"I want to know," I said, "what induced you to be such an abject idiot as to let our arrangement get known?"
I spoke quietly. I was not going to waste the choicer flowers of speech on a man who was incapable of understanding them. Later on, when he had awakened to a sense of his position, I would begin really to talk to him.
He continued to stare at me. Then a sudden flash of intelligence lit up his features.
"Mr. Garnick," he said.
"You've got it at last."
He stretched out a huge hand.
"I want to know," I said distinctly, "what you've got to say for yourself after letting our affair with the professor become public property?"
He paused a while in thought.
"Dear sir," he said at last, as if he were dictating a letter, "dear sir, I owe you—ex—exp—"
"You do," said I grimly. "I should like to hear it."
"Dear sir, listen me."
"Go on, then."
"You came me. You said, 'Hawk, Hawk, ol' fren', listen me. You tip this ol' bufflehead into sea,' you said, 'an' gormed if I don't give 'ee a gould savrin.' That's what you said me. Isn't that what you said me?"
I did not deny it.
"Ve' well. I said you, 'Right,' I said. I tipped the ol' soul into sea, and I got the gould savrin."
"Yes, you took care of that. All this is quite true, but it's beside the point. We are not disputing about what happened. What I want to know for the third time—is what made you let the cat out of the bag? Why couldn't you keep quiet about it?"
He waved his hand.
"Dear sir," he replied. "This way. Listen me."
It was a tragic story that he unfolded. My wrath ebbed as I listened. After all, the fellow was not so greatly to blame. I felt that in his place I should have acted as he had done. Fate was culpable, and fate alone.
It appeared that he had not come well out of the matter of the accident. I had not looked at it hitherto from his point of view. While the rescue had left me the popular hero, it had had quite the opposite result for him. He had upset his boat and would have drowned his passenger, said public opinion, if the young hero from London—myself—had not plunged in, and at the risk of his life brought the professor to shore. Consequently, he was despised by all as an inefficient boatman. He became a laughing stock. The local wags made laborious jests when he passed. They offered him fabulous sums to take their worst enemies out for a row with him. They wanted to know when he was going to school to learn his business. In fact, they behaved as wags do and always have done at all times all the world over.
Now, all this Mr. Hawk, it seemed, would have borne cheerfully and patiently for my sake, or, at any rate, for the sake of the good golden sovereign I had given him. But a fresh factor appeared in the problem, complicating it grievously. To wit, Miss Jane Muspratt.
"She said me," explained Mr. Hawk with pathos, "'Harry 'Awk,' she said, 'yeou'm a girt fule, an' I don't marry noone as is ain't to be trusted in a boat by hisself, and what has jokes made about him by that Tom Leigh.' I punched Tom Leigh," observed Mr. Hawk parenthetically. "'So,' she said me, 'yeou can go away, an' I don't want to see yeou again.'"
This heartless conduct on the part of Miss Muspratt had had the natural result of making him confess all in self-defense, and she had written to the professor the same night.
I forgave Mr. Hawk. I think he was hardly sober enough to understand, for he betrayed no emotion.
"It is fate, Hawk," I said, "simply fate. There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will, and it's no good grumbling."
"Yiss," said Mr. Hawk, after chewing this sentiment for a while in silence, "so she said me, 'Hawk,' she said—like that—'you're a girt fule—'"
"That's all right," I replied. "I quite understand. As I say, it's simply fate. Good-by."
And I left him.
As I was going back, I met the professor and Phyllis.
They passed me without a look.
I wandered on in quite a fervor of self-pity. I was in one of those moods when life suddenly seems to become irksome, when the future stretches blank and gray in front of one. In such a mood it is imperative that one should seek distraction. The shining example of Mr. Harry Hawk did not lure me. Taking to drink would be a nuisance. Work was what I wanted. I would toil like a navvy all day among the fowls, separating them when they fought, gathering in the eggs when they laid, chasing them across country when they got away, and even, if necessity arose, painting their throats with turpentine when they were stricken with roop. Then, after dinner, when the lamps were lit, and Mrs. Ukridge petted Edwin and sewed, and Ukridge smoked cigars and incited the gramophone to murder "Mumbling Mose," I would steal away to my bedroom and write—and write—and write—and go on writing till my fingers were numb and my eyes refused to do their duty. And, when time had passed, I might come to feel that it was all for the best. A man must go through the fire before he can write his masterpiece. We learn in suffering what we teach in song. What we lose on the swings we make up on the roundabouts. Jerry Garnet, the man, might become a depressed, hopeless wreck, with the iron planted irremovably in his soul; but Jeremy Garnet, the author, should turn out such a novel of gloom that strong critics would weep and the public jostle for copies till Mudie's doorways became a shambles.
Thus might I some day feel that all this anguish was really a blessing—effectively disguised.
But I doubted it.
We were none of us very cheerful now at the farm. Even Ukridge's spirit was a little daunted by the bills which poured in by every post. It was as if the tradesmen of the neighborhood had formed a league and were working in concert. Or it may have been due to thought waves. Little accounts came not in single spies but in battalions. The popular demand for a sight of the color of his money grew daily. Every morning at breakfast he would give us fresh bulletins of the state of mind of each of our creditors, and thrill us with the announcement that Whiteley's were getting cross and Harrod's jumpy, or that the bearings of Dawlish, the grocer, were becoming over-heated. We lived in a continual atmosphere of worry. Chicken and nothing but chicken at meals, and chicken and nothing but chicken between meals, had frayed our nerves. An air of defeat hung over the place. We were a beaten side, and we realized it. We had been playing an uphill game for nearly two months, and the strain was beginning to tell. Ukridge became uncannily silent. Mrs. Ukridge, though she did not understand, I fancy, the details of the matter, was worried because Ukridge was. Mrs. Beale had long since been turned into a soured cynic by the lack of chances vouchsafed her for the exercise of her art. And as for me, I have never since spent so profoundly miserable a week. I was not even permitted the anodyne of work. There seemed to be nothing to do on the farm. The chickens were quite happy, and only asked to be let alone and allowed to have their meals at regular intervals. And every day one or more of their number would vanish into the kitchen, and Mrs. Beale would serve up the corpse in some cunning disguise, and we would try to delude ourselves into the idea that it was something altogether different.
There was one solitary gleam of variety in our menu. An editor sent me a check for a guinea for a set of verses. We cashed that check and trooped round the town in a body, laying out the money. We bought a leg of mutton and a tongue and sardines and pineapple chunks and potted meat and many other noble things, and had a perfect banquet.
After that we relapsed into routine again.
Deprived of physical labor, with the exception of golf and bathing—trivial sports compared with work in the fowl runs at its hardest—I tried to make up for it by working at my novel.
It refused to materialize.
I felt, like the man in the fable, as if some one had played a mean trick on me, and substituted for my brain a side order of cauliflower. By no manner of means could I get the plot to shape itself. I could not detach my mind from my own painful case. Instead of thinking of my characters, I sat in my chair and thought miserably of Phyllis.
The only progress I achieved was with my villain.
I drew him from the professor and made him a blackmailer. He had several other social defects, but that was his profession. That was the thing he did really well.
It was on one of the many occasions on which I had sat in my room, pen in hand, through the whole of a lovely afternoon, with no better result than a slight headache, that I bethought me of that little paradise on the Ware Cliff, hung over the sea and backed by green woods. I had not been there for sometime, owing principally to an entirely erroneous idea that I could do more solid work sitting in a straight, hard chair at a table than lying on soft turf with the sea wind in my eyes.
But now the desire to visit that little clearing again drove me from my room. In the drawing-room below, the gramophone was dealing brassily with "Mister Blackman." Outside, the sun was just thinking of setting. The Ware Cliff was the best medicine for me. What does Kipling say?
And soon you will find that the sun and the wind And the Djinn of the Garden, too, Have lightened the Hump, Cameelious Hump, The Hump that is black and blue.
His instructions include digging with a hoe and a shovel also, but I could omit that. The sun and wind were what I needed.
I took the upper road. In certain moods I preferred it to the path along the cliff. I walked fast. The exercise was soothing.
To reach my favorite clearing I had to take to the fields on the left and strike down hill in the direction of the sea. I hurried down the narrow path.
I broke into the clearing at a jog trot, and stood panting. And at the same moment, looking cool and beautiful in her white dress, Phyllis entered it from the other side. Phyllis—without the professor.
OF A SENTIMENTAL NATURE
She was wearing a Panama, and she carried a sketching block and camp stool.
"Good evening," I said.
"Good evening," said she.
It is curious how different the same words can sound when spoken by different people. My "good evening" might have been that of a man with a particularly guilty conscience caught in the act of doing something more than usually ignoble. She spoke like a somewhat offended angel.
"It's a lovely evening," I went on pluckily.
She raised a pair of blue eyes, devoid of all expression save a faint suggestion of surprise, gazed through me for a moment at some object a couple of thousand miles away, and lowered them again, leaving me with a vague feeling that there was something wrong with my personal appearance.
Very calmly she moved to the edge of the cliff, arranged her camp stool, and sat down. Neither of us spoke a word. I watched her while she filled a little mug with water from a little bottle, opened her paint box, selected a brush, and placed her sketching block in position.
She began to paint.
Now, by all the laws of good taste, I should before this have made a dignified exit. When a lady shows a gentleman that his presence is unwelcome, it is up to him, as an American friend of mine pithily observed to me on one occasion, to get busy and chase himself, and see if he can make the tall timber in two jumps. In other words, to retire. It was plain that I was not regarded as an essential ornament of this portion of the Ware Cliff. By now, if I had been the perfect gentleman, I ought to have been a quarter of a mile away.
