The man said he would, and just then the gong went and they trooped down, leaving me alone on deck.
I sat smoking and thinking, and then smoking a bit more, when I thought I heard somebody call my name in a sort of hoarse whisper. I looked over my shoulder, and, by Jove, there at the top of the gangway in evening dress, dusty to the eyebrows and without a hat, was dear old George.
"Great Scot!" I cried.
"'Sh!" he whispered. "Anyone about?"
"They're all down at breakfast."
He gave a sigh of relief, sank into my chair, and closed his eyes. I regarded him with pity. The poor old boy looked a wreck.
"I say!" I said, touching him on the shoulder.
He leaped out of the chair with a smothered yell.
"Did you do that? What did you do it for? What's the sense of it? How do you suppose you can ever make yourself popular if you go about touching people on the shoulder? My nerves are sticking a yard out of my body this morning, Reggie!"
"Yes, old boy?"
"I did a murder last night."
"It's the sort of thing that might happen to anybody. Directly Stella Vanderley broke off our engagement I——"
"Broke off your engagement? How long were you engaged?"
"About two minutes. It may have been less. I hadn't a stop-watch. I proposed to her at ten last night in the saloon. She accepted me. I was just going to kiss her when we heard someone coming. I went out. Coming along the corridor was that infernal what's-her-name—Mrs. Vanderley's maid—Pilbeam. Have you ever been accepted by the girl you love, Reggie?"
"Never. I've been refused dozens——"
"Then you won't understand how I felt. I was off my head with joy. I hardly knew what I was doing. I just felt I had to kiss the nearest thing handy. I couldn't wait. It might have been the ship's cat. It wasn't. It was Pilbeam."
"You kissed her?"
"I kissed her. And just at that moment the door of the saloon opened and out came Stella."
"Exactly what I said. It flashed across me that to Stella, dear girl, not knowing the circumstances, the thing might seem a little odd. It did. She broke off the engagement, and I got out the dinghy and rowed off. I was mad. I didn't care what became of me. I simply wanted to forget. I went ashore. I—It's just on the cards that I may have drowned my sorrows a bit. Anyhow, I don't remember a thing, except that I can recollect having the deuce of a scrap with somebody in a dark street and somebody falling, and myself falling, and myself legging it for all I was worth. I woke up this morning in the Casino gardens. I've lost my hat."
I dived for the paper.
"Read," I said. "It's all there."
"Good heavens!" he said.
"You didn't do a thing to His Serene Nibs, did you?"
"Reggie, this is awful."
"Cheer up. They say he'll recover."
"That doesn't matter."
"It does to him."
He read the paper again.
"It says they've a clue."
"They always say that."
"My hat. I must have dropped it during the scrap. This man, Denman Sturgis, must have found it. It had my name in it!"
"George," I said, "you mustn't waste time. Oh!"
He jumped a foot in the air.
"Don't do it!" he said, irritably. "Don't bark like that. What's the matter?"
"A tall, thin man with an eye like a gimlet. He arrived just before you did. He's down in the saloon now, having breakfast. He said he wanted to see you on business, and wouldn't give his name. I didn't like the look of him from the first. It's this fellow Sturgis. It must be."
"I feel it. I'm sure of it."
"Had he a hat?"
"Of course he had a hat."
"Fool! I mean mine. Was he carrying a hat?"
"By Jove, he was carrying a parcel. George, old scout, you must get a move on. You must light out if you want to spend the rest of your life out of prison. Slugging a Serene Highness is lese-majeste. It's worse than hitting a policeman. You haven't got a moment to waste."
"But I haven't any money. Reggie, old man, lend me a tenner or something. I must get over the frontier into Italy at once. I'll wire my uncle to meet me in——"
"Look out," I cried; "there's someone coming!"
He dived out of sight just as Voules came up the companion-way, carrying a letter on a tray.
"What's the matter!" I said. "What do you want?"
"I beg your pardon, sir. I thought I heard Mr. Lattaker's voice. A letter has arrived for him."
"He isn't here."
"No, sir. Shall I remove the letter?"
"No; give it to me. I'll give it to him when he comes."
"Very good, sir."
"Oh, Voules! Are they all still at breakfast? The gentleman who came to see Mr. Lattaker? Still hard at it?"
"He is at present occupied with a kippered herring, sir."
"Ah! That's all, Voules."
"Thank you, sir."
He retired. I called to George, and he came out.
"Who was it?"
"Only Voules. He brought a letter for you. They're all at breakfast still. The sleuth's eating kippers."
"That'll hold him for a bit. Full of bones." He began to read his letter. He gave a kind of grunt of surprise at the first paragraph.
"Well, I'm hanged!" he said, as he finished.
"Reggie, this is a queer thing."
He handed me the letter, and directly I started in on it I saw why he had grunted. This is how it ran:
"My dear George—I shall be seeing you to-morrow, I hope; but I think it is better, before we meet, to prepare you for a curious situation that has arisen in connection with the legacy which your father inherited from your Aunt Emily, and which you are expecting me, as trustee, to hand over to you, now that you have reached your twenty-fifth birthday. You have doubtless heard your father speak of your twin-brother Alfred, who was lost or kidnapped—which, was never ascertained—when you were both babies. When no news was received of him for so many years, it was supposed that he was dead. Yesterday, however, I received a letter purporting that he had been living all this time in Buenos Ayres as the adopted son of a wealthy South American, and has only recently discovered his identity. He states that he is on his way to meet me, and will arrive any day now. Of course, like other claimants, he may prove to be an impostor, but meanwhile his intervention will, I fear, cause a certain delay before I can hand over your money to you. It will be necessary to go into a thorough examination of credentials, etc., and this will take some time. But I will go fully into the matter with you when we meet.—Your affectionate uncle,
I read it through twice, and the second time I had one of those ideas I do sometimes get, though admittedly a chump of the premier class. I have seldom had such a thoroughly corking brain-wave.
"Why, old top," I said, "this lets you out."
"Lets me out of half the darned money, if that's what you mean. If this chap's not an imposter—and there's no earthly reason to suppose he is, though I've never heard my father say a word about him—we shall have to split the money. Aunt Emily's will left the money to my father, or, failing him, his 'offspring.' I thought that meant me, but apparently there are a crowd of us. I call it rotten work, springing unexpected offspring on a fellow at the eleventh hour like this."
"Why, you chump," I said, "it's going to save you. This lets you out of your spectacular dash across the frontier. All you've got to do is to stay here and be your brother Alfred. It came to me in a flash."
He looked at me in a kind of dazed way.
"You ought to be in some sort of a home, Reggie."
"Ass!" I cried. "Don't you understand? Have you ever heard of twin-brothers who weren't exactly alike? Who's to say you aren't Alfred if you swear you are? Your uncle will be there to back you up that you have a brother Alfred."
"And Alfred will be there to call me a liar."
"He won't. It's not as if you had to keep it up for the rest of your life. It's only for an hour or two, till we can get this detective off the yacht. We sail for England to-morrow morning."
At last the thing seemed to sink into him. His face brightened.
"Why, I really do believe it would work," he said.
"Of course it would work. If they want proof, show them your mole. I'll swear George hadn't one."
"And as Alfred I should get a chance of talking to Stella and making things all right for George. Reggie, old top, you're a genius."
"Well, it's only sometimes. I can't keep it up."
And just then there was a gentle cough behind us. We spun round.
"What the devil are you doing here, Voules," I said.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I have heard all."
I looked at George. George looked at me.
"Voules is all right," I said. "Decent Voules! Voules wouldn't give us away, would you, Voules?"
"But, Voules, old man," I said, "be sensible. What would you gain by it?"
"Financially, sir, nothing."
"Whereas, by keeping quiet"—I tapped him on the chest—"by holding your tongue, Voules, by saying nothing about it to anybody, Voules, old fellow, you might gain a considerable sum."
"Am I to understand, sir, that, because you are rich and I am poor, you think that you can buy my self-respect?"
"Oh, come!" I said.
"How much?" said Voules.
So we switched to terms. You wouldn't believe the way the man haggled. You'd have thought a decent, faithful servant would have been delighted to oblige one in a little matter like that for a fiver. But not Voules. By no means. It was a hundred down, and the promise of another hundred when we had got safely away, before he was satisfied. But we fixed it up at last, and poor old George got down to his state-room and changed his clothes.
He'd hardly gone when the breakfast-party came on deck.
"Did you meet him?" I asked.
"Meet whom?" said old Marshall.
"George's twin-brother Alfred."
"I didn't know George had a brother."
"Nor did he till yesterday. It's a long story. He was kidnapped in infancy, and everyone thought he was dead. George had a letter from his uncle about him yesterday. I shouldn't wonder if that's where George has gone, to see his uncle and find out about it. In the meantime, Alfred has arrived. He's down in George's state-room now, having a brush-up. It'll amaze you, the likeness between them. You'll think it is George at first. Look! Here he comes."
And up came George, brushed and clean, in an ordinary yachting suit.
