Let us review the matter calmly and judicially, not condemning James off-hand, but rather probing the whole affair to its core, to see if we can confirm my view that it is possible to find excuses for him.
We will begin at the time when the subject of the Colonies first showed a tendency to creep menacingly into the daily chit-chat of his Uncle Frederick.
James's Uncle Frederick was always talking more or less about the Colonies, having made a substantial fortune out in Western Australia, but it was only when James came down from Oxford that the thing became really menacing. Up to that time the uncle had merely spoken of the Colonies as Colonies. Now he began to speak of them with sinister reference to his nephew. He starred James. It became a case of 'Frederick Knott presents James Datchett in "The Colonies",' and there seemed every prospect that the production would be an early one; for if there was one section of the public which Mr Knott disliked more than another, it was Young Men Who Ought To Be Out Earning Their Livings Instead Of Idling At Home. He expressed his views on the subject with some eloquence whenever he visited his sister's house. Mrs Datchett was a widow, and since her husband's death had been in the habit of accepting every utterance of her brother Frederick as a piece of genuine all-wool wisdom; though, as a matter of fact, James's uncle had just about enough brain to make a jay-bird fly crooked, and no more. He had made his money through keeping sheep. And any fool can keep sheep. However, he had this reputation for wisdom, and what he said went. It was not long, therefore, before it was evident that the ranks of the Y.M.W.O.T.B.O.E.T.L.I. O.I.A.H. were about to lose a member.
James, for his part, was all against the Colonies. As a setting for his career, that is to say. He was no Little Englander. He had no earthly objection to Great Britain having Colonies. By all means have Colonies. They could rely on him for moral support. But when it came to legging it out to West Australia to act as a sort of valet to Uncle Frederick's beastly sheep—no. Not for James. For him the literary life. Yes, that was James's dream—to have a stab at the literary life. At Oxford he had contributed to the Isis, and since coming down had been endeavouring to do the same to the papers of the Metropolis. He had had no success so far. But some inward voice seemed to tell him—(Read on. Read on. This is no story about the young beginner's struggles in London. We do not get within fifty miles of Fleet Street.)
A temporary compromise was effected between the two parties by the securing for James of a post as assistant-master at Harrow House, the private school of one Blatherwick, M.A., the understanding being that if he could hold the job he could remain in England and write, if it pleased him, in his spare time. But if he fell short in any way as a handler of small boys he was to descend a step in the animal kingdom and be matched against the West Australian sheep. There was to be no second chance in the event of failure. From the way Uncle Frederick talked James almost got the idea that he attached a spiritual importance to a connexion with sheep. He seemed to strive with a sort of religious frenzy to convert James to West Australia. So James went to Harrow House with much the same emotions that the Old Guard must have felt on their way up the hill at Waterloo.
Harrow House was a grim mansion on the outskirts of Dover. It is better, of course, to be on the outskirts of Dover than actually in it, but when you have said that you have said everything. James's impressions of that portion of his life were made up almost entirely of chalk. Chalk in the school-room, chalk all over the country-side, chalk in the milk. In this universe of chalk he taught bored boys the rudiments of Latin, geography, and arithmetic, and in the evenings, after a stately cup of coffee with Mr Blatherwick in his study, went to his room and wrote stories. The life had the advantage of offering few distractions. Except for Mr Blatherwick and a weird freak who came up from Dover on Tuesdays and Fridays to teach French, he saw nobody.
It was about five weeks from the beginning of term that the river of life at Harrow House became ruffled for the new assistant-master.
I want you to follow me very closely here. As far as the excusing of James's conduct is concerned, it is now or never. If I fail at this point to touch you, I have shot my bolt.
Let us marshal the facts.
In the first place it was a perfectly ripping morning.
Moreover he had received at breakfast a letter from the editor of a monthly magazine accepting a short story.
This had never happened to him before.
He was twenty-two.
And, just as he rounded the angle of the house, he came upon Violet, taking the air like himself.
Violet was one of the housemaids, a trim, energetic little person with round blue eyes and a friendly smile. She smiled at James now. James halted.
'Good morning, sir,' said Violet.
From my list of contributory causes I find that I have omitted one item—viz., that there did not appear to be anybody else about.
James looked meditatively at Violet. Violet looked smilingly at James. The morning was just as ripping as it had been a moment before. James was still twenty-two. And the editor's letter had not ceased to crackle in his breast-pocket.
Consequently James stooped, and—in a purely brotherly way—kissed Violet.
This, of course, was wrong. It was no part of James's duties as assistant-master at Harrow House to wander about bestowing brotherly kisses on housemaids. On the other hand, there was no great harm done. In the circles in which Violet moved the kiss was equivalent to the hand-shake of loftier society. Everybody who came to the back door kissed Violet. The carrier did; so did the grocer, the baker, the butcher, the gardener, the postman, the policeman, and the fishmonger. They were men of widely differing views on most points. On religion, politics, and the prospects of the entrants for the three o'clock race their opinions clashed. But in one respect they were unanimous. Whenever they came to the back door of Harrow House they all kissed Violet.
'I've had a story accepted by the Universal Magazine,' said James, casually.
'Have you, sir?' said Violet.
'It's a pretty good magazine. I shall probably do a great deal for it from time to time. The editor seems a decent chap.'
'Does he, sir?'
'I shan't tie myself up in any way, of course, unless I get very good terms. But I shall certainly let him see a good lot of my stuff. Jolly morning, isn't it?'
He strolled on; and Violet, having sniffed the air for a few more minutes with her tip-tilted nose, went indoors to attend to her work.
Five minutes later James, back in the atmosphere of chalk, was writing on the blackboard certain sentences for his class to turn into Latin prose. A somewhat topical note ran through them. As thus:
'The uncle of Balbus wished him to tend sheep in the Colonies (Provincia).'
'Balbus said that England was good enough for him (placeo).'
'Balbus sent a story (versus) to Maecenas, who replied that he hoped to use it in due course.'
His mind floated away from the classroom when a shrill voice brought him back.
'Sir, please, sir, what does "due course" mean?'
James reflected. 'Alter it to "immediately,"' he said.
