mr. Chase.
"He couldn't have upset the boat if he had been sober."
"You never know. He may have done it on purpose."
"Rather rough on the man, aren't you?" I said.
"Merely a suggestion," continued Mr. Chase airily. "I've been reading sensational novels lately, and it seems to me that Hawk's cut out to be a minion. Probably some secret foe of the professor's bribed him."
My heart stood still. Did he know, I wondered, and was this all a roundabout way of telling me that he knew?
"The professor may be a member of an anarchist league, or something, and this is his punishment for refusing to assassinate the Kaiser."
"Have another cup of tea, Tom, and stop talking nonsense."
Mr. Chase handed in his cup.
"What gave me the idea that the upset was done on purpose was this. I saw the whole thing from the Ware cliff. The spill looked to me just like dozens I had seen at Malta."
"Why do they upset themselves on purpose at Malta particularly?" inquired Phyllis.
"Listen carefully, my dear, and you'll know more about the ways of the navy that guards your coasts than you did before. When men are allowed on shore at Malta, the owner has a fancy to see them snugly on board again at a certain reasonable hour. After that hour any Maltese policeman who brings them aboard gets one sovereign, cash. But he has to do all the bringing part of it on his own. Consequence is, you see boats rowing out to the ship, carrying men who have overstayed their leave; and, when they get near enough, the able-bodied gentleman in custody jumps to his feet, upsets the boat, and swims to the gangway. The policemen, if they aren't drowned—they sometimes are—race him, and whichever gets there first wins. If it's the policeman, he gets his sovereign. If it's the sailor, he is considered to have arrived not in a state of custody, and gets off easier. What a judicious remark that was of the Governor of North Carolina to the Governor of South Carolina! Just one more cup, please, Phyllis."
"But how does all that apply?" I asked, dry-mouthed.
"Why, Hawk upset the professor just as those Maltese were upset. There's a patent way of doing it. Furthermore, by judicious questioning, I found that Hawk was once in the navy, and stationed at Malta. Now, who's going to drag in Sherlock Holmes?"
"You don't really think—" I said, feeling like a criminal in the dock when the case is going against him.
"I think friend Hawk has been reenacting the joys of his vanished youth, so to speak."
"He ought to be prosecuted," said Phyllis, blazing with indignation.
Alas, poor Hawk!
"Nobody's safe with a man of that sort hiring out a boat."
Oh, miserable Hawk!
"But why on earth," I asked, as calmly as possible, "should he play a trick like that on Professor Derrick, Chase?"
"Pure animal spirits, probably. Or he may, as I say, be a minion."
I was hot all over.
"I shall tell father that," said Phyllis in her most decided voice, "and see what he says. I don't wonder at the man taking to drink after doing such a thing."
"I—I think you're making a mistake," I said.
"I never make mistakes," Mr. Chase replied. "I am called Archibald the All Right, for I am infallible. I propose to keep a reflective eye upon the jovial Hawk."
He helped himself to another section of the chocolate cake.
"Haven't you finished yet, Tom?" inquired Phyllis. "I'm sure Mr. Garnet's getting tired of sitting talking here."
I shot out a polite negative. Mr. Chase explained with his mouth full that he had by no means finished. Chocolate cake, it appeared, was the dream of his life. When at sea he was accustomed to lie awake o' nights thinking of it.
"You don't seem to realize," he said, "that I have just come from a cruise on a torpedo boat. There was such a sea on, as a rule, that cooking operations were entirely suspended, and we lived on ham and sardines—without bread."
"On the other hand," added Mr. Chase philosophically, "it didn't matter much, because we were all ill most of the time."
"Don't be nasty, Tom."
"I was merely defending myself. I hope Mr. Hawk will be able to do as well when his turn comes. My aim, my dear Phyllis, is to show you in a series of impressionist pictures the sort of thing I have to go through when I'm not here. Then perhaps you won't rend me so savagely over a matter of five minutes' lateness for breakfast."
"Five minutes! It was three quarters of an hour, and everything was simply frozen."
"Quite right, too, in weather like this. You're a slave to convention, Phyllis. You think breakfast ought to be hot, so you always have it hot. On occasion I prefer mine cold. Mine is the truer wisdom. I have scoffed the better part, as the good Kipling has it. You can give the cook my compliments, Phyllis, and tell her—gently, for I don't wish the glad news to overwhelm her—that I enjoyed that cake. Say that I shall be glad to hear from her again. Care for a game of tennis, Garnet?"