They were rattled. There was no doubt about that. They stood looking at him, as if they thought there was a catch somewhere, but weren't quite certain where it was. I introduced him, and still they looked doubtful.
"Mr. Pepper tells me my brother is not on board," said George.
"It's an amazing likeness," said old Marshall.
"Is my brother like me?" asked George amiably.
"No one could tell you apart," I said.
"I suppose twins always are alike," said George. "But if it ever came to a question of identification, there would be one way of distinguishing us. Do you know George well, Mr. Pepper?"
"He's a dear old pal of mine."
"You've been swimming with him perhaps?"
"Every day last August."
"Well, then, you would have noticed it if he had had a mole like this on the back of his neck, wouldn't you?" He turned his back and stooped and showed the mole. His collar hid it at ordinary times. I had seen it often when we were bathing together.
"Has George a mole like that?" he asked.
"No," I said. "Oh, no."
"You would have noticed it if he had?"
"Yes," I said. "Oh, yes."
"I'm glad of that," said George. "It would be a nuisance not to be able to prove one's own identity."
That seemed to satisfy them all. They couldn't get away from it. It seemed to me that from now on the thing was a walk-over. And I think George felt the same, for, when old Marshall asked him if he had had breakfast, he said he had not, went below, and pitched in as if he hadn't a care in the world.
Everything went right till lunch-time. George sat in the shade on the foredeck talking to Stella most of the time. When the gong went and the rest had started to go below, he drew me back. He was beaming.
"It's all right," he said. "What did I tell you?"
"What did you tell me?"
"Why, about Stella. Didn't I say that Alfred would fix things for George? I told her she looked worried, and got her to tell me what the trouble was. And then——"
"You must have shown a flash of speed if you got her to confide in you after knowing you for about two hours."
"Perhaps I did," said George modestly, "I had no notion, till I became him, what a persuasive sort of chap my brother Alfred was. Anyway, she told me all about it, and I started in to show her that George was a pretty good sort of fellow on the whole, who oughtn't to be turned down for what was evidently merely temporary insanity. She saw my point."
"And it's all right?"
"Absolutely, if only we can produce George. How much longer does that infernal sleuth intend to stay here? He seems to have taken root."
"I fancy he thinks that you're bound to come back sooner or later, and is waiting for you."
"He's an absolute nuisance," said George.
We were moving towards the companion way, to go below for lunch, when a boat hailed us. We went to the side and looked over.
"It's my uncle," said George.
A stout man came up the gangway.
"Halloa, George!" he said. "Get my letter?"
"I think you are mistaking me for my brother," said George. "My name is Alfred Lattaker."
"I am George's brother Alfred. Are you my Uncle Augustus?"
The stout man stared at him.
"You're very like George," he said.
"So everyone tells me."
"And you're really Alfred?"
"I'd like to talk business with you for a moment."
He cocked his eye at me. I sidled off and went below.
At the foot of the companion-steps I met Voules,
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Voules. "If it would be convenient I should be glad to have the afternoon off."
I'm bound to say I rather liked his manner. Absolutely normal. Not a trace of the fellow-conspirator about it. I gave him the afternoon off.
I had lunch—George didn't show up—and as I was going out I was waylaid by the girl Pilbeam. She had been crying.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but did Mr. Voules ask you for the afternoon?"
I didn't see what business if was of hers, but she seemed all worked up about it, so I told her.
"Yes, I have given him the afternoon off."
She broke down—absolutely collapsed. Devilish unpleasant it was. I'm hopeless in a situation like this. After I'd said, "There, there!" which didn't seem to help much, I hadn't any remarks to make.
"He s-said he was going to the tables to gamble away all his savings and then shoot himself, because he had nothing left to live for."
I suddenly remembered the scrap in the small hours outside my state-room door. I hate mysteries. I meant to get to the bottom of this. I couldn't have a really first-class valet like Voules going about the place shooting himself up. Evidently the girl Pilbeam was at the bottom of the thing. I questioned her. She sobbed.
I questioned her more. I was firm. And eventually she yielded up the facts. Voules had seen George kiss her the night before; that was the trouble.
Things began to piece themselves together. I went up to interview George. There was going to be another job for persuasive Alfred. Voules's mind had got to be eased as Stella's had been. I couldn't afford to lose a fellow with his genius for preserving a trouser-crease.
I found George on the foredeck. What is it Shakespeare or somebody says about some fellow's face being sicklied o'er with the pale cast of care? George's was like that. He looked green.
"Finished with your uncle?" I said.
He grinned a ghostly grin.
"There isn't any uncle," he said. "There isn't any Alfred. And there isn't any money."
"Explain yourself, old top," I said.
"It won't take long. The old crook has spent every penny of the trust money. He's been at it for years, ever since I was a kid. When the time came to cough up, and I was due to see that he did it, he went to the tables in the hope of a run of luck, and lost the last remnant of the stuff. He had to find a way of holding me for a while and postponing the squaring of accounts while he got away, and he invented this twin-brother business. He knew I should find out sooner or later, but meanwhile he would be able to get off to South America, which he has done. He's on his way now."
"You let him go?"
"What could I do? I can't afford to make a fuss with that man Sturgis around. I can't prove there's no Alfred when my only chance of avoiding prison is to be Alfred."
"Well, you've made things right for yourself with Stella Vanderley, anyway," I said, to cheer him up.
"What's the good of that now? I've hardly any money and no prospects. How can I marry her?"
"It looks to me, old top," I said at last, "as if things were in a bit of a mess."
"You've guessed it," said poor old George.
I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don't you know, if you see what I mean. At any moment you may be strolling peacefully along, and all the time Life's waiting around the corner to fetch you one. You can't tell when you may be going to get it. It's all dashed puzzling. Here was poor old George, as well-meaning a fellow as ever stepped, getting swatted all over the ring by the hand of Fate. Why? That's what I asked myself. Just Life, don't you know. That's all there was about it.
It was close on six o'clock when our third visitor of the day arrived. We were sitting on the afterdeck in the cool of the evening—old Marshall, Denman Sturgis, Mrs. Vanderley, Stella, George, and I—when he came up. We had been talking of George, and old Marshall was suggesting the advisability of sending out search-parties. He was worried. So was Stella Vanderley. So, for that matter, were George and I, only not for the same reason.
We were just arguing the thing out when the visitor appeared. He was a well-built, stiff sort of fellow. He spoke with a German accent.
"Mr. Marshall?" he said. "I am Count Fritz von Coeslin, equerry to His Serene Highness"—he clicked his heels together and saluted—"the Prince of Saxburg-Leignitz."
Mrs. Vanderley jumped up.
"Why, Count," she said, "what ages since we met in Vienna! You remember?"
"Could I ever forget? And the charming Miss Stella, she is well, I suppose not?"
"Stella, you remember Count Fritz?"
Stella shook hands with him.
"And how is the poor, dear Prince?" asked Mrs. Vanderley. "What a terrible thing to have happened!"
"I rejoice to say that my high-born master is better. He has regained consciousness and is sitting up and taking nourishment."
"That's good," said old Marshall.
"In a spoon only," sighed the Count. "Mr. Marshall, with your permission I should like a word with Mr. Sturgis."
The gimlet-eyed sportsman came forward.
"I am Denman Sturgis, at your service."
"The deuce you are! What are you doing here?"
"Mr. Sturgis," explained the Count, "graciously volunteered his services——"
"I know. But what's he doing here?"
"I am waiting for Mr. George Lattaker, Mr. Marshall."
"You have not found him?" asked the Count anxiously.
"Not yet, Count; but I hope to do so shortly. I know what he looks like now. This gentleman is his twin-brother. They are doubles."
"You are sure this gentleman is not Mr. George Lattaker?"
George put his foot down firmly on the suggestion.
"Don't go mixing me up with my brother," he said. "I am Alfred. You can tell me by my mole."
He exhibited the mole. He was taking no risks.
The Count clicked his tongue regretfully.
"I am sorry," he said.
George didn't offer to console him,
"Don't worry," said Sturgis. "He won't escape me. I shall find him."
"Do, Mr. Sturgis, do. And quickly. Find swiftly that noble young man."
"What?" shouted George.
"That noble young man, George Lattaker, who, at the risk of his life, saved my high-born master from the assassin."
George sat down suddenly.
"I don't understand," he said feebly.
"We were wrong, Mr. Sturgis," went on the Count. "We leaped to the conclusion—was it not so?—that the owner of the hat you found was also the assailant of my high-born master. We were wrong. I have heard the story from His Serene Highness's own lips. He was passing down a dark street when a ruffian in a mask sprang out upon him. Doubtless he had been followed from the Casino, where he had been winning heavily. My high-born master was taken by surprise. He was felled. But before he lost consciousness he perceived a young man in evening dress, wearing the hat you found, running swiftly towards him. The hero engaged the assassin in combat, and my high-born master remembers no more. His Serene Highness asks repeatedly, 'Where is my brave preserver?' His gratitude is princely. He seeks for this young man to reward him. Ah, you should be proud of your brother, sir!"
"Thanks," said George limply.
