A RED-HAIRED GIRL
The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted with it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York's Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.
Through the rich interior of this mansion Mr. Pett, its nominal proprietor, was wandering like a lost spirit. The hour was about ten of a fine Sunday morning, but the Sabbath calm which was upon the house had not communicated itself to him. There was a look of exasperation on his usually patient face, and a muttered oath, picked up no doubt on the godless Stock Exchange, escaped his lips.
He was afflicted by a sense of the pathos of his position. It was not as if he demanded much from life. He asked but little here below. At that moment all that he wanted was a quiet spot where he might read his Sunday paper in solitary peace, and he could not find one. Intruders lurked behind every door. The place was congested.
This sort of thing had been growing worse and worse ever since his marriage two years previously. There was a strong literary virus in Mrs. Pett's system. She not only wrote voluminously herself—the name Nesta Ford Pett is familiar to all lovers of sensational fiction—but aimed at maintaining a salon. Starting, in pursuance of this aim, with a single specimen,—her nephew, Willie Partridge, who was working on a new explosive which would eventually revolutionise war—she had gradually added to her collections, until now she gave shelter beneath her terra-cotta roof to no fewer than six young and unrecognised geniuses. Six brilliant youths, mostly novelists who had not yet started and poets who were about to begin, cluttered up Mr. Pett's rooms on this fair June morning, while he, clutching his Sunday paper, wandered about, finding, like the dove in Genesis, no rest. It was at such times that he was almost inclined to envy his wife's first husband, a business friend of his named Elmer Ford, who had perished suddenly of an apoplectic seizure: and the pity which he generally felt for the deceased tended to shift its focus.
Marriage had certainly complicated life for Mr. Pett, as it frequently does for the man who waits fifty years before trying it. In addition to the geniuses, Mrs. Pett had brought with her to her new home her only son, Ogden, a fourteen-year-old boy of a singularly unloveable type. Years of grown-up society and the absence of anything approaching discipline had given him a precocity on which the earnest efforts of a series of private tutors had expended themselves in vain. They came, full of optimism and self-confidence, to retire after a brief interval, shattered by the boy's stodgy resistance to education in any form or shape. To Mr. Pett, never at his ease with boys, Ogden Ford was a constant irritant. He disliked his stepson's personality, and he more than suspected him of stealing his cigarettes. It was an additional annoyance that he was fully aware of the impossibility of ever catching him at it.
Mr. Pett resumed his journey. He had interrupted it for a moment to listen at the door of the morning-room, but, a remark in a high tenor voice about the essential Christianity of the poet Shelley filtering through the oak, he had moved on.
Silence from behind another door farther down the passage encouraged him to place his fingers on the handle, but a crashing chord from an unseen piano made him remove them swiftly. He roamed on, and a few minutes later the process of elimination had brought him to what was technically his own private library—a large, soothing room full of old books, of which his father had been a great collector. Mr. Pett did not read old books himself, but he liked to be among them, and it is proof of his pessimism that he had not tried the library first. To his depressed mind it had seemed hardly possible that there could be nobody there.
He stood outside the door, listening tensely. He could hear nothing. He went in, and for an instant experienced that ecstatic thrill which only comes to elderly gentlemen of solitary habit who in a house full of their juniors find themselves alone at last. Then a voice spoke, shattering his dream of solitude.
Ogden Ford was sprawling in a deep chair in the shadows.
"Come in, pop, come in. Lots of room."
Mr. Pett stood in the doorway, regarding his step-son with a sombre eye. He resented the boy's tone of easy patronage, all the harder to endure with philosophic calm at the present moment from the fact that the latter was lounging in his favourite chair. Even from an aesthetic point of view the sight of the bulging child offended him. Ogden Ford was round and blobby and looked overfed. He had the plethoric habit of one to whom wholesome exercise is a stranger and the sallow complexion of the confirmed candy-fiend. Even now, a bare half hour after breakfast, his jaws were moving with a rhythmical, champing motion.
"What are you eating, boy?" demanded Mr. Pett, his disappointment turning to irritability.
"I wish you would not eat candy all day."
"Mother gave it to me," said Ogden simply. As he had anticipated, the shot silenced the enemy's battery. Mr. Pett grunted, but made no verbal comment. Ogden celebrated his victory by putting another piece of candy in his mouth.
"Got a grouch this morning, haven't you, pop?"
"I will not be spoken to like that!"
"I thought you had," said his step-son complacently. "I can always tell. I don't see why you want to come picking on me, though. I've done nothing."
Mr. Pett was sniffing suspiciously.
"You've been smoking."
"There are two butts in the ash-tray."
"I didn't put them there."
"One of them is warm."
"It's a warm day."
"You dropped it there when you heard me come in."
"No, sir! I've only been here a few minutes. I guess one of the fellows was in here before me. They're always swiping your coffin-nails. You ought to do something about it, pop. You ought to assert yourself."
A sense of helplessness came upon Mr. Pett. For the thousandth time he felt himself baffled by this calm, goggle-eyed boy who treated him with such supercilious coolness.
"You ought to be out in the open air this lovely morning," he said feebly.
"All right. Let's go for a walk. I will if you will."
"I—I have other things to do," said Mr. Pett, recoiling from the prospect.
"Well, this fresh-air stuff is overrated anyway. Where's the sense of having a home if you don't stop in it?"
"When I was your age, I would have been out on a morning like this—er—bowling my hoop."
"And look at you now!"
"What do you mean?"
"Martyr to lumbago."
"I am not a martyr to lumbago," said Mr. Pett, who was touchy on the subject.
"Have it your own way. All I know is—"
"I'm only saying what mother . . ."
Ogden made further researches in the candy box.
"Have some, pop?"
"Quite right. Got to be careful at your age."
"What do you mean?"
"Getting on, you know. Not so young as you used to be. Come in, pop, if you're coming in. There's a draft from that door."
Mr. Pett retired, fermenting. He wondered how another man would have handled this situation. The ridiculous inconsistency of the human character infuriated him. Why should he be a totally different man on Riverside Drive from the person he was in Pine Street? Why should he be able to hold his own in Pine Street with grown men—whiskered, square-jawed financiers—and yet be unable on Riverside Drive to eject a fourteen-year-old boy from an easy chair? It seemed to him sometimes that a curious paralysis of the will came over him out of business hours.
Meanwhile, he had still to find a place where he could read his Sunday paper.
He stood for a while in thought. Then his brow cleared, and he began to mount the stairs. Reaching the top floor, he walked along the passage and knocked on a door at the end of it. From behind this door, as from behind those below, sounds proceeded, but this time they did not seem to discourage Mr. Pett. It was the tapping of a typewriter that he heard, and he listened to it with an air of benevolent approval. He loved to hear the sound of a typewriter: it made home so like the office.
"Come in," called a girl's voice.
The room in which Mr. Pett found himself was small but cosy, and its cosiness—oddly, considering the sex of its owner—had that peculiar quality which belongs as a rule to the dens of men. A large bookcase almost covered one side of it, its reds and blues and browns smiling cheerfully at whoever entered. The walls were hung with prints, judiciously chosen and arranged. Through a window to the left, healthfully open at the bottom, the sun streamed in, bringing with it the pleasantly subdued whirring of automobiles out on the Drive. At a desk at right angles to this window, her vivid red-gold hair rippling in the breeze from the river, sat the girl who had been working at the typewriter. She turned as Mr. Pett entered, and smiled over her shoulder.
Ann Chester, Mr. Pett's niece, looked her best when she smiled. Although her hair was the most obviously striking feature of her appearance, her mouth was really the most individual thing about her. It was a mouth that suggested adventurous possibilities. In repose, it had a look of having just finished saying something humorous, a kind of demure appreciation of itself. When it smiled, a row of white teeth flashed out: or, if the lips did not part, a dimple appeared on the right cheek, giving the whole face an air of mischievous geniality. It was an enterprising, swashbuckling sort of mouth, the mouth of one who would lead forlorn hopes with a jest or plot whimsically lawless conspiracies against convention. In its corners and in the firm line of the chin beneath it there lurked, too, more than a hint of imperiousness. A physiognomist would have gathered, correctly, that Ann Chester liked having her own way and was accustomed to get it.
"Hello, uncle Peter," she said. "What's the trouble?"
"Am I interrupting you, Ann?"
"Not a bit. I'm only copying out a story for aunt Nesta. I promised her I would. Would you like to hear some of it?"
Mr. Pett said he would not.
"You're missing a good thing," said Ann, turning the pages. "I'm all worked up over it. It's called 'At Dead of Night,' and it's full of crime and everything. You would never think aunt Nesta had such a feverish imagination. There are detectives and kidnappers in it and all sorts of luxuries. I suppose it's the effect of reading it, but you look to me as if you were trailing something. You've got a sort of purposeful air."
Mr. Pett's amiable face writhed into what was intended to be a bitter smile.
"I'm only trailing a quiet place to read in. I never saw such a place as this house. It looks big enough outside for a regiment. Yet, when you're inside, there's a poet or something in every room."
"What about the library? Isn't that sacred to you?"
"The boy Ogden's there."
"What a shame!"
"Wallowing in my best chair," said Mr. Pett morosely. "Smoking cigarettes."
"Smoking? I thought he had promised aunt Nesta he wouldn't smoke."
"Well, he said he wasn't, of course, but I know he had been. I don't know what to do with that boy. It's no good my talking to him. He—he patronises me!" concluded Mr. Pett indignantly. "Sits there on his shoulder blades with his feet on the table and talks to me with his mouth full of candy as if I were his grandson."
Ann was sorry for Mr. Pett. For many years now, ever since the death of her mother, they had been inseparable. Her father, who was a traveller, explorer, big-game hunter, and general sojourner in the lonelier and wilder spots of the world and paid only infrequent visits to New York, had left her almost entirely in Mr. Pett's care, and all her pleasantest memories were associated with him. Mr. Chester's was in many ways an admirable character, but not a domestic one; and his relations with his daughter were confined for the most part to letters and presents. In the past few years she had come almost to regard Mr. Pett in the light of a father. Hers was a nature swiftly responsive to kindness; and because Mr. Pett besides being kind was also pathetic she pitied as well as loved him. There was a lingering boyishness in the financier, the boyishness of the boy who muddles along in an unsympathetic world and can never do anything right: and this quality called aloud to the youth in her. She was at the valiant age when we burn to right wrongs and succour the oppressed, and wild rebel schemes for the reformation of her small world came readily to her. From the first she had been a smouldering spectator of the trials of her uncle's married life, and if Mr. Pett had ever asked her advice and bound himself to act on it he would have solved his domestic troubles in explosive fashion. For Ann in her moments of maiden meditation had frequently devised schemes to that end which would have made his grey hair stand erect with horror.
