"Not particularly," said Julian shortly; "she's my cousin. My cousin Eva."
This was startling. There was a pause. Presently Julian said, "Do you know, Jimmy, that if I were not the philosopher I am, I'd curse this awful indolence of mine."
I saw it in a flash, and went up to him holding out my hand in sympathy. "Thanks," he said, gripping it; "but don't speak of it. I couldn't endure that, even from you, James. It's too hard for talking. If it was only myself whose life I'd spoilt—if it was only myself——"
He broke off. And then, "Hers too. She's true as steel."
I had heard no more bitter cry than that.
I began to busy myself amongst some manuscripts to give Julian time to compose himself. And so an hour passed. At a quarter past four I got up to go out. Julian lay recumbent. It seemed terrible to leave him brooding alone over his misery.
A closer inspection, however, showed me he was asleep.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Eva Eversleigh and I became firm friends. Of her person I need simply say that it was the most beautiful that Nature ever created. Pressed as to details, I should add that she was petite, dark, had brown hair, very big blue eyes, a retrouss nose, and a rather wide mouth.
Julian had said she was "true as steel." Therefore, I felt no diffidence in manoeuvring myself into her society on every conceivable occasion. Sometimes she spoke to me of Julian, whom I admitted I knew, and, with feminine courage, she hid her hopeless, all-devouring affection for her cousin under the cloak of ingenuous levity. She laughed nearly every time his name was mentioned.
About this time the Gunton-Cresswells gave a dance.
I looked forward to it with almost painful pleasure. I had not been to a dance since my last May-week at Cambridge. Also No. 5, Kensington Lane had completely usurped the position I had previously assigned to Paradise. To waltz with Julian's cousin—that was the ambition which now dwarfed my former hankering for the fame of authorship or a habitation in Bohemia.
Mrs. Goodwin once said that happiness consists in anticipating an impossible future. Be that as it may, I certainly thought my sensations were pleasant enough when at length my hansom pulled up jerkily beside the red-carpeted steps of No. 5, Kensington Lane. As I paid the fare, I could hear the murmur from within of a waltz tune—and I kept repeating to myself that Eva had promised me the privilege of taking her in to supper, and had given me the last two waltzes and the first two extras.
I went to pay my devoirs to my hostess. She was supinely gamesome. "Ah," she said, showing her excellent teeth, "Genius attendant at the revels of Terpsichore."
"Where Beauty, Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell," I responded, cutting it, as though mutton, thick, "teaches e'en the humblest visitor the reigning Muse's art."
"You may have this one, if you like," said Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell simply.
Supper came at last, and, with supper, Eva.
I must now write it down that she was not a type of English beauty. She was not, I mean, queenly, impassive, never-anything-but-her-cool-calm- self. Tonight, for instance, her eyes were as I had never seen them. There danced in them the merriest glitter, which was more than a mere glorification of the ordinary merry glitter—which scores of girls possess at every ball. To begin with, there was a diabolical abandon in Eva's glitter, which raised it instantly above the common herd's. And behind it all was that very misty mist. I don't know whether all men have seen that mist; but I am sure that no man has seen it more than once; and, from what I've seen of the average man, I doubt if most of them have ever seen it at all. Well, there it was for me to see in Eva Eversleigh's eyes that night at supper. It made me think of things unspeakable. I felt a rush of classic aestheticism: Arcadia, Helen of Troy, the happy valleys of the early Greeks. Supper: I believe I gave her oyster pts. But I was far away. Deep, deep, deep in Eva's eyes I saw a craft sighting, 'neath a cloudless azure sky, the dark blue Symplegades; heard in my ears the jargon, loud and near me, of the sailors; and faintly o'er the distance of the dead-calm sea rose intermittently the sound of brine-foam at the clashing rocks....
As we sat there tte—tte, she smiled across the table at me with such perfect friendliness, it seemed as though a magic barrier separated our two selves from all the chattering, rustling crowd around us. When she spoke, a little quiver of feeling blended adorably with the low, sweet tones of her voice. We talked, indeed, of trifles, but with just that charming hint of intimacy which men friends have who may have known one another from birth, and may know one another for a lifetime, but never become bores, never change. Only when it comes between a woman and a man, it is incomparably finer. It is the talk, of course, of lovers who have not realised they are in love.
"The two last waltzes," I murmured, when parting with her. She nodded. I roamed the Gunton-Cresswells's rooms awaiting them.
She danced those two last waltzes with strangers.
The thing was utterly beyond me at the time. Looking back, I am still amazed to what lengths deliberate coquetry can go.
She actually took pains to elude me, and gave those waltzes to strangers.
From being comfortably rocked in the dark blue waters of a Grecian sea, I was suddenly transported to the realities of the ballroom. My theoretical love for Eva was now a substantial truth. I was in an agony of desire, in a frenzy of jealousy. I wanted to hurl the two strangers to opposite corners of the ballroom, but civilisation forbade it.
I was now in an altogether indescribable state of nerves and suspense. Had she definitely and for some unfathomable reason decided to cut me? The first extra drew languorously to a close, couples swept from the room to the grounds, the gallery or the conservatory. I tried to steady my whirling head with a cigarette and a whisky-and-soda in the smoking-room.
The orchestra, like a train starting tentatively on a long run, launched itself mildly into the preliminary bars of Tout Passe. I sought the ballroom blinded by my feelings. Pulling myself together with an effort, I saw her standing alone. It struck me for the first time that she was clothed in cream. Her skin gleamed shining white. She stood erect, her arms by her sides. Behind her was a huge, black velvet portire of many folds, supported by two dull brazen columns.
As I advanced towards her, two or three men bowed and spoke to her. She smiled and dismissed them, and, still smiling pleasantly, her glance traversed the crowd and rested upon me. I was drawing now quite near. Her eyes met mine; nor did she avert them, and stooping a little to address her, I heard her sigh.
"You're tired," I said, forgetting my two last dances, forgetting everything but that I loved her.
"Perhaps I am," she said, taking my arm. We turned in silence to the portire and found ourselves in the hall. The doors were opened. Some servants were there. At the bottom of the steps I chanced to see a yellow light.
"Find out if that cab's engaged," I said to a footman.
"The cool air——" I said to Eva.
"The cab is not engaged, sir," said the footman, returning.
"Yes," said Eva, in answer to my glance.
"Drive to the corner of Sloane Street, by way of the Park," I told the driver.
I have said that I had forgotten everything except that I loved her. Could it help remembrance now that we two sped alone through empty streets, her warm, palpitating body touching mine?
Julian, his friendship for me, his love for Eva; Margaret and her love for me; my own honour—these things were blotted from my brain.
"Eva!" I murmured; and I took her hand.
Her wonderful eyes met mine. The mist in them seemed to turn to dew.
"My darling," she whispered, very low. And, the road being deserted, I drew her face to mine and kissed her.
I TELL JULIAN (James Orlebar Cloyster's narrative continued)
Is any man really honourable? I wonder. Hundreds, thousands go triumphantly through life with that reputation. But how far is this due to absence of temptation? Life, which is like cricket in so many ways, resembles the game in this also. A batsman makes a century, and, having made it, is bowled by a ball which he is utterly unable to play. What if that ball had come at the beginning of his innings instead of at the end of it? Men go through life without a stain on their honour. I wonder if it simply means that they had the luck not to have the good ball bowled to them early in their innings. To take my own case. I had always considered myself a man of honour. I had a code that was rigid compared with that of a large number of men. In theory I should never have swerved from it. I was fully prepared to carry out my promise and marry Margaret, at the expense of my happiness—until I met Eva. I would have done anything to avoid injuring Julian, my friend, until I met Eva. Eva was my temptation, and I fell. Nothing in the world mattered, so that she was mine. I ought to have had a revulsion of feeling as I walked back to my rooms in Walpole Street. The dance was over. The music had ceased. The dawn was chill. And at a point midway between Kensington Lane and the Brompton Oratory I had proposed to Eversleigh's cousin, his Eva, "true as steel," and had been accepted.
Yet I had no remorse. I did not even try to justify my behaviour to Julian or to Margaret, or—for she must suffer, too—to Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell, who, I knew well, was socially ambitious for her niece.
To all these things I was indifferent. I repeated softly to myself, "We love each other."
From this state of coma, however, I was aroused by the appearance of my window-blind. I saw, in fact, that my room was illuminated. Remembering that I had been careful to put out my lamp before I left, I feared, as I opened the hall door, a troublesome encounter with a mad housebreaker. Mad, for no room such as mine could attract a burglar who has even the slightest pretensions to sanity.
It was not a burglar. It was Julian Eversleigh, and he was lying asleep on my sofa.
There was nothing peculiar in this. I roused him.
"Julian," I said.
"I'm glad you're back," he said, sitting up; "I've some news for you."