"And you, Mr. Sturgis, you must redouble your efforts. You must search the land; you must scour the sea to find George Lattaker."
"He needn't take all that trouble," said a voice from the gangway.
It was Voules. His face was flushed, his hat was on the back of his head, and he was smoking a fat cigar.
"I'll tell you where to find George Lattaker!" he shouted.
He glared at George, who was staring at him.
"Yes, look at me," he yelled. "Look at me. You won't be the first this afternoon who's stared at the mysterious stranger who won for two hours without a break. I'll be even with you now, Mr. Blooming Lattaker. I'll learn you to break a poor man's heart. Mr. Marshall and gents, this morning I was on deck, and I over'eard 'im plotting to put up a game on you. They'd spotted that gent there as a detective, and they arranged that blooming Lattaker was to pass himself off as his own twin-brother. And if you wanted proof, blooming Pepper tells him to show them his mole and he'd swear George hadn't one. Those were his very words. That man there is George Lattaker, Hesquire, and let him deny it if he can."
George got up.
"I haven't the least desire to deny it, Voules."
"Mr. Voules, if you please."
"It's true," said George, turning to the Count. "The fact is, I had rather a foggy recollection of what happened last night. I only remembered knocking some one down, and, like you, I jumped to the conclusion that I must have assaulted His Serene Highness."
"Then you are really George Lattaker?" asked the Count.
"'Ere, what does all this mean?" demanded Voules.
"Merely that I saved the life of His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxburg-Leignitz, Mr. Voules."
"It's a swindle!" began Voules, when there was a sudden rush and the girl Pilbeam cannoned into the crowd, sending me into old Marshall's chair, and flung herself into the arms of Voules.
"Oh, Harold!" she cried. "I thought you were dead. I thought you'd shot yourself."
He sort of braced himself together to fling her off, and then he seemed to think better of it and fell into the clinch.
It was all dashed romantic, don't you know, but there are limits.
"Voules, you're sacked," I said.
"Who cares?" he said. "Think I was going to stop on now I'm a gentleman of property? Come along, Emma, my dear. Give a month's notice and get your 'at, and I'll take you to dinner at Ciro's."
"And you, Mr. Lattaker," said the Count, "may I conduct you to the presence of my high-born master? He wishes to show his gratitude to his preserver."
"You may," said George. "May I have my hat, Mr. Sturgis?"
There's just one bit more. After dinner that night I came up for a smoke, and, strolling on to the foredeck, almost bumped into George and Stella. They seemed to be having an argument.
"I'm not sure," she was saying, "that I believe that a man can be so happy that he wants to kiss the nearest thing in sight, as you put it."
"Don't you?" said George. "Well, as it happens, I'm feeling just that way now."
I coughed and he turned round.
"Halloa, Reggie!" he said.
"Halloa, George!" I said. "Lovely night."
"Beautiful," said Stella.
"The moon," I said.
"Ripping," said George.
"Lovely," said Stella.
"And look at the reflection of the stars on the——"
George caught my eye. "Pop off," he said.
DOING CLARENCE A BIT OF GOOD
Have you ever thought about—and, when I say thought about, I mean really carefully considered the question of—the coolness, the cheek, or, if you prefer it, the gall with which Woman, as a sex, fairly bursts? I have, by Jove! But then I've had it thrust on my notice, by George, in a way I should imagine has happened to pretty few fellows. And the limit was reached by that business of the Yeardsley "Venus."
To make you understand the full what-d'you-call-it of the situation, I shall have to explain just how matters stood between Mrs. Yeardsley and myself.
When I first knew her she was Elizabeth Shoolbred. Old Worcestershire family; pots of money; pretty as a picture. Her brother Bill was at Oxford with me.
I loved Elizabeth Shoolbred. I loved her, don't you know. And there was a time, for about a week, when we were engaged to be married. But just as I was beginning to take a serious view of life and study furniture catalogues and feel pretty solemn when the restaurant orchestra played "The Wedding Glide," I'm hanged if she didn't break it off, and a month later she was married to a fellow of the name of Yeardsley—Clarence Yeardsley, an artist.
What with golf, and billiards, and a bit of racing, and fellows at the club rallying round and kind of taking me out of myself, as it were, I got over it, and came to look on the affair as a closed page in the book of my life, if you know what I mean. It didn't seem likely to me that we should meet again, as she and Clarence had settled down in the country somewhere and never came to London, and I'm bound to own that, by the time I got her letter, the wound had pretty well healed, and I was to a certain extent sitting up and taking nourishment. In fact, to be absolutely honest, I was jolly thankful the thing had ended as it had done.
This letter I'm telling you about arrived one morning out of a blue sky, as it were. It ran like this:
"MY DEAR OLD REGGIE,—What ages it seems since I saw anything of you. How are you? We have settled down here in the most perfect old house, with a lovely garden, in the middle of delightful country. Couldn't you run down here for a few days? Clarence and I would be so glad to see you. Bill is here, and is most anxious to meet you again. He was speaking of you only this morning. Do come. Wire your train, and I will send the car to meet you. —Yours most sincerely,
"P.S.—We can give you new milk and fresh eggs. Think of that!
"P.P.S.—Bill says our billiard-table is one of the best he has ever played on.
"P.P.S.S.—We are only half a mile from a golf course. Bill says it is better than St. Andrews.
"P.P.S.S.S.—You must come!"
Well, a fellow comes down to breakfast one morning, with a bit of a head on, and finds a letter like that from a girl who might quite easily have blighted his life! It rattled me rather, I must confess.
However, that bit about the golf settled me. I knew Bill knew what he was talking about, and, if he said the course was so topping, it must be something special. So I went.
Old Bill met me at the station with the car. I hadn't come across him for some months, and I was glad to see him again. And he apparently was glad to see me.
"Thank goodness you've come," he said, as we drove off. "I was just about at my last grip."
"What's the trouble, old scout?" I asked.
"If I had the artistic what's-its-name," he went on, "if the mere mention of pictures didn't give me the pip, I dare say it wouldn't be so bad. As it is, it's rotten!"
"Pictures. Nothing else is mentioned in this household. Clarence is an artist. So is his father. And you know yourself what Elizabeth is like when one gives her her head?"
I remembered then—it hadn't come back to me before—that most of my time with Elizabeth had been spent in picture-galleries. During the period when I had let her do just what she wanted to do with me, I had had to follow her like a dog through gallery after gallery, though pictures are poison to me, just as they are to old Bill. Somehow it had never struck me that she would still be going on in this way after marrying an artist. I should have thought that by this time the mere sight of a picture would have fed her up. Not so, however, according to old Bill.
"They talk pictures at every meal," he said. "I tell you, it makes a chap feel out of it. How long are you down for?"
"A few days."
"Take my tip, and let me send you a wire from London. I go there to-morrow. I promised to play against the Scottish. The idea was that I was to come back after the match. But you couldn't get me back with a lasso."
I tried to point out the silver lining.
"But, Bill, old scout, your sister says there's a most corking links near here."
He turned and stared at me, and nearly ran us into the bank.
"You don't mean honestly she said that?"
"She said you said it was better than St. Andrews."
"So I did. Was that all she said I said?"
"Well, wasn't it enough?"
"She didn't happen to mention that I added the words, 'I don't think'?"
"No, she forgot to tell me that."
"It's the worst course in Great Britain."
I felt rather stunned, don't you know. Whether it's a bad habit to have got into or not, I can't say, but I simply can't do without my daily allowance of golf when I'm not in London.
I took another whirl at the silver lining.
"We'll have to take it out in billiards," I said. "I'm glad the table's good."
"It depends what you call good. It's half-size, and there's a seven-inch cut just out of baulk where Clarence's cue slipped. Elizabeth has mended it with pink silk. Very smart and dressy it looks, but it doesn't improve the thing as a billiard-table."
"But she said you said——"
"Must have been pulling your leg."
We turned in at the drive gates of a good-sized house standing well back from the road. It looked black and sinister in the dusk, and I couldn't help feeling, you know, like one of those Johnnies you read about in stories who are lured to lonely houses for rummy purposes and hear a shriek just as they get there. Elizabeth knew me well enough to know that a specially good golf course was a safe draw to me. And she had deliberately played on her knowledge. What was the game? That was what I wanted to know. And then a sudden thought struck me which brought me out in a cold perspiration. She had some girl down here and was going to have a stab at marrying me off. I've often heard that young married women are all over that sort of thing. Certainly she had said there was nobody at the house but Clarence and herself and Bill and Clarence's father, but a woman who could take the name of St. Andrews in vain as she had done wouldn't be likely to stick at a trifle.
"Bill, old scout," I said, "there aren't any frightful girls or any rot of that sort stopping here, are there?"
"Wish there were," he said. "No such luck."
As we pulled up at the front door, it opened, and a woman's figure appeared.
"Have you got him, Bill?" she said, which in my present frame of mind struck me as a jolly creepy way of putting it. The sort of thing Lady Macbeth might have said to Macbeth, don't you know.
"Do you mean me?" I said.
She came down into the light. It was Elizabeth, looking just the same as in the old days.