"I've seen a good many boys," she said, "but Ogden is in a class by himself. He ought to be sent to a strict boarding-school, of course."
"He ought to be sent to Sing-Sing," amended Mr. Pett.
"Why don't you send him to school?"
"Your aunt wouldn't hear of it. She's afraid of his being kidnapped. It happened last time he went to school. You can't blame her for wanting to keep her eye on him after that."
Ann ran her fingers meditatively over the keys.
"I've sometimes thought . . ."
"Oh, nothing. I must get on with this thing for aunt Nesta."
Mr. Pett placed the bulk of the Sunday paper on the floor beside him, and began to run an appreciative eye over the comic supplement. That lingering boyishness in him which endeared him to Ann always led him to open his Sabbath reading in this fashion. Grey-headed though he was, he still retained both in art and in real life a taste for the slapstick. No one had ever known the pure pleasure it had given him when Raymond Green, his wife's novelist protege, had tripped over a loose stair-rod one morning and fallen an entire flight.
From some point farther down the corridor came a muffled thudding. Ann stopped her work to listen.
"There's Jerry Mitchell punching the bag."
"Eh?" said Mr. Pett.
"I only said I could hear Jerry Mitchell in the gymnasium."
"Yes, he's there."
Ann looked out of the window thoughtfully for a moment. Then she swung round in her swivel-chair.
Mr. Pett emerged slowly from the comic supplement.
"Did Jerry Mitchell ever tell you about that friend of his who keeps a dogs' hospital down on Long Island somewhere? I forget his name. Smithers or Smethurst or something. People—old ladies, you know, and people—bring him their dogs to be cured when they get sick. He has an infallible remedy, Jerry tells me. He makes a lot of money at it."
"Money?" Pett, the student, became Pett, the financier, at the magic word. "There might be something in that if one got behind it. Dogs are fashionable. There would be a market for a really good medicine."
"I'm afraid you couldn't put Mr. Smethurst's remedy on the market. It only works when the dog has been overeating himself and not taking any exercise."
"Well, that's all these fancy dogs ever have the matter with them. It looks to me as if I might do business with this man. I'll get his address from Mitchell."
"It's no use thinking of it, uncle Peter. You couldn't do business with him—in that way. All Mr. Smethurst does when any one brings him a fat, unhealthy dog is to feed it next to nothing—just the simplest kind of food, you know—and make it run about a lot. And in about a week the dog's as well and happy and nice as he can possibly be."
"Oh," said Mr. Pett, disappointed.
Ann touched the keys of her machine softly.
"Why I mentioned Mr. Smethurst," she said, "it was because we had been talking of Ogden. Don't you think his treatment would be just what Ogden needs?"
Mr. Pett's eyes gleamed.
"It's a shame he can't have a week or two of it!"
Ann played a little tune with her finger-tips on the desk.
"It would do him good, wouldn't it?"
Silence fell upon the room, broken only by the tapping of the typewriter. Mr. Pett, having finished the comic supplement, turned to the sporting section, for he was a baseball fan of no lukewarm order. The claims of business did not permit him to see as many games as he could wish, but he followed the national pastime closely on the printed page and had an admiration for the Napoleonic gifts of Mr. McGraw which would have gratified that gentleman had he known of it.
"Uncle Peter," said Ann, turning round again.
"It's funny you should have been talking about Ogden getting kidnapped. This story of aunt Nesta's is all about an angel-child—I suppose it's meant to be Ogden—being stolen and hidden and all that. It's odd that she should write stories like this. You wouldn't expect it of her."
"Your aunt," said Mr. Pett, "lets her mind run on that sort of thing a good deal. She tells me there was a time, not so long ago, when half the kidnappers in America were after him. She sent him to school in England—or, rather, her husband did. They were separated then—and, as far as I can follow the story, they all took the next boat and besieged the place."
"It's a pity somebody doesn't smuggle him away now and keep him till he's a better boy."
"Ah!" said Mr. Pett wistfully.
Ann looked at him fixedly, but his eyes were once more on his paper. She gave a little sigh, and turned to her work again.
"It's quite demoralising, typing aunt Nesta's stories," she said. "They put ideas into one's head."
Mr. Pett said nothing. He was reading an article of medical interest in the magazine section, for he was a man who ploughed steadily through his Sunday paper, omitting nothing. The typewriter began tapping again.
Ann swung round, and gazed at her uncle in concern. He was staring blankly at the paper.
"What's the matter?"
The page on which Mr. Pett's attention was concentrated was decorated with a fanciful picture in bold lines of a young man in evening dress pursuing a young woman similarly clad along what appeared to be a restaurant supper-table. An enjoyable time was apparently being had by both. Across the page this legend ran:
PICCADILLY JIM ONCE MORE
The Recent Adventures of Young Mr. Crocker
of New York and London
It was not upon the title, however, nor upon the illustration that Mr. Pett's fascinated eye rested. What he was looking at was a small reproduction of a photograph which had been inserted in the body of the article. It was the photograph of a woman in the early forties, rather formidably handsome, beneath which were printed the words:
Mrs. Nesta Ford Pett
Well-Known Society Leader and Authoress
Ann had risen and was peering over his shoulder. She frowned as she caught sight of the heading of the page. Then her eye fell upon the photograph.
"Good gracious! Why have they got aunt Nesta's picture there?"
Mr. Pett breathed a deep and gloomy breath.
"They've found out she's his aunt. I was afraid they would. I don't know what she will say when she sees this."
"Don't let her see it."
"She has the paper downstairs. She's probably reading it now."
Ann was glancing through the article.
"It seems to be much the same sort of thing that they have published before. I can't understand why the Chronicle takes such an interest in Jimmy Crocker."
"Well, you see he used to be a newspaper man, and the Chronicle was the paper he worked for."
"I know," she said shortly.
Something in her tone arrested Mr. Pett's attention.
"Yes, yes, of course," he said hastily. "I was forgetting."
There was an awkward silence. Mr. Pett coughed. The matter of young Mr. Crocker's erstwhile connection with the New York Chronicle was one which they had tacitly decided to refrain from mentioning.
"I didn't know he was your nephew, uncle Peter."
"Nephew by marriage," corrected Mr. Pett a little hurriedly. "Nesta's sister Eugenia married his father."
"I suppose that makes me a sort of cousin."
"A distant cousin."
"It can't be too distant for me."
There was a sound of hurried footsteps outside the door. Mrs. Pett entered, holding a paper in her hand. She waved it before Mr. Pett's sympathetic face.
"I know, my dear," he said backing. "Ann and I were just talking about it."
The little photograph had not done Mrs. Pett justice. Seen life-size, she was both handsomer and more formidable than she appeared in reproduction. She was a large woman, with a fine figure and bold and compelling eyes, and her personality crashed disturbingly into the quiet atmosphere of the room. She was the type of woman whom small, diffident men seem to marry instinctively, as unable to help themselves as cockleshell boats sucked into a maelstrom.
"What are you going to do about it?" she demanded, sinking heavily into the chair which her husband had vacated.
This was an aspect of the matter which had not occurred to Mr. Pett. He had not contemplated the possibility of actually doing anything. Nature had made him out of office hours essentially a passive organism, and it was his tendency, when he found himself in a sea of troubles, to float plaintively, not to take arms against it. To pick up the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and fling them back was not a habit of his. He scratched his chin and said nothing. He went on saying nothing.
"If Eugenia had had any sense, she would have foreseen what would happen if she took the boy away from New York where he was working too hard to get into mischief and let him run loose in London with too much money and nothing to do. But, if she had had any sense, she would never have married that impossible Crocker man. As I told her."
Mrs. Pett paused, and her eyes glowed with reminiscent fire. She was recalling the scene which had taken place three years ago between her sister and herself, when Eugenia had told her of her intention to marry an obscure and middle-aged actor named Bingley Crocker. Mrs. Pett had never seen Bingley Crocker, but she had condemned the proposed match in terms which had ended definitely and forever her relations with her sister. Eugenia was not a woman who welcomed criticism of her actions. She was cast in the same formidable mould as Mrs. Pett and resembled her strikingly both in appearance and character.
Mrs. Pett returned to the present. The past could look after itself. The present demanded surgery.
"One would have thought it would have been obvious even to Eugenia that a boy of twenty-one needed regular work."
Mr. Pett was glad to come out of his shell here. He was the Apostle of Work, and this sentiment pleased him.
"That's right," he said. "Every boy ought to have work."
"Look at this young Crocker's record since he went to live in London. He is always doing something to make himself notorious. There was that breach-of-promise case, and that fight at the political meeting, and his escapades at Monte Carlo, and—and everything. And he must be drinking himself to death. I think Eugenia's insane. She seems to have no influence over him at all."
Mr. Pett moaned sympathetically.
"And now the papers have found out that I am his aunt, and I suppose they will print my photograph whenever they publish an article about him."
She ceased and sat rigid with just wrath. Mr. Pett, who always felt his responsibilities as chorus keenly during these wifely monologues, surmised that a remark from him was indicated.
"It's tough," he said.
Mrs. Pett turned on him like a wounded tigress.
"What is the use of saying that? It's no use saying anything."
"No, no," said Mr. Pett, prudently refraining from pointing out that she had already said a good deal.
"You must do something."
Ann entered the conversation for the first time. She was not very fond of her aunt, and liked her least when she was bullying Mr. Pett. There was something in Mrs. Pett's character with which the imperiousness which lay beneath Ann's cheerful attitude towards the world was ever at war.
"What can uncle Peter possibly do?" she inquired.
"Why, get the boy back to America and make him work. It's the only possible thing."
"But is it possible?"
"Of course it is."
"Assuming that Jimmy Crocker would accept an invitation to come over to America, what sort of work could he do here? He couldn't get his place on the Chronicle back again after dropping out for all these years and making a public pest of himself all that while. And outside of newspaper work what is he fit for?"
"My dear child, don't make difficulties."
"I'm not. These are ready-made."