"What a pity Norah isn't here," said Phyllis. "We could have had a four."
"But she is at present wasting her sweetness on the desert air of Yeovil. You had better sit out and watch us, Phyllis. Tennis in this sort of weather is no job for the delicately nurtured feminine. I will explain the finer points of my play as we go on. Look out particularly for the Doherty Back-handed Slosh. A winning stroke every time."
We proceeded to the tennis court. I played with the sun in my eyes. I might, if I chose, emphasize that fact, and attribute my subsequent rout to it, adding, by way of solidifying the excuse, that I was playing in a strange court with a borrowed racket, and that my mind was preoccupied—firstly, with l'affaire Hawk; secondly, and chiefly, with the gloomy thought that Phyllis and my opponent seemed to be on fiendishly good terms with each other. Their manner at tea had been almost that of an engaged couple. There was a thorough understanding between them. I will not, however, take refuge behind excuses. I admit, without qualifying the statement, that Mr. Chase was too good for me. I had always been under the impression that lieutenants in the royal navy were not brilliant at tennis. I had met them at various houses, but they had never shone conspicuously. They had played an earnest, unobtrusive game, and generally seemed glad when it was over. Mr. Chase was not of this sort. His service was bottled lightning. His returns behaved like jumping crackers. He won the first game in precisely four strokes. He served. I know now how soldiers feel under fire. The balls whistled at me like live things. Only once did I take the service with the full face of the racket, and then I seemed to be stopping a bullet. I returned it into the net.
"Game," said Mr. Chase.
I felt a worm, and no man. Phyllis, I thought, would probably judge my entire character from this exhibition. A man, she would reflect, who could be so feeble and miserable a failure at tennis, could not be good for much in any department of life. She would compare me instructively with my opponent, and contrast his dash and brilliance with my own inefficiency. Somehow, the massacre was beginning to have a bad effect on my character. My self-respect was ebbing. A little more of this, and I should become crushed—a mere human jelly. It was my turn to serve. Service is my strong point at tennis. I am inaccurate but vigorous, and occasionally send in a quite unplayable shot. One or two of these, even at the expense of a fault or so, and I might be permitted to retain at least a portion of my self-respect.
I opened with two faults. The sight of Phyllis, sitting calm and cool in her chair under the cedar, unnerved me. I served another fault. And yet another.
"Here, I say, Garnet," observed Mr. Chase plaintively, "do put me out of this hideous suspense. I'm becoming a mere bundle of quivering ganglions."
I loath facetiousness in moments of stress. I frowned austerely, made no reply, and served another fault, my fifth.
Matters had reached a crisis. Even if I had to lob it under hand, I must send the ball over the net with this next stroke.
I restrained myself this time, eschewing the careless vigor which had marked my previous efforts. The ball flew in a slow semicircle, and pitched inside the correct court. At least, I told myself, I had not served a fault.
What happened then I cannot exactly say. I saw my opponent spring forward like a panther and whirl his racket. The next moment the back net was shaking violently and the ball was rolling swiftly along the ground on a return journey to the other court.
"Love—forty," said Mr. Chase. "Phyllis!"
"That was the Doherty Slosh."
"I thought it must be," said Phyllis.
The game ended with another brace of faults.
In the third game I managed to score fifteen. By the merest chance I returned one of his red-hot serves, and—probably through surprise—he failed to send it back again.
In the fourth and fifth games I omitted to score.
We began the sixth game. And now for some reason I played really well. I struck a little vein of brilliance. I was serving, and this time a proportion of my serves went over the net instead of trying to get through. The score went from fifteen all to forty-fifteen. Hope began to surge through my veins. If I could keep this up, I might win yet.
The Doherty Slosh diminished my lead by fifteen. The Renshaw Slam brought the score to Deuce. Then I got in a really fine serve, which beat him. 'Vantage in. Another Slosh. Deuce. Another Slam. 'Vantage out. It was an awesome moment. There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood—I served. Fault. I served again—a beauty. He returned it like a flash into the corner of the court. With a supreme effort I got to it. We rallied. I was playing like a professor. Then whizz!
The Doherty Slosh had beaten me on the post.