"Is that you, Reggie? I'm so glad you were able to come. I was afraid you might have forgotten all about it. You know what you are. Come along in and have some tea."
* * * * *
Have you ever been turned down by a girl who afterwards married and then been introduced to her husband? If so you'll understand how I felt when Clarence burst on me. You know the feeling. First of all, when you hear about the marriage, you say to yourself, "I wonder what he's like." Then you meet him, and think, "There must be some mistake. She can't have preferred this to me!" That's what I thought, when I set eyes on Clarence.
He was a little thin, nervous-looking chappie of about thirty-five. His hair was getting grey at the temples and straggly on top. He wore pince-nez, and he had a drooping moustache. I'm no Bombardier Wells myself, but in front of Clarence I felt quite a nut. And Elizabeth, mind you, is one of those tall, splendid girls who look like princesses. Honestly, I believe women do it out of pure cussedness.
"How do you do, Mr. Pepper? Hark! Can you hear a mewing cat?" said Clarence. All in one breath, don't you know.
"Eh?" I said.
"A mewing cat. I feel sure I hear a mewing cat. Listen!"
While we were listening the door opened, and a white-haired old gentleman came in. He was built on the same lines as Clarence, but was an earlier model. I took him correctly, to be Mr. Yeardsley, senior. Elizabeth introduced us.
"Father," said Clarence, "did you meet a mewing cat outside? I feel positive I heard a cat mewing."
"No," said the father, shaking his head; "no mewing cat."
"I can't bear mewing cats," said Clarence. "A mewing cat gets on my nerves!"
"A mewing cat is so trying," said Elizabeth.
"I dislike mewing cats," said old Mr. Yeardsley.
That was all about mewing cats for the moment. They seemed to think they had covered the ground satisfactorily, and they went back to pictures.
We talked pictures steadily till it was time to dress for dinner. At least, they did. I just sort of sat around. Presently the subject of picture-robberies came up. Somebody mentioned the "Monna Lisa," and then I happened to remember seeing something in the evening paper, as I was coming down in the train, about some fellow somewhere having had a valuable painting pinched by burglars the night before. It was the first time I had had a chance of breaking into the conversation with any effect, and I meant to make the most of it. The paper was in the pocket of my overcoat in the hall. I went and fetched it.
"Here it is," I said. "A Romney belonging to Sir Bellamy Palmer——"
They all shouted "What!" exactly at the same time, like a chorus. Elizabeth grabbed the paper.
"Let me look! Yes. 'Late last night burglars entered the residence of Sir Bellamy Palmer, Dryden Park, Midford, Hants——'"
"Why, that's near here," I said. "I passed through Midford——"
"Dryden Park is only two miles from this house," said Elizabeth. I noticed her eyes were sparkling.
"Only two miles!" she said. "It might have been us! It might have been the 'Venus'!"
Old Mr. Yeardsley bounded in his chair.
"The 'Venus'!" he cried.
They all seemed wonderfully excited. My little contribution to the evening's chat had made quite a hit.
Why I didn't notice it before I don't know, but it was not till Elizabeth showed it to me after dinner that I had my first look at the Yeardsley "Venus." When she led me up to it, and switched on the light, it seemed impossible that I could have sat right through dinner without noticing it. But then, at meals, my attention is pretty well riveted on the foodstuffs. Anyway, it was not till Elizabeth showed it to me that I was aware of its existence.
She and I were alone in the drawing-room after dinner. Old Yeardsley was writing letters in the morning-room, while Bill and Clarence were rollicking on the half-size billiard table with the pink silk tapestry effects. All, in fact, was joy, jollity, and song, so to speak, when Elizabeth, who had been sitting wrapped in thought for a bit, bent towards me and said, "Reggie."
And the moment she said it I knew something was going to happen. You know that pre-what-d'you-call-it you get sometimes? Well, I got it then.
"What-o?" I said nervously.
"Reggie," she said, "I want to ask a great favour of you."
She stooped down and put a log on the fire, and went on, with her back to me:
"Do you remember, Reggie, once saying you would do anything in the world for me?"
There! That's what I meant when I said that about the cheek of Woman as a sex. What I mean is, after what had happened, you'd have thought she would have preferred to let the dead past bury its dead, and all that sort of thing, what?
Mind you, I had said I would do anything in the world for her. I admit that. But it was a distinctly pre-Clarence remark. He hadn't appeared on the scene then, and it stands to reason that a fellow who may have been a perfect knight-errant to a girl when he was engaged to her, doesn't feel nearly so keen on spreading himself in that direction when she has given him the miss-in-baulk, and gone and married a man who reason and instinct both tell him is a decided blighter.
I couldn't think of anything to say but "Oh, yes."
"There's something you can do for me now, which will make me everlastingly grateful."
"Yes," I said.
"Do you know, Reggie," she said suddenly, "that only a few months ago Clarence was very fond of cats?"
"Eh! Well, he still seems—er—interested in them, what?"
"Now they get on his nerves. Everything gets on his nerves."
"Some fellows swear by that stuff you see advertised all over the——"
"No, that wouldn't help him. He doesn't need to take anything. He wants to get rid of something."
"I don't quite fellow. Get rid of something?"
"The 'Venus,'" said Elizabeth.
She looked up and caught my bulging eye.
"You saw the 'Venus,'" she said.
"Not that I remember."
"Well, come into the dining-room."
We went into the dining-room, and she switched on the lights.
"There," she said.
On the wall close to the door—that may have been why I hadn't noticed it before; I had sat with my back to it—was a large oil-painting. It was what you'd call a classical picture, I suppose. What I mean is—well, you know what I mean. All I can say is that it's funny I hadn't noticed it.
"Is that the 'Venus'?" I said.
"How would you like to have to look at that every time you sat down to a meal?"
"Well, I don't know. I don't think it would affect me much. I'd worry through all right."
She jerked her head impatiently.
"But you're not an artist," she said. "Clarence is."
And then I began to see daylight. What exactly was the trouble I didn't understand, but it was evidently something to do with the good old Artistic Temperament, and I could believe anything about that. It explains everything. It's like the Unwritten Law, don't you know, which you plead in America if you've done anything they want to send you to chokey for and you don't want to go. What I mean is, if you're absolutely off your rocker, but don't find it convenient to be scooped into the luny-bin, you simply explain that, when you said you were a teapot, it was just your Artistic Temperament, and they apologize and go away. So I stood by to hear just how the A.T. had affected Clarence, the Cat's Friend, ready for anything.
And, believe me, it had hit Clarence badly.
It was this way. It seemed that old Yeardsley was an amateur artist and that this "Venus" was his masterpiece. He said so, and he ought to have known. Well, when Clarence married, he had given it to him, as a wedding present, and had hung it where it stood with his own hands. All right so far, what? But mark the sequel. Temperamental Clarence, being a professional artist and consequently some streets ahead of the dad at the game, saw flaws in the "Venus." He couldn't stand it at any price. He didn't like the drawing. He didn't like the expression of the face. He didn't like the colouring. In fact, it made him feel quite ill to look at it. Yet, being devoted to his father and wanting to do anything rather than give him pain, he had not been able to bring himself to store the thing in the cellar, and the strain of confronting the picture three times a day had begun to tell on him to such an extent that Elizabeth felt something had to be done.
"Now you see," she said.
"In a way," I said. "But don't you think it's making rather heavy weather over a trifle?"
"Oh, can't you understand? Look!" Her voice dropped as if she was in church, and she switched on another light. It shone on the picture next to old Yeardsley's. "There!" she said. "Clarence painted that!"
She looked at me expectantly, as if she were waiting for me to swoon, or yell, or something. I took a steady look at Clarence's effort. It was another Classical picture. It seemed to me very much like the other one.
Some sort of art criticism was evidently expected of me, so I made a dash at it.
"Er—'Venus'?" I said.
Mark you, Sherlock Holmes would have made the same mistake. On the evidence, I mean.
"No. 'Jocund Spring,'" she snapped. She switched off the light. "I see you don't understand even now. You never had any taste about pictures. When we used to go to the galleries together, you would far rather have been at your club."
This was so absolutely true, that I had no remark to make. She came up to me, and put her hand on my arm.
"I'm sorry, Reggie. I didn't mean to be cross. Only I do want to make you understand that Clarence is suffering. Suppose—suppose—well, let us take the case of a great musician. Suppose a great musician had to sit and listen to a cheap vulgar tune—the same tune—day after day, day after day, wouldn't you expect his nerves to break! Well, it's just like that with Clarence. Now you see?"
"But what? Surely I've put it plainly enough?"
"Yes. But what I mean is, where do I come in? What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to steal the 'Venus.'"
I looked at her.
"You want me to——?"
"Steal it. Reggie!" Her eyes were shining with excitement. "Don't you see? It's Providence. When I asked you to come here, I had just got the idea. I knew I could rely on you. And then by a miracle this robbery of the Romney takes place at a house not two miles away. It removes the last chance of the poor old man suspecting anything and having his feelings hurt. Why, it's the most wonderful compliment to him. Think! One night thieves steal a splendid Romney; the next the same gang take his 'Venus.' It will be the proudest moment of his life. Do it to-night, Reggie. I'll give you a sharp knife. You simply cut the canvas out of the frame, and it's done."