"So have I," said I. For I had resolved to tell him what I had done.
"Hear mine first. It's urgent. Miss Margaret Goodwin has been here."
My heart seemed to leap.
"Today?" I cried.
"Yes. I had called to see you, and was waiting a little while on the chance of your coming in when I happened to look out of the window. A girl was coming down the street, looking at the numbers of the houses. She stopped here. Intuition told me she was Miss Goodwin. While she was ringing the bell I did all I could to increase the shabby squalor of your room. She was shown in here, and I introduced myself as your friend. We chatted. I drew an agonising picture of your struggle for existence. You were brave, talented, and unsuccessful. Though you went often hungry, you had a plucky smile upon your lips. It was a meritorious bit of work. Miss Goodwin cried a good deal. She is charming. I was so sorry for her that I laid it on all the thicker."
"Where is she now?"
"Nearing Guernsey. She's gone."
"Gone!" I said. "Without seeing me! I don't understand."
"You don't understand how she loves you, James."
"But she's gone. Gone without a word."
"She has gone because she loved you so. She had intended to stay with the Gunton-Cresswells. She knows them, it seems. They didn't know she was coming. She didn't know herself until this morning. She happened to be walking on the quay at St. Peter's Port. The outward-bound boat was on the point of starting for England. A wave of affection swept over Miss Goodwin. She felt she must see you. Scribbling a note, which she despatched to her mother, she went aboard. She came straight here. Then, when I had finished with her, when I had lied consistently about you for an hour, she told me she must return. 'I must not see James,' she said. 'You have torn my heart. I should break down.' And she said, speaking, I think, half to herself, 'Your courage is so noble, so different from mine. And I must not impose a needless strain upon it. You shall not see me weep for you.' And then she went away."
Julian's voice broke. He was genuinely affected by his own recital.
For my part, I saw that I had bludgeon work to do. It is childish to grumble at the part Fate forces one to play. Sympathetic or otherwise, one can only enact one's rle to the utmost of one's ability. Mine was now essentially unsympathetic, but I was determined that it should be adequately played.
I went to the fireplace and poked the fire into a blaze. Then, throwing my hat on the table and lighting a cigarette, I regarded Julian cynically.
"You're a nice sort of person, aren't you?" I said.
"What do you mean?" asked Julian, startled, as I had meant that he should be, by the question.
"Aren't you just a little transparent, my dear Julian?"
He stared blankly.
I took up a position in front of the fire.
"Disloyalty," I said tolerantly, "where a woman is concerned, is in the eyes of some people almost a negative virtue."
"I don't know what on earth you're talking about."
I was sorry for him all the time. In a curiously impersonal way I could realise the depths to which I was sinking in putting this insult upon him. But my better feelings were gagged and bound that night. The one thought uppermost in my mind was that I must tell Julian of Eva, and that by his story of Margaret he had given me an opening for making my confession with the minimum of discomfort to myself.
It was pitiful to see the first shaft of my insinuation slowly sink into him. I could see by the look in his eyes that he had grasped my meaning.
"Jimmy," he gasped, "you can't think—are you joking?"
"I am not surprised at your asking that question," I replied pleasantly. "You know how tolerant I am. But I'm not joking. Not that I blame you, my dear fellow. Margaret is, or used to be, very good-looking."
"You seem to be in earnest," he said, in a dazed way.
"My dear fellow," I said; "I have a certain amount of intuition. You spend an hour here alone with Margaret. She is young, and very pretty. You are placed immediately on terms of intimacy by the fact that you have, in myself, a subject of mutual interest. That breaks the ice. You are at cross-purposes, but your main sympathies are identical. Also, you have a strong objective sympathy for Margaret. I think we may presuppose that this second sympathy is stronger than the first. It pivots on a woman, not on a man. And on a woman who is present, not on a man who is absent. You see my meaning? At any rate, the solid fact remains that she stayed an hour with you, whom she had met for the first time today, and did not feel equal to meeting me, whom she has loved for two years. If you want me to explain myself further, I have no objection to doing so. I mean that you made love to her."
I watched him narrowly to see how he would take it. The dazed expression deepened on his face.
"You are apparently sane," he said, very wearily. "You seem to be sober."
"I am both," I said.
There was a pause.
"It's no use for me," he began, evidently collecting his thoughts with a strong effort, "to say your charge is preposterous. I don't suppose mere denial would convince you. I can only say, instead, that the charge is too wild to be replied to except in one way, which is this. Employ for a moment your own standard of right and wrong. I know your love story, and you know mine. Miss Eversleigh, my cousin, is to me what Miss Goodwin is to you—true as steel. My loyalty and my friendship for you are the same as your loyalty and your friendship for me."
"Well, if I have spent an hour with Miss Goodwin, you have spent more than an hour with my cousin. What right have you to suspect me more than I have to suspect you? Judge me by your own standard."
"I do," I said, "and I find myself still suspecting you."
"I don't understand you."
"Perhaps you will when you have heard the piece of news which I mentioned earlier in our conversation that I had for you."
"I proposed to your cousin at the Gunton-Cresswells's dance tonight, and she accepted me."
The news had a surprising effect on Julian. First he blinked. Then he craned his head forward in the manner of a deaf man listening with difficulty.
Then he left the room without a word.
He had not been gone two minutes when there were three short, sharp taps at my window.
Julian returned? Impossible. Yet who else could have called on me at that hour?
I went to the front door, and opened it.
On the steps stood the Rev. John Hatton. Beside him Sidney Price. And, lurking in the background, Tom Blake of the Ashlade and Lechton.
(End of James Orlebar Cloister's narrative.)
Sidney Price's Narrative
A GHOSTLY GATHERING
Norah Perkins is a peach, and I don't care who knows it; but, all the same, there's no need to tell her every little detail of a man's past life. Not that I've been a Don What's-his-name. Far from it. Costs a bit too much, that game. You simply can't do it on sixty quid a year, paid monthly, and that's all there is about it. Not but what I don't often think of going it a bit when things are slack at the office and my pal in the New Business Department is out for lunch. It's the loneliness makes you think of going a regular plunger. More than once, when Tommy Milner hasn't been there to talk to, I tell you I've half a mind to take out some girl or other to tea at the "Cabin." I have, straight.
Yet somehow when the assist. cash. comes round with the wicker tray on the 1st, and gives you the envelope ("Mr. Price") and you take out the five sovereigns—well, somehow, there's such a lot of other things which you don't want to buy but have just got to. Tommy Milner said the other day, and I quite agree with him, "When I took my clean handkerchief out last fortnight," he said, "I couldn't help totting up what a lot I spend on trifles." That's it. There you've got it in a nutshell. Washing, bootlaces, bus-tickets—trifles, in fact: that's where the coin goes. Only the other morning I bust my braces. I was late already, and pinning them together all but lost me the 9:16, only it was a bit behind time. It struck me then as I ran to the station that the average person would never count braces an expense. Trifles—that's what it is.
No; I may have smoked a cig. too much and been so chippy next day that I had to go out and get a cup of tea at the A.B.C.; or I may now and again have gone up West of an evening for a bit of a look round; but beyond that I've never been really what you'd call vicious. Very likely it's been my friendship for Mr. Hatton that's curbed me breaking out as I've sometimes imagined myself doing when I've been alone in the New Business Room. Though I must say, in common honesty to myself, that there's always been the fear of getting the sack from the "Moon." The "Moon" isn't like some other insurance companies I could mention which'll take anyone. Your refs. must be A1, or you don't stand an earthly. Simply not an earthly. Besides, the "Moon" isn't an Insurance Company at all: it's an Assurance Company. Of course, now I've chucked the "Moon" ("shot the moon," as Tommy Milner, who's the office comic, put it) and taken to Literature I could do pretty well what I liked, if it weren't for Norah.
Which brings me back to what I was saying just now—that I'm not sure whether I shall tell her the Past. I may and I may not. I'll have to think it over. Anyway, I'm going to write it down first and see how it looks. If it's all right it can go into my autobiography. If it isn't, then I shall lie low about it. That's the posish.
It all started from my friendship with Mr. Hatton—the Rev. Mr. Hatton. If it hadn't have been for that man I should still be working out rates of percentage for the "Moon" and listening to Tommy Milner's so-called witticisms. Of course, I've cut him now. A literary man, a man who supplies the Strawberry Leaf with two columns of Social Interludes at a salary I'm not going to mention in case Norah gets to hear of it and wants to lash out, a man whose Society novels are competed for by every publisher in London and New York—well, can a man in that position be expected to keep up with an impudent little ledger-lugger like Tommy Milner? It can't be done.