'Balbus is a great man,' he wrote on the blackboard.
Two minutes later he was in the office of an important magazine, and there was a look of relief on the editor's face, for James had practically promised to do a series of twelve short stories for him.
* * * * *
It has been well observed that when a writer has a story rejected he should send that story to another editor, but that when he has one accepted he should send another story to that editor. Acting on this excellent plan, James, being off duty for an hour after tea, smoked a pipe in his bedroom and settled down to work on a second effort for the Universal.
He was getting on rather well when his flow of ideas was broken by a knock on the door.
'Come in,' yelled James. (Your author is notoriously irritable.)
The new-comer was Adolf. Adolf was one of that numerous band of Swiss and German youths who come to this country prepared to give their services ridiculously cheap in exchange for the opportunity of learning the English language. Mr Blatherwick held the view that for a private school a male front-door opener was superior to a female, arguing that the parents of prospective pupils would be impressed by the sight of a man in livery. He would have liked something a bit more imposing than Adolf, but the latter was the showiest thing that could be got for the money, so he made the best of it, and engaged him. After all, an astigmatic parent, seeing Adolf in a dim light, might be impressed by him. You never could tell.
'Well?' said James, glaring.
'Anysing vrom dze fillage, sare?'
The bulk of Adolf's perquisites consisted of the tips he received for going to the general store down the road for tobacco, stamps, and so on. 'No. Get out,' growled James, turning to his work.
He was surprised to find that Adolf, so far from getting out, came in and shut the door.
'Zst!' said Adolf, with a finger on his lips.
'In dze garten zis morning,' proceeded his visitor, grinning like a gargoyle, 'I did zee you giss Violed. Zo!'
James's heart missed a beat. Considered purely as a situation, his present position was not ideal. He had to work hard, and there was not much money attached to the job. But it was what the situation stood for that counted. It was his little rock of safety in the midst of a surging ocean of West Australian sheep. Once let him lose his grip on it, and there was no chance for him. He would be swept away beyond hope of return.
'What do you mean?' he said hoarsely.
'In dze garten. I you vrom a window did zee. You und Violed. Zo!' And Adolf, in the worst taste, gave a realistic imitation of the scene, himself sustaining the role of James.
James said nothing. The whole world seemed to be filled with a vast baa-ing, as of countless flocks.
'Lizzun!' said Adolf. 'Berhaps I Herr Blazzervig dell. Berhaps not I do. Zo!'
James roused himself. At all costs he must placate this worm. Mr Blatherwick was an austere man. He would not overlook such a crime.
He appealed to the other's chivalry.
'What about Violet?' he said. 'Surely you don't want to lose the poor girl her job? They'd be bound to sack her, too.'
Adolf's eyes gleamed.
'Zo? Lizzun! When I do gom virst here, I myself do to giss Violed vunce vish. But she do push dze zide of my face, and my lof is durned to hate.'
James listened attentively to this tabloid tragedy, but made no comment.
'Anysing vrom dze fillage, sare?'
Adolf's voice was meaning. James produced a half-crown.
'Here you are, then. Get me half a dozen stamps and keep the change.'
'Zdamps? Yes, sare. At vunce.'
James's last impression of the departing one was of a vast and greasy grin, stretching most of the way across his face.
* * * * *
Adolf, as blackmailer, in which role he now showed himself, differed in some respects from the conventional blackmailer of fiction. It may be that he was doubtful as to how much James would stand, or it may be that his soul as a general rule was above money. At any rate, in actual specie he took very little from his victim. He seemed to wish to be sent to the village oftener than before, but that was all. Half a crown a week would have covered James's financial loss.
But he asserted himself in another way. In his most light-hearted moments Adolf never forgot the reason which had brought him to England. He had come to the country to learn the language, and he meant to do it. The difficulty which had always handicapped him hitherto—namely, the poverty of the vocabularies of those in the servants' quarters—was now removed. He appointed James tutor-in-chief of the English language to himself, and saw that he entered upon his duties at once.
The first time that he accosted James in the passage outside the classroom, and desired him to explain certain difficult words in a leading article of yesterday's paper, James was pleased. Adolf, he thought, regarded the painful episode as closed. He had accepted the half-crown as the full price of silence, and was now endeavouring to be friendly in order to make amends.
This right-minded conduct gratified James. He felt genially disposed toward Adolf. He read the leading article, and proceeded to give a full and kindly explanation of the hard words. He took trouble over it. He went into the derivations of the words. He touched on certain rather tricky sub-meanings of the same. Adolf went away with any doubts he might have had of James's capabilities as a teacher of English definitely scattered. He felt that he had got hold of the right man.
There was a shade less geniality in James's manner when the same thing happened on the following morning. But he did not refuse to help the untutored foreigner. The lecture was less exhaustive than that of the previous morning, but we must suppose that it satisfied Adolf, for he came again next day, his faith in his teacher undiminished.
James was trying to write a story. He turned on the student.
'Get out!' he howled. 'And take that beastly paper away. Can't you see I'm busy? Do you think I can spend all my time teaching you to read? Get out!'
'Dere some hard vord vos,' said Adolf, patiently, 'of which I gannot dze meaning.'
James briefly cursed the hard word.
'But,' proceeded Adolf, 'of one vord, of dze vord "giss", I dze meaning know. Zo!'
James looked at him. There was a pause.
Two minutes later the English lesson was in full swing.
* * * * *
All that James had ever heard or read about the wonderful devotion to study of the modern German young man came home to him during the next two weeks. Our English youth fritters away its time in idleness and pleasure-seeking. The German concentrates. Adolf concentrated like a porous plaster. Every day after breakfast, just when the success of James's literary career depended on absolute seclusion, he would come trotting up for his lesson. James's writing practically ceased.
This sort of thing cannot last. There is a limit, and Adolf reached it when he attempted to add night-classes to the existing curriculum.
James, as had been said, was in the habit of taking coffee with Mr Blatherwick in his study after seeing the boys into bed. It was while he was on his way to keep this appointment, a fortnight after his first interview with Adolf, that the young student waylaid him with the evening paper.