Mr. Pett interposed. He was always nervously apprehensive of a clash between these two. Ann had red hair and the nature which generally goes with red hair. She was impulsive and quick of tongue, and—as he remembered her father had always been—a little too ready for combat. She was usually as quickly remorseful as she was quickly pugnacious, like most persons of her colour. Her offer to type the story which now lay on her desk had been the amende honourable following on just such a scene with her aunt as this promised to be. Mr. Pett had no wish to see the truce thus consummated broken almost before it had had time to operate.
"I could give the boy a job in my office," he suggested.
Giving young men jobs in his office was what Mr. Pett liked doing best. There were six brilliant youths living in his house and bursting with his food at that very moment whom he would have been delighted to start addressing envelopes down-town.
Notably his wife's nephew, Willie Partridge, whom he looked on as a specious loafer. He had a stubborn disbelief in the explosive that was to revolutionise war. He knew, as all the world did, that Willie's late father had been a great inventor, but he did not accept the fact that Willie had inherited the dead man's genius. He regarded the experiments on Partridgite, as it was to be called, with the profoundest scepticism, and considered that the only thing Willie had ever invented or was likely to invent was a series of ingenious schemes for living in fatted idleness on other people's money.
"Exactly," said Mrs. Pett, delighted at the suggestion. "The very thing."
"Will you write and suggest it?" said Mr. Pett, basking in the sunshine of unwonted commendation.
"What would be the use of writing? Eugenia would pay no attention. Besides, I could not say all I wished to in a letter. No, the only thing is to go over to England and see her. I shall speak very plainly to her. I shall point out what an advantage it will be to the boy to be in your office and to live here. . . ."
"You don't mean live here—in this house?"
"Of course. There would be no sense in bringing the boy all the way over from England if he was to be allowed to run loose when he got here."
Mr. Pett coughed deprecatingly.
"I don't think that would be very pleasant for Ann, dear."
"Why in the name of goodness should Ann object?"
Ann moved towards the door.
"Thank you for thinking of it, uncle Peter. You're always a dear. But don't worry about me. Do just as you want to. In any case I'm quite certain that you won't be able to get him to come over here. You can see by the paper he's having far too good a time in London. You can call Jimmy Crockers from the vasty deep, but will they come when you call for them?"
Mrs. Pett looked at the door as it closed behind her, then at her husband.
"What do you mean, Peter, about Ann? Why wouldn't it be pleasant for her if this Crocker boy came to live with us?"
Mr. Pett hesitated.
"Well, it's like this, Nesta. I hope you won't tell her I told you. She's sensitive about it, poor girl. It all happened before you and I were married. Ann was much younger then. You know what schoolgirls are, kind of foolish and sentimental. It was my fault really, I ought to have . . ."
"Good Heavens, Peter! What are you trying to tell me?"
"She was only a child."
Mrs. Pett rose in slow horror.
"Peter! Tell me! Don't try to break it gently."
"Ann wrote a book of poetry and I had it published for her."
Mrs. Pett sank back in her chair.
"Oh!" she said—it would have been hard to say whether with relief or disappointment. "Whatever did you make such a fuss for? Why did you want to be so mysterious?"
"It was all my fault, really," proceeded Mr. Pett. "I ought to have known better. All I thought of at the time was that it would please the child to see the poems in print and be able to give the book to her friends. She did give it to her friends," he went on ruefully, "and ever since she's been trying to live it down. I've seen her bite a young fellow's head off when he tried to make a grand-stand play with her by quoting her poems which he'd found in his sister's book-shelf."
"But, in the name of goodness, what has all this to do with young Crocker?"
"Why, it was this way. Most of the papers just gave Ann's book a mention among 'Volumes Received,' or a couple of lines that didn't amount to anything, but the Chronicle saw a Sunday feature in it, as Ann was going about a lot then and was a well-known society girl. They sent this Crocker boy to get an interview from her, all about her methods of work and inspirations and what not. We never suspected it wasn't the straight goods. Why, that very evening I mailed an order for a hundred copies to be sent to me when the thing appeared. And—" pinkness came upon Mr. Pett at the recollection "it was just a josh from start to finish. The young hound made a joke of the poems and what Ann had told him about her inspirations and quoted bits of the poems just to kid the life out of them. . . . I thought Ann would never get over it. Well, it doesn't worry her any more—she's grown out of the school-girl stage—but you can bet she isn't going to get up and give three cheers and a tiger if you bring young Crocker to live in the same house."
"Utterly ridiculous!" said Mrs. Pett. "I certainly do not intend to alter my plans because of a trivial incident that happened years ago. We will sail on Wednesday."
"Very well, my dear," said Mr. Pett resignedly.
"Just as you say. Er—just you and I?"
"And Ogden, of course."
Mr. Pett controlled a facial spasm with a powerful effort of the will. He had feared this.
"I wouldn't dream of leaving him here while I went away, after what happened when poor dear Elmer sent him to school in England that time." The late Mr. Ford had spent most of his married life either quarrelling with or separated from his wife, but since death he had been canonised as 'poor dear Elmer.' "Besides, the sea voyage will do the poor darling good. He has not been looking at all well lately."
"If Ogden's coming, I'd like to take Ann."
"She can—" he sought for a euphemism.
"Keep in order" was the expression he wished to avoid. To his mind Ann was the only known antidote for Ogden, but he felt it would be impolitic to say so."—look after him on the boat," he concluded. "You know you are a bad sailor."
"Very well. Bring Ann—Oh, Peter, that reminds me of what I wanted to say to you, which this dreadful thing in the paper drove completely out of my mind. Lord Wisbeach has asked Ann to marry him!"
Mr. Pett looked a little hurt. "She didn't tell me." Ann usually confided in him.
"She didn't tell me, either. Lord Wisbeach told me. He said Ann had promised to think it over, and give him his answer later. Meanwhile, he had come to me to assure himself that I approved. I thought that so charming of him."
Mr. Pett was frowning.
"She hasn't accepted him?"
"I hope she doesn't."
"Don't be foolish, Peter. It would be an excellent match."
Mr. Pett shuffled his feet.
"I don't like him. There's something too darned smooth about that fellow."
"If you mean that his manners are perfect, I agree with you. I shall do all in my power to induce Ann to accept him."
"I shouldn't," said Mr. Pett, with more decision than was his wont. "You know what Ann is if you try to force her to do anything. She gets her ears back and won't budge. Her father is just the same. When we were boys together, sometimes—"
"Don't be absurd, Peter. As if I should dream of trying to force Ann to do anything."
"We don't know anything of this fellow. Two weeks ago we didn't know he was on the earth."
"What do we need to know beyond his name?"
Mr. Pett said nothing, but he was not convinced. The Lord Wisbeach under discussion was a pleasant-spoken and presentable young man who had called at Mr. Pett's office a short while before to consult him about investing some money. He had brought a letter of introduction from Hammond Chester, Ann's father, whom he had met in Canada, where the latter was at present engaged in the comparatively mild occupation of bass-fishing. With their business talk the acquaintance would have begun and finished, if Mr. Pett had been able to please himself, for he had not taken a fancy to Lord Wisbeach. But he was an American, with an American's sense of hospitality, and, the young man being a friend of Hammond Chester, he had felt bound to invite him to Riverside Drive—with misgivings which were now, he felt, completely justified.
"Ann ought to marry," said Mrs. Pett. "She gets her own way too much now. However, it is entirely her own affair, and there is nothing that we can do." She rose. "I only hope she will be sensible."
She went out, leaving Mr. Pett gloomier than she had found him. He hated the idea of Ann marrying Lord Wisbeach, who, even if he had had no faults at all, would be objectionable in that he would probably take her to live three thousand miles away in his own country. The thought of losing Ann oppressed Mr. Pett sorely.
Ann, meanwhile, had made her way down the passage to the gymnasium which Mr. Pett, in the interests of his health, had caused to be constructed in a large room at the end of the house—a room designed by the original owner, who had had artistic leanings, for a studio. The tap-tap-tap of the leather bag had ceased, but voices from within told her that Jerry Mitchell, Mr. Pett's private physical instructor, was still there. She wondered who was his companion, and found on opening the door that it was Ogden. The boy was leaning against the wall and regarding Jerry with a dull and supercilious gaze which the latter was plainly finding it hard to bear.
"Yes, sir!" Ogden was saying, as Ann entered. "I heard Biggs asking her to come for a joyride."
"I bet she turned him down," said Jerry Mitchell sullenly.
"I bet she didn't. Why should she? Biggs is an awful good-looking fellow."
"What are you talking about, Ogden?" said Ann.
"I was telling him that Biggs asked Celestine to go for a ride in the car with him."
"I'll knock his block off," muttered the incensed Jerry.
Ogden laughed derisively.
"Yes, you will! Mother would fire you if you touched him. She wouldn't stand for having her chauffeur beaten up."
Jerry Mitchell turned an appealing face to Ann. Ogden's revelations and especially his eulogy of Biggs' personal appearance had tormented him. He knew that, in his wooing of Mrs. Pett's maid, Celestine, he was handicapped by his looks, concerning which he had no illusions. No Adonis to begin with, he had been so edited and re-edited during a long and prosperous ring career by the gloved fists of a hundred foes that in affairs of the heart he was obliged to rely exclusively on moral worth and charm of manner. He belonged to the old school of fighters who looked the part, and in these days of pugilists who resemble matinee idols he had the appearance of an anachronism. He was a stocky man with a round, solid head, small eyes, an undershot jaw, and a nose which ill-treatment had reduced to a mere scenario. A narrow strip of forehead acted as a kind of buffer-state, separating his front hair from his eyebrows, and he bore beyond hope of concealment the badge of his late employment, the cauliflower ear. Yet was he a man of worth and a good citizen, and Ann had liked him from their first meeting. As for Jerry, he worshipped Ann and would have done anything she asked him. Ever since he had discovered that Ann was willing to listen to and sympathise with his outpourings on the subject of his troubled wooing, he had been her slave.
Ann came to the rescue in characteristically direct fashion.
"Get out, Ogden," she said.
Ogden tried to meet her eye mutinously, but failed. Why he should be afraid of Ann he had never been able to understand, but it was a fact that she was the only person of his acquaintance whom he respected. She had a bright eye and a calm, imperious stare which never failed to tame him.
"Why?" he muttered. "You're not my boss."
"Be quick, Ogden."