I first met the Reverend on the top of Box Hill one Saturday afternoon. Bike had punctured, and the Reverend gave me the loan of his cyclists' repairing outfit. We had our tea together. Watercress, bread-and-butter, and two sorts of jam—one bob per head. He issued an invite to his diggings in the Temple. Cocoa and cigs. of an evening. Regular pally, him and me was. Then he got into the way of taking me down to a Boys' Club that he had started. Terrors they were, so to put it. Fair out-and-out terrors. But they all thought a lot of the Reverend, and so did I. Consequently it was all right. The next link in the chain was a chap called Cloyster. James Orlebar Cloyster. The Reverend brought him down to teach boxing. For my own part, I don't fancy anything in the way of brutality. The club, so I thought, had got on very nicely with more intellectual pursuits: draughts, chess, bagatelle, and what-not. But the Rev. wanted boxing, and boxing it had to be. Not that it would have done for him or me to have mixed ourselves up in it. He had his congregation to consider, and I am often on duty at the downstairs counter before the very heart of the public. A black eye or a missing tooth wouldn't have done at all for either of us, being, as we were, in a sense, officials. But Cloyster never seemed to realise this. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Cloyster was not my idea of a gentleman. He had no tact.
The next link was a confirmed dipsomaniac. A terrible phrase. Unavoidable, though. A very evil man is Tom Blake. Yet out of evil cometh good, and it was Tom Blake, who, indirectly, stopped the boxing lessons. The club boys never wore the gloves after drunken Blake's visit.
I shall never—no, positively never forget that night in June when matters came to a head in Shaftesbury Avenue. Oh, I say, it was a bit hot—very warm.
Each successive phase is limned indelibly—that's the sort of literary style I've got, if wanted—on the tablets of my memory.
I'd been up West, and who should I run across in Oxford Street but my old friend, Charlie Cookson. Very good company is Charlie Cookson. See him at a shilling hop at the Holborn: he's pretty much all there all the time. Well-known follower—of course, purely as an amateur—of the late Dan Leno, king of comedians; good penetrating voice; writes his own in-between bits—you know what I mean: the funny observations on mothers-in-law, motors, and marriage, marked "Spoken" in the song-books. Fellows often tell him he'd make a mint of money in the halls, and there's a rumour flying round among us who knew him in the "Moon" that he was seen coming out of a Bedford Street Variety Agency the other day.
Well, I met Charlie at something after ten. Directly he spotted me he was at his antics, standing stock still on the pavement in a crouching attitude, and grasping his umbrella like a tomahawk. His humour's always high-class, but he's the sort of fellow who doesn't care a blow what he does. Chronic in that respect, absolutely. The passers-by couldn't think what he was up to. "Whoop-whoop-whoop!" that's what he said. He did, straight. Only yelled it. I thought it was going a bit too far in a public place. So, to show him, I just said "Good evening, Cookson; how are you this evening?" With all his entertaining ways he's sometimes slow at taking a hint. No tact, if you see what I mean.
In this case, for instance, he answered at the top of his voice: "Bolly Golly, yah!" and pretended to scalp me with his umbrella. I immediately ducked, and somehow knocked my bowler against his elbow. He caught it as it was falling off my head. Then he said, "Indian brave give little pale face chief his hat." This was really too much, and I felt relieved when a policeman told us to move on. Charlie said: "Come and have two penn'orth of something."
Well, we stayed chatting over our drinks (in fact, I was well into my second lemon and dash) at the Stockwood Hotel until nearly eleven. At five to, Charlie said good-bye, because he was living in, and I walked out into the Charing Cross Road, meaning to turn down Shaftesbury Avenue so as to get a breath of fresh air. Outside the Oxford there was a bit of a crowd. I asked a man standing outside a tobacconist's what the trouble was. "Says he won't go away without kissing the girl that sang 'Empire Boys,'" was the reply. "Bin shiftin' it, 'e 'as, not 'arf!" Sure enough, from the midst of the crowd came:
Yew are ther boys of the Empire, Steady an' brave an' trew. Yew are the wuns She calls 'er sons An' I luv yew.
I had gone, out of curiosity, to the outskirts of the crowd, and before I knew what had happened I found myself close to the centre of it. A large man in dirty corduroys stood with his back to me. His shape seemed strangely familiar. Still singing, and swaying to horrible angles all over the shop, he slowly pivoted round. In a moment I recognised the bleary features of Tom Blake. At the same time he recognised me. He stretched out a long arm and seized me by the shoulder. "Oh," he sobbed, "I thought I 'ad no friend in the wide world except 'er; but now I've got yew it's orlright. Yus, yus, it's orlright." A murmur, almost a cheer it was, circulated among the crowd. But a policeman stepped up to me.
"Now then," said the policeman, "wot's all this about?"
Yew are the wuns She calls 'er sons——
"Ho, that's yer little game, is it?" said the policeman. "Move on, d'yer hear? Pop off."
"I will," said Blake. "I'll never do it again. I promise faithful never to do it again. I've found a fren'."
"Do you know this covey?" asked the policeman.
"Deny it, if yer dare," said Blake. "Jus' you deny it, that's orl, an' I'll tell the parson."
"Slightly, constable," I said. "I mean, I've seen him before."
"Then you'd better take 'im off if you don't want 'im locked up."
"'Im want me locked up? We're bosum fren's, ain't we, old dear?" said Blake, linking his arm in mine and dragging me away with him. Behind us, the policeman was shunting the spectators. Oh, it was excessively displeasing to any man of culture, I can assure you.
How we got along Shaftesbury I don't know. It's a subject I do not care to think about.
By leaning heavily on my shoulder and using me, so to speak, as ballast, drunken Blake just managed to make progress, I cannot say unostentatiously, but at any rate not so noticeably as to be taken into custody.
I didn't know, mind you, where we were going to, and I didn't know when we were going to stop.
In this frightful manner of progression we had actually gained sight of Piccadilly Circus when all of a sudden a voice hissed in my ear: "Sidney Price, I am disappointed in you." Hissed, mind you. I tell you, I jumped. Thought I'd bitten my tongue off at first.
If drunken Blake hadn't been clutching me so tight you could have knocked me down with a feather: bowled me over clean. It startled Blake a goodish bit, too. All along the Avenue he'd been making just a quiet sort of snivelling noise. Crikey, if he didn't speak up quite perky. "O, my fren'," he says. "So drunk and yet so young." Meaning me, if you please.
It was too thick.
"You blighter," I says. "You blooming blighter. You talk to me like that. Let go of my arm and see me knock you down."
I must have been a bit excited, you see, to say that. Then I looked round to see who the other individual was. You'll hardly credit me when I tell you it was the Reverend. But it was. Honest truth, it was the Rev. John Hatton and no error. His face fairly frightened me. Simply blazing: red: fair scarlet. He kept by the side of us and let me have it all he could. "I thought you knew better, Price," that's what he said. "I thought you knew better. Here are you, a friend of mine, a member of the Club, a man I've trusted, going about the streets of London in a bestial state of disgusting intoxication. That's enough in itself. But you've done worse than that. You've lured poor Blake into intemperance. Yes, with all your advantages of education and up-bringing, you deliberately set to work to put temptation in the way of poor, weak, hard-working Blake. Drunkenness is Blake's besetting sin, and you——"
Blake had been silently wagging his head, as pleased as Punch at being called hardworking. But here he shoved in his oar.
"'Ow dare yer!" he burst out. "I ain't never tasted a drop o' beer in my natural. Born an' bred teetotal, that's wot I was, and don't yew forget it, neither."
"Blake," said the Reverend, "that's not the truth."
"Call me a drunkard, do yer?" replied Blake. "Go on. Say it again. Say I'm a blarsted liar, won't yer? Orlright, then I shall run away."
And with that he wrenched himself away from me and set off towards the Circus. He was trying to run, but his advance took the form of semi-circular sweeps all over the pavement. He had circled off so unexpectedly that he had gained some fifty yards before we realised what was happening. "We must stop him," said the Reverend.
"As I'm intoxicated," I said, coldly (being a bit fed up with things), "I should recommend you stopping him, Mr. Hatton."
"I've done you an injustice," said the Reverend.
"You have," said I.
Blake was now nearing a policeman. "Stop him!" we both shouted, starting to run forward.
The policeman brought Blake to a standstill.
"Friend of yours?" said the constable when we got up to him.
"Yes," said the Reverend.
"You ought to look after him better," said the constable.
"Well, really, I like that!" said the Reverend; but he caught my eye and began laughing. "Our best plan," he said, "is to get a four-wheeler and go down to the Temple. There's some supper there. What do you say?"
"I'm on," I said, and to the Temple we accordingly journeyed.
Tom Blake was sleepy and immobile. We spread him without hindrance on a sofa, where he snored peacefully whilst the Reverend brought eggs and a slab of bacon out of a cupboard in the kitchen. He also brought a frying-pan, and a bowl of fat.
"Is your cooking anything extra good?" he asked.