Something should have warned Adolf that the moment was not well chosen. To begin with, James had a headache, the result of a hard day with the boys. Then that morning's English lesson had caused him to forget entirely an idea which had promised to be the nucleus of an excellent plot. And, lastly, passing through the hall but an instant before, he had met Violet, carrying the coffee and the evening post to the study, and she had given him two long envelopes addressed in his own handwriting. He was brooding over these, preparatory to opening them, at the very moment when Adolf addressed him.
'Eggscuse,' said Adolf, opening the paper.
James's eyes gleamed ominously.
'Zere are here,' continued Adolf, unseeing, 'some beyond-gombarison hard vords vich I do nod onderstand. For eggsample—'
It was at this point that James kicked him.
Adolf leaped like a stricken chamois.
'Vot iss?' he cried.
With these long envelopes in his hand James cared for nothing. He kicked Adolf again.
'Zo!' said the student, having bounded away. He added a few words in his native tongue, and proceeded. 'Vait! Lizzun! I zay to you, vait! Brezendly, ven I haf dze zilver bolished und my odder dudies zo numerous berformed, I do Herr Blazzervig vil vith von liddle szdory vich you do know go. Zo!'
He shot off to his lair.
James turned away and went down the passage to restore his nervous tissues with coffee.
Meanwhile, in the study, leaning against the mantelpiece in moody reflection, Mr Blatherwick was musing sadly on the hardships of the schoolmaster's life. The proprietor of Harrow House was a long, grave man, one of the last to hold out against the anti-whisker crusade. He had expressionless hazel eyes, and a general air of being present in body but absent in spirit. Mothers who visited the school to introduce their sons put his vagueness down to activity of mind. 'That busy brain,' they thought, 'is never at rest. Even while he is talking to us some abstruse point in the classics is occupying his mind.'
What was occupying his mind at the present moment was the thoroughly unsatisfactory conduct of his wife's brother, Bertie Baxter. The more tensely he brooded over the salient points in the life-history of his wife's brother, Bertie Baxter, the deeper did the iron become embedded in his soul. Bertie was one of Nature's touchers. This is the age of the specialist, Bertie's speciality was borrowing money. He was a man of almost eerie versatility in this direction. Time could not wither nor custom stale his infinite variety. He could borrow with a breezy bluffness which made the thing practically a hold-up. And anon, when his victim had steeled himself against this method, he could extract another five-pound note from his little hoard with the delicacy of one playing spillikins. Mr Blatherwick had been a gold-mine to him for years. As a rule, the proprietor of Harrow House unbelted without complaint, for Bertie, as every good borrower should, had that knack of making his victim feel during the actual moment of paying over, as if he had just made a rather good investment. But released from the spell of his brother-in-law's personal magnetism, Mr Blatherwick was apt to brood. He was brooding now. Why, he was asking himself morosely, should he be harassed by this Bertie? It was not as if Bertie was penniless. He had a little income of his own. No, it was pure lack of consideration. Who was Bertie that he—
At this point in his meditations Violet entered with the after-dinner coffee and the evening post.
Mr Blatherwick took the letters. There were two of them, and one he saw, with a rush of indignation, was in the handwriting of his brother-in-law. Mr Blatherwick's blood simmered. So the fellow thought he could borrow by post, did he? Not even trouble to pay a visit, eh? He tore the letter open, and the first thing he saw was a cheque for five pounds.
Mr Blatherwick was astounded. That a letter from his brother-in-law should not contain a request for money was surprising; that it should contain a cheque, even for five pounds, was miraculous.
He opened the second letter. It was short, but full of the finest, noblest sentiments; to wit, that the writer, Charles J. Pickersgill, having heard the school so highly spoken of by his friend, Mr Herbert Baxter, would be glad if Mr Blatherwick could take in his three sons, aged seven, nine, and eleven respectively, at the earliest convenient date.
Mr Blatherwick's first feeling was one of remorse that even in thought he should have been harsh to the golden-hearted Bertie. His next was one of elation.
Violet, meanwhile, stood patiently before him with the coffee. Mr Blatherwick helped himself. His eye fell on Violet.
Violet was a friendly, warm-hearted little thing. She saw that Mr Blatherwick had had good news; and, as the bearer of the letters which had contained it, she felt almost responsible. She smiled kindly up at Mr Blatherwick.
Mr Blatherwick's dreamy hazel eye rested pensively upon her. The major portion of his mind was far away in the future, dealing with visions of a school grown to colossal proportions, and patronized by millionaires. The section of it which still worked in the present was just large enough to enable him to understand that he felt kindly, and even almost grateful, to Violet. Unfortunately it was too small to make him see how wrong it was to kiss her in a vague, fatherly way across the coffee tray just as James Datchett walked into the room.
James paused. Mr Blatherwick coughed. Violet, absolutely unmoved, supplied James with coffee, and bustled out of the room.
She left behind her a somewhat massive silence.
Mr Blatherwick coughed again.
'It looks like rain,' said James, carelessly.
'Ah?' said Mr Blatherwick.
'Very like rain,' said James.
'Indeed!' said Mr Blatherwick.
'Pity if it rains,' said James.
'True,' said Mr Blatherwick.
'Er—Datchett,' said Mr Blatherwick.
'Yes,' said James.
'I—er—feel that perhaps—'
James waited attentively.
'Have you sugar?'
'Plenty, thanks,' said James.
'I shall be sorry if it rains,' said Mr Blatherwick.
James laid his cup down.
'I have some writing to do,' he said. 'I think I'll be going upstairs now.'
'Er—just so,' said Mr Blatherwick, with relief. 'Just so. An excellent idea.'
* * * * *
'Er—Datchett,' said Mr Blatherwick next day, after breakfast.
'Yes?' said James.
A feeling of content was over him this morning. The sun had broken through the clouds. One of the long envelopes which he had received on the previous night had turned out, on examination, to contain a letter from the editor accepting the story if he would reconstruct certain passages indicated in the margin.
'I have—ah—unfortunately been compelled to dismiss Adolf,' said Mr Blatherwick.
'Yes?' said James. He had missed Adolf's shining morning face.
'Yes. After you had left me last night he came to my study with a malicious—er—fabrication respecting yourself which I need not—ah—particularize.'