But there is a definite limit to what a man can do. I remained.
The sinking sun flung a carpet of gold across the sea. Phyllis's hair was tinged with it. Little waves tumbled lazily on the beach below. Except for the song of a distant blackbird running through its repertory before retiring for the night, everything was silent.
She sat there, dipping and painting and dipping again, with never a word for me—standing patiently and humbly behind her.
"Miss Derrick," I said.
She half turned her head.
One of the most valuable things which a lifetime devoted to sport teaches a man is "never play the goose game." Bold attack is the safest rule in nine cases out of ten, wherever you are and whatever you may be doing. If you are batting, attack the ball. If you are boxing, get after your man. If you are talking, go to the point.
"Why won't you speak to me?" I said.
"I don't understand you."
"Why won't you speak to me?"
"I think you know, Mr. Garnet."
"It is because of that boat accident?"
"Episode," I amended.
She went on painting in silence. From where I stood I could see her profile. Her chin was tilted. Her expression was determined.
"Is it?" I said.
"Need we discuss it?"
"Not if you do not wish."
"But," I added, "I should have liked a chance to defend myself.... What glorious sunsets there have been these last few days. I believe we shall have this sort of weather for another month."
"I should not have thought that possible."
"The glass is going up," I said.
"I was not talking about the weather."
"It was dull of me to introduce such a worn-out topic."
"You said you could defend yourself."
"I said I should like the chance to do so."
"Then you shall have it."
"That is very kind of you. Thank you."
"Is there any reason for gratitude?"
"Go on, Mr. Garnet. I can listen while I paint. But please sit down. I don't like being talked to from a height."
I sat down on the grass in front of her, feeling as I did so that the change of position in a manner clipped my wings. It is difficult to speak movingly while sitting on the ground. Instinctively, I avoided eloquence. Standing up, I might have been pathetic and pleading. Sitting down, I was compelled to be matter of fact.
"You remember, of course, the night you and Professor Derrick dined with us? When I say dined, I use the word in a loose sense."
For a moment I thought she was going to smile. We were both thinking of Edwin. But it was only for a moment, and then her face grew cold once more, and the chin resumed its angle of determination.
"Yes," she said.
"You remember the unfortunate ending of the festivities?"
"I naturally wished to mend matters. It occurred to me that an excellent way would be by doing your father a service. It was seeing him fishing that put the idea of a boat accident into my head. I hoped for a genuine boat accident. But those things only happen when one does not want them. So I determined to engineer one."
"You didn't think of the shock to my father."
"I did. It worried me very much."
"But you upset him all the same."
She looked up and our eyes met. I could detect no trace of forgiveness in hers.
"You behaved abominably," she said.
"I played a risky game, and I lost. And I shall now take the consequences. With luck I should have won. I did not have luck, and I am not going to grumble about it. But I am grateful to you for letting me explain. I should not have liked you to go on thinking that I played practical jokes on my friends. That is all I have to say, I think. It was kind of you to listen. Good-by, Miss Derrick."
I got up.
"Are you going?"
"Please sit down again."
"But you wish to be alone—"
"Please sit down!"
There was a flush on the fair cheek turned toward me, and the chin was tilted higher.
I sat down.
To westward the sky had changed to the hue of a bruised cherry. The sun had sunk below the horizon, and the sea looked cold and leaden. The blackbird had long since gone to bed.
"I am glad you told me, Mr. Garnet."
She dipped her brush in the water.
"Because I don't like to think badly of—people."
She bent her head over her painting.
"Though I still think you behaved very wrongly. And I am afraid my father will never forgive you for what you did."
Her father! As if he counted!
"But you do?" I said eagerly.
"I think you are less to blame than I thought you were at first."
"No more than that?"
"You can't expect to escape all consequences. You did a very stupid thing."
"Consider the temptation."
The sky was a dull gray now. It was growing dusk. The grass on which I sat was wet with dew.
I stood up.
"Isn't it getting a little dark for painting?" I said. "Are you sure you won't catch cold? It's very damp."
"Perhaps it is. And it is late, too."
She shut her paint box and emptied the little mug on the grass.
"You will let me carry your things?" I said.
I think she hesitated, but only for a moment. I possessed myself of the camp stool, and we started on our homeward journey. We were both silent. The spell of the quiet summer evening was on us.
"'And all the air a solemn stillness holds,'" she said softly. "I love this cliff, Mr. Garnet. It's the most soothing place in the world."
"I have found it so this evening."
She glanced at me quickly.
"You're not looking well," she said. "Are you sure you are not overworking yourself?"
"No, it's not that."
Somehow we had stopped, as if by agreement, and were facing each other. There was a look in her eyes I had never seen there before. The twilight hung like a curtain between us and the world. We were alone together in a world of our own.
"It is because I had displeased you," I said.
She laughed nervously.
"I have loved you ever since I first saw you," I said doggedly.
UKRIDGE GIVES ME ADVICE
Hours after—or so it seemed to me—we reached the spot at which our ways divided. We stopped, and I felt as if I had been suddenly cast back into the workaday world from some distant and pleasanter planet. I think Phyllis must have had something of the same sensation, for we both became on the instant intensely practical and businesslike.
"But about your father," I said briskly. I was not even holding her hand.
"That's the difficulty."
"He won't give his consent?"
"I'm afraid he wouldn't dream of it."
"You can't persuade him?"
"I can in most things, but not in this. You see, even if nothing had happened, he wouldn't like to lose me just yet, because of Norah."
"My sister. She's going to be married in October. I wonder if we shall ever be as happy as they will?"
I laughed scornfully.
"Happy! They will be miserable compared with us. Not that I know who the man is."
"Why, Tom, of course. Do you mean to say you really didn't know?"
"Tom! Tom Chase?"
"Well, I'm—hanged," I said. "When I think of the torments I've been through because of that wretched man, and all for nothing, I don't know what to say."
"Don't you like Tom?"
"Very much. I always did. But I was awfully jealous of him."
"You weren't! How silly of you."
"Of course I was. He was always about with you, and called you Phyllis, and generally behaved as if you and he were the heroine and hero of a musical comedy, so what else could I think? I heard you singing duets after dinner once. I drew the worst conclusions."
"When was that?"
"It was shortly after Ukridge had got on your father's nerves, and nipped our acquaintance in the bud. I used to come every night to the hedge opposite your drawing-room window, and brood there by the hour."
"Poor old boy!"
"Hoping to hear you sing. And when you did sing, and he joined in all flat, I used to scold. You'll probably find most of the bark worn off the tree I leaned against."
"Poor old man! Still, it's all over now, isn't it?"
"And when I was doing my very best to show off before you at tennis, you went away just as I got into form."
"I'm very sorry, but I couldn't know—could I? I thought you always played like that."
"I know. I knew you would. It nearly turned my hair white. I didn't see how a girl could ever care for a man who was so bad at tennis."
"One doesn't love a man because he's good at tennis."
"What does a girl see to love in a man?" I inquired abruptly; and paused on the verge of a great discovery.
"Oh, I don't know," she replied, most unsatisfactorily.
And I could draw no views from her.
"But about father," said she. "What are we to do?"
"He objects to me."
"He's perfectly furious with you."
"Blow, blow," I said, "thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind—"
"He'll never forgive you."
"As man's ingratitude. I saved his life—at the risk of my own. Why, I believe I've got a legal claim on him. Whoever heard of a man having his life saved, and not being delighted when his preserver wanted to marry his daughter? Your father is striking at the very root of the short-story writer's little earnings. He mustn't be allowed to do it."
"Again!" I said.
"Say it again. Do, please. Now."
"Very well. Jerry!"
"It was the first time you had called me by my Christian name. I don't suppose you've the remotest notion how splendid it sounds when you say it. There is something poetical, something almost holy, about it."
"Do be sensible. Don't you see how serious this is? We must think how we can make father consent."
"All right," I said. "We'll tackle the point. I'm sorry to be frivolous, but I'm so happy I can't keep it all in. I've got you, and I can't think of anything else."
"I'll pull myself together.... Now, say on once more."
"We can't marry without father's consent."
"Why not?" I said, not having a marked respect for the professor's whims. "Gretna Green is out of date, but there are registrars."
"I hate the very idea of a registrar," she said with decision. "Besides—"
"Poor father would never get over it. We've always been such friends. If I married against his wishes, he would—oh, you know—not let me come near him again, and not write to me. And he would hate it all the time he was doing it. He would be bored to death without me."
"Anybody would," I said.
"Because, you see, Norah has never been quite the same. She has spent such a lot of her time on visits to people that she and father don't understand each other so well as he and I do. She would try and be nice to him, but she wouldn't know him as I do. And, besides, she will be with him such a little, now she's going to be married."
"But, look here," I said, "this is absurd. You say your father would never see you again, and so on, if you married me. Why? It's nonsense. It isn't as if I were a sort of social outcast. We were the best of friends till that man Hawk gave me away like that."
"I know. But he's very obstinate about some things. You see, he thinks the whole thing has made him look ridiculous, and it will take him a long time to forgive you for that."