"No, Mr. Hatton," I answered, rather stiff; "I've never cooked anything in my life." I may not be in a very high position in the "Moon," but I've never descended to menial's work yet.
For about five minutes after that the Reverend was too busy to speak. Then he said, without turning his head away from the hissing pan, "I wish you'd do me a favour, Price."
"Certainly," I said.
"Look in the cupboard and see whether there are any knives, forks, plates, and a loaf and a bit of butter, will you?"
I looked, and, sure enough, they were there.
"Yes, they're all here," I called to him.
"And is there a tray?"
"Yes, there's a tray."
"Now, it's a funny thing that my laundress," he shouted back, "can't bring in breakfast things for more than one on that particular tray. She's always complaining it's too small, and says I ought to buy a bigger one."
"Nonsense," I exclaimed, "she's quite wrong about that. You watch what I can carry in one load." And I packed the tray with everything he had mentioned.
"What price that?" I said, putting the whole boiling on the sitting-room table.
The Reverend began to roar with laughter. "It's ridiculous," he chuckled. "I shall tell her it's ridiculous. She ought to be ashamed of herself."
Shortly after we had supper, previously having aroused Blake.
The drunken fellow seemed completely restored by his repose. He ate more than his share of the eggs and bacon, and drank five cups of tea. Then he stretched himself, lit a clay pipe, and offered us his tobacco box, from which the Reverend filled his briar. I remained true to my packet of "Queen of the Harem." I shall think twice before chucking up cig. smoking as long as "Queen of the Harem" don't go above tuppence-half-penny per ten.
We were sitting there smoking in front of the fire—it was a shade parky for the time of year—and not talking a great deal, when the Reverend said to Blake, "Things are looking up on the canal, aren't they, Tom?"
"No," said Blake; "things ain't lookin' up on the canal."
"Got a little house property," said the Reverend, "to spend when you feel like it?"
"No," said the other; "I ain't got no 'ouse property to spend."
"Ah." said the Reverend, cheesing it, and sucking his pipe.
"Dessay yer think I'm free with the rhino?" said Blake after a while.
"I was only wondering," said the Reverend.
Blake stared first at the Reverend and then at me.
"Ever remember a party of the name of Cloyster, Mr. James Orlebar Cloyster?" he inquired.
"Yes," we both said.
"'E's a good man," said Blake.
"Been giving you money?" asked the Reverend.
"'E's put me into the way of earning it. It's the sorfest job ever I struck. 'E told me not to say nothin', and I said as 'ow I wouldn't. But it ain't fair to Mr. Cloyster, not keeping of it dark ain't. Yew don't know what a noble 'eart that man's got, an' if you weren't fren' of 'is I couldn't have told you. But as you are fren's of 'is, as we're all fren's of 'is, I'll take it on myself to tell you wot that noble-natured man is giving me money for. Blowed if 'e shall 'ide his bloomin' light under a blanky bushel any longer." And then he explained that for putting his name to a sheet or two of paper, and addressing a few envelopes, he was getting more money than he knew what to do with. "Mind you," he said, "I play it fair. I only take wot he says I'm to take. The rest goes to 'im. My old missus sees to all that part of it 'cos she's quicker at figures nor wot I am."
While he was speaking, I could hardly contain myself. The Reverend was listening so carefully to every word that I kept myself from interrupting; but when he'd got it off his chest, I clutched the Reverend's arm, and said, "What's it mean?"
"Can't say," said he, knitting his brows.
"Is he straight?" I said, all on the jump.
"I hope so."
"'Hope so.' You don't think there's a doubt of it?"
"I suppose not. But surely it's very unselfish of you to be so concerned over Blake's business."
"Blake's business be jiggered," I said. "It's my business, too. I'm doing for Mister James Orlebar Cloyster exactly what Blake's doing. And I'm making money. You don't understand."
"On the contrary, I'm just beginning to understand. You see, I'm doing for Mr. James Orlebar Cloyster exactly the same service as you and Blake. And I'm getting money from him, too."
ONE IN THE EYE (Sidney Price's narrative continued)
"Serpose I oughtn't ter 'ave let on, that's it, ain't it?" from Tom Blake.
"Seemed to me that if one of the three gave the show away to the other two, the compact made by each of the other two came to an end automatically," from myself.
"The reason I have broken my promise of secrecy is this: that I'm determined we three shall make a united demand for a higher rate of payment. You, of course, have your own uses for the money, I need mine for those humanitarian objects for which my whole life is lived," from the Reverend.
"Wot 'o," said Blake. "More coin. Wot 'o. Might 'ave thought o' that before."
"I'm with you, sir," said I. "We're entitled to a higher rate, I'll make a memo to that effect."
"No, no," said the Reverend. "We can do better than that. We three should have a personal interview with Cloyster and tell him our decision."
"When?" I asked.
"Now. At once. We are here together, and I see no reason to prevent our arranging the matter within the hour."
"But he'll be asleep," I objected.
"He won't be asleep much longer."
"Yus, roust 'im outer bed. That's wot I say. Wot 'o for more coin."
It was now half-past two in the morning. I'd missed the 12:15 back to Brixton slap bang pop hours ago, so I thought I might just as well make a night of it. We jumped into our overcoats and hats, and hurried to Fleet Street. We walked towards the Strand until we found a four-wheeler. We then drove to No. 23, Walpole Street.
The clocks struck three as the Reverend paid the cab.
"Hullo!" said he. "Why, there's a light in Cloyster's sitting-room. He can't have gone to bed yet. His late hours save us a great deal of trouble." And he went up the two or three steps which led to the front door.
A glance at Tom Blake showed me that the barge-driver was alarmed. He looked solemn and did not speak. I felt funny, too. Like when I first handed round the collection-plate in our parish church. Sort of empty feeling.
But the Reverend was all there, spry and business-like.
He leaned over the area railing and gave three short, sharp taps on the ground floor window with his walking-stick.
Behind the lighted blind appeared the shadow of a man's figure.
"It's he!" "It's him!" came respectively and simultaneously from the Reverend and myself.
After a bit of waiting the latch clicked and the door opened. The door was opened by Mr. Cloyster himself. He was in evening dress and hysterics. I thought I had heard a rummy sound from the other side of the door. Couldn't account for it at the time. Must have been him laughing.
At the sight of us he tried to pull himself together. He half succeeded after a bit, and asked us to come in.
To say his room was plainly furnished doesn't express it. The apartment was like a prison cell. I've never been in gaol, of course. But I read "Convict 99" when it ran in a serial. The fire was out, the chairs were hard, and the whole thing was uncomfortable. Never struck such a shoddy place in my natural, ever since I called on a man I know slightly who was in "The Hand of Blood" travelling company No. 3 B.
"Delighted to see you, I'm sure," said Mr. Cloyster. "In fact, I was just going to sit down and write to you."
"Really," said the Reverend. "Well, we've come of our own accord, and we've come to talk business." Then turning to Blake and me he added, "May I state our case?"
"Most certainly, sir," I answered. And Blake gave a nod.
"Briefly, then," said the Reverend, "our mission is this: that we three want our contracts revised."
"What contracts?" said Mr. Cloyster.
"Our contracts connected with your manuscripts."
"Since when have the several matters of business which I arranged privately with each of you become public?"
"Tonight. It was quite unavoidable. We met by chance. We are not to blame. Tom Blake was——"
"Yes, he looks as if he had been."
"Our amended offer is half profits."
"More coin," murmured Blake huskily. "Wot 'o!"
"I regret that you've had your journey for nothing."
"My dear Cloyster, I had expected you to take this attitude; but surely it's childish of you. You are bound to accede. Why not do so at once?"
"Bound to accede? I don't follow you."
"Yes, bound. The present system which you are working is one you cannot afford to destroy. That is clear, because, had it not been so, you would never have initiated it. I do not know for what reason you were forced to employ this system, but I do know that powerful circumstances must have compelled you to do so. You are entirely in our hands."
"I said just now I was delighted to see you, and that I had intended to ask you to come to me. One by one, of course; for I had no idea that the promise of secrecy which you gave me had been broken."
The Reverend shrugged his shoulders.
"Do you know why I wanted to see you?"
"To tell you that I had decided to abandon my system. To notify you that you would, in future, receive no more of my work."
There was a dead silence.
"I think I'll go home to bed," said the Reverend.
Blake and myself followed him out.
Mr. Cloyster thanked us all warmly for the excellent way in which we had helped him. He said that he was now engaged to be married, and had to save every penny. "Otherwise, I should have tried to meet you in this affair of the half-profits." He added that we had omitted to congratulate him on his engagement.
His words came faintly to our ears as we tramped down Walpole Street; nor did we, as far as I can remember, give back any direct reply.