James looked pained. Awful thing it is, this nourishing vipers in one's bosom.
'Why, I've been giving Adolf English lessons nearly every day lately. No sense of gratitude, these foreigners,' he said, sadly.
'So I was compelled,' proceeded Mr Blatherwick, 'to—in fact, just so.'
James nodded sympathetically.
'Do you know anything about West Australia?' he asked, changing the subject. 'It's a fine country, I believe. I had thought of going there at one time.'
'Indeed?' said Mr Blatherwick.
'But I've given up the idea now,' said James.
THREE FROM DUNSTERVILLE
Once upon a time there was erected in Longacre Square, New York, a large white statue, labelled 'Our City', the figure of a woman in Grecian robes holding aloft a shield. Critical citizens objected to it for various reasons, but its real fault was that its symbolism was faulty. The sculptor should have represented New York as a conjuror in evening dress, smiling blandly as he changed a rabbit into a bowl of goldfish. For that, above all else, is New York's speciality. It changes.
Between 1 May, when she stepped off the train, and 16 May, when she received Eddy Moore's letter containing the information that he had found her a post as stenographer in the office of Joe Rendal, it had changed Mary Hill quite remarkably.
Mary was from Dunsterville, which is in Canada. Emigrations from Dunsterville were rare. It is a somnolent town; and, as a rule, young men born there follow in their father's footsteps, working on the paternal farm or helping in the paternal store. Occasionally a daring spirit will break away, but seldom farther than Montreal. Two only of the younger generation, Joe Rendal and Eddy Moore, had set out to make their fortunes in New York; and both, despite the gloomy prophecies of the village sages, had prospered.
Mary, third and last emigrant, did not aspire to such heights. All she demanded from New York for the present was that it should pay her a living wage, and to that end, having studied by stealth typewriting and shorthand, she had taken the plunge, thrilling with excitement and the romance of things; and New York had looked at her, raised its eyebrows, and looked away again. If every city has a voice, New York's at that moment had said 'Huh!' This had damped Mary. She saw that there were going to be obstacles. For one thing, she had depended so greatly on Eddy Moore, and he had failed her. Three years before, at a church festival, he had stated specifically that he would die for her. Perhaps he was still willing to do that—she had not inquired—but, at any rate, he did not see his way to employing her as a secretary. He had been very nice about it. He had smiled kindly, taken her address, and said he would do what he could, and had then hurried off to meet a man at lunch. But he had not given her a position. And as the days went by and she found no employment, and her little stock of money dwindled, and no word came from Eddy, New York got to work and changed her outlook on things wonderfully. What had seemed romantic became merely frightening. What had been exciting gave her a feeling of dazed helplessness.
But it was not until Eddy's letter came that she realized the completeness of the change. On 1 May she would have thanked Eddy politely for his trouble, adding, however, that she would really prefer not to meet poor Joe again. On 16 May she welcomed him as something Heaven-sent. The fact that she was to be employed outweighed a thousand-fold the fact that her employer was to be Joe.
It was not that she disliked Joe. She was sorry for him.
She remembered Joe, a silent, shambling youth, all hands, feet, and shyness, who had spent most of his spare time twisting his fingers and staring adoringly at her from afar. The opinion of those in the social whirl of Dunsterville had been that it was his hopeless passion for her that had made him fly to New York. It would be embarrassing meeting him again. It would require tact to discourage his silent worshipping without wounding him more deeply. She hated hurting people.
But, even at the cost of that, she must accept the post. To refuse meant ignominious retreat to Dunsterville, and from that her pride revolted. She must revisit Dunsterville in triumph or not at all.
Joe Rendal's office was in the heart of the financial district, situated about half-way up a building that, to Mary, reared amidst the less impressive architecture of her home-town, seemed to reach nearly to the sky. A proud-looking office-boy, apparently baffled and mortified by the information that she had an appointment, took her name, and she sat down, filled with a fine mixed assortment of emotions, to wait.
For the first time since her arrival in New York she felt almost easy in her mind. New York, with its shoving, jostling, hurrying crowds; a giant fowl-run, full of human fowls scurrying to and fro; clucking, ever on the look-out for some desired morsel, and ever ready to swoop down and snatch it from its temporary possessor, had numbed her. But now she felt a slackening of the strain. New York might be too much for her, but she could cope with Joe.
The haughty boy returned. Mr Rendal was disengaged. She rose and went into an inner room, where a big man was seated at a desk.
It was Joe. There was no doubt about that. But it was not the Joe she remembered, he of the twisted ringers and silent stare. In his case, New York had conjured effectively. He was better-looking, better-dressed, improved in every respect. In the old days one had noticed the hands and feet and deduced the presence of Joe somewhere in the background. Now they were merely adjuncts. It was with a rush of indignation that Mary found herself bucolic and awkward. Awkward with Joe! It was an outrage.
His manner heightened the feeling. If he had given the least sign of embarrassment she might have softened towards him. He showed no embarrassment whatever. He was very much at his ease. He was cheerful. He was even flippant.
'Welcome to our beautiful little city,' he said.
Mary was filled with a helpless anger. What right had he to ignore the past in this way, to behave as if her presence had never reduced him to pulp?
'Won't you sit down?' he went on. 'It's splendid, seeing you again, Mary. You're looking very well. How long have you been in New York? Eddy tells me you want to be taken on as a secretary. As it happens, there is a vacancy for just that in this office. A big, wide vacancy, left by a lady who departed yester-day in a shower of burning words and hairpins. She said she would never return, and between ourselves, that was the right guess. Would you mind letting me see what you can do? Will you take this letter down?'
Certainly there was something compelling about this new Joe. Mary took the pencil and pad which he offered—and she took them meekly. Until this moment she had always been astonished by the reports which filtered through to Dunsterville of his success in the big city. Of course, nobody had ever doubted his perseverance; but it takes something more than perseverance to fight New York fairly and squarely, and win. And Joe had that something. He had force. He was sure of himself.
'Read it please,' he said, when he had finished dictating. 'Yes, that's all right. You'll do.'