"Game and—" said Mr. Chase, twirling his racket into the air and catching it by the handle. "Good game that last one."
I turned to see what Phyllis thought of it. At the eleventh hour I had shown her of what stuff I was made.
She had disappeared.
"Looking for Miss Derrick?" said Chase, jumping the net, and joining me in my court; "she's gone into the house."
"When did she go?"
"At the end of the fifth game," said Chase.
"Gone to dress for dinner, I suppose," he continued. "It must be getting late. I think I ought to be going, too, if you don't mind. The professor gets a little restive if I keep him waiting for his daily bread. Great Scott, that watch can't be right! What do you make it? Yes, so do I. I really think I must run. You won't mind? Good night, then. See you to-morrow, I hope."
I walked slowly out across the fields. That same star, in which I had confided on a former occasion, was at its post. It looked placid and cheerful. It never got beaten by six games to love under the eyes of its particular lady star. It was never cut out ignominiously by infernally capable lieutenants in his Majesty's navy. No wonder it was cheerful.
It must be pleasant to be a star.
A COUNCIL OF WAR
"The fact is," said Ukridge, "if things go on as they are now, old horse, we shall be in the cart. This business wants bucking up. We don't seem to be making headway. What we want is time. If only these scoundrels of tradesmen would leave us alone for a spell, we might get things going properly. But we're hampered and worried and rattled all the time. Aren't we, Millie?"
"You don't let me see the financial side of the thing," I said, "except at intervals. I didn't know we were in such a bad way. The fowls look fit enough, and Edwin hasn't had one for a week."
"Edwin knows as well as possible when he's done wrong, Mr. Garnet," said Mrs. Ukridge. "He was so sorry after he had killed those other two."
"Yes," said Ukridge. "I saw to that."
"As far as I can see," I continued, "we're going strong. Chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a shade monotonous, but look at the business we're doing. We sold a whole heap of eggs last week."
"It's not enough, Garny, my boy. We sell a dozen eggs where we ought to be selling a hundred, carting them off in trucks for the London market. Harrod's and Whiteley's and the rest of them are beginning to get on their hind legs, and talk. That's what they're doing. You see, Marmaduke, there's no denying it—we did touch them for a lot of things on account, and they agreed to take it out in eggs. They seem to be getting tired of waiting."
"Their last letter was quite pathetic," said Mrs. Ukridge.
I had a vision of an eggless London. I seemed to see homes rendered desolate and lives embittered by the slump, and millionaires bidding against one another for the few specimens Ukridge had actually managed to dispatch to Brompton and Bayswater.
"I told them in my last letter but three," continued Ukridge complainingly, "that I proposed to let them have the eggs on the Times installment system, and they said I was frivolous. They said that to send thirteen eggs as payment for goods supplied to the value of twenty-five pounds one shilling and sixpence was mere trifling. Trifling! when those thirteen eggs were absolutely all we had over that week after Mrs. Beale had taken what she wanted for the kitchen. I tell you what it is, old boy, that woman literally eats eggs."
"The habit is not confined to her," I said.
"What I mean to say is, she seems to bathe in them."
An impressive picture to one who knew Mrs. Beale.
"She says she needs so many for puddings, dear," said Mrs. Ukridge. "I spoke to her about it yesterday. And, of course, we often have omelets."
"She can't make omelets without breakings eggs," I urged.
"She can't make them without breaking us," said Ukridge. "One or two more omelets and we're done for. Another thing," he continued, "that incubator thing won't work. I don't know what's wrong with it."
"Perhaps it's your dodge of letting down the temperature."
I had touched upon a tender point.
"My dear fellow," he said earnestly, "there's nothing the matter with my figures. It's a mathematical certainty. What's the good of mathematics if not to help you work out that sort of thing? No, there's something wrong with the machine itself, and I shall probably make a complaint to the people I got it from. Where did we get the incubator, Millie?"
"Harrod's, I think, dear. Yes, it was Harrod's. It came down with the first lot of things from there."
"Then," said Ukridge, banging the table with his fist, while his glasses flashed triumph, "we've got 'em! Write and answer that letter of theirs to-night, Millie. Sit on them."
"And tell 'em that we'd have sent 'em their confounded eggs weeks ago if only their rotten, twopenny-ha'penny incubator had worked with any approach to decency."