I realized the truth of this. One can pardon any injury to oneself, unless it hurts one's vanity. Moreover, even in a genuine case of rescue, the rescued man must always feel a little aggrieved with his rescuer when he thinks the matter over in cold blood. He must regard him unconsciously as the super regards the actor manager, indebted to him for the means of supporting existence, but grudging him the lime light and the center of the stage and the applause. Besides, everyone instinctively dislikes being under an obligation which he can never wholly repay. And when a man discovers that he has experienced all these mixed sensations for nothing, as the professor had done, his wrath is likely to be no slight thing.
Taking everything into consideration, I could not but feel that it would require more than a little persuasion to make the professor bestow his blessing with that genial warmth which we like to see in our fathers-in-law elect.
"You don't think," I said, "that time, the great healer, and so on—he won't feel kindlier disposed toward me—say in a month's time?"
"Of course, he might," said Phyllis; but she spoke doubtfully.
"He strikes me, from what I have seen of him, as a man of moods. I might do something one of these days which would completely alter his views. We will hope for the best."
"About telling father—"
"Need we tell him?" I asked.
"Yes, we must. I couldn't bear to think that I was keeping it from him. I don't think I've ever kept anything from him in my life. Nothing bad, I mean."
"You count this among your darker crimes, then?"
"I was looking at it from father's point of view. He will be awfully angry. I don't know how I shall begin telling him."
"Good heavens!" I cried, "you surely don't think I'm going to let you do that! Keep safely out of the way while you tell him? Not much. I'm coming back with you now, and we'll break the bad news together."
"No, not to-night. He may be tired and rather cross. We had better wait till to-morrow. You might speak to him in the morning."
"Where shall I find him?"
"He is certain to go to the beach before breakfast to bathe."
"Good. To-morrow, do thy worst, for I have lived to-day. I'll be there."
* * * * *
"Ukridge," I said, when I got back, "can you give me audience for a brief space? I want your advice."
This stirred him like a trumpet blast. When a man is in the habit of giving unsolicited counsel to everyone he meets, it is as invigorating as an electric shock to him to be asked for it spontaneously.
"What's up, old horse?" he asked eagerly. "I'll tell you what to do. Get on to it. Bang it out. Here, let's go into the garden."
I approved of this. I can always talk more readily in the dark, and I did not wish to be interrupted by the sudden entrance of the hired retainer or Mrs. Beale. We walked down to the paddock. Ukridge lit a cigar.
"I'm in love, Ukridge," I said.
A huge hand whistled through the darkness and smote me heavily between the shoulder blades.
"Thanks," I said; "that felt congratulatory."
"By Jove! old boy, I wish you luck. 'Pon my word, I do. Fancy you engaged! Best thing in the world for you. Never knew what happiness was till I married. A man wants a helpmeet—"
"And this man," I said, "seems likely to go on wanting. That's where I need your advice. I'm engaged to Miss Derrick."
"Miss Derrick!" He spoke as if he hardly knew whom I meant.
"You can't have forgotten her! Good heavens, what eyes some men have! Why, if I'd only seen her once, I should have remembered her all my life."
"I know now. She came to dinner here with her father, that fat little buffer."
"As you were careful to call him at the time. Thereby starting all the trouble."
"You fished him out of the water afterwards."
"Why, it's a perfect romance, old horse. It's like the stories you read."
"And write. But they all end happily. 'There is none, my brave young preserver, to whom I would more willingly intrust my daughter's happiness.' Unfortunately, in my little drama, the heavy father seems likely to forget his cue."
"The old man won't give his consent?"
"But why? What's the matter with you? If you marry, you'll come into your uncle's money, and all that."
"True. Affluence stares me in the face."
"And you fished him out of the water."
"After previously chucking him in."
"At any rate, by proxy."
I explained. Ukridge, I regret to say, laughed.
"You vagabond!" he said. "'Pon my word, old horse, to look at you, one would never have thought you'd have had it in you."
"I can't help looking respectable."
"What are you going to do about it? The old man's got it up against you good and strong, there's no doubt of that."
"That's where I wanted your advice. You're a man of resource. What would you do if you were in my place?"
Ukridge tapped me impressively on the shoulder.
"Marmaduke," he said, "there's one thing that'll carry you through any mess."
"And that is—"
"Cheek, my boy—cheek! Gall! Why, take my case. I never told you how I came to marry, did I? I thought not. Well, it was this way. You've heard us mention Millie's Aunt Elizabeth—what? Well, then, when I tell you that she was Millie's nearest relative, and it was her consent I had to gather, you'll see that it wasn't a walk-over."
"Well?" I said.
"First time I saw Millie was in a first-class carriage on the underground. I'd got a third-class ticket, by the way. We weren't alone. It was five a side. But she sat opposite me, and I fell in love with her there and then. We both got out at South Kensington. I followed her. She went to a house in Thurloe Square. I waited outside and thought it over. I had got to get into that house and make her acquaintance. So I rang the bell. 'Is Lady Lichenhall at home?' I asked. You note the artfulness? My asking for Lady Lichenhall made 'em think I was one of the upper ten—what?"
"How were you dressed?" I could not help asking.
"Oh, it was one of my frock-coat days. I'd been to see a man about tutoring his son. There was nothing the matter with my appearance. 'No,' said the servant, 'nobody of that name lives here. This is Lady Lakenheath's house.' So, you see, I had luck at the start, because the two names were a bit alike. Well, I got the servant to show me in somehow, and, once in, you can wager I talked for all I was worth. Kept up a flow of conversation about being misdirected and coming to the wrong house, and so on. Went away, and called a few days later. Called regularly. Met 'em at every theater they went to, and bowed, and finally got away with Millie before her aunt could tell what was happening, or who I was or what I was doing or anything."
"And what's the moral?" I said.
"Why, go in hard. Rush 'em. Bustle 'em. Don't give 'em a moment's rest."
"Don't play the goose game," I said with that curious thrill we feel when somebody's independent view of a matter coincides with one's own.
"That's it. Don't play the goose game. Don't give 'em time to think. Why, if I'd given Millie's aunt time to think, where should we have been? Not at Lyme Regis together, I'll bet."
"Ukridge," I said, "you inspire me. You would inspire a caterpillar. I will go to the professor—I was going anyhow—but now I shall go aggressively, and bustle him. I will surprise a father's blessing out of him, if I have to do it with a crowbar!"
I ASK PAPA
Reviewing the matter later, I see that I made a poor choice of time and place. But at the moment this did not strike me. It is a simple thing, I reflected, for a man to pass another by haughtily and without recognition, when they meet on dry land; but when the said man, being an indifferent swimmer, is accosted in the water and out of his depth, the feat becomes a hard one.
When, therefore, having undressed on the Cob on the following morning, I spied in the distance, as I was about to dive, the gray head of the professor bobbing on the face of the waters, I did not hesitate. I plunged in and swam rapidly toward him.
His face was turned in the opposite direction when I came up with him, and it was soon evident that he had not observed my approach. For when, treading water easily in his immediate rear, I wished him good morning in my most conciliatory tones, he stood not upon the order of his sinking, but went under like so much pig iron. I waited courteously until he rose to the surface once more, when I repeated my remark.
He expelled the last remnant of water from his mouth with a wrathful splutter, and cleared his eyes with the back of his hand.
"The water is delightfully warm," I said.
"Oh, it's you!" said he, and I could not cheat myself into believing that he spoke cordially.
"You are swimming splendidly this morning," I said, feeling that an ounce of flattery is often worth a pound of rhetoric. "If," I added, "you will allow me to say so."
"I will not," he snapped. "I—" Here a small wave, noticing that his mouth was open, walked in. "I wish," he resumed warmly, "as I said in me letter, to have nothing to do with you. I consider ye've behaved in a manner that can only be described as abominable, and I will thank ye to leave me alone."
"But, allow me—"
"I will not allow ye, sir. I will allow ye nothing. Is it not enough to make me the laughingstock, the butt, sir, of this town, without pursuing me in this manner when I wish to enjoy a quiet swim?"
His remarks, which I have placed on paper as if they were continuous and uninterrupted, were punctuated in reality by a series of gasps and puffings as he received and ejected the successors of the wave he had swallowed at the beginning of our little chat. The art of conducting bright conversation while in the water is not given to every swimmer. This he seemed to realize, for, as if to close the interview, he proceeded to make his way as quickly as he could toward the shore. Using my best stroke, I shot beyond him and turned, treading water as before.
"But, professor," I said, "one moment."
I was growing annoyed with the man. I could have ducked him but for the reflection that my prospects of obtaining his consent to my engagement with Phyllis would hardly have been enhanced thereby. No more convincing proof of my devotion can be given than this, that I did not seize that little man by the top of his head, thrust him under water, and keep him there.
I restrained myself. I was suave. Soothing, even.
"But, professor," I said, "one moment."
"Not one," he spluttered. "Go away, sir. I will have nothing to say to you."
"I shan't keep you a minute."
He had been trying all this while to pass me and escape to the shore, but I kept always directly in front of him. He now gave up the attempt and came to standstill.
"Well?" he said.
Without preamble I gave out the text of the address I was about to deliver to him.
"I love your daughter Phyllis, Mr. Derrick. She loves me. In fact, we are engaged," I said.
He went under as if he had been seized with cramp. It was a little trying having to argue with a man, of whom one could not predict with certainty that at any given moment he would not be under water. It tended to spoil one's flow of eloquence. The best of arguments is useless if the listener suddenly disappears in the middle of it.
However, I persevered.
"Mr. Derrick," I said, as his head emerged, "you are naturally surprised."
So far from cooling him, liberal doses of water seemed to make him more heated.