For a moment Mary was on the point of refusing. A mad desire gripped her to assert herself, to make plain her resentment at this revolt of the serf. Then she thought of those scuttling, clucking crowds, and her heart failed her.
'Thank you,' she said, in a small voice.
As she spoke the door opened.
'Well, well, well!' said Joe. 'Here we all are! Come in, Eddy. Mary has just been showing me what she can do.'
If time had done much for Joe, it had done more for his fellow-emigrant, Eddy Moore. He had always been good-looking and—according to local standards—presentable. Tall, slim, with dark eyes that made you catch your breath when they looked into yours, and a ready flow of speech, he had been Dunsterville's prize exhibit. And here he was with all his excellence heightened and accentuated by the polish of the city. He had filled out. His clothes were wonderful. And his voice, when he spoke, had just that same musical quality.
'So you and Joe have fixed it up? Capital! Shall we all go and lunch somewhere?'
'Got an appointment,' said Joe. 'I'm late already. Be here at two sharp, Mary.' He took up his hat and went out.
The effect of Eddy's suavity had been to make Mary forget the position in which she now stood to Joe. Eddy had created for the moment quite an old-time atmosphere of good fellowship. She hated Joe for shattering this and reminding her that she was his employee. Her quick flush was not lost on Eddy.
'Dear old Joe is a little abrupt sometimes,' he said. 'But—'
'He's a pig!' said Mary, defiantly.
'But you mustn't mind it. New York makes men like that.'
'It hasn't made you—not to me, at any rate. Oh, Eddy,' she cried, impulsively, 'I'm frightened. I wish I had never come here. You're the only thing in this whole city that isn't hateful.'
'Poor little girl!' he said. 'Never mind. Let me take you and give you some lunch. Come along.'
Eddy was soothing. There was no doubt of that. He stayed her with minced chicken and comforted her with soft shelled crab. His voice was a lullaby, lulling her Joe-harassed nerves to rest.
They discussed the dear old days. A carper might have said that Eddy was the least bit vague on the subject of the dear old days. A carper might have pointed out that the discussion of the dear old days, when you came to analyse it, was practically a monologue on Mary's part, punctuated with musical 'Yes, yes's' from her companion. But who cares what carpers think? Mary herself had no fault to find. In the roar of New York Dunsterville had suddenly become very dear to her, and she found in Eddy a sympathetic soul to whom she could open her heart.
'Do you remember the old school, Eddy, and how you and I used to walk there together, you carrying my dinner-basket and helping me over the fences?'
'And we'd gather hickory-nuts and persimmons?'
'Persimmons, yes,' murmured Eddy.
'Do you remember the prizes the teacher gave the one who got best marks in the spelling class? And the treats at Christmas, when we all got twelve sticks of striped peppermint candy? And drawing the water out of the well in that old wooden bucket in the winter, and pouring it out in the playground and skating on it when it froze? And wasn't it cold in the winter, too! Do you remember the stove in the schoolroom? How we used to crowd round it!'
'The stove, yes,' said Eddy, dreamily. 'Ah, yes, the stove. Yes, yes. Those were the dear old days!' Mary leaned her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands, and looked across at him with sparkling eyes.
'Oh, Eddy,' she said, 'you don't know how nice it is to meet someone who remembers all about those old times! I felt a hundred million miles from Dunsterville before I saw you, and I was homesick. But now it's all different.'
'Poor little Mary!'
'Do you remember—?'
He glanced at his watch with some haste.
'It's two o'clock,' he said. 'I think we should be going.'
Mary's face fell.
'Back to that pig, Joe! I hate him. And I'll show him that I do!'
Eddy looked almost alarmed.
'I—I shouldn't do that,' he said. 'I don't think I should do that. It's only his manner at first. You'll get to like him better. He's an awfully good fellow really, Joe. And if you—er—quarrelled with him you might find it hard—what I mean is, it's not so easy to pick up jobs in New York, I shouldn't like to think of you, Mary,' he added, tenderly, 'hunting for a job—tired—perhaps hungry—'
Mary's eyes filled with tears.
'How good you are, Eddy!' she said. 'And I'm horrid, grumbling when I ought to be thanking you for getting me the place. I'll be nice to him—if I can—as nice as I can.'
'That's right. Do try. And we shall be seeing quite a lot of each other. We must often lunch together.'
Mary re-entered the office not without some trepidation. Two hours ago it would have seemed absurd to be frightened of Joe, but Eddy had brought it home to her again how completely she was dependent on her former serf's good-will. And he had told her to be back at two sharp, and it was now nearly a quarter past.
The outer office was empty. She went on into the inner room.
She had speculated as she went on Joe's probable attitude. She had pictured him as annoyed, even rude. What she was not prepared for was to find him on all fours, grunting and rooting about in a pile of papers. She stopped short.
'What are you doing?' she gasped.
'I can't think what you meant,' he said. 'There must be some mistake. I'm not even a passable pig. I couldn't deceive a novice.'
He rose and dusted his knees.
'Yet you seemed absolutely certain in the restaurant just now. Did you notice that you were sitting near to a sort of jungle of potted palms? I was lunching immediately on the other side of the forest.'
Mary drew herself up and fixed him with an eye that shone with rage and scorn.
'Eavesdropper!' she cried.
'Not guilty,' he said, cheerfully. 'I hadn't a notion that you were there till you shouted, "That pig Joe, I hate him!" and almost directly afterwards I left.'
'I did not shout.'
'My dear girl, you cracked a wine-glass at my table. The man I was lunching with jumped clean out of his seat and swallowed his cigar. You ought to be more careful!'
Mary bit her lip.
'And now, I suppose, you are going to dismiss me?'
'Dismiss you? Not much. The thing has simply confirmed my high opinion of your qualifications. The ideal secretary must have two qualities: she must be able to sec. and she must think her employer a pig. You fill the bill. Would you mind taking down this letter?'