"What's the big idea—ordering a fellow—"
"And close the door gently behind you," said Ann. She turned to Jerry, as the order was obeyed.
"Has he been bothering you, Jerry?"
Jerry Mitchell wiped his forehead.
"Say, if that kid don't quit butting in when I'm working in the gym—You heard what he was saying about Maggie, Miss Ann?"
Celestine had been born Maggie O'Toole, a name which Mrs. Pett stoutly refused to countenance in any maid of hers.
"Why on earth do you pay any attention to him, Jerry? You must have seen that he was making it all up. He spends his whole time wandering about till he finds some one he can torment, and then he enjoys himself. Maggie would never dream of going out in the car with Biggs."
Jerry Mitchell sighed a sigh of relief.
"It's great for a fellow to have you in his corner, Miss Ann."
Ann went to the door and opened it. She looked down the passage, then, satisfied as to its emptiness, returned to her seat.
"Jerry, I want to talk to you. I have an idea. Something I want you to do for me."
"Yes, Miss Ann?"
"We've got to do something about that child, Ogden. He's been worrying uncle Peter again, and I'm not going to have it. I warned him once that, if he did it again, awful things would happen to him, but he didn't believe me. I suppose, Jerry—what sort of a man is your friend, Mr. Smethurst?"
"Do you mean Smithers, Miss Ann?"
"I knew it was either Smithers or Smethurst. The dog man, I mean. Is he a man you can trust?"
"With my last buck. I've known him since we were kids."
"I don't mean as regards money. I am going to send Ogden to him for treatment, and I want to know if I can rely on him to help me."
"For the love of Mike."
Jerry Mitchell, after an instant of stunned bewilderment, was looking at her with worshipping admiration. He had always known that Miss Ann possessed a mind of no common order, but this, he felt, was genius. For a moment the magnificence of the idea took his breath away.
"Do you mean that you're going to kidnap him, Miss Ann?"
"Yes. That is to say, you are—if I can persuade you to do it for me."
"Sneak him away and send him to Bud Smithers' dog-hospital?"
"For treatment. I like Mr. Smithers' methods. I think they would do Ogden all the good in the world."
Jerry was enthusiastic.
"Why, Bud would make him part-human. But, say, isn't it taking big chances? Kidnapping's a penitentiary offence."
"This isn't that sort of kidnapping."
"Well, it's mighty like it."
"I don't think you need be afraid of the penitentiary. I can't see aunt Nesta prosecuting, when it would mean that she would have to charge us with having sent Ogden to a dogs' hospital. She likes publicity, but it has to be the right kind of publicity. No, we do run a risk, but it isn't that one. You run the risk of losing your job here, and I should certainly be sent to my grandmother for an indefinite sentence. You've never seen my grandmother, have you, Jerry? She's the only person in the world I'm afraid of! She lives miles from anywhere and has family prayers at seven-thirty sharp every morning. Well, I'm ready to risk her, if you're ready to risk your job, in such a good cause. You know you're just as fond of uncle Peter as I am, and Ogden is worrying him into a breakdown. Surely you won't refuse to help me, Jerry?"
Jerry rose and extended a calloused hand.
"When do we start?"
Ann shook the hand warmly.
"Thank you, Jerry. You're a jewel. I envy Maggie. Well, I don't think we can do anything till they come back from England, as aunt Nesta is sure to take Ogden with her."
"Who's going to England?"
"Uncle Peter and aunt Nesta were talking just now of sailing to try and persuade a young man named Crocker to come back here."
"Crocker? Jimmy Crocker? Piccadilly Jim?"
"Yes. Why, do you know him?"
"I used to meet him sometimes when he was working on the Chronicle here. Looks as if he was cutting a wide swathe in dear old London. Did you see the paper to-day?"
"Yes, that's what made aunt Nesta want to bring him over. Of course, there isn't the remotest chance that she will be able to make him come. Why should he come?"
"Last time I saw Jimmy Crocker," said Jerry, "it was a couple of years ago, when I went over to train Eddie Flynn for his go with Porky Jones at the National. I bumped into him at the N. S. C. He was a good deal tanked."
"He's always drinking, I believe."
"He took me to supper at some swell joint where they all had the soup-and-fish on but me. I felt like a dirty deuce in a clean deck. He used to be a regular fellow, Jimmy Crocker, but from what you read in the papers it begins to look as if he was hitting it up too swift. It's always the way with those boys when you take them off a steady job and let them run around loose with their jeans full of mazuma."
"That's exactly why I want to do something about Ogden. If he's allowed to go on as he is at present, he will grow up exactly like Jimmy Crocker."
"Aw, Jimmy Crocker ain't in Ogden's class," protested Jerry.
"Yes, he is. There's absolutely no difference between them."
"Say! You've got it in for Jim, haven't you, Miss Ann?" Jerry looked at her wonderingly. "What's your kick against him?"
Ann bit her lip. "I object to him on principle," she said. "I don't like his type. . . . Well, I'm glad we've settled this about Ogden, Jerry. I knew I could rely on you. But I won't let you do it for nothing. Uncle Peter shall give you something for it—enough to start that health-farm you talk about so much. Then you can marry Maggie and live happily ever afterwards."
"Gee! Is the boss in on this, too?"
"Not yet. I'm going to tell him now. Hush! There's some one coming."
Mr. Pett wandered in. He was still looking troubled.
"Oh, Ann—good morning, Mitchell—your aunt has decided to go to England. I want you to come, too."
"You want me? To help interview Jimmy Crocker?"
"No, no. Just to come along and be company on the voyage. You'll be such a help with Ogden, Ann. You can keep him in order. How you do it, I don't know. You seem to make another boy of him."
Ann stole a glance at Jerry, who answered with an encouraging grin. Ann was constrained to make her meaning plainer than by the language of the eye.
"Would you mind just running away for half a moment, Jerry?" she said winningly. "I want to say something to uncle Peter."
Ann turned to Mr. Pett as the door closed.
"You'd like somebody to make Ogden a different boy, wouldn't you, uncle Peter?"
"I wish it was possible."
"He's been worrying you a lot lately, hasn't he?" asked Ann sympathetically.
"Yes," sighed Mr. Pett.
"Then that's all right," said Ann briskly. "I was afraid that you might not approve. But, if you do, I'll go right ahead."
Mr. Pett started violently. There was something in Ann's voice and, as he looked at her, something in her face which made him fear the worst. Her eyes were flashing with an inspired light of a highly belligerent nature, and the sun turned the red hair to which she owed her deplorable want of balance to a mass of flame. There was something in the air. Mr. Pett sensed it with every nerve of his apprehensive person. He gazed at Ann, and as he did so the years seemed to slip from him and he was a boy again, about to be urged to lawless courses by the superior will of his boyhood's hero, Hammond Chester. In the boyhood of nearly every man there is a single outstanding figure, some one youthful hypnotic Napoleon whose will was law and at whose bidding his better judgment curled up and died. In Mr. Pett's life Ann's father had filled this role. He had dominated Mr. Pett at an age when the mind is most malleable. And now—so true is it that though Time may blunt our boyish memories the traditions of boyhood live on in us and an emotional crisis will bring them to the surface as an explosion brings up the fish that lurk in the nethermost mud—it was as if he were facing the youthful Hammond Chester again and being irresistibly impelled to some course of which he entirely disapproved but which he knew that he was destined to undertake. He watched Ann as a trapped man might watch a ticking bomb, bracing himself for the explosion and knowing that he is helpless. She was Hammond Chester's daughter, and she spoke to him with the voice of Hammond Chester. She was her father's child and she was going to start something.
"I've arranged it all with Jerry," said Ann. "He's going to help me smuggle Ogden away to that friend of his I told you about who keeps the dog-hospital: and the friend is going to keep him until he reforms. Isn't it a perfectly splendid idea?"
Mr. Pett blanched. The frightfulness of reality had exceeded anticipation.
The words came from him in a strangled bleat. His whole being was paralysed by a clammy horror. This was beyond the uttermost limit of his fears. And, to complete the terror of the moment, he knew, even while he rebelled against the insane lawlessness of her scheme, that he was going to agree to it, and—worst of all—that deep, deep down in him there was a feeling toward it which did not dare to come to the surface but which he knew to be approval.
"Of course Jerry would do it for nothing," said Ann, "but I promised him that you would give him something for his trouble. You can arrange all that yourselves later."
"But, Ann! . . . But, Ann! . . . Suppose your aunt finds out who did it!"
"Well, there will be a tremendous row!" said Ann composedly. "And you will have to assert yourself. It will be a splendid thing for you. You know you are much too kind to every one, uncle Peter. I don't think there's any one who would put up with what you do. Father told me in one of his letters that he used to call you Patient Pete as a boy."
Mr. Pett started. Not for many a day had a nickname which he considered the most distasteful of all possible nicknames risen up from its grave to haunt him. Patient Pete! He had thought the repulsive title buried forever in the same tomb as his dead youth. Patient Pete! The first faint glimmer of the flame of rebellion began to burn in his bosom.
"Patient Pete!" said Ann inexorably.
"But, Ann,"—there was pathos in Mr. Pett's voice—"I like a peaceful life."
"You'll never have one if you don't stand up for yourself. You know quite well that father is right. You do let every one trample on you. Do you think father would let Ogden worry him and have his house filled with affected imitation geniuses so that he couldn't find a room to be alone in?"
"But, Ann, your father is different. He likes fusses. I've known your father contradict a man weighing two hundred pounds out of sheer exuberance. There's a lot of your father in you, Ann. I've often noticed it."
"There is! That's why I'm going to make you put your foot down sooner or later. You're going to turn all these loafers out of the house. And first of all you're going to help us send Ogden away to Mr. Smithers."
There was a long silence.
"It's your red hair!" said Mr. Pett at length, with the air of a man who has been solving a problem. "It's your red hair that makes you like this, Ann. Your father has red hair, too."
"It's not my fault that I have red hair, uncle Peter. It's my misfortune."
Mr. Pett shook his head.
"Other people's misfortune, too!" he said.