"But one moment," I said. "I'd be delighted to be of any use to you, but in a purely family affair like this, wouldn't it be better—in fact, how about tackling old Bill on the subject?"
"I have asked Bill already. Yesterday. He refused."
"But if I'm caught?"
"You can't be. All you have to do is to take the picture, open one of the windows, leave it open, and go back to your room."
It sounded simple enough.
"And as to the picture itself—when I've got it?"
"Burn it. I'll see that you have a good fire in your room."
She looked at me. She always did have the most wonderful eyes.
"Reggie," she said; nothing more. Just "Reggie."
She looked at me.
"Well, after all, if you see what I mean—The days that are no more, don't you know. Auld Lang Syne, and all that sort of thing. You follow me?"
"All right," I said. "I'll do it."
I don't know if you happen to be one of those Johnnies who are steeped in crime, and so forth, and think nothing of pinching diamond necklaces. If you're not, you'll understand that I felt a lot less keen on the job I'd taken on when I sat in my room, waiting to get busy, than I had done when I promised to tackle it in the dining-room. On paper it all seemed easy enough, but I couldn't help feeling there was a catch somewhere, and I've never known time pass slower. The kick-off was scheduled for one o'clock in the morning, when the household might be expected to be pretty sound asleep, but at a quarter to I couldn't stand it any longer. I lit the lantern I had taken from Bill's bicycle, took a grip of my knife, and slunk downstairs.
The first thing I did on getting to the dining-room was to open the window. I had half a mind to smash it, so as to give an extra bit of local colour to the affair, but decided not to on account of the noise. I had put my lantern on the table, and was just reaching out for it, when something happened. What it was for the moment I couldn't have said. It might have been an explosion of some sort or an earthquake. Some solid object caught me a frightful whack on the chin. Sparks and things occurred inside my head and the next thing I remember is feeling something wet and cold splash into my face, and hearing a voice that sounded like old Bill's say, "Feeling better now?"
I sat up. The lights were on, and I was on the floor, with old Bill kneeling beside me with a soda siphon.
"What happened?" I said.
"I'm awfully sorry, old man," he said. "I hadn't a notion it was you. I came in here, and saw a lantern on the table, and the window open and a chap with a knife in his hand, so I didn't stop to make inquiries. I just let go at his jaw for all I was worth. What on earth do you think you're doing? Were you walking in your sleep?"
"It was Elizabeth," I said. "Why, you know all about it. She said she had told you."
"You don't mean——"
"The picture. You refused to take it on, so she asked me."
"Reggie, old man," he said. "I'll never believe what they say about repentance again. It's a fool's trick and upsets everything. If I hadn't repented, and thought it was rather rough on Elizabeth not to do a little thing like that for her, and come down here to do it after all, you wouldn't have stopped that sleep-producer with your chin. I'm sorry."
"Me, too," I said, giving my head another shake to make certain it was still on.
"Are you feeling better now?"
"Better than I was. But that's not saying much."
"Would you like some more soda-water? No? Well, how about getting this job finished and going to bed? And let's be quick about it too. You made a noise like a ton of bricks when you went down just now, and it's on the cards some of the servants may have heard. Toss you who carves."
"Tails it is," he said, uncovering the coin. "Up you get. I'll hold the light. Don't spike yourself on that sword of yours."
It was as easy a job as Elizabeth had said. Just four quick cuts, and the thing came out of its frame like an oyster. I rolled it up. Old Bill had put the lantern on the floor and was at the sideboard, collecting whisky, soda, and glasses.
"We've got a long evening before us," he said. "You can't burn a picture of that size in one chunk. You'd set the chimney on fire. Let's do the thing comfortably. Clarence can't grudge us the stuff. We've done him a bit of good this trip. To-morrow'll be the maddest, merriest day of Clarence's glad New Year. On we go."
We went up to my room, and sat smoking and yarning away and sipping our drinks, and every now and then cutting a slice off the picture and shoving it in the fire till it was all gone. And what with the cosiness of it and the cheerful blaze, and the comfortable feeling of doing good by stealth, I don't know when I've had a jollier time since the days when we used to brew in my study at school.
We had just put the last slice on when Bill sat up suddenly, and gripped my arm.
"I heard something," he said.
I listened, and, by Jove, I heard something, too. My room was just over the dining-room, and the sound came up to us quite distinctly. Stealthy footsteps, by George! And then a chair falling over.
"There's somebody in the dining-room," I whispered.
There's a certain type of chap who takes a pleasure in positively chivvying trouble. Old Bill's like that. If I had been alone, it would have taken me about three seconds to persuade myself that I hadn't really heard anything after all. I'm a peaceful sort of cove, and believe in living and letting live, and so forth. To old Bill, however, a visit from burglars was pure jam. He was out of his chair in one jump.
"Come on," he said. "Bring the poker."
I brought the tongs as well. I felt like it. Old Bill collared the knife. We crept downstairs.
"We'll fling the door open and make a rush," said Bill.
"Supposing they shoot, old scout?"
"Burglars never shoot," said Bill.
Which was comforting provided the burglars knew it.
Old Bill took a grip of the handle, turned it quickly, and in he went. And then we pulled up sharp, staring.
The room was in darkness except for a feeble splash of light at the near end. Standing on a chair in front of Clarence's "Jocund Spring," holding a candle in one hand and reaching up with a knife in the other, was old Mr. Yeardsley, in bedroom slippers and a grey dressing-gown. He had made a final cut just as we rushed in. Turning at the sound, he stopped, and he and the chair and the candle and the picture came down in a heap together. The candle went out.
"What on earth?" said Bill.
I felt the same. I picked up the candle and lit it, and then a most fearful thing happened. The old man picked himself up, and suddenly collapsed into a chair and began to cry like a child. Of course, I could see it was only the Artistic Temperament, but still, believe me, it was devilish unpleasant. I looked at old Bill. Old Bill looked at me. We shut the door quick, and after that we didn't know what to do. I saw Bill look at the sideboard, and I knew what he was looking for. But we had taken the siphon upstairs, and his ideas of first-aid stopped short at squirting soda-water. We just waited, and presently old Yeardsley switched off, sat up, and began talking with a rush.
"Clarence, my boy, I was tempted. It was that burglary at Dryden Park. It tempted me. It made it all so simple. I knew you would put it down to the same gang, Clarence, my boy. I——"
It seemed to dawn upon him at this point that Clarence was not among those present.
"Clarence?" he said hesitatingly.
"He's in bed," I said.
"In bed! Then he doesn't know? Even now—Young men, I throw myself on your mercy. Don't be hard on me. Listen." He grabbed at Bill, who sidestepped. "I can explain everything—everything."
He gave a gulp.
"You are not artists, you two young men, but I will try to make you understand, make you realise what this picture means to me. I was two years painting it. It is my child. I watched it grow. I loved it. It was part of my life. Nothing would have induced me to sell it. And then Clarence married, and in a mad moment I gave my treasure to him. You cannot understand, you two young men, what agonies I suffered. The thing was done. It was irrevocable. I saw how Clarence valued the picture. I knew that I could never bring myself to ask him for it back. And yet I was lost without it. What could I do? Till this evening I could see no hope. Then came this story of the theft of the Romney from a house quite close to this, and I saw my way. Clarence would never suspect. He would put the robbery down to the same band of criminals who stole the Romney. Once the idea had come, I could not drive it out. I fought against it, but to no avail. At last I yielded, and crept down here to carry out my plan. You found me." He grabbed again, at me this time, and got me by the arm. He had a grip like a lobster. "Young man," he said, "you would not betray me? You would not tell Clarence?"
I was feeling most frightfully sorry for the poor old chap by this time, don't you know, but I thought it would be kindest to give it him straight instead of breaking it by degrees.
"I won't say a word to Clarence, Mr. Yeardsley," I said. "I quite understand your feelings. The Artistic Temperament, and all that sort of thing. I mean—what? I know. But I'm afraid—Well, look!"
I went to the door and switched on the electric light, and there, staring him in the face, were the two empty frames. He stood goggling at them in silence. Then he gave a sort of wheezy grunt.
"The gang! The burglars! They have been here, and they have taken Clarence's picture!" He paused. "It might have been mine! My Venus!" he whispered It was getting most fearfully painful, you know, but he had to know the truth.
"I'm awfully sorry, you know," I said. "But it was."
He started, poor old chap.
"Eh? What do you mean?"
"They did take your Venus."
"But I have it here."
I shook my head.
"That's Clarence's 'Jocund Spring,'" I said.
He jumped at it and straightened it out.
"What! What are you talking about? Do you think I don't know my own picture—my child—my Venus. See! My own signature in the corner. Can you read, boy? Look: 'Matthew Yeardsley.' This is my picture!"
And—well, by Jove, it was, don't you know!