* * * * *
Life was very swift and stimulating for Mary during the early days of her professional career. The inner workings of a busy broker's office are always interesting to the stranger. She had never understood how business men made their money, and she did not understand now; but it did not take her long to see that if they were all like Joe Rendal they earned it. There were days of comparative calm. There were days that were busy. And there were days that packed into the space of a few hours the concentrated essence of a music-hall knock-about sketch, an earthquake, a football scrummage, and the rush-hour on the Tube; when the office was full of shouting men, when strange figures dived in and out and banged doors like characters in an old farce, and Harold, the proud office-boy, lost his air of being on the point of lunching with a duke at the club and perspired like one of the proletariat. On these occasions you could not help admiring Joe, even if you hated him. When a man is doing his own job well, it is impossible not to admire him. And Joe did his job well, superlatively well. He was everywhere. Where others trotted, he sprang. Where others raised their voices, he yelled. Where others were in two places at once, he was in three and moving towards a fourth.
These upheavals had the effect on Mary of making her feel curiously linked to the firm. On ordinary days work was work, but on these occasions of storm and stress it was a fight, and she looked on every member of the little band grouped under the banner of J. Rendal as a brother-in-arms. For Joe, while the battle raged, she would have done anything. Her resentment at being under his orders vanished completely. He was her captain, and she a mere unit in the firing line. It was a privilege to do what she was told. And if the order came sharp and abrupt, that only meant that the fighting was fierce and that she was all the more fortunate in being in a position to be of service.
The reaction would come with the end of the fight. Her private hostilities began when the firm's ceased. She became an ordinary individual again, and so did Joe. And to Joe, as an ordinary individual, she objected. There was an indefinable something in his manner which jarred on her. She came to the conclusion that it was principally his insufferable good-humour. If only he would lose his temper with her now and then, she felt he would be bearable. He lost it with others. Why not with her? Because, she told herself bitterly, he wanted to show her that she mattered so little to him that it was not worth while quarrelling with her; because he wanted to put her in the wrong, to be superior. She had a perfect right to hate a man who treated her in that way.
She compared him, to his disadvantage, with Eddy. Eddy, during these days, continued to be more and more of a comfort. It rather surprised her that he found so much time to devote to her. When she had first called on him, on her arrival in the city, he had given her the impression—more, she admitted, by his manner than his words—that she was not wanted. He had shown no disposition to seek her company. But now he seemed always to be on hand. To take her out to lunch appeared to be his chief hobby.
One afternoon Joe commented on it, with that air of suppressing an indulgent smile which Mary found so trying.
'I saw you and Eddy at Stephano's just now,' he said, between sentences of a letter which he was dictating. 'You're seeing a great deal of Eddy, aren't you?'
'Yes,' said Mary. 'He's very kind. He knows I'm lonely.' She paused. 'He hasn't forgotten the old days,' she said, defiantly.
'Good old Eddy!' he said.
There was nothing in the words to make Mary fire up, but much in the way they were spoken, and she fired up accordingly.
'What do you mean?' she cried.
'Mean?' queried Joe.
'You're hinting at something. If you have anything to say against Eddy, why don't you say it straight out?'
'It's a good working rule in life never to say anything straight out. Speaking in parables, I will observe that, if America was a monarchy instead of a republic and people here had titles, Eddy would be a certainty for first Earl of Pearl Street.'
Dignity fought with curiosity in Mary for a moment. The latter won.
'I don't know what you mean! Why Pearl Street?'
'Go and have a look at it.'
Dignity recovered its ground. Mary tossed her head.
'We are wasting a great deal of time,' she said, coldly. 'Shall I take down the rest of this letter?'
'Great idea!' said Joe, indulgently. 'Do.'
* * * * *
A policeman, brooding on life in the neighbourhood of City Hall Park and Broadway that evening, awoke with a start from his meditations to find himself being addressed by a young lady. The young lady had large grey eyes and a slim figure. She appealed to the aesthetic taste of the policeman.
'Hold to me, lady,' he said, with gallant alacrity. 'I'll see yez acrost.'
'Thank you, I don't want to cross,' she said. 'Officer!'
The policeman rather liked being called 'Officer'.
'Ma'am?' he beamed.
'Officer, do you know a street called Pearl Street?'
'I do that, ma'am.'
She hesitated. 'What sort of street is it?'
The policeman searched in his mind for a neat definition.
'Darned crooked, miss,' he said.
He then proceeded to point the way, but the lady had gone.
It was a bomb in a blue dress that Joe found waiting for him at the office next morning. He surveyed it in silence, then raised his hands over his head,
'Don't shoot,' he said. 'What's the matter?'
'What right had you to say that about Eddy? You know what I mean—about Pearl Street.'
'Did you take a look at Pearl Street?'
Mary's anger blazed out.
'I didn't think you could be so mean and cowardly,' she cried. 'You ought to be ashamed to talk about people behind their backs, when—when—besides, if he's what you say, how did it happen that you engaged me on his recommendation?'
He looked at her for an instant without replying. 'I'd have engaged you,' he said, 'on the recommendation of a syndicate of forgers and three-card-trick men.'
He stood fingering a pile of papers on the desk.
'Eddy isn't the only person who remembers the old days, Mary,' he said slowly.
She looked at him, surprised. There was a note in his voice that she had not heard before. She was conscious of a curious embarrassment and a subtler feeling which she could not analyse. But before she could speak, Harold, the office-boy, entered the room with a card, and the conversation was swept away on a tidal wave of work.
* * * * *
Joe made no attempt to resume it. That morning happened to be one of the earthquake, knock-about-sketch mornings, and conversation, what there was of it, consisted of brief, strenuous remarks of a purely business nature.
But at intervals during the day Mary found herself returning to his words. Their effect on her mind puzzled her. It seemed to her that somehow they caused things to alter their perspective. In some way Joe had become more human. She still refused to believe that Eddy was not all that was chivalrous and noble, but her anger against Joe for his insinuations had given way to a feeling of regret that he should have made them. She ceased to look on him as something wantonly malevolent, a Thersites recklessly slandering his betters. She felt that there must have been a misunderstanding somewhere and was sorry for it.