"Or words to that effect," I suggested.
"Add in a postscript that I consider that the manufacturer of the thing ought to rent a padded cell at Earlswood, and that they are scoundrels for palming off a groggy machine of that sort on me. I'll teach them!"
"The ceremony of opening the morning's letters at Harrod's ought to be full of interest and excitement to-morrow," I said.
This dashing counter stroke served to relieve Ukridge's pessimistic mood. He seldom looked on the dark side of things for long at a time. He began now to speak hopefully of the future. He planned out ingenious, if somewhat impracticable, improvements in the farm. Our fowls were to multiply so rapidly and consistently that within a short space of time Dorsetshire would be paved with them. Our eggs were to increase in size till they broke records, and got three-line notices in the "Items of Interest" column of the Daily Mail. Briefly, each hen was to become a happy combination of rabbit and ostrich.
"There is certainly a good time coming," I said. "May it be soon. Meanwhile, there remain the local tradesmen. What of them?"
Ukridge relapsed once more into pessimism.
"They are the worst of the lot," he said. "I don't mind about the London men so much. They only write. And a letter or two hurts nobody. But when it comes to butchers and bakers and grocers and fishmongers and fruiterers, and what not, coming up to one's house and dunning one in one's own garden—well, it's a little hard, what?"
It may be wondered why, before things came to such a crisis, I had not placed my balance at the bank at the disposal of the senior partner for use on behalf of the firm. The fact was that my balance was at the moment small. I have not yet in the course of this narrative gone into my pecuniary position, but I may state here that it was an inconvenient one. It was big with possibilities, but of ready cash there was but a meager supply. My parents had been poor, but I had a wealthy uncle. Uncles are notoriously careless of the comfort of their nephews. Mine was no exception. He had views. He was a great believer in matrimony, as, having married three wives—not, I should add, simultaneously—he had every right to be. He was also of opinion that the less money the young bachelor possessed, the better. The consequence was that he announced his intention of giving me a handsome allowance from the day that I married, but not an instant before. Till that glad day I would have to shift for myself. And I am bound to admit that—for an uncle—it was a remarkably sensible idea. I am also of opinion that it is greatly to my credit, and a proof of my pure and unmercenary nature, that I did not instantly put myself up to be raffled for, or rush out into the streets and propose marriage to the first lady I met. I was making enough with my pen to support myself, and, be it ever so humble, there is something pleasant in a bachelor existence, or so I had thought until very recently.
I had thus no great stake in Ukridge's chicken farm. I had contributed a modest five pounds to the preliminary expenses, and another five pounds after the roop incident. But further I could not go with safety. When his income is dependent on the whims of editors and publishers, the prudent man keeps something up his sleeve against a sudden slump in his particular wares. I did not wish to have to make a hurried choice between matrimony and the workhouse.
Having exhausted the subject of finance—or, rather, when I began to feel that it was exhausting me—I took my clubs and strolled up the hill to the links to play off a match with a sportsman from the village. I had entered some days previously a competition for a trophy (I quote the printed notice) presented by a local supporter of the game, in which up to the present I was getting on nicely. I had survived two rounds, and expected to beat my present opponent, which would bring me into the semi-final. Unless I had bad luck, I felt that I ought to get into the final, and win it. As far as I could gather from watching the play of my rivals, the professor was the best of them, and I was convinced that I should have no difficulty with him. But he had the most extraordinary luck at golf, though he never admitted it. He also exercised quite an uncanny influence on his opponent. I have seen men put completely off their stroke by his good fortune.
I disposed of my man without difficulty. We parted a little coldly. He decapitated his brassy on the occasion of his striking Dorsetshire instead of his ball, and he was slow in recovering from the complex emotions which such an episode induces.
In the clubhouse I met the professor, whose demeanor was a welcome contrast to that of my late antagonist. The professor had just routed his opponent, and so won through to the semi-final. He was warm but jubilant.
I congratulated him, and left the place.
Phyllis was waiting outside. She often went round the course with him.
"Good afternoon," I said. "Have you been round with the professor?"
"Yes. We must have been in front of you. Father won his match."
"So he was telling me. I was very glad to hear it."
"Did you win, Mr. Garnet?"
"Yes. Pretty easily. My opponent had bad luck all through. Bunkers seemed to have a magnetic attraction for him."