Tell you what it was just like. Reminded me of it even at the time: that picture of Napoleon coming back from Moscow. The Reverend was Napoleon, and we were the generals; and if there were three humpier men walking the streets of London at that moment I should have liked to have seen them.
IN THE SOUP (Sidney Price's narrative continued)
They give you a small bonus at the "Moon" if you get through a quarter without being late, which just shows the sort of scale on which the "Moon" does things. Cookson, down at the Oxford Street Emporium, gets fined regular when he's late. Shilling the first hour and twopence every five minutes after. I've known gentlemen in banks, railway companies, dry goods, and woollen offices, the Indian trade, jute, tea—every manner of shop—but they all say the same thing, "We are ruled by fear." It's fear that drags them out of bed in the morning; it's fear that makes them bolt, or even miss, their sausages; it's fear that makes them run to catch their train. But the "Moon's" method is of a different standard. The "Moon" does not intimidate; no, it entwines itself round, it insinuates itself into, the hearts of its employees. It suggests, in fact, that we should not be late by offering us this small bonus. No insurance office and, up to the time of writing, no other assurance office has been able to boast as much. The same cause is at the bottom of the "Moon's" high reputation, both inside and outside. It does things in a big way. It's spacious.
The "Moon's" timing system is great, too. Great in its simplicity. The regulation says you've got to be in the office by ten o'clock. Suppose you arrive with ten minutes to spare. You go into the outer office (there's only one entrance—the big one in Threadneedle Street) and find on the right-hand side of the circular counter a ledger. The ledger is open: there is blotting-paper and a quill pen beside it. Everyone's name is written in alphabetical order on the one side of the ledger and on the other side there is a blank page ruled down the middle with a red line. Having made your appearance at ten to ten, you put your initials in a line with your name on the page opposite and to the left of the division. If, on the other hand, you've missed your train, and don't turn up till ten minutes past ten, you've got to initial your name on the other side of the red line. In the space on the right of the line, a thick black dash has been drawn by Leach, the cashier. He does this on the last stroke of ten. It makes the page look neat, he says. Which is quite right and proper. I see his point of view entirely. The ledger must look decent in an office like the "Moon." Tommy Milner agrees with me. He says that not only does it look better, but it prevents unfortunate mistakes on the part of those who come in late. They might forget and initial the wrong side.
After ten the book goes into Mr. Leach's private partition, and you've got to go in there to sign.
It was there when I came into the office on the morning after we'd been to talk business with Mr. Cloyster. It had been there about an hour and a half.
"Lost your bonus, Price, my boy," said genial Mr. Leach. And the General Manager, Mr. Fennell, who had stepped out of his own room close by, heard him say it.
"I do not imagine that Mr. Price is greatly perturbed on that account. He will, no doubt, shortly be forsaking us for literature. What Commerce loses, Art gains," said the G.M.
He may have meant to be funny, or he may not. Some of those standing near took him one way, others the other. Some gravely bowed their heads, others burst into guffaws. The G.M. often puzzled his staff in that way. All were anxious to do the right thing by him, but he made it so difficult to tell what the right thing was.
But, as I went down the basement stairs to change my coat in the clerks' locker-room, I understood from the G.M.'s words how humiliating my position was.
I had always been a booky sort of person. At home it had been a standing joke that, when a boy, I would sooner spend a penny on Tit-Bits than liquorice. And it was true. Not that I disliked liquorice. I liked Tit-Bits better, though. So the thing had gone on. I advanced from Deadwood Dick to Hall Caine and Guy Boothby; and since I had joined the "Moon" I had actually gone a buster and bought Omar Khayyam in the Golden Treasury series. Added to which, I had recently composed a little lyric for a singer at the "Moon's" annual smoking concert. The lines were topical and were descriptive of our Complete Compensation Policy. Tommy Milner was the vocalist. He sang my composition to a hymn tune. The refrain went:
Come and buy a C.C.Pee-ee! If you want immunitee-ee From the accidents which come Please plank down your premium. Life is diff'rent, you'll agree Repeat When you've got a C.C.P.
The Throne Room of the Holborn fairly rocked with applause.
Well, it was shortly afterwards that I had received a visit from Mr. Cloyster—the visit which ended in my agreeing to sign whatever manuscripts he sent me, and forward him all cheques for a consideration of ten per cent. Softest job ever a man had. Easy money. Kudos—I had almost too much of it. Which takes me back to the G.M.'s remark about my leaving the office. Since he's bought that big house at Regent's Park he's done a lot of entertaining at the restaurants. His name's always cropping up in the "Here and There" column, and naturally he's a subscriber to the Strawberry Leaf. The G.M. has everything of the best and plenty of it. (You don't see the G.M. with memo. forms tucked round his cuffs: he wears a clean shirt every morning of his life. All tip-top people have their little eccentricities.) And the Strawberry Leaf, the smartest, goeyest, personalest weekly, is never missing from his drawing-room what-not. Every week it's there, regular as clockwork. That's what started my literary reputation among the fellows at the "Moon." Mr. Cloyster was contributing a series of short dialogues to the Strawberry Leaf—called, "In Town." These, on publication, bore my own signature. As a matter of fact, I happened to see the G.M. showing the first of the series to Mr. Leach in his private room. I've kept it by me, and I don't wonder the news created a bit of a furore. This was it:——
IN TOWN BY SIDNEY PRICE
No. I.—THE SECRECY OF THE BALLET
(You are standing under the shelter of the Criterion's awning. It is 12.30 of a summer's morning. It is pouring in torrents. A quick and sudden rain storm. It won't last long, and it doesn't mean any harm. But what's sport to it is death to you. You were touring the Circus in a new hat. Brand new. Couldn't spot your tame cabby. Hadn't a token. Spied the Cri's awning. Dashed at it. But it leaks. Not so much as the sky though. Just enough, however, to do your hat no good. You mention this to Friendly Creature with umbrella, and hint that you would like to share that weapon.)
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Can't give you all, boysie. Mine's new, too.
YOU. (in your charming way). Well, of course. You wouldn't be a woman if you hadn't a new hat.
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Do women always have new hats?
YOU. (edging under the umbrella). Women have new hats. New women have hats.
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Don't call me a woman, ducky; I'm a lady.
YOU. I must be careful. If I don't flatter you, you'll take your umbrella away.
FRIENDLY CREATURE (changing subject). There's Matilda.
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Coming towards us in that landaulette.
YOU. Looks fit, doesn't she?
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Her! She's a blooming rotter.
YOU. Not so loud. She'll hear you.
FRIENDLY CREATURE (raising her voice). Good job. I want her to. Stumer!
YOU. S-s-s-sh! What are you saying? Matilda's a duchess now.
FRIENDLY CREATURE. I know.
YOU. But you mustn't say "Stumer" to a duchess unless——
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Well?
YOU. Unless you're a duchess yourself?
FRIENDLY CREATURE. I am. At least I was. Only I chucked it.
YOU. But you said you were a lady.
FRIENDLY CREATURE. So I am. An extra lady—front row, second O.P.
YOU. How rude of me. Of course you were a duchess. I know you perfectly. Gorell Barnes said——
FRIENDLY CREATURE. Drop it. What's the good of the secrecy of the ballet if people are going to remember every single thing about you?
(At this point the rain stops. By an adroit flanking movement you get away without having to buy her a lunch.)
Everyone congratulated me. "Always knew he had it in him," "Found his vocation," "A distinctly clever head," "Reaping in the shekels"—that was the worst part. The "Moon," to a man, was bent on finding out "how much Sidney Price makes out of his bits in the papers." Some dropped hints—the G.M., Leach, and the men at the counter. Others, like Tommy Milner, asked slap out. You may be sure I didn't tell them a fixed sum. But it was hopeless to say I was getting the small sum which my ten per cent. commission worked out at. On the other hand, I dared not pretend I was being paid at the usual rates. I should have gone broke in twenty-four hours. You have no idea how constantly I was given the opportunity of lending five shillings to important members of the "Moon" staff. It struck me then—and I have found out for certain since—that there is a popular anxiety to borrow from a man who earns money by writing. The earnings of a successful writer are, to the common intelligence, something he ought not really to have. And anyone, in default of abstracting his income, may fall back upon taking up his time.
It did, no doubt, appear that I was coining the ready. Besides the Strawberry Leaf, Features, and The Key of the Street were printing my signed contributions in weekly series. The Mayfair, too, had announced on its placards, "A Story in Dialogue, by Sidney Price."
This, then, was my position on the morning when I was late at the "Moon" and lost my bonus.
Whilst I went up in the lift to the New Business Room, and whilst I was entering the names and addresses of inquirers in the Proposal Book, I was trying to gather courage to meet what was in store.
For the future held this: that my name would disappear from the papers as suddenly as it had arrived there. People would want to know why I had given up writing. "Written himself out," "No staying power," "As short-lived as a Barnum monstrosity": these would be the remarks which would herald ridicule and possibly pity.