Thinking it over, she made up her mind that it was for her to remove this misunderstanding. The days which followed strengthened the decision; for the improvement in Joe was steadily maintained. The indefinable something in his manner which had so irritated her had vanished. It had been, when it had existed, so nebulous that words were not needed to eliminate it. Indeed, even now she could not say exactly in what it had consisted. She only knew that the atmosphere had changed. Without a word spoken on either side it seemed that peace had been established between them, and it amazed her what a difference it made. She was soothed and happy, and kindly disposed to all men, and every day felt more strongly the necessity of convincing Joe and Eddy of each other's merits, or, rather, of convincing Joe, for Eddy, she admitted, always spoke most generously of the other.
For a week Eddy did not appear at the office. On the eighth day, however, he rang her up on the telephone, and invited her to lunch.
Later in the morning Joe happened to ask her out to lunch.
'I'm so sorry,' said Mary; 'I've just promised Eddy. He wants me to meet him at Stephano's, but—' She hesitated. 'Why shouldn't we all lunch together?' she went on, impulsively.
She hurried on. This was her opening, but she felt nervous. The subject of Eddy had not come up between them since that memorable conversation a week before, and she was uncertain of her ground.
'I wish you liked Eddy, Joe,' she said. 'He's very fond of you, and it seems such a shame that—I mean—we're all from the same old town, and—oh, I know I put it badly, but—'
'I think you put it very well,' said Joe; 'and if I could like a man to order I'd do it to oblige you. But—well, I'm not going to keep harping on it. Perhaps you'll see through Eddy yourself one of these days.'
A sense of the hopelessness of her task oppressed Mary. She put on her hat without replying, and turned to go.
At the door some impulse caused her to glance back, and as she did so she met his eye, and stood staring. He was looking at her as she had so often seen him look three years before in Dunsterville—humbly, appealingly, hungrily.
He took a step forward. A sort of panic seized her. Her fingers were on the door-handle. She turned it, and the next moment was outside.
She walked slowly down the street. She felt shaken. She had believed so thoroughly that his love for her had vanished with his shyness and awkwardness in the struggle for success in New York. His words, his manner—everything had pointed to that. And now—it was as if those three years had not been. Nothing had altered, unless it were—herself.
Had she altered? Her mind was in a whirl. This thing had affected her like some physical shock. The crowds and noises of the street bewildered her. If only she could get away from them and think quietly—
And then she heard her name spoken, and looked round, to see Eddy.
'Glad you could come,' he said. 'I've something I want to talk to you about. It'll be quiet at Stephano's.'
She noticed, almost unconsciously, that he seemed nervous. He was unwontedly silent. She was glad of it. It helped her to think.
He gave the waiter an order, and became silent again, drumming with his fingers on the cloth. He hardly spoke till the meal was over and the coffee was on the table. Then he leant forward.
'Mary,' he said, 'we've always been pretty good friends, haven't we?'
His dark eyes were looking into hers. There was an expression in them that was strange to her. He smiled, but it seemed to Mary that there was effort behind the smile.
'Of course we have, Eddy,' she said. He touched her hand.
'Dear little Mary!' he said, softly.
He paused for a moment.
'Mary,' he went on, 'you would like to do me a good turn? You would, wouldn't you, Mary?'
'Why, Eddy, of course!'
He touched her hand again. This time, somehow, the action grated on her. Before, it had seemed impulsive, a mere spontaneous evidence of friendship. Now there was a suggestion of artificiality,—of calculation. She drew back a little in her chair. Deep down in her some watchful instinct had sounded an alarm. She was on guard.
He drew in a quick breath.
'It's nothing much. Nothing at all. It's only this. I—I—Joe will be writing a letter to a man called Weston on Thursday—Thursday remember. There won't be anything in it—nothing of importance—nothing private—but—I—I want you to mail me a copy of it, Mary. A—a copy of—'
She was looking at him open-eyed. Her face was white and shocked.
'For goodness' sake,' he said, irritably, 'don't look like that. I'm not asking you to commit murder. What's the matter with you? Look here, Mary; you'll admit you owe me something, I suppose? I'm the only man in New York that's ever done anything for you. Didn't I get you your job? Well, then, it's not as if I were asking you to do anything dangerous, or difficult, or—'
She tried to speak, but could not. He went on rapidly. He did not look at her. His eyes wandered past her, shifting restlessly.
'Look here,' he said; 'I'll be square with you. You're in New York to make money. Well, you aren't going to make it hammering a typewriter. I'm giving you your chance. I'm going to be square with you. Let me see that letter, and—'
His voice died away abruptly. The expression on his face changed. He smiled, and this time the effort was obvious.
'Halloa, Joe!' he said.
Mary turned. Joe was standing at her side. He looked very large and wholesome and restful.
'I don't want to intrude,' he said; 'but I wanted to see you, Eddy, and I thought I should catch you here. I wrote a letter to Jack Weston yesterday—after I got home from the office—and one to you; and somehow I managed to post them in the wrong envelopes. It doesn't matter much, because they both said the same thing.'
'The same thing?'
'Yes; I told you I should be writing to you again on Thursday, to tip you something good that I was expecting from old Longwood. Jack Weston has just rung me up on the 'phone to say that he got a letter that doesn't belong to him. I explained to him and thought I'd drop in here and explain to you. Why, what's your hurry, Eddy?'
Eddy had risen from his seat.
'I'm due back at the office,' he said, hoarsely.
'Busy man! I'm having a slack day. Well, good-bye. I'll see Mary back.'
Joe seated himself in the vacant chair.
'You're looking tired,' he said. 'Did Eddy talk too much?'
'Yes, he did ... Joe, you were right.'
'Ah—Mary!' Joe chuckled. 'I'll tell you something I didn't tell Eddy. It wasn't entirely through carelessness that I posted those letters in the wrong envelopes. In fact, to be absolutely frank, it wasn't through carelessness at all. There's an old gentleman in Pittsburgh by the name of John Longwood, who occasionally is good enough to inform me of some of his intended doings on the market a day or so before the rest of the world knows them, and Eddy has always shown a strong desire to get early information too. Do you remember my telling you that your predecessor at the office left a little abruptly? There was a reason. I engaged her as a confidential secretary, and she overdid it. She confided in Eddy. From the look on your face as I came in I gathered that he had just been proposing that you should perform a similar act of Christian charity. Had he?'
Mary clenched her hands.