"So you and father are both in the semi-final? I hope you will play very badly."
"Thank you, Miss Derrick," I said.
"Yes, it does sound rude, doesn't it? But father has set his heart on winning this year. Do you know that he has played in the final round two years running now?"
"Both times he was beaten by the same man."
"Who was that? Mr. Derrick plays a much better game than anybody I have seen on these links."
"It was nobody who is here now. It was a Colonel Jervis. He has not come to Lyme Regis this year. That is why father is hopeful."
"Logically," I said, "he ought to be certain to win."
"Yes; but, you see, you were not playing last year, Mr. Garnet."
"Oh, the professor can make rings round me," I said.
"What did you go round in to-day?"
"We were playing match play, and only did the first dozen holes; but my average round is somewhere in the late eighties."
"The best father has ever done is ninety, and that was only once. So you see, Mr. Garnet, there's going to be another tragedy this year."
"You make me feel a perfect brute. But it's more than likely, you must remember, that I shall fail miserably if I ever do play your father in the final. There are days when I play golf very badly."
Phyllis smiled. "Do you really have your off days?"
"Nearly always. There are days when I slice with my driver as if it were a bread knife."
"And when I couldn't putt to hit a haystack."
"Then I hope it will be on one of those days that you play father."
"I hope so, too," I said.
"You hope so?"
"But don't you want to win?"
"I should prefer to please you."
Mr. Lewis Waller could not have said it better.
"Really, how very unselfish of you, Mr. Garnet," she replied with a laugh. "I had no idea that such chivalry existed. I thought a golfer would sacrifice anything to win a game."
"And trample on the feelings of anybody."
"Not everybody," I said.
At this point the professor joined us.
THE ARRIVAL OF NEMESIS
Some people do not believe in presentiments. They attribute that curious feeling that something unpleasant is going to happen to such mundane causes as liver or a chill or the weather. For my own part, I think there is more in the matter than the casual observer might imagine.
I awoke three days after my meeting with the professor at the clubhouse filled with a dull foreboding. Somehow I seemed to know that that day was going to turn out badly for me. It may have been liver or a chill, but it was certainly not the weather. The morning was perfect, the most glorious of a glorious summer. There was a haze over the valley and out to sea which suggested a warm noon, when the sun should have begun the serious duties of the day. The birds were singing in the trees and breakfasting on the lawn, while Edwin, seated on one of the flower beds, watched them with the eye of a connoisseur. Occasionally, when a sparrow hopped in his direction, he would make a sudden spring, and the bird would fly away to the other side of the lawn. I had never seen Edwin catch a sparrow. I believe they looked on him as a bit of a crank, and humored him by coming within springing distance, just to keep him amused. Dashing young cock sparrows would show off before their particular hen sparrows, and earn a cheap reputation for dare-deviltry by going within so many yards of Edwin's lair and then darting away.
Bob was in his favorite place on the gravel. I took him with me down to the Cob to watch me bathe.
"What's the matter with me to-day, Robert, old man?" I asked him as I dried myself.
He blinked lazily, but contributed no suggestion.
"It's no good looking bored," I went on, "because I'm going to talk about myself, however much it bores you. Here am I, as fit as a prize fighter; living in the open air for I don't know how long; eating good, plain food; bathing every morning—sea bathing, mind you; and yet what's the result? I feel beastly."
Bob yawned and gave a little whine.
"Yes," I said, "I know I'm in love. But that can't be it, because I was in love just as much a week ago, and I felt all right then. But isn't she an angel, Bob? Eh? Isn't she? But how about Tom Chase? Don't you think he's a dangerous man? He calls her by her Christian name, you know, and behaves generally as if she belonged to him. And then he sees her every day, while I have to trust to meeting her at odd times, and then I generally feel like such a fool I can't think of anything to talk about except golf and the weather. He probably sings duets with her after dinner. And you know what comes of duets after dinner."
Here Bob, who had been trying for some time to find a decent excuse for getting away, pretended to see something of importance at the other end of the Cob, and trotted off to investigate it, leaving me to finish dressing by myself.
"Of course," I said to myself, "it may be merely hunger. I may be all right after breakfast, but at present I seem to be working up for a really fine fit of the blues."
I whistled for Bob and started for home. On the beach I saw the professor some little distance away and waved my towel in a friendly manner. He made no reply.