* * * * *
Well, we got him off to bed, him and his infernal Venus, and we settled down to take a steady look at the position of affairs. Bill said it was my fault for getting hold of the wrong picture, and I said it was Bill's fault for fetching me such a crack on the jaw that I couldn't be expected to see what I was getting hold of, and then there was a pretty massive silence for a bit.
"Reggie," said Bill at last, "how exactly do you feel about facing Clarence and Elizabeth at breakfast?"
"Old scout," I said. "I was thinking much the same myself."
"Reggie," said Bill, "I happen to know there's a milk-train leaving Midford at three-fifteen. It isn't what you'd call a flier. It gets to London at about half-past nine. Well—er—in the circumstances, how about it?"
THE AUNT AND THE SLUGGARD
Now that it's all over, I may as well admit that there was a time during the rather funny affair of Rockmetteller Todd when I thought that Jeeves was going to let me down. The man had the appearance of being baffled.
Jeeves is my man, you know. Officially he pulls in his weekly wages for pressing my clothes and all that sort of thing; but actually he's more like what the poet Johnnie called some bird of his acquaintance who was apt to rally round him in times of need—a guide, don't you know; philosopher, if I remember rightly, and—I rather fancy—friend. I rely on him at every turn.
So naturally, when Rocky Todd told me about his aunt, I didn't hesitate. Jeeves was in on the thing from the start.
The affair of Rocky Todd broke loose early one morning of spring. I was in bed, restoring the good old tissues with about nine hours of the dreamless, when the door flew open and somebody prodded me in the lower ribs and began to shake the bedclothes. After blinking a bit and generally pulling myself together, I located Rocky, and my first impression was that it was some horrid dream.
Rocky, you see, lived down on Long Island somewhere, miles away from New York; and not only that, but he had told me himself more than once that he never got up before twelve, and seldom earlier than one. Constitutionally the laziest young devil in America, he had hit on a walk in life which enabled him to go the limit in that direction. He was a poet. At least, he wrote poems when he did anything; but most of his time, as far as I could make out, he spent in a sort of trance. He told me once that he could sit on a fence, watching a worm and wondering what on earth it was up to, for hours at a stretch.
He had his scheme of life worked out to a fine point. About once a month he would take three days writing a few poems; the other three hundred and twenty-nine days of the year he rested. I didn't know there was enough money in poetry to support a chappie, even in the way in which Rocky lived; but it seems that, if you stick to exhortations to young men to lead the strenuous life and don't shove in any rhymes, American editors fight for the stuff. Rocky showed me one of his things once. It began:
Be! Be! The past is dead. To-morrow is not born. Be to-day! To-day! Be with every nerve, With every muscle, With every drop of your red blood! Be!
It was printed opposite the frontispiece of a magazine with a sort of scroll round it, and a picture in the middle of a fairly-nude chappie, with bulging muscles, giving the rising sun the glad eye. Rocky said they gave him a hundred dollars for it, and he stayed in bed till four in the afternoon for over a month.
As regarded the future he was pretty solid, owing to the fact that he had a moneyed aunt tucked away somewhere in Illinois; and, as he had been named Rockmetteller after her, and was her only nephew, his position was pretty sound. He told me that when he did come into the money he meant to do no work at all, except perhaps an occasional poem recommending the young man with life opening out before him, with all its splendid possibilities, to light a pipe and shove his feet upon the mantelpiece.
And this was the man who was prodding me in the ribs in the grey dawn!
"Read this, Bertie!" I could just see that he was waving a letter or something equally foul in my face. "Wake up and read this!"
I can't read before I've had my morning tea and a cigarette. I groped for the bell.
Jeeves came in looking as fresh as a dewy violet. It's a mystery to me how he does it.
"Very good, sir."
He flowed silently out of the room—he always gives you the impression of being some liquid substance when he moves; and I found that Rocky was surging round with his beastly letter again.
"What is it?" I said. "What on earth's the matter?"
"I can't. I haven't had my tea."
"Well, listen then."
"Who's it from?"
At this point I fell asleep again. I woke to hear him saying:
"So what on earth am I to do?"
Jeeves trickled in with the tray, like some silent stream meandering over its mossy bed; and I saw daylight.
"Read it again, Rocky, old top," I said. "I want Jeeves to hear it. Mr. Todd's aunt has written him a rather rummy letter, Jeeves, and we want your advice."
"Very good, sir."
He stood in the middle of the room, registering devotion to the cause, and Rocky started again:
"MY DEAR ROCKMETTELLER.—I have been thinking things over for a long while, and I have come to the conclusion that I have been very thoughtless to wait so long before doing what I have made up my mind to do now."
"What do you make of that, Jeeves?"
"It seems a little obscure at present, sir, but no doubt it becomes cleared at a later point in the communication."
"It becomes as clear as mud!" said Rocky.
"Proceed, old scout," I said, champing my bread and butter.
"You know how all my life I have longed to visit New York and see for myself the wonderful gay life of which I have read so much. I fear that now it will be impossible for me to fulfil my dream. I am old and worn out. I seem to have no strength left in me."
"Sad, Jeeves, what?"
"Sad nothing!" said Rocky. "It's sheer laziness. I went to see her last Christmas and she was bursting with health. Her doctor told me himself that there was nothing wrong with her whatever. But she will insist that she's a hopeless invalid, so he has to agree with her. She's got a fixed idea that the trip to New York would kill her; so, though it's been her ambition all her life to come here, she stays where she is."
"Rather like the chappie whose heart was 'in the Highlands a-chasing of the deer,' Jeeves?"
"The cases are in some respects parallel, sir."
"Carry on, Rocky, dear boy."
"So I have decided that, if I cannot enjoy all the marvels of the city myself, I can at least enjoy them through you. I suddenly thought of this yesterday after reading a beautiful poem in the Sunday paper about a young man who had longed all his life for a certain thing and won it in the end only when he was too old to enjoy it. It was very sad, and it touched me."
"A thing," interpolated Rocky bitterly, "that I've not been able to do in ten years."
"As you know, you will have my money when I am gone; but until now I have never been able to see my way to giving you an allowance. I have now decided to do so—on one condition. I have written to a firm of lawyers in New York, giving them instructions to pay you quite a substantial sum each month. My one condition is that you live in New York and enjoy yourself as I have always wished to do. I want you to be my representative, to spend this money for me as I should do myself. I want you to plunge into the gay, prismatic life of New York. I want you to be the life and soul of brilliant supper parties.
"Above all, I want you—indeed, I insist on this—to write me letters at least once a week giving me a full description of all you are doing and all that is going on in the city, so that I may enjoy at second-hand what my wretched health prevents my enjoying for myself. Remember that I shall expect full details, and that no detail is too trivial to interest.—Your affectionate Aunt,
"What about it?" said Rocky.
"What about it?" I said.
"Yes. What on earth am I going to do?"
It was only then that I really got on to the extremely rummy attitude of the chappie, in view of the fact that a quite unexpected mess of the right stuff had suddenly descended on him from a blue sky. To my mind it was an occasion for the beaming smile and the joyous whoop; yet here the man was, looking and talking as if Fate had swung on his solar plexus. It amazed me.
"Aren't you bucked?" I said.
"If I were in your place I should be frightfully braced. I consider this pretty soft for you."
He gave a kind of yelp, stared at me for a moment, and then began to talk of New York in a way that reminded me of Jimmy Mundy, the reformer chappie. Jimmy had just come to New York on a hit-the-trail campaign, and I had popped in at the Garden a couple of days before, for half an hour or so, to hear him. He had certainly told New York some pretty straight things about itself, having apparently taken a dislike to the place, but, by Jove, you know, dear old Rocky made him look like a publicity agent for the old metrop.!
"Pretty soft!" he cried. "To have to come and live in New York! To have to leave my little cottage and take a stuffy, smelly, over-heated hole of an apartment in this Heaven-forsaken, festering Gehenna. To have to mix night after night with a mob who think that life is a sort of St. Vitus's dance, and imagine that they're having a good time because they're making enough noise for six and drinking too much for ten. I loathe New York, Bertie. I wouldn't come near the place if I hadn't got to see editors occasionally. There's a blight on it. It's got moral delirium tremens. It's the limit. The very thought of staying more than a day in it makes me sick. And you call this thing pretty soft for me!"
I felt rather like Lot's friends must have done when they dropped in for a quiet chat and their genial host began to criticise the Cities of the Plain. I had no idea old Rocky could be so eloquent.
"It would kill me to have to live in New York," he went on. "To have to share the air with six million people! To have to wear stiff collars and decent clothes all the time! To——" He started. "Good Lord! I suppose I should have to dress for dinner in the evenings. What a ghastly notion!"
I was shocked, absolutely shocked.
"My dear chap!" I said reproachfully.
"Do you dress for dinner every night, Bertie?"
"Jeeves," I said coldly. The man was still standing like a statue by the door. "How many suits of evening clothes have I?"
"We have three suits full of evening dress, sir; two dinner jackets——"
"For practical purposes two only, sir. If you remember we cannot wear the third. We have also seven white waistcoats."