"You impudent scoundrel!"
He said that—not I. What I said was more gentlemanly, more courteous, on a higher plane altogether.
I said winningly: "Mr. Derrick, cannot we let bygones be bygones?"
From his expression I gathered that we could not.
I continued. I was under the unfortunate necessity of having to condense my remarks. I was not able to let myself go as I could have wished, for time was an important consideration. Erelong, swallowing water at his present rate, the professor must inevitably become waterlogged. It behooved me to be succinct.
"I have loved your daughter," I said rapidly, "ever since I first saw her. I learned last night that she loved me. But she will not marry me without your consent. Stretch your arms out straight from the shoulders and fill your lungs well, and you can't sink. So I have come this morning to ask for your consent. I know we have not been on the best of terms lately."
"For Heaven's sake, don't try to talk. Your one chance of remaining on the surface is to keep your lungs well filled. The fault," I said generously, "was mine. But when you have heard my explanation, I am sure you will forgive me. There, I told you so."
He reappeared some few feet to the left. I swam up and resumed:
"When you left us so abruptly after our little dinner party, you put me in a very awkward position. I was desperately in love with your daughter, and as long as you were in the frame of mind in which you left, I could not hope to find an opportunity of telling her so. You see what a fix I was in, don't you? I thought for hours and hours, to try and find some means of bringing about a reconciliation. You wouldn't believe how hard I thought. At last, seeing you fishing one morning when I was on the Cob, it struck me all of a sudden that the very best way would be to arrange a little boating accident. I was confident that I could rescue you all right."
"You young blackguard!"
He managed to slip past me, and made for the shore again.
"Strike out—but hear me," I said, swimming by his side. "Look at the thing from the standpoint of a philosopher. The fact that the rescue was arranged oughtn't really to influence you in the least. You didn't know it at the time, therefore relatively it was not, and you were genuinely saved from a watery grave."
I felt that I was becoming a shade too metaphysical, but I could not help it. What I wanted to point out was that I had certainly pulled him out of the water, and that the fact that I had caused him to be pushed in had nothing to do with the case. Either a man is a gallant rescuer or he is not a gallant rescuer. There is no middle course. I had saved his life, for he would have drowned if he had been left to himself, and was consequently entitled to his gratitude. And that was all that there was to be said about it.
These things I endeavored to make plain to him as we swam along. But whether it was that the salt water he had swallowed dulled his intelligence or that my power of stating a case neatly was to seek, the fact remains that he reached the beach an unconvinced man.
We faced one another, dripping.
"Then may I consider," I said, "that your objections are removed? We have your consent?"
He stamped angrily, and his bare foot came down on a small but singularly sharp pebble. With a brief exclamation he seized the foot with one hand and hopped. While hopping, he delivered his ultimatum. Probably this is the only instance on record of a father adopting this attitude in dismissing a suitor.
"You may not," he said. "You may not consider any such thing. My objections were never more—absolute. You detain me in the water till I am blue, sir, blue with cold, in order to listen to the most preposterous and impudent nonsense I ever heard."
This was unjust. If he had heard me attentively from the first and avoided interruptions and not behaved like a submarine, we should have got through our little business in half the time. We might both have been dry and clothed by now.
I endeavored to point this out to him.
"Don't talk to me, sir," he roared, hobbling off across the beach to his dressing tent. "I will not listen to you. I will have nothing to do with you. I consider you impudent, sir."
"I am sure it was unintentional, Mr. Derrick."
"Isch!" he said—being the first occasion and the last on which I ever heard that remarkable word proceed from the mouth of man.
And he vanished into his tent, while I, wading in once more, swam back to the Cob and put on my clothes.
And so home, as Pepys would have said, to breakfast, feeling depressed.
As I stood with Ukridge in the fowl run on the morning following my maritime conversation with the professor, regarding a hen that had posed before us, obviously with a view to inspection, there appeared a man carrying an envelope.
Ukridge, who by this time saw, as Calverley almost said, "under every hat a dun," and imagined that no envelope could contain anything but a small account, softly and silently vanished away, leaving me to interview the enemy.
"Mr. Garnet, sir?" said the foe.
I recognized him. He was Professor Derrick's gardener. What did this portend? Had the merits of my pleadings come home to the professor when he thought them over, and was there a father's blessing inclosed in the envelope which was being held out to me?
I opened the envelope. No, father's blessings were absent. The letter was in the third person. Professor Derrick begged to inform Mr. Garnet that, by defeating Mr. Saul Potter, he had qualified for the final round of the Lyme Regis Golf Tournament, in which, he understood, Mr. Garnet was to be his opponent. If it would be convenient for Mr. Garnet to play off the match on the present afternoon, Professor Derrick would be obliged if he would be at the clubhouse at half-past two. If this hour and day were unsuitable, would he kindly arrange others. The bearer would wait.
The bearer did wait, and then trudged off with a note, beautifully written in the third person, in which Mr. Garnet, after numerous compliments and thanks, begged to inform Professor Derrick that he would be at the clubhouse at the hour mentioned.
"And," I added—to myself, not in the note—"I will give him such a licking that he'll brain himself with a cleek."
For I was not pleased with the professor. I was conscious of a malicious joy at the prospect of snatching the prize from him. I knew he had set his heart on winning the tournament this year. To be runner-up two years in succession stimulates the desire for the first place. It would be doubly bitter to him to be beaten by a newcomer, after the absence of his rival, the colonel, had awakened hope in him. And I knew I could do it. Even allowing for bad luck—and I am never a very unlucky golfer—I could rely almost with certainty on crushing the man.
"And I'll do it," I said to Bob, who had trotted up.
I often make Bob the recipient of my confidences. He listens appreciatively and never interrupts. And he never has grievances of his own. If there is one person I dislike, it is the man who tries to air his grievances when I wish to air mine.
"Bob," I said, running his tail through my fingers, "listen to me. If I am in form this afternoon, and I feel in my bones that I shall be, I shall nurse the professor. I shall play with him. Do you understand the principles of match play at golf, Robert? You score by holes, not strokes. There are eighteen holes. I shall toy with the professor, Bob. I shall let him get ahead, and then catch him up. I shall go ahead myself, and let him catch me up. I shall race him neck and neck till the very end. Then, when his hair has turned white with the strain, and he's lost a couple of stone in weight, and his eyes are starting out of his head, I shall go ahead and beat him by a hole. I'll teach him, Robert. He shall taste of my despair, and learn by proof in some wild hour how much the wretched dare. And when it's all over, and he's torn all his hair out and smashed all his clubs, I shall go and commit suicide off the Cob. Because, you see, if I can't marry Phyllis, I shan't have any use for life."
Bob wagged his tail cheerfully.
"I mean it," I said, rolling him on his back and punching him on the chest till his breathing became stertorous. "You don't see the sense of it, I know. But then you've got none of the finer feelings. You're a jolly good dog, Robert, but you're a rank materialist. Bones and cheese and potatoes with gravy over them make you happy. You don't know what it is to be in love. You'd better get right side up now, or you'll have apoplexy."
It has been my aim in the course of this narrative to extenuate nothing, nor set down aught in malice. Like the gentleman who played euchre with the heathen Chinee, I state but the facts. I do not, therefore, slur over my scheme for disturbing the professor's peace of mind. I am not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments.
I felt ruthless toward the professor. I cannot plead ignorance of the golfer's point of view as an excuse for my plottings. I knew that to one whose soul is in the game, as the professor's was, the agony of being just beaten in an important match exceeds in bitterness all other agonies. I knew that if I scraped through by the smallest possible margin, his appetite would be destroyed, his sleep o' nights broken. He would wake from fitful slumber moaning that if he had only used his iron at the tenth hole all would have been well; that if he had aimed more carefully on the seventh green, life would not be drear and blank; that a more judicious manipulation of his brassy throughout might have given him something to live for. All these things I knew.
And they did not touch me. I was adamant.
* * * * *
The professor was waiting for me at the clubhouse, and greeted me with a cold and stately inclination of the head.
"Beautiful day for golf," I observed in my gay, chatty manner.
He bowed in silence.
"Very well," I thought. "Wait—just wait."
"Miss Derrick is well, I hope?" I added aloud.
That drew him. He started. His aspect became doubly forbidding.
"Miss Derrick is perfectly well, sir, I thank you."
"And you? No bad effect, I hope, from your dip yesterday?"
"Mr. Garnet, I came here for golf, not conversation," he said.
We made it so. I drove off from the first tee. It was a splendid drive. I should not say so if there were anyone else to say so for me. Modesty would forbid. But, as there is no one, I must repeat the statement. It was one of the best drives of my experience. The ball flashed through the air, took the bunker with a dozen feet to spare, and rolled onto the green. I had felt all along that I should be in form. Unless my opponent was equally above himself, he was a lost man.
The excellence of my drive had not been without its effect on the professor. I could see that he was not confident. He addressed his ball more strangely and at greater length than anyone I had ever seen. He waggled his club over it as if he were going to perform a conjuring trick. Then he struck and topped it.
The ball rolled two yards.
He looked at it in silence. Then he looked at me—also in silence.
I was gazing seaward.
When I looked round, he was getting to work with a brassy.
This time he hit the bunker and rolled back. He repeated this maneuver twice.
"Hard luck!" I murmured sympathetically on the third occasion, thereby going as near to being slain with an iron as it has ever been my lot to go. Your true golfer is easily roused in times of misfortune, and there was a red gleam in the eye the professor turned to me.