And I should be in just the same beastly fix at the "Hollyhocks" as I was at the "Moon." What would my people say? What would Norah say?
There was another reason, too, why a stoppage of the ten per cent. cheques would be a whack in the eye. You see, I had been doing myself well on them—uncommonly well. I had ordered, as a present to my parents, new furniture for the drawing-room. I had pressed my father to have a small greenhouse put up at my expense. He had always wanted one, but had never been able to run to it. And I had taken Norah about a good deal. Our weekly visit to a matine (upper circle and ices), followed by tea at the Cabin or Lyons' Popular, had become an institution. We had gone occasionally to a ball at the Town Hall.
What would Norah say when all this ended abruptly without any explanation?
There was no getting away from it. Sidney Price was in the soup.
NORAH WINS HOME (Sidney Price's narrative continued)
My signed work had run out. For two weeks nothing had been printed over my signature. So far no comment had been raised. But it was only a question of days. But then one afternoon it all came right. It was like this.
I was sitting eating my lunch at Eliza's in Birchin Lane. Twenty minutes was the official allowance for the meal, and I took my twenty minutes at two o'clock. The St. Stephen's Gazette was lying near me. I picked it up. Anything to distract my thoughts from the trouble to come. That was how I felt. Reading mechanically the front page, I saw a poem, and started violently. This was the poem:—
Hands at the tiller to steer: A star in the murky sky: Water and waste of mere: Whither and why?
Sting of absorbent night: Journey of weal or woe: And overhead the light: We go—we go?
Darkness a mortal's part, Mortals of whom we are: Come to a mortal's heart, Immortal star.
Thos. Blake. June 6th.
"Rummy, very rummy," I exclaimed. The poem was dated yesterday. Had Mr. Cloyster, then, continued to work his system with Thomas Blake to the exclusion of the Reverend and myself?
Still worrying over the thing, I turned over the pages of the paper until I chanced to see the following paragraph:
Few will be surprised to learn that the Rev. John Hatton intends to publish another novel in the immediate future. Mr. Hatton's first book, When It Was Lurid, created little less than a furore. The work on which he is now engaged, which will bear the title of The Browns of Brixton, is a tender sketch of English domesticity. This new vein of Mr. Hatton's will, doubtless, be distinguished by the naturalness of dialogue and sanity of characterisation of his first novel. Messrs. Prodder and Way are to publish it in the autumn.
"He's running the Reverend again, is he?" said I to myself. "And I'm the only one left out. It's a bit thick."
That night I wrote to Blake and to the Reverend asking whether they had been taken on afresh, and if so, couldn't I get a look in, as things were pretty serious.
The Reverend's reply arrived first:
THE TEMPLE, June 7th.
As you have seen, I am hard at work at my new novel. The leisure of a novelist is so scanty that I know you'll forgive my writing only a line. I am in no way associated with James Orlebar Cloyster, nor do I wish to be. Rather I would forget his very existence.
You are aware of the interests which I have at heart: social reform, the education of the submerged, the physical needs of the young—there is no necessity for me to enumerate my ideals further. To get quick returns from philanthropy, to put remedial organisation into speedy working order wants capital. Cloyster's system was one way of obtaining some of it, but when that failed I had to look out for another. I'm glad I helped in the system, for it made me realise how large an income a novelist can obtain. I'm glad it failed because its failure suggested that I should try to get for myself those vast sums which I had been getting for the selfish purse of an already wealthy man. Unconsciously, he has played into my hands. I read his books before I signed them, and I find that I have thoroughly absorbed those tricks of his, of style and construction, which opened the public's coffers to him. The Browns of Brixton will eclipse anything that Cloyster has previously done, for this reason, that it will out-Cloyster Cloyster. It is Cloyster with improvements.
In thus abducting his novel-reading public I shall feel no compunction. His serious verse and his society dialogues bring him in so much that he cannot be in danger of financial embarrassment.
Yours sincerely, John Hatton.
Now this letter set my brain buzzing like the engine of a stationary Vanguard. I, too, had been in the habit of reading Mr. Cloyster's dialogues before I signed and sent them off. I had often thought to myself, also, that they couldn't take much writing, that it was all a knack; and the more I read of them the more transparent the knack appeared to me to be. Just for a lark, I sat down that very evening and had a go at one. Taking the Park for my scene, I made two or three theatrical celebrities whose names I had seen in the newspapers talk about a horse race. At least, one talked about a horse race, and the others thought she was gassing about a new musical comedy, the name of the play being the same as the name of the horse, "The Oriental Belle." A very amusing muddle, with lots of doubles entendres, and heaps of adverbial explanation in small print. Such as:
Miss Adeline Gene (with the faint, incipient blush which Mrs. Adair uses to test her Rouge Imperial).
That sort of thing.
I had it typed, and I said, "Price, my boy, there's more Mr. Cloyster in this than ever Mr. Cloyster could have put into it." And the editor of the Strawberry Leaf printed it next issue as a matter of course. I say, "as a matter of course" with intention, because the fellows at the "Moon" took it as a matter of course, too. You see, when it first appeared, I left the copy about the desk in the New Business Room, hoping Tommy Milner or some of them would rush up and congratulate me. But they didn't. They simply said, "Don't litter the place up, old man. Keep your papers, if you must bring 'em here, in your locker downstairs." One of them did say, I fancy, something about its "not being quite up to my usual." They didn't know it was my maiden effort at original composition, and I couldn't tell them. It was galling, you'll admit.
However, I quickly forgot my own troubles in wondering what Mr. Cloyster was doing. No editor, I foresaw, would accept his society stuff as long as mine was in the market. They wouldn't pay for Cloyster whilst they were offered the refusal of super-Cloyster. Wasn't likely. You must understand I wasn't over-easy in my conscience about the affair. I had, in a manner of speaking, pinched Mr. Cloyster's job. But then, I argued to myself, he was earning quite as much as was good for any one man by his serious verse.
And at that very minute our slavey, little Ethelbertina, knocked at my bedroom door and gave me a postcard. It was addressed to me in thick, straggly writing, and was so covered with thumb-marks that a Bertillon expert would have gone straight off his nut at the sight of it. "My usbend," began the postcard, "as received yourn. E as no truk wif the other man E is a pots imself an e can do a job of potry as orfen as e 'as a mine to your obegent servent Ada Blake. P.S. me an is ole ant do is writin up for im."
So then I saw how that "Cry" thing in the St. Stephen's had come there.
* * * * *
You heard me give my opinion about telling Norah my past life. Well, you'll agree with me now that there's practically nothing to tell her.
There is, of course, little Miss Richards, the waitress in the smoking-room of the Piccadilly Cabin. Her, I mean, with the fuzzy golden hair done low. You've often exchanged "Good evening" with her, I'm sure. Her hair's done low: she used to make rather a point of telling me that. Why, I don't know, especially as it was always tidy and well off her shoulders.
And then there was the haughty lady who sold programmes in the Haymarket Amphitheatre—but she's got the sack, so Cookson informs me.
Therefore, as I shall tell Norah plainly that I disapprove of the Cabin, the past can hatch no egg of discord in the shape of the Cast-Off Glove.
The only thing that I can think of as needing suppression is the part I played in Mr. Cloyster's system.
There's no doubt that the Reverend, Blake and I have, between us, put a fairly considerable spoke in Mr. Cloyster's literary wheel. But what am I to do? To begin with, it's no use my telling Norah about the affair, because it would do her no good, and might tend possibly to lessen her valuation of my capabilities. At present, my dialogues dazzle her; and once your fiance is dazzled the basis of matrimonial happiness is assured. Again, looking at it from Mr. Cloyster's point of view, what good would it be to him if I were to stop writing? Both the editor and the public have realised by now that his work is only second-rate. He can never hope to get a tenth of his original prices, even if his work is accepted, which it won't be; for directly I leave his market clear, someone else will collar it slap off.
Besides, I've no right to stop my dialogues. My duty to Norah is greater than my duty to Mr. Cloyster. Unless I continue to be paid by literature I shall not be able to marry Norah until three years next quarter. The "Moon" has passed a rule about it, and an official who marries on an income not larger than eighty pounds per annum is liable to dismissal without notice.
Norah's mother wouldn't let her wait three years, and though fellows have been known to have had a couple of kids at the time of their official marriage, I personally couldn't stand the wear and tear of that hole-and-corner business. It couldn't be done.
(End of Sidney Price's narrative.)
Julian Eversleigh's Narrative
THE TRANSPOSITION OF SENTIMENT
It is all very, very queer. I do not understand it at all. It makes me sleepy to think about it.
A month ago I hated Eva. Tomorrow I marry her by special licence.
Now, what about this?
My brain is not working properly. I am becoming jerky.