"Four dozen, sir."
"And white ties?"
"The first two shallow shelves in the chest of drawers are completely filled with our white ties, sir."
I turned to Rocky.
The chappie writhed like an electric fan.
"I won't do it! I can't do it! I'll be hanged if I'll do it! How on earth can I dress up like that? Do you realize that most days I don't get out of my pyjamas till five in the afternoon, and then I just put on an old sweater?"
I saw Jeeves wince, poor chap! This sort of revelation shocked his finest feelings.
"Then, what are you going to do about it?" I said.
"That's what I want to know."
"You might write and explain to your aunt."
"I might—if I wanted her to get round to her lawyer's in two rapid leaps and cut me out of her will."
I saw his point.
"What do you suggest, Jeeves?" I said.
Jeeves cleared his throat respectfully.
"The crux of the matter would appear to be, sir, that Mr. Todd is obliged by the conditions under which the money is delivered into his possession to write Miss Rockmetteller long and detailed letters relating to his movements, and the only method by which this can be accomplished, if Mr. Todd adheres to his expressed intention of remaining in the country, is for Mr. Todd to induce some second party to gather the actual experiences which Miss Rockmetteller wishes reported to her, and to convey these to him in the shape of a careful report, on which it would be possible for him, with the aid of his imagination, to base the suggested correspondence."
Having got which off the old diaphragm, Jeeves was silent. Rocky looked at me in a helpless sort of way. He hasn't been brought up on Jeeves as I have, and he isn't on to his curves.
"Could he put it a little clearer, Bertie?" he said. "I thought at the start it was going to make sense, but it kind of flickered. What's the idea?"
"My dear old man, perfectly simple. I knew we could stand on Jeeves. All you've got to do is to get somebody to go round the town for you and take a few notes, and then you work the notes up into letters. That's it, isn't it, Jeeves?"
The light of hope gleamed in Rocky's eyes. He looked at Jeeves in a startled way, dazed by the man's vast intellect.
"But who would do it?" he said. "It would have to be a pretty smart sort of man, a man who would notice things."
"Jeeves!" I said. "Let Jeeves do it."
"But would he?"
"You would do it, wouldn't you, Jeeves?"
For the first time in our long connection I observed Jeeves almost smile. The corner of his mouth curved quite a quarter of an inch, and for a moment his eye ceased to look like a meditative fish's.
"I should be delighted to oblige, sir. As a matter of fact, I have already visited some of New York's places of interest on my evening out, and it would be most enjoyable to make a practice of the pursuit."
"Fine! I know exactly what your aunt wants to hear about, Rocky. She wants an earful of cabaret stuff. The place you ought to go to first, Jeeves, is Reigelheimer's. It's on Forty-second Street. Anybody will show you the way."
Jeeves shook his head.
"Pardon me, sir. People are no longer going to Reigelheimer's. The place at the moment is Frolics on the Roof."
"You see?" I said to Rocky. "Leave it to Jeeves. He knows."
It isn't often that you find an entire group of your fellow-humans happy in this world; but our little circle was certainly an example of the fact that it can be done. We were all full of beans. Everything went absolutely right from the start.
Jeeves was happy, partly because he loves to exercise his giant brain, and partly because he was having a corking time among the bright lights. I saw him one night at the Midnight Revels. He was sitting at a table on the edge of the dancing floor, doing himself remarkably well with a fat cigar and a bottle of the best. I'd never imagined he could look so nearly human. His face wore an expression of austere benevolence, and he was making notes in a small book.
As for the rest of us, I was feeling pretty good, because I was fond of old Rocky and glad to be able to do him a good turn. Rocky was perfectly contented, because he was still able to sit on fences in his pyjamas and watch worms. And, as for the aunt, she seemed tickled to death. She was getting Broadway at pretty long range, but it seemed to be hitting her just right. I read one of her letters to Rocky, and it was full of life.
But then Rocky's letters, based on Jeeves's notes, were enough to buck anybody up. It was rummy when you came to think of it. There was I, loving the life, while the mere mention of it gave Rocky a tired feeling; yet here is a letter I wrote to a pal of mine in London:
"DEAR FREDDIE,—Well, here I am in New York. It's not a bad place. I'm not having a bad time. Everything's pretty all right. The cabarets aren't bad. Don't know when I shall be back. How's everybody? Cheer-o!—Yours,
"PS.—Seen old Ted lately?"
Not that I cared about Ted; but if I hadn't dragged him in I couldn't have got the confounded thing on to the second page.
Now here's old Rocky on exactly the same subject:
"DEAREST AUNT ISABEL,—How can I ever thank you enough for giving me the opportunity to live in this astounding city! New York seems more wonderful every day.
"Fifth Avenue is at its best, of course, just now. The dresses are magnificent!"
Wads of stuff about the dresses. I didn't know Jeeves was such an authority.
"I was out with some of the crowd at the Midnight Revels the other night. We took in a show first, after a little dinner at a new place on Forty-third Street. We were quite a gay party. Georgie Cohan looked in about midnight and got off a good one about Willie Collier. Fred Stone could only stay a minute, but Doug. Fairbanks did all sorts of stunts and made us roar. Diamond Jim Brady was there, as usual, and Laurette Taylor showed up with a party. The show at the Revels is quite good. I am enclosing a programme.
"Last night a few of us went round to Frolics on the Roof——"
And so on and so forth, yards of it. I suppose it's the artistic temperament or something. What I mean is, it's easier for a chappie who's used to writing poems and that sort of tosh to put a bit of a punch into a letter than it is for a chappie like me. Anyway, there's no doubt that Rocky's correspondence was hot stuff. I called Jeeves in and congratulated him.
"Jeeves, you're a wonder!"
"Thank you, sir."
"How you notice everything at these places beats me. I couldn't tell you a thing about them, except that I've had a good time."
"It's just a knack, sir."
"Well, Mr. Todd's letters ought to brace Miss Rockmetteller all right, what?"
"Undoubtedly, sir," agreed Jeeves.
And, by Jove, they did! They certainly did, by George! What I mean to say is, I was sitting in the apartment one afternoon, about a month after the thing had started, smoking a cigarette and resting the old bean, when the door opened and the voice of Jeeves burst the silence like a bomb.
It wasn't that he spoke loud. He has one of those soft, soothing voices that slide through the atmosphere like the note of a far-off sheep. It was what he said made me leap like a young gazelle.
And in came a large, solid female.
The situation floored me. I'm not denying it. Hamlet must have felt much as I did when his father's ghost bobbed up in the fairway. I'd come to look on Rocky's aunt as such a permanency at her own home that it didn't seem possible that she could really be here in New York. I stared at her. Then I looked at Jeeves. He was standing there in an attitude of dignified detachment, the chump, when, if ever he should have been rallying round the young master, it was now.
Rocky's aunt looked less like an invalid than any one I've ever seen, except my Aunt Agatha. She had a good deal of Aunt Agatha about her, as a matter of fact. She looked as if she might be deucedly dangerous if put upon; and something seemed to tell me that she would certainly regard herself as put upon if she ever found out the game which poor old Rocky had been pulling on her.
"Good afternoon," I managed to say.
"How do you do?" she said. "Mr. Cohan?"
"Mr. Fred Stone?"
"Not absolutely. As a matter of fact, my name's Wooster—Bertie Wooster."
She seemed disappointed. The fine old name of Wooster appeared to mean nothing in her life.
"Isn't Rockmetteller home?" she said. "Where is he?"
She had me with the first shot. I couldn't think of anything to say. I couldn't tell her that Rocky was down in the country, watching worms.
There was the faintest flutter of sound in the background. It was the respectful cough with which Jeeves announces that he is about to speak without having been spoken to.
"If you remember, sir, Mr. Todd went out in the automobile with a party in the afternoon."
"So he did, Jeeves; so he did," I said, looking at my watch. "Did he say when he would be back?"
"He gave me to understand, sir, that he would be somewhat late in returning."
He vanished; and the aunt took the chair which I'd forgotten to offer her. She looked at me in rather a rummy way. It was a nasty look. It made me feel as if I were something the dog had brought in and intended to bury later on, when he had time. My own Aunt Agatha, back in England, has looked at me in exactly the same way many a time, and it never fails to make my spine curl.
"You seem very much at home here, young man. Are you a great friend of Rockmetteller's?"
"Oh, yes, rather!"
She frowned as if she had expected better things of old Rocky.
"Well, you need to be," she said, "the way you treat his flat as your own!"
I give you my word, this quite unforeseen slam simply robbed me of the power of speech. I'd been looking on myself in the light of the dashing host, and suddenly to be treated as an intruder jarred me. It wasn't, mark you, as if she had spoken in a way to suggest that she considered my presence in the place as an ordinary social call. She obviously looked on me as a cross between a burglar and the plumber's man come to fix the leak in the bathroom. It hurt her—my being there.
At this juncture, with the conversation showing every sign of being about to die in awful agonies, an idea came to me. Tea—the good old stand-by.
"Would you care for a cup of tea?" I said.