"I shall pick my ball up," he growled.
We walked on in silence to the second tee.
He did the second hole in four, which was good. I won it in three, which—unfortunately for him—was better.
I won the third hole.
I won the fourth hole.
I won the fifth hole.
I glanced at my opponent out of the corner of my eyes. The man was suffering. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead.
His play had become wilder and wilder at each hole in arithmetical progression. If he had been a plow, he could hardly have turned up more soil. The imagination recoiled from the thought of what he would be doing in another half hour if he deteriorated at his present speed.
A feeling of calm and content stole over me. I was not sorry for him. All the viciousness of my nature was uppermost in me. Once, when he missed the ball clean at the fifth tee, his eye met mine, and we stood staring at each other for a full half minute without moving. I believe if I had smiled then, he would have attacked me without hesitation. There is a type of golfer who really almost ceases to be human under stress of the wild agony of a series of foozles.
The sixth hole involves the player in a somewhat tricky piece of cross-country work. There is a nasty ditch to be negotiated. Many an optimist has been reduced to blank pessimism by that ditch. "All hope abandon, ye who enter here," might be written on a notice board over it.
The professor "entered there." The unhappy man sent his ball into its very jaws. And then madness seized him. The merciful laws of golf, framed by kindly men who do not wish to see the asylums of Great Britain overcrowded, enact that in such a case the player may take his ball and throw it over his shoulder. The same to count as one stroke. But vaulting ambition is apt to try and drive out from the ditch, thinking thereby to win through without losing a stroke. This way madness lies.
It was a grisly sight to see the professor, head and shoulders above the ditch, hewing at his obstinate Haskell.
"Sixteen!" said the professor at last between his teeth. Then, having made one or two further comments, he stooped and picked up his ball.
"I give you this hole," he said.
We walked on.
I won the seventh hole.
I won the eighth hole.
The ninth we halved, for in the black depth of my soul I had formed a plan of fiendish subtlety. I intended to allow him to win—with extreme labor—eight holes in succession.
Then, when hope was once more strong in him, I would win the last, and he would go mad.
* * * * *
I watched him carefully as we trudged on. Emotions chased one another across his face. When he won the tenth hole he merely refrained from oaths. When he won the eleventh a sort of sullen pleasure showed in his face. It was at the thirteenth that I detected the first dawning of hope. From then onward it grew. When, with a sequence of shocking shots, he took the seventeenth hole in eight, he was in a parlous condition. His run of success had engendered within him a desire for conversation. He wanted, as it were, to flap his wings and crow. I could see dignity wrestling with talkativeness.
I gave him a lead.
"You have got back your form now," I said.
Talkativeness had it. Dignity retired hurt. Speech came from him with a rush. When he brought off an excellent drive from the eighteenth tee, he seemed to forget everything.
"Me dear boy—" he began, and stopped abruptly in some confusion. Silence once more brooded over us as we played ourselves up the fairway and on to the green.
He was on the green in four. I reached it in three. His sixth stroke took him out.
I putted carefully to the very mouth of the hole.
I walked up to my ball and paused. I looked at the professor. He looked at me.
"Go on," he said hoarsely.
Suddenly a wave of compassion flooded over me. What right had I to torture the man like this? He had not behaved well to me, but in the main it was my fault. In his place I should have acted in precisely the same way. In a flash I made up my mind.
"Professor," I said.
"Go on," he repeated.
"That looks a simple shot," I said, eyeing him steadily, "but I might easily miss it."
"And then you would win the championship."
He dabbed at his forehead with a wet ball of a handkerchief.
"It would be very pleasant for you after getting so near it the last two years."
"Go on," he said for the third time. But there was a note of hesitation in his voice.
"Sudden joy," I said, "would almost certainly make me miss it."
We looked at each other. He had the golf fever in his eyes.
"If," I said slowly, lifting my putter, "you were to give your consent to my marriage with Phyllis—"
He looked from me to the ball, from the ball to me, and back again to the ball. It was very, very near the hole.
"I love her," I said, "and I have discovered she loves me.... I shall be a rich man from the day I marry—"
His eyes were still fixed on the ball.
"Why not?" I said.
He looked up, and burst into a roar of laughter.
"You young divil," said he, smiting his thigh, "you young divil, you've beaten me."
I swung my putter, and drove the ball far beyond the green.
"On the contrary," I said, "you have beaten me."
* * * * *
I left the professor at the clubhouse and raced back to the farm. I wanted to pour my joys into a sympathetic ear. Ukridge, I knew, would offer that same sympathetic ear. A good fellow, Ukridge. Always interested in what you had to tell him—never bored.
"Ukridge," I shouted.
I flung open the dining-room door. Nobody.
I went into the drawing-room. It was empty.
I searched through the garden, and looked into his bedroom. He was not in either.
"He must have gone for a stroll," I said.
I rang the bell.
The hired retainer appeared, calm and imperturbable as ever.
"Oh, where is Mr. Ukridge, Beale?"
"Mr. Ukridge, sir," said the hired retainer nonchalantly, "has gone."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Ukridge and Mrs. Ukridge went away together by the three o'clock train."
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
"Beale," I said, "what do you mean? Where have they gone?"
"Don't know, sir. London, I expect."
"When did they go? Oh, you told me that. Didn't they say why they were going?"
"Didn't you ask? When you saw them packing up and going to the station, didn't you do anything?"
"Why on earth not?"
"I didn't see them, sir. I only found out as they'd gone after they'd been and went, sir. Walking down by the 'Net and Mackerel,' met one of them coastguards. 'Oh,' says he, 'so you're moving?' 'Who's a-moving?' I says to him. 'Well,' he says to me, 'I seen your Mr. Ukridge and his missus get into the three o'clock train for Axminster. I thought as you was all a-moving.' 'Ho!' I says, 'Ho!' wondering, and I goes on. When I gets back, I asks the missus did she see them packing their boxes, and she says, 'No,' she says, they didn't pack no boxes as she knowed of. And blowed if they had, Mr. Garnet, sir."
"What, they didn't pack!"
We looked at one another.
"Beale," I said.
"Do you know what I think?"
"So I says to the missus, sir. It struck me right off, in a manner of speaking."
"This is awful," I said.
His face betrayed no emotion, but he was one of those men whose expression never varies. It's a way they have in the army.
"This wants thinking out, Beale," I said.
"You'd better ask Mrs. Beale to give me some dinner, and then I'll think it out."
I was in an unpleasant position. Ukridge, by his defection, had left me in charge of the farm. I could dissolve the concern, I supposed, if I wished, and return to London; but I particularly desired to remain in Lyme Regis. To complete the victory I had won on the links, it was necessary for me to continue as I had begun. I was in the position of a general who has conquered a hostile country, and is obliged to soothe the feelings of the conquered people before his labors can be considered at an end. I had rushed the professor. It must now be my aim to keep him from regretting that he had been rushed. I must, therefore, stick to my post with the tenacity of a boy on a burning deck. There would be trouble. Of that I was certain. As soon as the news got about that Ukridge had gone, the deluge would begin. His creditors would abandon their passive tactics and take active steps. The siege of Port Arthur would be nothing to it. There was a chance that aggressive measures would be confined to the enemy at our gates, the tradesmen of Lyme Regis. But the probability was that the news would spread and the injured merchants of Dorchester and Axminster rush to the scene of hostilities. I foresaw unpleasantness.
I summoned Beale after dinner and held a council of war. It was no time for airy persiflage.
I said, "Beale, we're in the cart."
"Mr. Ukridge going away like this has left me in a most unpleasant position. I would like to talk it over with you. I dare say you know that we—that Mr. Ukridge owes a considerable amount of money roundabout here to tradesmen?"
"Well, when they find out that he has—er—"
"Shot the moon, sir," suggested the hired retainer helpfully.
"Gone up to town," I said. "When they find that he has gone up to town, they are likely to come bothering us a good deal."
"I fancy that we shall have them all round here by the day after to-morrow at the latest. Probably earlier. News of this sort always spreads quickly. The point is, then, what are we to do?"
He propounded no scheme, but stood in an easy attitude of attention, waiting for me to continue.
"Let's see exactly how we stand," I said. "My point is that I particularly wish to go on living down here for at least another fortnight. Of course, my position is simple. I am Mr. Ukridge's guest. I shall go on living as I have been doing up to the present. He asked me down here to help him look after the fowls, so I shall go on looking after them. I shall want a chicken a day, I suppose, or perhaps two, for my meals, and there the thing ends, as far I am concerned. Complications set in when we come to consider you and Mrs. Beale. I suppose you won't care to stop on after this?"
The hired retainer scratched his chin and glanced out of the window. The moon was up and the garden looked cool and mysterious in the dim light.
"It's a pretty place, Mr. Garnet, sir," he said.
"It is," I said, "but about other considerations? There's the matter of wages. Are yours in arrears?"
"Yes, sir. A month."
"And Mrs. Beale's the same, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir. A month."
"H'm. Well, it seems to me, Beale, you can't lose anything by stopping on."
"I can't be paid any less than I have been, sir," he agreed.
"Exactly. And, as you say, it's a pretty place. You might just as well stop on and help me in the fowl run. What do you think?"
"Very well, sir."
"And Mrs. Beale will do the same?"
"That's excellent. You're a hero, Beale. I sha'n't forget you. There's a check coming to me from a magazine in another week for a short story. When it arrives I'll look into that matter of back wages. Tell Mrs. Beale I'm much obliged to her, will you?"