THE EXILED FAN
London brooded under a grey sky. There had been rain in the night, and the trees were still dripping. Presently, however, there appeared in the laden haze a watery patch of blue: and through this crevice in the clouds the sun, diffidently at first but with gradually increasing confidence, peeped down on the fashionable and exclusive turf of Grosvenor Square. Stealing across the square, its rays reached the massive stone walls of Drexdale House, until recently the London residence of the earl of that name; then, passing through the window of the breakfast-room, played lightly on the partially bald head of Mr. Bingley Crocker, late of New York in the United States of America, as he bent over his morning paper. Mrs. Bingley Crocker, busy across the table reading her mail, the rays did not touch. Had they done so, she would have rung for Bayliss, the butler, to come and lower the shade, for she endured liberties neither from Man nor from Nature.
Mr. Crocker was about fifty years of age, clean-shaven and of a comfortable stoutness. He was frowning as he read. His smooth, good-humoured face wore an expression which might have been disgust, perplexity, or a blend of both. His wife, on the other hand, was looking happy. She extracted the substance from her correspondence with swift glances of her compelling eyes, just as she would have extracted guilty secrets from Bingley, if he had had any. This was a woman who, like her sister Nesta, had been able all her life to accomplish more with a glance than other women with recrimination and threat. It had been a popular belief among his friends that her late husband, the well-known Pittsburg millionaire G. G. van Brunt, had been in the habit of automatically confessing all if he merely caught the eye of her photograph on his dressing table.
From the growing pile of opened envelopes Mrs. Crocker looked up, a smile softening the firm line of her lips.
"A card from Lady Corstorphine, Bingley, for her at-home on the twenty-ninth."
Mr. Crocker, still absorbed, snorted absently.
"One of the most exclusive hostesses in England. . . . She has influence with the right sort of people. Her brother, the Duke of Devizes, is the Premier's oldest friend."
"The Duchess of Axminster has written to ask me to look after a stall at her bazaar for the Indigent Daughters of the Clergy."
"Bingley! You aren't listening. What is that you are reading?"
Mr. Crocker tore himself from the paper.
"This? Oh, I was looking at a report of that cricket game you made me go and see yesterday."
"Oh? I am glad you have begun to take an interest in cricket. It is simply a social necessity in England. Why you ever made such a fuss about taking it up, I can't think. You used to be so fond of watching baseball and cricket is just the same thing."
A close observer would have marked a deepening of the look of pain on Mr. Crocker's face. Women say this sort of thing carelessly, with no wish to wound: but that makes it none the less hard to bear.
From the hall outside came faintly the sound of the telephone, then the measured tones of Bayliss answering it. Mr. Crocker returned to his paper.
"Lady Corstorphine desires to speak to you on the telephone, madam."
Half-way to the door Mrs. Crocker paused, as if recalling something that had slipped her memory.
"Is Mr. James getting up, Bayliss?"
"I believe not, madam. I am informed by one of the house-maids who passed his door a short time back that there were no sounds."
Mrs. Crocker left the room. Bayliss, preparing to follow her example, was arrested by an exclamation from the table.
His master's voice.
"Say, Bayliss, come here a minute. Want to ask you something."
The butler approached the table. It seemed to him that his employer was not looking quite himself this morning. There was something a trifle wild, a little haggard, about his expression. He had remarked on it earlier in the morning in the Servants' Hall.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Crocker's ailment was a perfectly simple one. He was suffering from one of those acute spasms of home-sickness, which invariably racked him in the earlier Summer months. Ever since his marriage five years previously and his simultaneous removal from his native land he had been a chronic victim to the complaint. The symptoms grew less acute in Winter and Spring, but from May onward he suffered severely.
Poets have dealt feelingly with the emotions of practically every variety except one. They have sung of Ruth, of Israel in bondage, of slaves pining for their native Africa, and of the miner's dream of home. But the sorrows of the baseball bug, compelled by fate to live three thousand miles away from the Polo Grounds, have been neglected in song. Bingley Crocker was such a one, and in Summer his agonies were awful. He pined away in a country where they said "Well played, sir!" when they meant "'at-a-boy!"
"Bayliss, do you play cricket?"
"I am a little past the age, sir. In my younger days . . ."
"Do you understand it?"
"Yes, sir. I frequently spend an afternoon at Lord's or the Oval when there is a good match."
Many who enjoyed a merely casual acquaintance with the butler would have looked on this as an astonishingly unexpected revelation of humanity in Bayliss, but Mr. Crocker was not surprised. To him, from the very beginning, Bayliss had been a man and a brother who was always willing to suspend his duties in order to answer questions dealing with the thousand and one problems which the social life of England presented. Mr. Crocker's mind had adjusted itself with difficulty to the niceties of class distinction: and, while he had cured himself of his early tendency to address the butler as "Bill," he never failed to consult him as man to man in his moments of perplexity. Bayliss was always eager to be of assistance. He liked Mr. Crocker. True, his manner might have struck a more sensitive man than his employer as a shade too closely resembling that of an indulgent father towards a son who was not quite right in the head: but it had genuine affection in it.
Mr. Crocker picked up his paper and folded it back at the sporting page, pointing with a stubby forefinger.
"Well, what does all this mean? I've kept out of watching cricket since I landed in England, but yesterday they got the poison needle to work and took me off to see Surrey play Kent at that place Lord's where you say you go sometimes."
"I was there yesterday, sir. A very exciting game."
"Exciting? How do you make that out? I sat in the bleachers all afternoon, waiting for something to break loose. Doesn't anything ever happen at cricket?"
The butler winced a little, but managed to smile a tolerant smile. This man, he reflected, was but an American and as such more to be pitied than censured. He endeavoured to explain.
"It was a sticky wicket yesterday, sir, owing to the rain."
"The wicket was sticky, sir."
"I mean that the reason why the game yesterday struck you as slow was that the wicket—I should say the turf—was sticky—that is to say wet. Sticky is the technical term, sir. When the wicket is sticky, the batsmen are obliged to exercise a great deal of caution, as the stickiness of the wicket enables the bowlers to make the ball turn more sharply in either direction as it strikes the turf than when the wicket is not sticky."
"That's it, is it?"
"Thanks for telling me."
"Not at all, sir."
Mr. Crocker pointed to the paper.
"Well, now, this seems to be the box-score of the game we saw yesterday. If you can make sense out of that, go to it."
The passage on which his finger rested was headed "Final Score," and ran as follows:
Hayward, c Wooley, b Carr ....... 67 Hobbs, run out ................... 0 Hayes, st Huish, b Fielder ...... 12 Ducat, b Fielder ................ 33 Harrison, not out ............... 11 Sandham, not out ................. 6 Extras .......................... 10
Total (for four wickets) ....... 139
Bayliss inspected the cipher gravely.
"What is it you wish me to explain, sir?"
"Why, the whole thing. What's it all about?"
"It's perfectly simple, sir. Surrey won the toss, and took first knock. Hayward and Hobbs were the opening pair. Hayward called Hobbs for a short run, but the latter was unable to get across and was thrown out by mid-on. Hayes was the next man in. He went out of his ground and was stumped. Ducat and Hayward made a capital stand considering the stickiness of the wicket, until Ducat was bowled by a good length off-break and Hayward caught at second slip off a googly. Then Harrison and Sandham played out time."
Mr. Crocker breathed heavily through his nose.
"Yes!" he said. "Yes! I had an idea that was it. But I think I'd like to have it once again, slowly. Start with these figures. What does that sixty-seven mean, opposite Hayward's name?"
"He made sixty-seven runs, sir."
"Sixty-seven! In one game?"
"Why, Home-Run Baker couldn't do it!"
"I am not familiar with Mr. Baker, sir."
"I suppose you've never seen a ball-game?"
"A baseball game?"
"Then, Bill," said Mr. Crocker, reverting in his emotion to the bad habit of his early London days, "you haven't lived. See here!"
Whatever vestige of respect for class distinctions Mr. Crocker had managed to preserve during the opening stages of the interview now definitely disappeared. His eyes shone wildly and he snorted like a war-horse. He clutched the butler by the sleeve and drew him closer to the table, then began to move forks, spoons, cups, and even the contents of his plate about the cloth with an energy little short of feverish.
"Watch!" said Mr. Crocker, with the air of an excitable high priest about to initiate a novice into the Mysteries.
He removed a roll from the basket.
"You see this roll? That's the home plate. This spoon is first base. Where I'm putting this cup is second. This piece of bacon is third. There's your diamond for you. Very well, then. These lumps of sugar are the infielders and the outfielders. Now we're ready. Batter up? He stands here. Catcher behind him. Umps behind catcher."
"Umps, I take it, sir, is what we would call the umpire?"
"Call him anything you like. It's part of the game. Now here's the box, where I've put this dab of marmalade, and here's the pitcher, winding up."
"The pitcher would be equivalent to our bowler?"
"I guess so, though why you should call him a bowler gets past me."
"The box, then, is the bowler's wicket?"
"Have it your own way. Now pay attention. Play ball! Pitcher's winding up. Put it over, Mike, put it over! Some speed, kid! Here it comes, right in the groove. Bing! Batter slams it and streaks for first. Outfielder—this lump of sugar—boots it. Bonehead! Batter touches second. Third? No! Get back! Can't be done. Play it safe. Stick around the sack, old pal. Second batter up. Pitcher getting something on the ball now besides the cover. Whiffs him. Back to the bench, Cyril! Third batter up. See him rub his hands in the dirt. Watch this kid. He's good! He lets two alone, then slams the next right on the nose. Whizzes around to second. First guy, the one we left on second, comes home for one run. That's a game! Take it from me, Bill, that's a game!"
Somewhat overcome with the energy with which he had flung himself into his lecture, Mr. Crocker sat down and refreshed himself with cold coffee.
"Quite an interesting game," said Bayliss. "But I find, now that you have explained it, sir, that it is familiar to me, though I have always known it under another name. It is played a great deal in this country."
Mr. Crocker started to his feet.
"It is? And I've been five years here without finding it out! When's the next game scheduled?"
"It is known in England as Rounders, sir. Children play it with a soft ball and a racquet, and derive considerable enjoyment from it. I had never heard of it before as a pastime for adults."
Two shocked eyes stared into the butler's face.
"Children?" The word came in a whisper.
"You—you didn't say a soft ball?"
A sort of spasm seemed to convulse Mr. Crocker. He had lived five years in England, but not till this moment had he realised to the full how utterly alone he was in an alien land. Fate had placed him, bound and helpless, in a country where they called baseball Rounders and played it with a soft ball.