Of course it was possible that he had not seen me, but for some reason his attitude struck me as ominous. As far as I could see, he was looking straight at me, and he was not a shortsighted man. I could think of no reason why he should cut me. We had met on the links on the previous morning, and he had been friendliness itself. He had called me "me dear boy," supplied me with ginger beer at the clubhouse, and generally behaved as if he had been David and I Jonathan. Yet in certain moods we are inclined to make mountains out of mole-hills, and I went on my way, puzzled and uneasy, with a distinct impression that I had received the cut direct.
I felt hurt. What had I done that Providence should make things so unpleasant for me? It would be a little hard, as Ukridge would have said, if, after all my trouble, the professor had discovered some fresh crow to pluck with me. Perhaps Ukridge had been irritating him again. I wished he would not identify me so completely with Ukridge. I could not be expected to control the man. Then I reflected that they could hardly have met in the few hours between my parting from the professor at the clubhouse and my meeting with him on the beach. Ukridge rarely left the farm. When he was not working among the fowls, he was lying on his back in the paddock, resting his massive mind.
I came to the conclusion that, after all, the professor had not seen me.
"I'm an idiot, Bob," I said, as we turned in at the farm gate, "and I let my imagination run away with me."
Bob wagged his tail in approval of the sentiment.
Breakfast was ready when I got in. There was a cold chicken on the sideboard, deviled chicken on the table, and a trio of boiled eggs, and a dish of scrambled eggs. I helped myself to the latter and sat down.
Ukridge was sorting the letters.
"Morning, Garny," he said. "One for you, Millie."
"It's from Aunt Elizabeth," said Mrs. Ukridge, looking at the envelope.
"Wish she'd inclose a check. She could spare it."
"I think she would, dear, if she knew how much it was needed. But I don't like to ask her. She's so curious and says such horrid things."
"She does," said Ukridge gloomily. He probably spoke from experience. "Two for you, Sebastian. All the rest for me. Eighteen of them, and all bills."
He spread them out on the table like a pack of cards, and drew one at a venture.
"Whiteley's," he said. "Getting jumpy. Are in receipt of my favor of the 7th inst, and are at a loss to understand—all sorts of things. Would like something on account."
"Grasping of them," I said.
"They seem to think I'm doing it for fun. How can I let them have their money when there isn't any?"
"Here's one from Dorchester—Smith, the man I got the gramophone from. Wants to know when I'm going to settle up for sixteen records."
I wanted to get on with my own correspondence, but Ukridge was one of those men who compel one's attention when they are talking.
"The chicken men, the dealer people, you know, want me to pay up for the first lot of hens. Considering that they all died of roop, and that I was going to send them back, anyhow, after I'd got them to hatch out a few chickens, I call that cool. I can't afford to pay heavy sums for birds which die off quicker than I can get them in. It isn't business."
It was not my business, at any rate, so I switched off my attention from Ukridge's troubles and was opening the first of my two letters when an exclamation from Mrs. Ukridge made me look up.
She had dropped the letter she had been reading and was staring indignantly in front of her. There were two little red spots on her cheeks.
"I shall never speak to Aunt Elizabeth again," she said.
"What's the matter, old chap?" inquired Ukridge affectionately, glancing up from his pile of bills. "Aunt Elizabeth been getting on your nerves again? What's she been saying this time?"
Mrs. Ukridge left the room with a sob.
Ukridge sprang at the letter.
"If that demon doesn't stop writing letters and upsetting Millie I shall lynch her," he said. I had never seen him so genuinely angry. He turned over the pages till he came to the passage which had caused the trouble. "Listen to this, Garnet. 'I'm sorry, but not surprised, to hear that the chicken farm is not proving a great success. I think you know my opinion of your husband. He is perfectly helpless in any matter requiring the exercise of a little common sense and business capability.' I like that! 'Pon my soul, I like that! You've known me longer than she has, Garny, and you know that it's just in matters requiring common sense that I come out strong. What?"
"Of course, old man," I replied dutifully. "The woman must be a fool."
"That's what she calls me two lines farther on. No wonder Millie was upset. Why can't these cats leave people alone?"
"O woman, woman!" I threw in helpfully.
"I shan't stand it!"
"Look here! On the next page she calls me a gaby!"