Having concluded that delicate business, I strolled out into the garden with Bob. It was abominable of Ukridge to desert me in this way. Even if I had not been his friend, it would have been bad. The fact that we had known each other for years made it doubly discreditable. He might at least have warned me and given me the option of leaving the sinking ship with him.
But, I reflected, I ought not to be surprised. His whole career, as long as I had known him, had been dotted with little eccentricities of a type which an unfeeling world generally stigmatizes as shady. They were small things, it was true; but they ought to have warned me. We are most of us wise after the event. When the wind has blown we generally discover a multitude of straws which should have shown us which way it was blowing.
Once, I remembered, in our school-master days, when guineas, though regular, were few, he had had occasion to increase his wardrobe. If I recollect rightly, he thought he had a chance of a good position in the tutoring line, and only needed good clothes to make it his. He took four pounds of his salary in advance—he was in the habit of doing this; he never had any of his salary left by the end of term, it having vanished in advance loans beforehand. With this he was to buy two suits, a hat, new boots, and collars. When it came to making the purchases, he found, what he had overlooked previously in his optimistic way, that four pounds did not go very far. At the time, I remember, I thought his method of grappling with the situation humorous. He bought a hat for three and sixpence, and got the suits and the boots on the installment system, paying a small sum in advance, as earnest of more to come. He then pawned one suit to pay the first few installments, and finally departed, to be known no more. His address he had given, with a false name, at an empty house, and when the tailor arrived with the minions of the law, all he found was an annoyed caretaker and a pile of letters written by himself, containing his bill in its various stages of evolution.
Or again. There was a bicycle and photograph shop near the school. He blew into this one day and his roving eye fell on a tandem bicycle. He did not want a tandem bicycle, but that influenced him not at all. He ordered it, provisionally. He also ordered an enlarging camera, a Kodak, and a magic lantern. The order was booked and the goods were to be delivered when he had made up his mind concerning them. After a week the shopman sent round to ask if there were any further particulars which Mr. Ukridge would like to learn before definitely ordering them. Mr. Ukridge sent word back that he was considering the matter, and that in the meantime would he be so good as to let him have that little clockwork man in his window, which walked when wound up? Having got this, and not paid for it, Ukridge thought that he had done handsomely by the bicycle and photograph man, and that things were square between them. The latter met him a few days afterwards and expostulated plaintively. Ukridge explained. "My good man," he said, "you know, I really think we need say no more about the matter. Really, you've come out of it very well. Now, look here, which would you rather be owed for? A clockwork man, which is broken, and you can have it back, or a tandem bicycle, an enlarging camera, a Kodak, and a magic lantern? What?" His reasoning was too subtle for the uneducated mind. The man retired, puzzled and unpaid, and Ukridge kept the clockwork toy.
A remarkable financier, Ukridge. I sometimes think that he would have done well in the city.
I did not go to bed till late that night. There was something so peaceful in the silence that brooded over everything that I stayed on, enjoying it. Perhaps it struck me as all the more peaceful because I could not help thinking of the troublous times that were to come. Already I seemed to hear the horrid roar of a herd of infuriated creditors. I seemed to see fierce brawlings and sackings in progress in this very garden.
"It will be a coarse, brutal spectacle, Robert," I said.
Bob uttered a little whine, as if he, too, were endowed with powers of prophecy.
THE STORM BREAKS
Rather to my surprise, the next morning passed off uneventfully. By lunch time I had come to the conclusion that the expected trouble would not occur that day, and I felt that I might well leave my post for the afternoon while I went to the professor's to pay my respects.
The professor was out when I arrived. Phyllis was in, and as we had a good many things of no importance to say to each other, it was not till the evening that I started for the farm again.
As I approached the sound of voices smote my ears.
I stopped. I could hear Beale speaking. Then came the rich notes of Vickers, the butcher. Then Beale again. Then Dawlish, the grocer. Then a chorus.
The storm had burst, and in my absence.
I blushed for myself. I was in command, and I had deserted the fort in time of need. What must the faithful hired man be thinking of me? Probably he placed me, as he had placed Ukridge, in the ragged ranks of those who have shot the moon.
Fortunately, having just come from the professor's, I was in the costume which of all my wardrobe was most calculated to impress. To a casual observer I should probably suggest wealth and respectability. I stopped for a moment to cool myself, for, as is my habit when pleased with life, I had been walking fast, then I opened the gate and strode in, trying to look as opulent as possible.
It was an animated scene that met my eyes. In the middle of the lawn stood the devoted Beale, a little more flushed than I had seen him hitherto, parleying with a burly and excited young man without a coat. Grouped round the pair were some dozen men, young, middle-aged, and old, all talking their hardest. I could distinguish nothing of what they were saying. I noticed that Beale's left cheek bone was a little discolored, and there was a hard, dogged expression on his face. He, too, was in his shirt sleeves.
My entry created no sensation. Nobody, apparently, had heard the latch click, and nobody had caught sight of me. Their eyes were fixed on the young man and Beale. I stood at the gate and watched them.
There seemed to have been trouble already. Looking more closely I perceived sitting on the grass apart a second young man. His face was obscured by a dirty pocket handkerchief, with which he dabbed tenderly at his features. Every now and then the shirt-sleeved young man flung his hand toward him with an indignant gesture, talking hard the while. It did not need a preternaturally keen observer to deduce what had happened. Beale must have fallen out with the young man who was sitting on the grass and smitten him, and now his friend had taken up the quarrel.
"Now this," I said to myself, "is rather interesting. Here in this one farm we have the only three known methods of dealing with duns. Beale is evidently an exponent of the violent method. Ukridge is an apostle of evasion. I shall try conciliation. I wonder which of us will be the most successful."
Meanwhile, not to spoil Beale's efforts by allowing him too little scope for experiment, I refrained from making my presence known, and continued to stand by the gate, an interested spectator.
Things were evidently moving now. The young man's gestures became more vigorous. The dogged look on Beale's face deepened. The comments of the ring increased in point and pungency.
"What did you hit him for, then?"
This question was put, always in the same words and with the same air of quiet triumph, at intervals of thirty seconds by a little man in a snuff-colored suit with a purple tie. Nobody ever answered him or appeared to listen to him, but he seemed each time to think that he had clinched the matter and cornered his opponent.
Other voices chimed in.
"You hit him, Charlie. Go on. You hit him."
"We'll have the law."
"Go on, Charlie."
Flushed with the favor of the many-headed, Charlie now proceeded from threats to action. His right fist swung round suddenly. But Beale was on the alert. He ducked sharply, and the next minute Charlie was sitting on the ground beside his fallen friend. A hush fell on the ring, and the little man in the purple tie was left repeating his formula without support.
I advanced. It seemed to me that the time had come to be conciliatory. Charlie was struggling to his feet, obviously anxious for a second round, and Beale was getting into position once more. In another five minutes conciliation would be out of the question.
"What's all this?" I said.
My advent caused a stir. Excited men left Beale and rallied round me. Charlie, rising to his feet, found himself dethroned from his position of man of the moment, and stood blinking at the setting sun and opening and shutting his mouth. There was a buzz of conversation.
"Don't all speak at once, please," I said. "I can't possibly follow what you say. Perhaps you will tell me what you want?"
I singled out a short, stout man in gray. He wore the largest whiskers ever seen on human face.
"It's like this, sir. We all of us want to know where we are."
"I can tell you that," I said, "you're on our lawn, and I should be much obliged if you would stop digging your heels into it."
This was not, I suppose, conciliation in the strictest and best sense of the word, but the thing had to be said.
"You don't understand me, sir," he said excitedly. "When I said we didn't know where we were, it was a manner of speaking. We want to know how we stand."
"On your heels," I replied gently, "as I pointed out before."
"I am Brass, sir, of Axminster. My account with Mr. Ukridge is ten pounds eight shillings and fourpence. I want to know—"
The whole strength of the company now joined in.
"You know me, Mr. Garnet. Appleby, in the High—" (voice lost in the general roar) "... and eightpence."
"My account with Mr. Uk——"
"I represent Bodger—"
A diversion occurred at this point. Charlie, who had long been eyeing Beale sourly, dashed at him with swinging fists and was knocked down again. The whole trend of the meeting altered once more. Conciliation became a drug. Violence was what the public wanted. Beale had three fights in rapid succession. I was helpless. Instinct prompted me to join the fray, but prudence told me that such a course would be fatal.
At last, in a lull, I managed to catch the hired retainer by the arm as he drew back from the prostrate form of his latest victim.
"Drop it, Beale," I whispered hotly, "drop it. We shall never manage these people if you knock them about. Go indoors and stay there while I talk to them."
"Mr. Garnet, sir," said he, the light of battle dying out of his eyes, "it's 'ard. It's cruel 'ard. I ain't 'ad a turn-up, not to call a turn-up, since I've bin a time-expired man. I ain't hitting of 'em, Mr. Garnet, sir, not hard I ain't. That there first one of 'em he played me dirty, hittin' at me when I wasn't looking. They can't say as I started it."
"That's all right, Beale," I said soothingly. "I know it wasn't your fault, and I know it's hard on you to have to stop, but I wish you would go indoors. I must talk to these men, and we sha'n't have a moment's peace while you're here. Cut along."
"Very well, sir. But it's 'ard. Mayn't I 'ave just one go at that Charlie, Mr. Garnet?" he asked wistfully.
"No, no. Go in."