He sank back into his chair, staring before him. And as he sat the wall seemed to melt and he was gazing upon a green field, in the centre of which a man in a grey uniform was beginning a Salome dance. Watching this person with a cold and suspicious eye, stood another uniformed man, holding poised above his shoulder a sturdy club. Two Masked Marvels crouched behind him in attitudes of watchful waiting. On wooden seats all around sat a vast multitude of shirt-sleeved spectators, and the air was full of voices.
One voice detached itself from the din.
"Pea-nuts! Get y'r pea-nuts!"
Something that was almost a sob shook Bingley Crocker's ample frame. Bayliss the butler gazed down upon him with concern. He was sure the master was unwell.
The case of Mr. Bingley Crocker was one that would have provided an admirable "instance" for a preacher seeking to instil into an impecunious and sceptical flock the lesson that money does not of necessity bring with it happiness. And poetry has crystallised his position in the following stanza.
An exile from home splendour dazzles in vain. Oh, give me my lowly thatched cottage again; The birds singing gaily, that came at my call, Give me them, and that peace of mind dearer than all.
Mr. Crocker had never lived in a thatched cottage, nor had his relations with the birds of his native land ever reached the stage of intimacy indicated by the poet; but substitute "Lambs Club" for the former and "members" for the latter, and the parallel becomes complete.
Until the time of his second marriage Bingley Crocker had been an actor, a snapper-up of whatever small character-parts the gods provided. He had an excellent disposition, no money, and one son, a young man of twenty-one. For forty-five years he had lived a hand-to-mouth existence in which his next meal had generally come as a pleasant surprise: and then, on an Atlantic liner, he met the widow of G. G. van Brunt, the sole heiress to that magnate's immense fortune.
What Mrs. van Brunt could have seen in Bingley Crocker to cause her to single him out from all the world passes comprehension: but the eccentricities of Cupid are commonplace. It were best to shun examination into first causes and stick to results. The swift romance began and reached its climax in the ten days which it took one of the smaller Atlantic liners to sail from Liverpool to New York. Mr. Crocker was on board because he was returning with a theatrical company from a failure in London, Mrs. van Brunt because she had been told that the slow boats were the steadiest. They began the voyage as strangers and ended it as an engaged couple—the affair being expedited, no doubt, by the fact that, even if it ever occurred to Bingley to resist the onslaught on his bachelor peace, he soon realised the futility of doing so, for the cramped conditions of ship-board intensified the always overwhelming effects of his future bride's determined nature.
The engagement was received in a widely differing spirit by the only surviving blood-relations of the two principals. Jimmy, Mr. Crocker's son, on being informed that his father had plighted his troth to the widow of a prominent millionaire, displayed the utmost gratification and enthusiasm, and at a little supper which he gave by way of farewell to a few of his newspaper comrades and which lasted till six in the morning, when it was broken up by the flying wedge of waiters for which the selected restaurant is justly famous, joyfully announced that work and he would from then on be total strangers. He alluded in feeling terms to the Providence which watches over good young men and saves them from the blighting necessity of offering themselves in the flower of their golden youth as human sacrifices to the Moloch of capitalistic greed: and, having commiserated with his guests in that a similar stroke of luck had not happened to each of them, advised them to drown their sorrows in drink. Which they did.
Far different was the attitude of Mrs. Crocker's sister, Nesta Pett. She entirely disapproved of the proposed match. At least, the fact that in her final interview with her sister she described the bridegroom-to-be as a wretched mummer, a despicable fortune-hunter, a broken-down tramp, and a sneaking, grafting confidence-trickster lends colour to the supposition that she was not a warm supporter of it. She agreed wholeheartedly with Mrs. Crocker's suggestion that they should never speak to each other again as long as they lived: and it was immediately after this that the latter removed husband Bingley, step-son Jimmy, and all her other goods and chattels to London, where they had remained ever since. Whenever Mrs. Crocker spoke of America now, it was in tones of the deepest dislike and contempt. Her friends were English, and every year more exclusively of England's aristocracy. She intended to become a leading figure in London Society, and already her progress had been astonishing. She knew the right people, lived in the right square, said the right things, and thought the right thoughts: and in the Spring of her third year had succeeded in curing Bingley of his habit of beginning his remarks with the words "Say, lemme tell ya something." Her progress, in short, was beginning to assume the aspect of a walk-over.
Against her complete contentment and satisfaction only one thing militated. That was the behaviour of her step-son, Jimmy.
It was of Jimmy that she spoke when, having hung the receiver on its hook, she returned to the breakfast-room. Bayliss had silently withdrawn, and Mr. Crocker was sitting in sombre silence at the table.
"A most fortunate thing has happened, Bingley," she said. "It was most kind of dear Lady Corstorphine to ring me up. It seems that her nephew, Lord Percy Whipple, is back in England. He has been in Ireland for the past three years, on the staff of the Lord Lieutenant, and only arrived in London yesterday afternoon. Lady Corstorphine has promised to arrange a meeting between him and James. I particularly want them to be friends."
"Eugenia," said Mr. Crocker in a hollow voice, "do you know they call baseball Rounders over here, and children play it with a soft ball?"
"James is becoming a serious problem. It is absolutely necessary that he should make friends with the right kind of young men."
"And a racquet," said Mr. Crocker.
"Please listen to what I am saying, Bingley. I am talking about James. There is a crude American strain in him which seems to grow worse instead of better. I was lunching with the Delafields at the Carlton yesterday, and there, only a few tables away, was James with an impossible young man in appalling clothes. It was outrageous that James should have been seen in public at all with such a person. The man had a broken nose and talked through it. He was saying in a loud voice that made everybody turn round something about his left-scissors hook—whatever that may have been. I discovered later that he was a low professional pugilist from New York—a man named Spike Dillon, I think Captain Wroxton said. And Jimmy was giving him lunch—at the Carlton!"
Mr. Crocker said nothing. Constant practice had made him an adept at saying nothing when his wife was talking.
"James must be made to realise his responsibilities. I shall have to speak to him. I was hearing only the other day of a most deserving man, extremely rich and lavishly generous in his contributions to the party funds, who was only given a knighthood, simply because he had a son who had behaved in a manner that could not possibly be overlooked. The present Court is extraordinarily strict in its views. James cannot be too careful. A certain amount of wildness in a young man is quite proper in the best set, provided that he is wild in the right company. Every one knows that young Lord Datchet was ejected from the Empire Music-Hall on Boat-Race night every year during his residence at Oxford University, but nobody minds. The family treats it as a joke. But James has such low tastes. Professional pugilists! I believe that many years ago it was not unfashionable for young men in Society to be seen about with such persons, but those days are over. I shall certainly speak to James. He cannot afford to call attention to himself in any way. That breach-of-promise case of his three years ago, is, I hope and trust, forgotten, but the slightest slip on his part might start the papers talking about it again, and that would be fatal. The eventual successor to a title must be quite as careful as—"
It was not, as has been hinted above, the usual practice of Mr. Crocker to interrupt his wife when she was speaking, but he did it now.
Mrs. Crocker frowned.
"I wish, Bingley—and I have told you so often—that you would not begin your sentences with the word 'Say'! It is such a revolting Americanism. Suppose some day when you are addressing the House of Lords you should make a slip like that! The papers would never let you hear the end of it."
Mr. Crocker was swallowing convulsively, as if testing his larynx with a view to speech. Like Saul of Tarsus, he had been stricken dumb by the sudden bright light which his wife's words had caused to flash upon him. Frequently during his sojourn in London he had wondered just why Eugenia had settled there in preference to her own country. It was not her wont to do things without an object, yet until this moment he had been unable to fathom her motives. Even now it seemed almost incredible. And yet what meaning would her words have other than the monstrous one which had smitten him as a blackjack?
"Say—I mean, Eugenia—you don't want—you aren't trying—you aren't working to—you haven't any idea of trying to get them to make me a Lord, have you?"
"It is what I have been working for all these years!"
"But—but why? Why? That's what I want to know. Why?"
Mrs. Crocker's fine eyes glittered.
"I will tell you why, Bingley. Just before we were married I had a talk with my sister Nesta. She was insufferably offensive. She referred to you in terms which I shall never forgive. She affected to look down on you, to think that I was marrying beneath me. So I am going to make you an English peer and send Nesta a newspaper clipping of the Birthday Honours with your name in it, if I have to keep working till I die! Now you know!"
Silence fell. Mr. Crocker drank cold coffee. His wife stared with gleaming eyes into the glorious future.
"Do you mean that I shall have to stop on here till they make me a lord?" said Mr. Crocker limply.
"Never go back to America?"
"Not till we have succeeded."
"Oh Gee! Oh Gosh! Oh Hell!" said Mr. Crocker, bursting the bonds of years.
Mrs. Crocker though resolute, was not unkindly. She made allowances for her husband's state of mind. She was willing to permit even American expletives during the sinking-in process of her great idea, much as a broad-minded cowboy might listen indulgently to the squealing of a mustang during the branding process. Docility and obedience would be demanded of him later, but not till the first agony had abated. She spoke soothingly to him.
"I am glad we have had this talk, Bingley. It is best that you should know. It will help you to realise your responsibilities. And that brings me back to James. Thank goodness Lord Percy Whipple is in town. He is about James' age, and from what Lady Corstorphine tells me will be an ideal friend for him. You understand who he is, of course? The second son of the Duke of Devizes, the Premier's closest friend, the man who can practically dictate the Birthday Honours. If James and Lord Percy can only form a close friendship, our battle will be as good as won. It will mean everything. Lady Corstorphine has promised to arrange a meeting. In the meantime, I will speak to James and warn him to be more careful."
Mr. Crocker had produced a stump of pencil from his pocket and was writing on the table-cloth.
Lord Crocker Lord Bingley Crocker Lord Crocker of Crocker The Marquis of Crocker Baron Crocker Bingley, first Viscount Crocker
He blanched as he read the frightful words. A sudden thought stung him.
"What will the boys at the Lambs say?"
"I am not interested," replied his wife, "in the boys at the Lambs."
"I thought you wouldn't be," said the future baron gloomily.
It is a peculiarity of the human mind that, with whatever apprehension it may be regarding the distant future, it must return after a while to face the minor troubles of the future that is immediate. The prospect of a visit to the dentist this afternoon causes us to forget for the moment the prospect of total ruin next year. Mr. Crocker, therefore, having tortured himself for about a quarter of an hour with his meditations on the subject of titles, was jerked back to a more imminent calamity than the appearance of his name in the Birthday Honours—the fact that in all probability he would be taken again this morning to watch the continuation of that infernal cricket-match, and would be compelled to spend the greater part of to-day, as he had spent the greater part of yesterday, bored to the verge of dissolution in the pavilion at Lord's.