She spoke as if she had never heard of the stuff.
"Nothing like a cup after a journey," I said. "Bucks you up! Puts a bit of zip into you. What I mean is, restores you, and so on, don't you know. I'll go and tell Jeeves."
I tottered down the passage to Jeeves's lair. The man was reading the evening paper as if he hadn't a care in the world.
"Jeeves," I said, "we want some tea."
"Very good, sir."
"I say, Jeeves, this is a bit thick, what?"
I wanted sympathy, don't you know—sympathy and kindness. The old nerve centres had had the deuce of a shock.
"She's got the idea this place belongs to Mr. Todd. What on earth put that into her head?"
Jeeves filled the kettle with a restrained dignity.
"No doubt because of Mr. Todd's letters, sir," he said. "It was my suggestion, sir, if you remember, that they should be addressed from this apartment in order that Mr. Todd should appear to possess a good central residence in the city."
I remembered. We had thought it a brainy scheme at the time.
"Well, it's bally awkward, you know, Jeeves. She looks on me as an intruder. By Jove! I suppose she thinks I'm someone who hangs about here, touching Mr. Todd for free meals and borrowing his shirts."
"It's pretty rotten, you know."
"Most disturbing, sir."
"And there's another thing: What are we to do about Mr. Todd? We've got to get him up here as soon as ever we can. When you have brought the tea you had better go out and send him a telegram, telling him to come up by the next train."
"I have already done so, sir. I took the liberty of writing the message and dispatching it by the lift attendant."
"By Jove, you think of everything, Jeeves!"
"Thank you, sir. A little buttered toast with the tea? Just so, sir. Thank you."
I went back to the sitting-room. She hadn't moved an inch. She was still bolt upright on the edge of her chair, gripping her umbrella like a hammer-thrower. She gave me another of those looks as I came in. There was no doubt about it; for some reason she had taken a dislike to me. I suppose because I wasn't George M. Cohan. It was a bit hard on a chap.
"This is a surprise, what?" I said, after about five minutes' restful silence, trying to crank the conversation up again.
"What is a surprise?"
"Your coming here, don't you know, and so on."
She raised her eyebrows and drank me in a bit more through her glasses.
"Why is it surprising that I should visit my only nephew?" she said.
Put like that, of course, it did seem reasonable.
"Oh, rather," I said. "Of course! Certainly. What I mean is——"
Jeeves projected himself into the room with the tea. I was jolly glad to see him. There's nothing like having a bit of business arranged for one when one isn't certain of one's lines. With the teapot to fool about with I felt happier.
"Tea, tea, tea—what? What?" I said.
It wasn't what I had meant to say. My idea had been to be a good deal more formal, and so on. Still, it covered the situation. I poured her out a cup. She sipped it and put the cup down with a shudder.
"Do you mean to say, young man," she said frostily, "that you expect me to drink this stuff?"
"Rather! Bucks you up, you know."
"What do you mean by the expression 'Bucks you up'?"
"Well, makes you full of beans, you know. Makes you fizz."
"I don't understand a word you say. You're English, aren't you?"
I admitted it. She didn't say a word. And somehow she did it in a way that made it worse than if she had spoken for hours. Somehow it was brought home to me that she didn't like Englishmen, and that if she had had to meet an Englishman, I was the one she'd have chosen last.
Conversation languished again after that.
Then I tried again. I was becoming more convinced every moment that you can't make a real lively salon with a couple of people, especially if one of them lets it go a word at a time.
"Are you comfortable at your hotel?" I said.
"At which hotel?"
"The hotel you're staying at."
"I am not staying at an hotel."
"Stopping with friends—what?"
"I am naturally stopping with my nephew."
I didn't get it for the moment; then it hit me.
"What! Here?" I gurgled.
"Certainly! Where else should I go?"
The full horror of the situation rolled over me like a wave. I couldn't see what on earth I was to do. I couldn't explain that this wasn't Rocky's flat without giving the poor old chap away hopelessly, because she would then ask me where he did live, and then he would be right in the soup. I was trying to induce the old bean to recover from the shock and produce some results when she spoke again.
"Will you kindly tell my nephew's man-servant to prepare my room? I wish to lie down."
"Your nephew's man-servant?"
"The man you call Jeeves. If Rockmetteller has gone for an automobile ride, there is no need for you to wait for him. He will naturally wish to be alone with me when he returns."
I found myself tottering out of the room. The thing was too much for me. I crept into Jeeves's den.
"Jeeves!" I whispered.
"Mix me a b.-and-s., Jeeves. I feel weak."
"Very good, sir."
"This is getting thicker every minute, Jeeves."
"She thinks you're Mr. Todd's man. She thinks the whole place is his, and everything in it. I don't see what you're to do, except stay on and keep it up. We can't say anything or she'll get on to the whole thing, and I don't want to let Mr. Todd down. By the way, Jeeves, she wants you to prepare her bed."
He looked wounded.
"It is hardly my place, sir——"
"I know—I know. But do it as a personal favour to me. If you come to that, it's hardly my place to be flung out of the flat like this and have to go to an hotel, what?"
"Is it your intention to go to an hotel, sir? What will you do for clothes?"
"Good Lord! I hadn't thought of that. Can you put a few things in a bag when she isn't looking, and sneak them down to me at the St. Aurea?"
"I will endeavour to do so, sir."
"Well, I don't think there's anything more, is there? Tell Mr. Todd where I am when he gets here."
"Very good, sir."
I looked round the place. The moment of parting had come. I felt sad. The whole thing reminded me of one of those melodramas where they drive chappies out of the old homestead into the snow.
"Good-bye, Jeeves," I said.
And I staggered out.
* * * * *
You know, I rather think I agree with those poet-and-philosopher Johnnies who insist that a fellow ought to be devilish pleased if he has a bit of trouble. All that stuff about being refined by suffering, you know. Suffering does give a chap a sort of broader and more sympathetic outlook. It helps you to understand other people's misfortunes if you've been through the same thing yourself.
As I stood in my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them. I'd always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves and haven't got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don't you know. I mean to say, ever since then I've been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick.
I got dressed somehow. Jeeves hadn't forgotten a thing in his packing. Everything was there, down to the final stud. I'm not sure this didn't make me feel worse. It kind of deepened the pathos. It was like what somebody or other wrote about the touch of a vanished hand.
I had a bit of dinner somewhere and went to a show of some kind; but nothing seemed to make any difference. I simply hadn't the heart to go on to supper anywhere. I just sucked down a whisky-and-soda in the hotel smoking-room and went straight up to bed. I don't know when I've felt so rotten. Somehow I found myself moving about the room softly, as if there had been a death in the family. If I had anybody to talk to I should have talked in a whisper; in fact, when the telephone-bell rang I answered in such a sad, hushed voice that the fellow at the other end of the wire said "Halloa!" five times, thinking he hadn't got me.
It was Rocky. The poor old scout was deeply agitated.
"Bertie! Is that you, Bertie! Oh, gosh? I'm having a time!"
"Where are you speaking from?"
"The Midnight Revels. We've been here an hour, and I think we're a fixture for the night. I've told Aunt Isabel I've gone out to call up a friend to join us. She's glued to a chair, with this-is-the-life written all over her, taking it in through the pores. She loves it, and I'm nearly crazy."
"Tell me all, old top," I said.
"A little more of this," he said, "and I shall sneak quietly off to the river and end it all. Do you mean to say you go through this sort of thing every night, Bertie, and enjoy it? It's simply infernal! I was just snatching a wink of sleep behind the bill of fare just now when about a million yelling girls swooped down, with toy balloons. There are two orchestras here, each trying to see if it can't play louder than the other. I'm a mental and physical wreck. When your telegram arrived I was just lying down for a quiet pipe, with a sense of absolute peace stealing over me. I had to get dressed and sprint two miles to catch the train. It nearly gave me heart-failure; and on top of that I almost got brain fever inventing lies to tell Aunt Isabel. And then I had to cram myself into these confounded evening clothes of yours."
I gave a sharp wail of agony. It hadn't struck me till then that Rocky was depending on my wardrobe to see him through.
"You'll ruin them!"
"I hope so," said Rocky, in the most unpleasant way. His troubles seemed to have had the worst effect on his character. "I should like to get back at them somehow; they've given me a bad enough time. They're about three sizes too small, and something's apt to give at any moment. I wish to goodness it would, and give me a chance to breathe. I haven't breathed since half-past seven. Thank Heaven, Jeeves managed to get out and buy me a collar that fitted, or I should be a strangled corpse by now! It was touch and go till the stud broke. Bertie, this is pure Hades! Aunt Isabel keeps on urging me to dance. How on earth can I dance when I don't know a soul to dance with? And how the deuce could I, even if I knew every girl in the place? It's taking big chances even to move in these trousers. I had to tell her I've hurt my ankle. She keeps asking me when Cohan and Stone are going to turn up; and it's simply a question of time before she discovers that Stone is sitting two tables away. Something's got to be done, Bertie! You've got to think up some way of getting me out of this mess. It was you who got me into it."