I tried to work the thing out algebraically. I wrote it down as an equation, thus:—
HATRED, denoted by x + Eva. REVERSE OF HATRED, " " y + Eva ONE MONTH " " z.
From which we get:—
x + Eva = (y + Eva)z.
And if anybody can tell me what that means (if it means anything—which I doubt) I shall be grateful. As I said before, my brain is not working properly.
There is no doubt that my temperament has changed, and in a very short space of time. A month ago I was soured, cynical, I didn't brush my hair, and I slept too much. I talked a good deal about Life. Now I am blithe and optimistic. I use pomade, part in the middle, and sleep eight hours and no more. I have not made an epigram for days. It is all very queer.
I took a new attitude towards life at about a quarter to three on the morning after the Gunton-Cresswells's dance. I had waited for James in his rooms. He had been to the dance.
Examine me for a moment as I wait there.
I had been James' friend for more than two years and a half. I had watched his career from the start. I knew him before he had located exactly the short cut to Fortune. Our friendship embraced the whole period of his sudden, extraordinary success.
Had not envy by that time been dead in me, it might have been pain to me to watch him accomplish unswervingly with his effortless genius the things I had once dreamt I, too, would laboriously achieve.
But I grudged him nothing. Rather, I had pleasure in those triumphs of my friend.
There was no confidence we had withheld from one another.
When he told me of his relations with Margaret Goodwin he had counted on my sympathy as naturally as he had requested and received my advice.
To no living soul, save James, would I have confessed my own tragedy—my hopeless love for Eva.
It is inconceivable that I should have misjudged a man so utterly as I misjudged James.
That is the latent factor at the root of my problem. The innate rottenness, the cardiac villainy of James Orlebar Cloyster.
In a measure it was my own hand that laid the train which eventually blew James' hidden smoulder of fire into the blazing beacon of wickedness, in which my friend's Satanic soul is visible in all its lurid nakedness.
I remember well that evening, mild with the prelude of spring, when I evolved for James' benefit the System. It was a device which was to preserve my friend's liberty and, at the same time, to preserve my friend's honour. How perfect in its irony!
Margaret Goodwin, mark you, was not to know he could afford to marry her, and my system was an instrument to hide from her the truth.
He employed that system. It gave him the holiday he asked for. He went into Society.
Among his acquaintances were the Gunton-Cresswells, and at their house he met Eva. Whether his determination to treat Eva as he had treated Margaret came to him instantly, or by degrees I do not know. Inwardly he may have had his scheme matured in embryo, but outwardly he was still the accomplished hypocrite. He was the soul of honour—outwardly. He was the essence of sympathetic tact as far as his specious exterior went. Then came the 27th of May. On that date the first of James Orlebar Cloyster's masks was removed.
I had breakfasted earlier than usual, so that by the time I had walked from Rupert Court to Walpole Street it was not yet four o'clock.
James was out. I thought I would wait for him. I stood at his window. Then I saw Margaret Goodwin. What features! What a complexion! "And James," I murmured, "is actually giving this the miss in baulk!" I discovered, at that instant, that I did not know James. He was a fool.
In a few hours I was to discover he was a villain, too.
She came in and I introduced myself to her. I almost forget what pretext I manufactured, but I remember I persuaded her to go back to Guernsey that very day. I think I said that James was spending Friday till Monday in the country, and had left no address. I was determined that they should not meet. She was far too good for a man who obviously did not appreciate her in the least.
We had a very pleasant chat. She was charming. At first she was apt to touch on James a shade too frequently, but before long I succeeded in diverting our conversation into less uninteresting topics.
She talked of Guernsey, I of London. I said I felt I had known her all my life. She said that one had, undeniably, one's affinities.
I said, "Might I think of her as 'Margaret'?"
She said it was rather unconventional, but that she could not control my thoughts.
I said, "There you are wrong—Margaret."
She said, "Oh, what are you saying, Mr. Eversleigh?"
I said I was thinking out loud.
On the doorstep she said, "Well, yes—Julian—you may write to me—sometimes. But I won't promise to answer."
The next thing that awakened me was the coming of James.
After I had given him a suitable version of Margaret's visit, he told me he was engaged to Eva. That was an astounding thing; but what was more astounding was that James had somehow got wind of the real spirit of my interview with Margaret.
I have called James Orlebar Cloyster a fool; I have called him a villain. I will never cease to call him a genius. For by some marvellous capacity for introspection, by some incredible projection of his own mind into other people's matters, he was able to tax me to my face with an attempt to win his former fiance's affections. I tried to choke him off. I used every ounce of bluff I possessed. In vain. I left Walpole Street in a state approaching mental revolution.
My exact feelings towards James were too intricate to be defined in a single word. Not so my feelings towards Eva. "Hate" supplied the lacuna in her case.
Thus the month began.
The next point of importance is my interview with Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell. She had known all along how matters stood in regard to Eva and myself. She had not been hostile to me on that account. She had only pointed out that as I could do nothing towards supporting Eva I had better keep away when my cousin was in London. That was many years ago. Since then we had seldom met. Latterly, not at all. Invitations still arrived from her, but her afternoon parties clashed with my after-breakfast pipe, and as for her evening receptions—well, by the time I had pieced together the various component parts of my dress clothes, I found myself ready for bed. That is to say, more ready for bed than I usually am.
I went to Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell in a very bitter mood. I was bent on trouble.
"I've come to congratulate Eva," I said.
Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell sighed.
"I was afraid of this," she said.
"The announcement was the more pleasant," I went on, "because James has been a bosom friend of mine."
"I'm afraid you are going to be extremely disagreeable about your cousin's engagement," she said.
"I am," I answered her. "Very disagreeable. I intend to shadow the young couple, to be constantly meeting them, calling attention to them. James will most likely have to try to assault me. That may mean a black eye for dear James. It will certainly mean the police court. Their engagement will be, in short, a succession of hideous contretemps, a series of laughable scenes."
"Julian," said Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell, "hitherto you have acted manfully toward Eva. You have been brave. Have you no regard for Eva?"
"None," I said.
"Nor for Mr. Cloyster?"
"Not a scrap."
"But why are you behaving in this appallingly selfish way?"
This was a facer. I couldn't quite explain to her how things really were, so I said:
"Never you mind. Selfish or not, Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell, I'm out for trouble."
That night I had a letter from her. She said that in order to avoid all unpleasantness, Eva's engagement would be of the briefest nature possible. That the marriage was fixed for the twelfth of next month; that the wedding would be a very quiet one; and that until the day of the wedding Eva would not be in London.
It amused me to find how thoroughly I had terrified Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell. How excellently I must have acted, for, of course, I had not meant a word I had said to that good lady.
In the days preceding the twelfth of June I confess I rather softened to James. The entente cordiale was established between us. He told me how irresistible Eva had been that night; mentioned how completely she had carried him away. Had she not carried me away in precisely the same manner once upon a time?
He swore he loved her as dearly as—(I can't call to mind the simile he employed, though it was masterly and impressive.) I even hinted that the threats I had used in the presence of Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell were not serious. He thanked me, but said I had frightened her to such good purpose that the date would now have to stand. "You will not he surprised to hear," he added, "that I have called in all my work. I shall want every penny I make. The expenses of an engaged man are hair-raising. I send her a lot of flowers every morning—you've no conception how much a few orchids cost. Then, whenever I go to see her I take her some little present—a gold-mounted umbrella, a bicycle lamp, or a patent scent-bottle. I'm indebted to you, Julian, positively indebted to you for cutting short our engagement."
I now go on to point two: the morning of the twelfth of June.
Hurried footsteps on my staircase. A loud tapping at my door. The church clock chiming twelve. The agitated, weeping figure of Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell approaching my hammock. A telegram thrust into my hand. Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell's hysterical exclamation, "You infamous monster—you—you are at the bottom of this."
All very disconcerting. All, fortunately, very unusual.
My eyes were leaden with slumber, but I forced myself to decipher the following message, which had been telegraphed to West Kensington Lane:
Wedding must be postponed.—CLOYSTER.
"I've had no hand in this," I cried; "but," I added enthusiastically, "it serves Eva jolly well right."
A CHAT WITH JAMES (Julian Eversleigh's narrative continued)
Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell seemed somehow to drift away after that. Apparently I went to sleep again, and she didn't wait.
When I woke, it was getting on for two o'clock. I breakfasted, with that magnificent telegram propped up against the teapot; had a bath, dressed, and shortly before five was well on my way to Walpole Street.
The more I thought over the thing, the more it puzzled me. Why had James done this? Why should he wish to treat Eva in this manner? I was delighted that he had done so, but why had he? A very unexpected person, James.
James was lying back in his shabby old armchair, smoking a pipe. There was tea on the table. The room seemed more dishevelled than ever. It would have been difficult to say which presented the sorrier spectacle, the room or its owner.