One gleam of hope alone presented itself. Like baseball, this pastime of cricket was apparently affected by rain, if there had been enough of it. He had an idea that there had been a good deal of rain in the night, but had there been sufficient to cause the teams of Surrey and Kent to postpone the second instalment of their serial struggle? He rose from the table and went out into the hall. It was his purpose to sally out into Grosvenor Square and examine the turf in its centre with the heel of his shoe, in order to determine the stickiness or non-stickiness of the wicket. He moved towards the front door, hoping for the best, and just as he reached it the bell rang.
One of the bad habits of which his wife had cured Mr. Crocker in the course of the years was the habit of going and answering doors. He had been brought up in surroundings where every man was his own door-keeper, and it had been among his hardest tasks to learn the lesson that the perfect gentleman does not open doors but waits for the appropriate menial to come along and do it for him. He had succeeded at length in mastering this great truth, and nowadays seldom offended. But this morning his mind was clouded by his troubles, and instinct, allaying itself with opportunity, was too much for him. His fingers had been on the handle when the ring came, so he turned it.
At the top of the steps which connect the main entrance of Drexdale House with the sidewalk three persons were standing. One was a tall and formidably handsome woman in the early forties whose appearance seemed somehow oddly familiar. The second was a small, fat, blobby, bulging boy who was chewing something. The third, lurking diffidently in the rear, was a little man of about Mr. Crocker's own age, grey-haired and thin with brown eyes that gazed meekly through rimless glasses.
Nobody could have been less obtrusive than this person, yet it was he who gripped Mr. Crocker's attention and caused that home-sick sufferer's heart to give an almost painful leap. For he was clothed in one of those roomy suits with square shoulders which to the seeing eye are as republican as the Stars and Stripes. His blunt-toed yellow shoes sang gaily of home. And his hat was not so much a hat as an effusive greeting from Gotham. A long time had passed since Mr. Crocker had set eyes upon a biped so exhilaratingly American, and rapture held him speechless, as one who after long exile beholds some landmark of his childhood.
The female member of the party took advantage of his dumbness—which, as she had not unnaturally mistaken him for the butler, she took for a silent and respectful query as to her business and wishes—to open the conversation.
"Is Mrs. Crocker at home? Please tell her that Mrs. Pett wishes to see her."
There was a rush and scurry in the corridors of Mr. Crocker's brain, as about six different thoughts tried to squash simultaneously into that main chamber where there is room for only one at a time. He understood now why this woman's appearance had seemed familiar. She was his wife's sister, and that same Nesta who was some day to be pulverised by the sight of his name in the Birthday Honours. He was profoundly thankful that she had mistaken him for the butler. A chill passed through him as he pictured what would have been Eugenia's reception of the information that he had committed such a bourgeois solecism as opening the front door to Mrs. Pett of all people, who already despised him as a low vulgarian. There had been trouble enough when she had found him opening it a few weeks before to a mere collector of subscriptions for a charity. He perceived, with a clarity remarkable in view of the fact that the discovery of her identity had given him a feeling of physical dizziness, that at all costs he must foster this misapprehension on his sister-in-law's part.
Fortunately he was in a position to do so. He knew all about what butlers did and what they said on these occasions, for in his innocently curious way he had often pumped Bayliss on the subject. He bowed silently and led the way to the morning-room, followed by the drove of Petts: then, opening the door, stood aside to allow the procession to march past the given point.
"I will inform Mrs. Crocker that you are here, madam."
Mrs. Pett, shepherding the chewing child before her, passed into the room. In the light of her outspoken sentiments regarding her brother-in-law, it is curious to reflect that his manner at this, their first meeting, had deeply impressed her. After many months of smouldering revolt she had dismissed her own butler a day or so before sailing for England, and for the first time envy of her sister Eugenia gripped her. She did not covet Eugenia's other worldly possessions, but she did grudge her this supreme butler.
Mr. Pett, meanwhile, had been trailing in the rear with a hunted expression on his face. He wore the unmistakable look of a man about to be present at a row between women, and only a wet cat in a strange back-yard bears itself with less jauntiness than a man faced by such a prospect. A millionaire several times over, Mr. Pett would cheerfully have given much of his wealth to have been elsewhere at that moment. Such was the agitated state of his mind that, when a hand was laid lightly upon his arm as he was about to follow his wife into the room, he started so violently that his hat flew out of his hand. He turned to meet the eyes of the butler who had admitted him to the house, fixed on his in an appealing stare.
"Who's leading in the pennant race?" said this strange butler in a feverish whisper.
It was a question, coming from such a source, which in another than Mr. Pett might well have provoked a blank stare of amazement. Such, however, is the almost superhuman intelligence and quickness of mind engendered by the study of America's national game that he answered without the slightest hesitation.
"Wow!" said the butler.
No sense of anything strange or untoward about the situation came to mar the perfect joy of Mr. Pett, the overmastering joy of the baseball fan who in a strange land unexpectedly encounters a brother. He thrilled with a happiness which he had never hoped to feel that morning.
"No signs of them slumping?" enquired the butler.
"No. But you never can tell. It's early yet. I've seen those boys lead the league till the end of August and then be nosed out."
"True enough," said the butler sadly.
"Matty's in shape."
"He is? The old souper working well?"
"Like a machine. He shut out the Cubs the day before I sailed!"
At this point an appreciation of the unusualness of the proceedings began to steal upon Mr. Pett. He gaped at this surprising servitor.
"How on earth do you know anything about baseball?" he demanded.
The other seemed to stiffen. A change came over his whole appearance. He had the air of an actor who has remembered his part.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I trust I have not taken a liberty. I was at one time in the employment of a gentleman in New York, and during my stay I became extremely interested in the national game. I picked up a few of the American idioms while in the country." He smiled apologetically. "They sometimes slip out."
"Let 'em slip!" said Mr. Pett with enthusiasm. "You're the first thing that's reminded me of home since I left. Say!"
"Got a good place here?"
"Er—oh, yes, sir."
"Well, here's my card. If you ever feel like making a change, there's a job waiting for you at that address."
"Thank you, sir." Mr. Crocker stooped.
"Your hat, sir."
He held it out, gazing fondly at it the while. It was like being home again to see a hat like that. He followed Mr. Pett as he went into the morning-room with an affectionate eye.
Bayliss was coming along the hall, hurrying more than his wont. The ring at the front door had found him deep in an extremely interesting piece of news in his halfpenny morning paper, and he was guiltily aware of having delayed in answering it.
"Bayliss," said Mr. Crocker in a cautious undertone, "go and tell Mrs. Crocker that Mrs. Pett is waiting to see her. She's in the morning-room. If you're asked, say you let her in. Get me?"
"Yes, sir," said Bayliss, grateful for this happy solution.
"Is the wicket at Lord's likely to be too sticky for them to go on with that game to-day?"
"I hardly think it probable that there will be play, sir. There was a great deal of rain in the night."
Mr. Crocker passed on to his den with a lighter heart.
* * * * *
It was Mrs. Crocker's habit, acquired after years of practice and a sedulous study of the best models, to conceal beneath a mask of well-bred indifference any emotion which she might chance to feel. Her dealings with the aristocracy of England had shown her that, while the men occasionally permitted themselves an outburst, the women never did, and she had schooled herself so rigorously that nowadays she seldom even raised her voice. Her bearing, as she approached the morning-room was calm and serene, but inwardly curiosity consumed her. It was unbelievable that Nesta could have come to try to effect a reconciliation, yet she could think of no other reason for her visit.
She was surprised to find three persons in the morning-room. Bayliss, delivering his message, had mentioned only Mrs. Pett. To Mrs. Crocker the assemblage had the appearance of being a sort of Old Home Week of Petts, a kind of Pett family mob-scene. Her sister's second marriage having taken place after their quarrel, she had never seen her new brother-in-law, but she assumed that the little man lurking in the background was Mr. Pett. The guess was confirmed.
"Good morning, Eugenia," said Mrs. Pett.
"Peter, this is my sister, Eugenia. My husband."
Mrs. Crocker bowed stiffly. She was thinking how hopelessly American Mr. Pett was, how baggy his clothes looked, what absurdly shaped shoes he wore, how appalling his hat was, how little hair he had and how deplorably he lacked all those graces of repose, culture, physical beauty, refinement, dignity, and mental alertness which raise men above the level of the common cock-roach.
Mr. Pett, on his side, receiving her cold glance squarely between the eyes, felt as if he were being disembowelled by a clumsy amateur. He could not help wondering what sort of a man this fellow Crocker was whom this sister-in-law of his had married. He pictured him as a handsome, powerful, robust individual with a strong jaw and a loud voice, for he could imagine no lesser type of man consenting to link his lot with such a woman. He sidled in a circuitous manner towards a distant chair, and, having lowered himself into it, kept perfectly still, pretending to be dead, like an opossum. He wished to take no part whatever in the coming interview.
"Ogden, of course, you know," said Mrs. Pett.
She was sitting so stiffly upright on a hard chair and had so much the appearance of having been hewn from the living rock that every time she opened her mouth it was as if a statue had spoken.
"I know Ogden," said Mrs. Crocker shortly. "Will you please stop him fidgeting with that vase? It is valuable."
She directed at little Ogden, who was juggling aimlessly with a handsome objet d'art of the early Chinese school, a glance similar to that which had just disposed of his step-father. But Ogden required more than a glance to divert him from any pursuit in which he was interested. He shifted a deposit of candy from his right cheek to his left cheek, inspected Mrs. Crocker for a moment with a pale eye, and resumed his juggling. Mrs. Crocker meant nothing in his young life.
"Ogden, come and sit down," said Mrs. Pett.
"Don't want to sit down."
"Are you making a long stay in England, Nesta?" asked Mrs. Crocker coldly.
"I don't know. We have made no plans."
She broke off. Ogden, who had possessed himself of a bronze paper-knife, had begun to tap the vase with it. The ringing note thus produced appeared to please his young mind.
"If Ogden really wishes to break that vase," said Mrs. Crocker in a detached voice, "let me ring for the butler to bring him a hammer."