"And if they goes for you, sir, and tries to wipe the face off you?"
"They won't, they won't. If they do, I'll shout for you."
He went reluctantly into the house, and I turned again to my audience.
"If you will kindly be quiet for a moment—" I said.
"I am Appleby, Mr. Garnet, in the High Street. Mr. Ukridge—"
"Eighteen pounds fourteen shillings—"
I waved my hands wildly above my head.
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" I shouted.
The babble continued, but diminished gradually in volume. Through the trees, as I waited, I caught a glimpse of the sea. I wished I was out on the Cob, where beyond these voices there was peace. My head was beginning to ache, and I felt faint for want of food.
"Gentlemen!" I cried, as the noise died away.
The latch of the gate clicked. I looked up and saw a tall thin young man in a frock coat and silk hat enter the garden. It was the first time I had seen the costume in the country.
He approached me.
"Mr. Ukridge, sir?" he said.
"My name is Garnet. Mr. Ukridge is away at the moment."
"I come from Whiteley's, Mr. Garnet. Our Mr. Blenkinsop having written on several occasions to Mr. Ukridge, calling his attention to the fact that his account has been allowed to mount to a considerable figure, and having received no satisfactory reply, desired me to visit him. I am sorry that he is not at home."
"So am I," I said with feeling.
"Do you expect him to return shortly?"
"No," I said, "I do not."
He was looking curiously at the expectant band of duns. I forestalled his question.
"Those are some of Mr. Ukridge's creditors," I said. "I am just about to address them. Perhaps you will take a seat. The grass is quite dry. My remarks will embrace you as well as them."
Comprehension came into his eyes, and the natural man in him peeped through the polish.
"Great Scott, has he done a bunk?" he cried.
"To the best of my knowledge, yes," I said.
I turned again to the local talent.
"Gentlemen!" I shouted.
"Hear, hear!" said some idiot.
"Gentlemen, I intend to be quite frank with you. We must decide just how matters stand between us." (A voice: "Where's Ukridge?") "Mr. Ukridge left for London suddenly (bitter laughter) yesterday afternoon. Personally I think he will come back very shortly."
Hoots of derision greeted this prophecy.
"I fail to see your object in coming here. I have nothing for you. I couldn't pay your bills if I wanted to."
It began to be borne in upon me that I was becoming unpopular.
"I am here simply as Mr. Ukridge's guest," I proceeded. After all, why should I spare the man? "I have nothing whatever to do with his business affairs. I refuse absolutely to be regarded as in any way indebted to you. I am sorry for you. You have my sympathy. That is all I can give you, sympathy—and good advice."
Dissatisfaction. I was getting myself disliked. And I had meant to be so conciliatory, to speak to these unfortunates words of cheer which should be as olive oil poured into a wound. For I really did sympathize with them. I considered that Ukridge had used them disgracefully. But I was irritated. My head ached abominably.
"Then am I to tell our Mr. Blenkinsop," asked the frock-coated one, "that the money is not and will not be forthcoming?"
"When next you smoke a quiet cigar with your Mr. Blenkinsop," I replied courteously, "and find conversation flagging, I rather think I should say something of the sort."
"We shall, of course, instruct our solicitors at once to institute legal proceedings against your Mr. Ukridge."
"Don't call him my Mr. Ukridge. You can do whatever you please."
"That is your last word on the subject."
"I hope so."
"Where's our money?" demanded a discontented voice from the crowd.
Then Charlie, filled with the lust of revenge, proposed that the company should sack the place.
"We can't see the color of our money," he said pithily, "but we can have our own back."
That settled it. The battle was over. The most skillful general must sometimes recognize defeat. I could do nothing further with them. I had done my best for the farm. I could do no more.
I lit my pipe and strolled into the paddock.
Chaos followed. Indoors and out of doors they raged without check. Even Beale gave the thing up. He knocked Charlie into a flower bed and then disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.
It was growing dusk. From inside the house came faint sounds of mirth, as the sacking party emptied the rooms of their contents. In the fowl run a hen was crooning sleepily in its coop. It was a very soft, liquid, soothing sound.
Presently out came the invaders with their loot—one with a picture, another with a vase, another bearing the gramophone upside down.
Then I heard somebody—Charlie again, it seemed to me—propose a raid on the fowl run.
The fowls had had their moments of unrest since they had been our property, but what they had gone through with us was peace compared with what befell them then. Not even on that second evening of our visit, when we had run unmeasured miles in pursuit of them, had there been such confusion. Roused abruptly from their beauty sleep, they fled in all directions. The summer evening was made hideous with the noise of them.
"Disgraceful, sir. Is it not disgraceful!" said a voice at my ear.
The young man from Whiteley's stood beside me. He did not look happy. His forehead was damp. Somebody seemed to have stepped on his hat and his coat was smeared with mold.
I was turning to answer him, when from the dusk in the direction of the house came a sudden roar. A passionate appeal to the world in general to tell the speaker what all this meant.
There was only one man of my acquaintance with a voice like that. I walked without hurry toward him.
"Good evening, Ukridge," I said.
AFTER THE STORM
A yell of welcome drowned the tumult of the looters.
"Is that you, Garny, old horse? What's up? What's the matter? Has everybody gone mad? Who are those blackguardly scoundrels in the fowl run? What are they doing? What's been happening?"
"I have been entertaining a little meeting of your creditors," I said. "And now they are entertaining themselves."
"But what did you let them do it for?"
"What is one among so many?" I said.
"Oh," moaned Ukridge, as a hen flashed past us, pursued by a criminal, "it's a little hard. I can't go away for a day—"
"You can't," I said. "You're right there. You can't go away without a word—"
"Without a word? What do you mean? Garny, old boy, pull yourself together. You're overexcited. Do you mean to tell me you didn't get my note?"
"The one I left on the dining-room table."
"There was no note there."
I was reminded of the scene that had taken place on the first day of our visit.
"Feel in your pockets," I said.
And history repeated itself. One of the first things he pulled out was the note.
"Why, here it is!" he said in amazement.
"Of course. Where did you expect it to be? Was it important?"
"Why, it explained the whole thing."
"Then," I said, "I wish you'd let me read it. A note that can explain what's happened ought to be worth reading."
I took the envelope from his hand and opened it.
It was too dark to read, so I lit a match. A puff of wind extinguished it. There is always just enough wind to extinguish a match.
I pocketed the note.
"I can't read it now," I said. "Tell me what it was about."
"It was telling you to sit tight and not to worry about us going away—"
"That's good about worrying. You're a thoughtful chap, Ukridge."
"—because we should be back in a day or two."
"And what sent you up to town?"
"Why, we went to touch Millie's Aunt Elizabeth."
A light began to shine on my darkness.
"Oh!" I said.
"You remember Aunt Elizabeth? We got a letter from her not so long ago."
"I know whom you mean. She called you a gaby."
"And a guffin."
"Of course. I remember thinking her a shrewd and discriminating old lady, with a great gift of description. So you went to touch her?"
"That's it. I suddenly found that things were getting into an A1 tangle, and that we must have more money. So I naturally thought of Aunt Elizabeth. She isn't what you might call an admirer of mine, but she's very fond of Millie, and would do anything for her if she's allowed to chuck about a few home-truths before doing it. So we went off together, looked her up at her house, stated our painful case, and corralled the money. Millie and I shared the work. She did the asking, while I inquired after the rheumatism. She mentioned the precise figure that would clear us. I patted the toy Pomeranian. Little beast! Got after me quick, when I wasn't looking, and chewed my ankle."
"Thank Heaven for that," I said.
"In the end Millie got the money and I got the home truths."
"Did she call you a gaby?"
"Twice. And a guffin three times."
"But you got the money?"
"Rather. And I'll tell you another thing. I scored heavily at the end of the visit. Lady Lakenheath was doing stunts with proverbs—"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Quoting proverbs, you know, bearing on the situation. 'Ah, my dear,' she said to Millie, 'marry in haste, repent at leisure!' 'I'm afraid that proverb doesn't apply to us,' said Millie, 'because I haven't repented.' What do you think of that, old horse?"
"Millie's an angel," I replied.
Just then the angel joined us. She had been exploring the house, and noting the damage done. Her eyes were open to their fullest extent as she shook hands with me.
"Oh, Mr. Garnet," she said, "couldn't you have stopped them?"
I felt a cur. Had I done as much as I might have done to stem the tide?
"I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Ukridge," I said. "I really don't think I could have done more. We tried every method. Beale had seven fights, and I made a speech on the lawn, but it was all no good."
"Perhaps we can collect these men and explain things," I added. "I don't believe any of them know you've come back."
"Send Beale round," said Ukridge. "Beale!"
The hired retainer came running out at the sound of the well-known voice.
"Lumme, Mr. Ukridge, sir!" he gasped.
It was the first time Beale had ever betrayed any real emotion in my presence. To him, I suppose, the return of Ukridge was as sensational and astounding an event as the reappearance of one from the tomb would have been. He was not accustomed to find those who had shot the moon revisiting their old haunts.
"Go round the place and tell those blackguards that I've come back, and would like to have a word with them on the lawn. And if you find any of them stealing my fowls, knock them down."
"I 'ave knocked down one or two," said Beale with approval. "That Charlie—"
"That's right, Beale. You're an excellent man, and I will pay you your back wages to-night before I go to bed."
"Those fellers, sir," said Beale, having expressed his gratification, "they've been and scattered most of them birds already, sir. They've been chasin' of 'em for this hour back."