He looked up as I came in, and nodded listlessly. I poured myself out a cup of tea, and took a muffin. Both were cold and clammy. I went to the bell.
"What are you doing?" asked James.
"Only going to ring for some more tea," I said.
"No, don't do that. I'll go down and ask for it. You don't mind using my cup, do you?"
He went out of the room, and reappeared with a jug of hot water.
"You see," he explained, "if Mrs. Blankley brings in another cup she'll charge for two teas instead of one."
"It didn't occur to me," I said. "Sorry."
"It sounds mean," mumbled James.
"Not at all," I said. "You're quite right not to plunge into reckless extravagance."
James blushed slightly—a feat of which I was surprised to see that he was capable.
"The fact is——" he began.
I interrupted him.
"Never mind about that," I said. "What I want to know is—what's the meaning of this?" And I shoved the bilious-hued telegraph form under his nose, just as Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell had shoved it under mine.
"It means that I'm done," he said.
"I don't understand."
"I'll explain. I have postponed my marriage for the same reason that I refused you a clean cup—because I cannot afford luxuries."
"It may be my dulness; but, still, I don't follow you. What exactly are you driving at?"
"I'm done for. I'm on the rocks. I'm a pauper."
I laughed. The man was splendid. There was no other word for it.
"And shall I tell you something else that you are?" I said. "You are a low, sneaking liar. You are playing it low down on Eva."
He laughed this time. It irritated me unspeakably.
"Don't try to work off the hollow, mirthless laugh dodge on me," I said, "because it won't do. You're a blackguard, and you know it."
"I tell you I'm done for. I've barely a penny in the world."
"Rot!" I said. "Don't try that on me. You've let Eva down plop, and I'm jolly glad; but all the same you're a skunk. Nothing can alter that. Why don't you marry the girl?"
"I can't," he said. "It would be too dishonourable."
"Yes. I haven't got enough money. I couldn't ask her to share my poverty with me. I love her too dearly."
I was nearly sick. The beast spoke in a sort of hushed, soft-music voice as if he were the self-sacrificing hero in a melodrama. The stained-glass expression on his face made me feel homicidal.
"Oh, drop it," I said. "Poverty! Good Lord! Isn't two thousand a year enough to start on?"
"But I haven't got two thousand a year."
"Oh, I don't pretend to give the figures to a shilling."
"You don't understand. All I have to live on is my holiday work at the Orb."
"Oh, yes; and I'm doing some lyrics for Briggs for the second edition of The Belle of Wells. That'll keep me going for a bit, but it's absolutely out of the question to think of marrying anyone. If I can keep my own head above water till the next vacancy occurs at the Orb I shall be lucky."
"I'm not, though I dare say I shall be soon, if this sort of thing goes on."
"I tell you you are mad. Otherwise you'd have called in your work, and saved yourself having to pay those commissions to Hatton and the others. As it is, I believe they've somehow done you out of your cheques, and the shock of it has affected your brain."
"My dear Julian, it's a good suggestion, that about calling in my work. But it comes a little late. I called it in weeks ago."
My irritation increased.
"What is the use of lying like that?" I said angrily. "You don't seem to credit me with any sense at all. Do you think I never read the papers and magazines? You can't have called in your work. The stuff's still being printed over the signatures of Sidney Price, Tom Blake, and the Rev. John Hatton."
I caught sight of a Strawberry Leaf lying on the floor beside his chair. I picked it up.
"Here you are," I said. "Page 324. Short story. 'Lady Mary's Mistake,' by Sidney Price. How about that?"
"That's it, Julian," he said dismally; "that's just it. Those three devils have pinched my job. They've learned the trick of the thing through reading my stuff, and now they're turning it out for themselves. They've cut me out. My market's gone. The editors and publishers won't look at me. I have had eleven printed rejection forms this week. One editor wrote and said that he did not want John-Hatton-and-water. That's why I sent the wire."
"Let's see those rejection forms."
"You can't. They're burnt. They got on my nerves, and I burnt them."
"Oh," I said, "they're burnt, are they?"
He got up, and began to pace the room.
"But I shan't give up, Julian," he cried, with a sickening return of the melodrama hero manner; "I shan't give up. I shall still persevere. The fight will be terrible. Often I shall feel on the point of despair. Yet I shall win through. I feel it, Julian. I have the grit in me to do it. And meanwhile"—he lowered his voice, and seemed surprised that the orchestra did not strike up the slow music—"meanwhile, I shall ask Eva to wait."
To wait! The colossal, the Napoleonic impudence of the man! I have known men who seemed literally to exude gall, but never one so overflowing with it as James Orlebar Cloyster. As I looked at him standing there and uttering that great speech, I admired him. I ceased to wonder at his success in life.
I shook my head.
"I can't do it," I said regretfully. "I simply cannot begin to say what I think of you. The English language isn't equal to it. I cannot, off-hand, coin a new phraseology to meet the situation. All I can say is that you are unique."
"What do you mean?"
"Absolutely unique. Though I had hoped you would have known me better than to believe that I would swallow the ludicrous yarn you've prepared. Don't you ever stop and ask yourself on these occasions if it's good enough?"
"You don't believe me!"
"My dear James!" I protested. "Believe you!"
"I swear it's all true. Every word of it."
"You seem to forget that I've been behind the scenes. I'm not simply an ordinary member of the audience. I know how the illusion is produced. I've seen the strings pulled. Why, dash it, I showed you how to pull them. I never came across a finer example of seething the kid in its mother's milk. I put you up to the system, and you turn round and try to take me in with it. Yes, you're a wonder, James."
"You don't mean to say you think——!"
"Don't be an ass, James. Of course I do. You've had the brazen audacity to attempt to work off on Eva the game you played on Margaret. But you've made a mistake. You've forgotten to count me."
I paused, and ate a muffin. James watched me with fascinated eyes.
"You," I resumed, "ethically, I despise. Eva, personally, I detest. It seems, therefore, that I may expect to extract a certain amount of amusement from the situation. The fun will be inaugurated by your telling Eva that she may have to wait five years. You will state, also, the amount of your present income."
"Suppose I decline?"
"You think not?"
"I am sure."
"What would you do if I declined?"
"I should call upon Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell and give her a quarter of an hour's entertainment by telling her of the System, and explaining to her, in detail, the exact method of its working and the reason why you set it going. Having amused Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell in this manner, I should make similar revelations to Eva. It would not be pleasant for you subsequently, I suppose, but we all have our troubles. That would be yours."
"As if they'd believe it," he said, weakly.
"I think they would."
"They'd laugh at you. They'd think you were mad."
"Not when I produced John Hatton, Sidney Price, and Tom Blake in a solid phalanx, and asked them to corroborate me."
"They wouldn't do it," he said, snatching at a straw. "They wouldn't give themselves away."
"Hatton might hesitate to, but Tom Blake would do it like a shot."
As I did not know Tom Blake, a moment's reflection might have told James that this was bluff. But I had gathered a certain knowledge of the bargee's character from James's conversation, and I knew that he was a drunken, indiscreet sort of person who might be expected to reveal everything in circumstances such as I had described; so I risked the shot, and it went home. James's opposition collapsed.
"I shall then," administering the coup de grce, "arrange a meeting between the Gunton-Cresswells and old Mrs. Goodwin."
"Thank you," said James, "but don't bother. On second thoughts I will tell Eva about my income and the five years' wait."
"Thanks," I said; "it's very good of you. Good-bye."
And I retired, chuckling, to Rupert Street.
IN A HANSOM (Julian Eversleigh's narrative continued)
I spent a pleasant week in my hammock awaiting developments.
At the end of the week came a letter from Eva. She wrote:—
My Dear Julian,—You haven't been to see us for ages. Is Kensington Lane beyond the pale? Your affectionate cousin, Eva.
"You vixen," I thought. "Yes; I'll come and see you fast enough. It will give me the greatest pleasure to see you crushed and humiliated."
I collected my evening clothes from a man of the name of Attenborough, whom I employ to take care of them when they are not likely to be wanted; found a white shirt, which looked presentable after a little pruning of the cuffs with a razor; and drove to the Gunton-Cresswells's in time for dinner.
There was a certain atmosphere of unrest about the house. I attributed this at first to the effects of the James Orlebar Cloyster bomb-shell, but discovered that it was in reality due to the fact that Eva was going out to a fancy-dress ball that night.
She was having dinner sent up to her room, they told me, and would be down presently. There was a good deal of flitting about going on. Maids on mysterious errands shot up and down stairs. Old Mr. Gunton-Cresswell, looking rather wry, was taking cover in his study when I arrived. Mrs. Gunton-Cresswell was in the drawing-room.
Before Eva came down I got a word alone with her. "I've had a nice, straight-forward letter from James," she said, "and he has done all he can to put things straight with us."