"Ogden!" said Mrs. Pett.
"Oh Gee! A fellow can't do a thing!" muttered Ogden, and walked to the window. He stood looking out into the square, a slight twitching of the ears indicating that he still made progress with the candy.
"Still the same engaging child!" murmured Mrs. Crocker.
"I did not come here to discuss Ogden!" said Mrs. Pett.
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows. Not even Mrs. Otho Lanners, from whom she had learned the art, could do it more effectively.
"I am still waiting to find out why you did come, Nesta!"
"I came here to talk to you about your step-son, James Crocker."
The discipline to which Mrs. Crocker had subjected herself in the matter of the display of emotion saved her from the humiliation of showing surprise. She waved her hand graciously—in the manner of the Duchess of Axminster, a supreme hand-waver—to indicate that she was all attention.
"Your step-son, James Crocker," repeated Mrs. Pett. "What is it the New York papers call him, Peter?"
Mr. Pett, the human opossum, came to life. He had contrived to create about himself such a defensive atmosphere of non-existence that now that he re-entered the conversation it was as if a corpse had popped out of its tomb like a jack-in-the-box.
Obeying the voice of authority, he pushed the tombstone to one side and poked his head out of the sepulchre.
"Piccadilly Jim!" he murmured apologetically.
"Piccadilly Jim!" said Mrs. Crocker. "It is extremely impertinent of them!"
In spite of his misery, a wan smile appeared on Mr. Pett's death-mask at this remark.
"They should worry about—!"
Mr. Pett died again, greatly respected.
"Why should the New York papers refer to James at all?" said Mrs. Crocker.
Mr. Pett emerged reluctantly from the cerements. He had supposed that Nesta would do the talking.
"Well, he's a news-item."
"Well, here's a boy that's been a regular fellow—raised in America—done work on a newspaper—suddenly taken off to England to become a London dude—mixing with all the dukes, playing pinochle with the King—naturally they're interested in him."
A more agreeable expression came over Mrs. Crocker's face.
"Of course, that is quite true. One cannot prevent the papers from printing what they wish. So they have published articles about James' doings in English Society?"
"Doings," said Mr. Pett, "is right!"
"Something has got to be done about it," said Mrs. Pett.
Mr. Pett endorsed this.
"Nesta's going to lose her health if these stories go on," he said.
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows, but she had hard work to keep a contented smile off her face.
"If you are not above petty jealousy, Nesta . . ."
Mrs. Pett laughed a sharp, metallic laugh.
"It is the disgrace I object to!"
"What else would you call it, Eugenia? Wouldn't you be ashamed if you opened your Sunday paper and came upon a full page article about your nephew having got intoxicated at the races and fought a book-maker—having broken up a political meeting—having been sued for breach-of-promise by a barmaid . . ."
Mrs. Crocker preserved her well-bred calm, but she was shaken. The episodes to which her sister had alluded were ancient history, horrors of the long-dead past, but it seemed that they still lived in print. There and then she registered the resolve to talk to her step-son James when she got hold of him in such a manner as would scourge the offending Adam out of him for once and for all.
"And not only that," continued Mrs. Pett. "That would be bad enough in itself, but somehow the papers have discovered that I am the boy's aunt. Two weeks ago they printed my photograph with one of these articles. I suppose they will always do it now. That is why I have come to you. It must stop. And the only way it can be made to stop is by taking your step-son away from London where he is running wild. Peter has most kindly consented to give the boy a position in his office. It is very good of him, for the boy cannot in the nature of things be of any use for a very long time, but we have talked it over and it seems the only course. I have come this morning to ask you to let us take James Crocker back to America with us and keep him out of mischief by giving him honest work. What do you say?"
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows.
"What do you expect me to say? It is utterly preposterous. I have never heard anything so supremely absurd in my life."
"Of course I refuse."
"I think you are extremely foolish."
Mr. Pett cowed in his chair. He was feeling rather like a nervous and peace-loving patron of a wild western saloon who observes two cowboys reach for their hip-pockets. Neither his wife nor his sister-in-law paid any attention to him. The concluding exercises of a duel of the eyes was in progress between them. After some silent, age-long moments, Mrs. Crocker laughed a light laugh.
"Most extraordinary!" she murmured.
Mrs. Pett was in no mood for Anglicisms.
"You know perfectly well, Eugenia," she said heatedly, "that James Crocker is being ruined here. For his sake, if not for mine—"
Mrs. Crocker laughed another light laugh, one of those offensive rippling things which cause so much annoyance.
"Don't be so ridiculous, Nesta! Ruined! Really! It is quite true that, a long while ago, when he was much younger and not quite used to the ways of London Society, James was a little wild, but all that sort of thing is over now. He knows"—she paused, setting herself as it were for the punch—"he knows that at any moment the government may decide to give his father a Peerage . . ."
The blow went home. A quite audible gasp escaped her stricken sister.
Mrs. Crocker placed two ringed fingers before her mouth in order not to hide a languid yawn.
"Yes. Didn't you know? But of course you live so out of the world. Oh yes, it is extremely probable that Mr. Crocker's name will appear in the next Honours List. He is very highly thought of by the Powers. So naturally James is quite aware that he must behave in a suitable manner. He is a dear boy! He was handicapped at first by getting into the wrong set, but now his closest friend is Lord Percy Whipple, the second son of the Duke of Devizes, who is one of the most eminent men in the kingdom and a personal friend of the Premier."
Mrs. Pett was in bad shape under this rain of titles, but she rallied herself to reply in kind.
"Indeed?" she said. "I should like to meet him. I have no doubt he knows our great friend, Lord Wisbeach."
Mrs. Crocker was a little taken aback. She had not supposed that her sister had even this small shot in her locker.
"Do you know Lord Wisbeach?" she said.
"Oh yes," replied Mrs. Pett, beginning to feel a little better. "We have been seeing him every day. He always says that he looks on my house as quite a home. He knows so few people in New York. It has been a great comfort to him, I think, knowing us."
Mrs. Crocker had had time now to recover her poise.
"Poor dear Wizzy!" she said languidly.
Mrs. Pett started.
"I suppose he is still the same dear, stupid, shiftless fellow? He left here with the intention of travelling round the world, and he has stopped in New York! How like him!"
"Do you know Lord Wisbeach?" demanded Mrs. Pett.
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows.
"Know him? Why, I suppose, after Lord Percy Whipple, he is James' most intimate friend!"
Mrs. Pett rose. She was dignified even in defeat. She collected Ogden and Mr. Pett with an eye which even Ogden could see was not to be trifled with. She uttered no word.
"Must you really go?" said Mrs. Crocker. "It was sweet of you to bother to come all the way from America like this. So strange to meet any one from America nowadays. Most extraordinary!"
The cortege left the room in silence. Mrs. Crocker had touched the bell, but the mourners did not wait for the arrival of Bayliss. They were in no mood for the formalities of polite Society. They wanted to be elsewhere, and they wanted to be there quick. The front door had closed behind them before the butler reached the morning-room.
"Bayliss," said Mrs. Crocker with happy, shining face, "send for the car to come round at once."
"Very good, madam."
"Is Mr. James up yet?"
"I believe not, madam."
Mrs. Crocker went upstairs to her room. If Bayliss had not been within earshot, she would probably have sung a bar or two. Her amiability extended even to her step-son, though she had not altered her intention of speaking eloquently to him on certain matters when she could get hold of him. That, however, could wait. For the moment, she felt in vein for a gentle drive in the Park.
A few minutes after she had disappeared, there was a sound of slow footsteps on the stairs, and a young man came down into the hall. Bayliss, who had finished telephoning to the garage for Mrs. Crocker's limousine and was about to descend to those lower depths where he had his being, turned, and a grave smile of welcome played over his face.
"Good morning, Mr. James," he said.
JIMMY'S DISTURBING NEWS
Jimmy Crocker was a tall and well-knit young man who later on in the day would no doubt be at least passably good-looking. At the moment an unbecoming pallor marred his face, and beneath his eyes were marks that suggested that he had slept little and ill. He stood at the foot of the stairs, yawning cavernously.
"Bayliss," he said, "have you been painting yourself yellow?"
"Strange! Your face looks a bright gamboge to me, and your outlines wobble. Bayliss, never mix your drinks. I say this to you as a friend. Is there any one in the morning-room?"
"No, Mr. James."
"Speak softly, Bayliss, for I am not well. I am conscious of a strange weakness. Lead me to the morning-room, then, and lay me gently on a sofa. These are the times that try men's souls."
The sun was now shining strongly through the windows of the morning-room. Bayliss lowered the shades. Jimmy Crocker sank onto the sofa, and closed his eyes.
"A conviction is stealing over me that I am about to expire."
"Shall I bring you a little breakfast, Mr. James?"
A strong shudder shook Jimmy.
"Don't be flippant, Bayliss," he protested. "Try to cure yourself of this passion for being funny at the wrong time. Your comedy is good, but tact is a finer quality than humour. Perhaps you think I have forgotten that morning when I was feeling just as I do to-day and you came to my bedside and asked me if I would like a nice rasher of ham. I haven't and I never shall. You may bring me a brandy-and-soda. Not a large one. A couple of bath-tubs full will be enough."
"Very good, Mr. James."
"And now leave me, Bayliss, for I would be alone. I have to make a series of difficult and exhaustive tests to ascertain whether I am still alive."
When the butler had gone, Jimmy adjusted the cushions, closed his eyes, and remained for a space in a state of coma. He was trying, as well as an exceedingly severe headache would permit, to recall the salient events of the previous night. At present his memories refused to solidify. They poured about in his brain in a fluid and formless condition, exasperating to one who sought for hard facts.
It seemed strange to Jimmy that the shadowy and inchoate vision of a combat, a fight, a brawl of some kind persisted in flitting about in the recesses of his mind, always just far enough away to elude capture. The absurdity of the thing annoyed him. A man has either indulged in a fight overnight or he has not indulged in a fight overnight. There can be no middle course. That he should be uncertain on the point was ridiculous. Yet, try as he would, he could not be sure. There were moments when he seemed on the very verge of settling the matter, and then some invisible person would meanly insert a red-hot corkscrew in the top of his head and begin to twist it, and this would interfere with calm thought. He was still in a state of uncertainty when Bayliss returned, bearing healing liquids on a tray.