"Demons!" he said. "Demons!"
Beale went off.
The audience assembled on the lawn in the moonlight. Ukridge, with his cap well over his eyes and his mackintosh hanging around him like a Roman toga, surveyed them stonily, and finally began his speech.
"You—you—you—you blackguards!" he said.
I always like to think of Ukridge as he appeared at that moment. There have been times when his conduct did not recommend itself to me. It has sometimes happened that I have seen flaws in him. But on this occasion he was at his best. He was eloquent. He dominated his audience.
He poured scorn upon his hearers, and they quailed. He flung invective at them, and they wilted.
It was hard, he said, it was a little hard that a gentleman could not run up to London for a couple of days on business without having his private grounds turned upside down. He had intended to deal well by the tradesmen of the town, to put business in their way, to give them large orders. But would he? Not much. As soon as ever the sun had risen and another day begun, their miserable accounts should be paid in full and their connection with him be cut off. Afterwards it was probable that he would institute legal proceedings against them for trespass and damage to property, and if they didn't all go to prison they might consider themselves uncommonly lucky, and if they didn't fly the spot within the brief space of two ticks he would get among them with a shotgun. He was sick of them. They were no gentlemen, but cads. Scoundrels. Creatures that it would be rank flattery to describe as human beings. That's the sort of things they were. And now they might go—quick!
The meeting then dispersed, without the usual vote of thanks.
* * * * *
We were quiet at the farm that night. Ukridge sat like Marius among the ruins of Carthage and refused to speak. Eventually he took Bob with him and went for a walk.
Half an hour later I, too, wearied of the scene of desolation. My errant steps took me in the direction of the sea. As I approached I was aware of a figure standing in the moonlight, gazing moodily out over the waters. Beside the figure was a dog.
I would not disturb his thoughts. The dark moments of massive minds are sacred. I forebore to speak to him. As readily might one of the generals of the Grand Army have opened conversation with Napoleon during the retreat from Moscow.
I turned softly and walked the other way. When I looked back he was still there.
ARGUMENT. From the Morning Post: "... and graceful, wore a simple gown of stiff satin and old lace, and a heavy lace veil fell in soft folds over the shimmering skirt. A reception was subsequently held by Mrs. O'Brien, aunt of the bride, at her house in Ennismore Gardens."
IN THE SERVANTS' HALL
THE COOK. ... And as pretty a wedding, Mr. Hill, as ever I did see.
THE BUTLER. Indeed, Mrs. Minchley? And how did our niece look?
THE COOK (closing her eyes in silent rapture). Well, there! That lace! (In a burst of ecstacy.) Well, there!! Words can't describe it, Mr. Hill.
THE BUTLER. Indeed, Mrs. Minchley?
THE COOK. And Miss Phyllis—Mrs. Garnet, I should say—she was as calm as calm. And looking beautiful as—well, there! Now, Mr. Garnet, he did look nervous, if you like, and when the best man—such a queer-looking awkward man, in a frock coat that I wouldn't have been best man at a wedding in—when he lost the ring and said—quite loud, everybody could hear him—"I can't find it, old horse!" why I did think Mr. Garnet would have fainted away, and so I said to Jane, as was sitting beside me. But he found it at the last moment, and all went on as merrily, as you may say, as a wedding bell.
JANE (sentimentally). Reely, these weddings, you know, they do give you a sort of feeling, if you catch my meaning, Mrs. Minchley.
THE BUTLER (with the air of a high priest who condescends for once to unbend and frolic with lesser mortals). Ah! it'll be your turn next, Miss Jane.
JANE (who has long had designs on this dignified bachelor). Oh, Mr. Hill, reely! You do poke your fun.
[Raises her eyes to his, and drops them swiftly, leaving him with a pleasant sensation of having said a good thing particularly neatly, and a growing idea that he might do worse than marry Jane, take a nice little house in Chelsea somewhere, and let lodgings. He thinks it over.
TILBY (a flighty young person who, when she has a moment or two to spare from the higher flirtation with the local policeman, puts in a little light work about the bedrooms). Oh, I say, this'll be one in the eye for Riggetts, pore little feller. (Assuming an air of advanced melodrama.) Ow! She 'as forsiken me! I'll go and blow me little 'ead off with a blunderbuss! Ow that one so fair could be so false!
MASTER THOMAS RIGGETTS (the page boy, whose passion for the lady who has just become Mrs. Garnet has for many months been a byword in the servants' hall). Huh! (To himself bitterly.) Tike care, tike care, lest some day you drive me too far. [Is left brooding darkly.
THE BRIDE. ... Thank you.... Oh, thank you.... Thank you so much.... Thank you so much ... oh, thank you.... Thank you.... Thank you so much.
THE BRIDEGROOM. Thanks.... Oh, thanks.... Thanks awf'lly.... Thanks awf'lly.... Thanks awf'lly.... Oh, thanks awf'lly ... (with a brilliant burst of invention, amounting almost to genius) Thanks frightfully.
THE BRIDE (to herself, rapturously). A-a-a-h!
THE BRIDEGROOM (dabbing at his forehead with his handkerchief during a lull). I shall drop.
THE BEST MAN (appearing suddenly at his side with a glass). Bellows to mend, old horse, what? Keep going. You're doing fine. Bless you. Bless you.
ELDERLY STRANGER (to bridegroom). Sir, I have jigged your wife on my knee.
THE BRIDEGROOM (with absent politeness). Ah! Lately?
ELDERLY STRANGER. When she was a baby, sir.
THE BRIDEGROOM (from force of habit). Oh, thanks. Thanks awf'lly.
THE BRIDE (to herself). Why can't one get married every day!... (catching sight of a young gentleman whose bi-weekly conversation with her in the past was wont to consist of two remarks on the weather and one proposal of marriage). Oh! Oh, what a shame inviting poor little Freddy Fraddle! Aunt Kathleen must have known! How could she be so cruel! Poor little fellow, he must be suffering dreadfully!
POOR LITTLE FREDDY FRADDLE (addressing his immortal soul as he catches sight of the bridegroom, with a set smile on his face, shaking hands with an obvious bore). Poor devil, poor, poor devil! And to think that I—! Well, well! There but for the grace of God goes Frederick Fraddle.
THE BRIDEGROOM (to the OBVIOUS BORE). Thanks. Thanks awf'lly.
THE OBVIOUS BORE (in measured tones).... are going, as you say, to Wales for your honeymoon, you should on no account miss the opportunity of seeing the picturesque ruins of Llanxwrg Castle, which are among the most prominent spectacles of Carnarvonshire, a county, which I understand you to say, you propose to include in your visit. The ruins are really part of the village of Twdyd-Prtsplgnd, but your best station would be Golgdn. There is a good train service to and from that spot. If you mention my name to the custodian of the ruins, he will allow you to inspect the grave of the celebrated ——
IMMACULATE YOUTH (interrupting). Hello, Garnet, old man. Don't know if you remember me. Latimer, of Oriel. I was a fresher in your third year. Gratters!
THE BRIDEGROOM (with real sincerity for once). Thanks. Thanks awf'lly.
[They proceed to talk Oxford shop together, to the exclusion of the O. B., who glides off in search of another victim.
IN THE STREET
THE COACHMAN (to his horse). Kim up, then!
THE HORSE (to itself). Deuce of a time these people are. Why don't they hurry. I want to be off. I'm certain we shall miss that train.
THE BEST MAN (to crowd of perfect strangers, with whom in some mysterious way he has managed to strike up a warm friendship). Now, then, you men, stand by. Wait till they come out, then blaze away. Good handful first shot. That's what you want.
THE COOK (in the area, to JANE). Oh, I do 'ope they won't miss that train, don't you? Oh, here they come. Oh, don't Miss Phyllis—Mrs. Garnet—look—well, there. And I can remember her a little slip of a girl only so high, and she used to come to my kitchen, and she used to say, "Mrs. Minchley," she used to say—it seems only yesterday—"Mrs. Minchley, I want—"
THE BRIDE (as the page boy's gloomy eye catches hers, "smiles as she was wont to smile").
MASTER RIGGETTS (with a happy recollection of his latest-read work of fiction—"Sir Rupert of the Hall": Meadowsweet Library—to himself). "Good-by, proud lady. Fare you well. And may you never regret. May—you—nevorrr—regret!"
[Dives passionately into larder, and consoles himself with jam.
THE BEST MAN (to his gang of bravoes). Now, then, you men, bang it in.
[They bang it in.
THE BRIDEGROOM (retrieving his hat). Oh— [Recollects himself in time.
THE BEST MAN. Oh, shot, sir! Shot, indeed!
[The BRIDE and BRIDEGROOM enter the carriage amid a storm of rice.
THE BEST MAN (coming to carriage window). Garny, old horse.
THE BRIDEGROOM. Well?
THE BEST MAN. Just a moment. Look here, I've got a new idea. The best ever, 'pon my word it is. I'm going to start a duck farm and run it without water. What? You'll miss your train? Oh, no, you won't. There's plenty of time. My theory is, you see, that ducks get thin by taking exercise and swimming about and so on, don't you know, so that, if you kept them on land always, they'd get jolly fat in about half the time—and no trouble and expense. See? What? You bring the missus down there. I'll write you the address. Good-by. Bless you. Good-by, Mrs. Garnet.
THE BRIDE AND BRIDEGROOM (simultaneously, with a smile apiece). Good-by.
[They catch the train and live happily ever afterwards.]
* * * * *