"It's time you took a strong hand."
"And in the very next sentence refers to me as a perfect guffin. What's a guffin, Garny, old boy?"
"It sounds indecent."
"I believe it's actionable."
"I shouldn't wonder."
Ukridge rushed to the door.
"Millie!" he shouted.
He slammed the door, and I heard him dashing upstairs.
I turned with a sense of relief to my letters. One was from Lickford. It bore a Cornish postmark. I glanced through it, and laid it aside for a more exhaustive perusal later on.
The other was in a strange handwriting. I looked at the signature. Patrick Derrick. This was queer. What had the professor to say to me?
The next moment my heart seemed to spring to my throat.
"Sir," the letter began.
A pleasant, cheery beginning!
Then it got off the mark, so to speak, like lightning. There was no sparring for an opening, no dignified parade of set phrases leading up to the main point. It was the letter of a man who was almost too furious to write. It gave me the impression that, if he had not written it, he would have been obliged to have taken some very violent form of exercise by way of relief to his soul.
"You will be good enough," he wrote, "to look on our acquaintance as closed. I have no wish to associate with persons of your stamp. If we should happen to meet, you will be good enough to treat me as a total stranger, as I shall treat you. And, if I may be allowed to give you a word of advice, I should recommend you in future, when you wish to exercise your humor, to do so in some less practical manner than by bribing boatmen to upset your" (friends crossed out thickly, and acquaintances substituted). "If you require further enlightenment in this matter, the inclosed letter may be of service to you."
With which he remained mine faithfully, Patrick Derrick.
The inclosed letter was from one Jane Muspratt. It was bright and interesting.
DEAR SIR: My Harry, Mr. Hawk, sas to me how it was him upseting the boat and you, not because he is not steddy in a boat which he is no man more so in Lyme Regis but because one of the gentmen what keeps chikkens up the hill, the little one, Mr. Garnick his name is, says to him Hawk, I'll give you a sovrin to upset Mr. Derrick in your boat, and my Harry being esily led was took in and did but he's sory now and wishes he hadn't, and he sas he'll niver do a prackticle joke again for anyone even for a bank note.
O woman, woman!
At the bottom of everything! History is full of cruel tragedies caused by the lethal sex.
Who lost Mark Antony the world? A woman. Who let Samson in so atrociously? Woman again. Why did Bill Bailey leave home? Once more, because of a woman. And here was I, Jerry Garnet, harmless, well-meaning writer of minor novels, going through the same old mill.
I cursed Jane Muspratt. What chance had I with Phyllis now? Could I hope to win over the professor again? I cursed Jane Muspratt for the second time.
My thoughts wandered to Mr. Harry Hawk. The villain! The scoundrel! What business had he to betray me? Well, I could settle with him. The man who lays a hand upon a woman, save in the way of kindness, is justly disliked by society; so the woman Muspratt, culpable as she was, was safe from me. But what of the man Hawk? There no such considerations swayed me. I would interview the man Hawk. I would give him the most hectic ten minutes of his career. I would say things to him the recollection of which would make him start up shrieking in his bed in the small hours of the night. I would arise, and be a man and slay him—take him grossly, full of bread, with all his crimes, broad-blown, as flush as May; at gaming, swearing, or about some act that had no relish of salvation in it.
My life—ruined. My future—gray and blank. My heart—shattered. And why? Because of the scoundrel—Hawk.
Phyllis would meet me in the village, on the Cob, on the links, and pass by as if I were the invisible man. And why? Because of the reptile—Hawk. The worm—Hawk. The varlet—Hawk.
I crammed my hat on and hurried out of the house toward the village.
A CHANCE MEETING
I roamed the place in search of the varlet for the space of half an hour, and, after having drawn all his familiar haunts, found him at length leaning over the sea wall near the church, gazing thoughtfully into the waters below.
I confronted him.
"Well," I said, "you're a beauty, aren't you?"
He eyed me owlishly. Even at this early hour, I was grieved to see, he showed signs of having looked on the bitter while it was brown.
"Beauty?" he echoed.
"What have you got to say for yourself?"
It was plain that he was engaged in pulling his faculties together by some laborious process known only to himself. At present my words conveyed no meaning to him. He was trying to identify me. He had seen me before somewhere, he was certain, but he could not say where, or who I was.