'It's this awful New York!' she cried. 'Eddy was never like that in Dunsterville.'
'Dunsterville does not offer quite the same scope,' said Joe.
'New York changes everything,' Mary returned. 'It has changed Eddy—it has changed you.'
He bent towards her and lowered his voice.
'Not altogether,' he said. 'I'm just the same in one way. I've tried to pretend I had altered, but it's no use. I give it up. I'm still just the same poor fool who used to hang round staring at you in Dunsterville.'
A waiter was approaching the table with the air, which waiters cultivate, of just happening by chance to be going in that direction. Joe leaned farther forward, speaking quickly.
'And for whom,' he said, 'you didn't care a single, solitary snap of your fingers, Mary.'
She looked up at him. The waiter hovered, poising for his swoop. Suddenly she smiled.
'New York has changed me too, Joe,' she said.
'Mary!' he cried.
'Ze pill, sare,' observed the waiter.
'Ze what!' he exclaimed. 'Well, I'm hanged! Eddy's gone off and left me to pay for his lunch! That man's a wonder! When it comes to brain-work, he's in a class by himself.' He paused. 'But I have the luck,' he said.
THE TUPPENNY MILLIONAIRE
In the crowd that strolled on the Promenade des Etrangers, enjoying the morning sunshine, there were some who had come to Roville for their health, others who wished to avoid the rigours of the English spring, and many more who liked the place because it was cheap and close to Monte Carlo.
None of these motives had brought George Albert Balmer. He was there because, three weeks before, Harold Flower had called him a vegetable.
What is it that makes men do perilous deeds? Why does a man go over Niagara Falls in a barrel? Not for his health. Half an hour with a skipping-rope would be equally beneficial to his liver. No; in nine cases out of ten he does it to prove to his friends and relations that he is not the mild, steady-going person they have always thought him. Observe the music-hall acrobat as he prepares to swing from the roof by his eyelids. His gaze sweeps the house. 'It isn't true,' it seems to say. 'I'm not a jelly-fish.'
It was so with George Balmer.
In London at the present moment there exist some thousands of respectable, neatly-dressed, mechanical, unenterprising young men, employed at modest salaries by various banks, corporations, stores, shops, and business firms. They are put to work when young, and they stay put. They are mussels. Each has his special place on the rock, and remains glued to it all his life.
To these thousands George Albert Balmer belonged. He differed in no detail from the rest of the great army. He was as respectable, as neatly-dressed, as mechanical, and as unenterprising. His life was bounded, east, west, north, and south, by the Planet Insurance Company, which employed him; and that there were other ways in which a man might fulfil himself than by giving daily imitations behind a counter of a mechanical figure walking in its sleep had never seriously crossed his mind.
On George, at the age of twenty-four, there descended, out of a dear sky, a legacy of a thousand pounds.
Physically, he remained unchanged beneath the shock. No trace of hauteur crept into his bearing. When the head of his department, calling his attention to a technical flaw in his work of the previous afternoon, addressed him as 'Here, you—young what's-your-confounded-name!' he did not point out that this was no way to speak to a gentleman of property. You would have said that the sudden smile of Fortune had failed to unsettle him.
But all the while his mind, knocked head over heels, was lying in a limp heap, wondering what had struck it.
To him, in his dazed state, came Harold Flower. Harold, messenger to the Planet Insurance Company and one of the most assiduous money-borrowers in London, had listened to the office gossip about the legacy as if to the strains of some grand, sweet anthem. He was a bibulous individual of uncertain age, who, in the intervals of creeping about his duties, kept an eye open for possible additions to his staff of creditors. Most of the clerks at the Planet had been laid under contribution by him in their time, for Harold had a way with him that was good for threepence any pay-day, and it seemed to him that things had come to a sorry pass if he could not extract something special from Plutocrat Balmer in his hour of rejoicing.
Throughout the day he shadowed George, and, shortly before closing-time, backed him into a corner, tapped him on the chest, and requested the temporary loan of a sovereign.
In the same breath he told him that he was a gentleman, that a messenger's life was practically that of a blanky slave, and that a young man of spirit who wished to add to his already large fortune would have a bit on Giant Gooseberry for the City and Suburban. He then paused for a reply.
Now, all through the day George had been assailed by a steady stream of determined ear-biters. Again and again he had been staked out as an ore-producing claim by men whom it would have been impolitic to rebuff. He was tired of lending, and in a mood to resent unauthorized demands. Harold Flower's struck him as particularly unauthorized. He said so.
It took some little time to convince Mr Flower that he really meant it, but, realizing at last the grim truth, he drew a long breath and spoke.
'Ho!' he said. 'Afraid you can't spare it, can't you? A gentleman comes and asks you with tack and civility for a temp'y loan of about 'arf nothing, and all you do is to curse and swear at him. Do you know what I call you—you and your thousand quid? A tuppenny millionaire, that's what I call you. Keep your blooming money. That's all I ask. Keep it. Much good you'll get out of it. I know your sort. You'll never have any pleasure of it. Not you. You're the careful sort. You'll put it into Consols, you will, and draw your three-ha'pence a year. Money wasn't meant for your kind. It don't mean nothing to you. You ain't got the go in you to appreciate it. A vegetable—that's all you are. A blanky little vegetable. A blanky little gor-blimey vegetable. I seen turnips with more spirit in 'em that what you've got. And Brussels sprouts. Yes, and parsnips.'
It is difficult to walk away with dignity when a man with a hoarse voice and a watery eye is comparing you to your disadvantage with a parsnip, and George did not come anywhere near achieving the feat. But he extricated himself somehow, and went home brooding.
Mr Flower's remarks rankled particularly because it so happened that Consols were the identical investment on which he had decided. His Uncle Robert, with whom he lived as a paying guest, had strongly advocated them. Also they had suggested themselves to him independently.
But Harold Flower's words gave him pause. They made him think. For two weeks and some days he thought, flushing uncomfortably whenever he met that watery but contemptuous eye. And then came the day of his annual vacation, and with it inspiration. He sought out the messenger, whom till now he had carefully avoided.
'Er—Flower,' he said.
'I am taking my holiday tomorrow. Will you forward my letters? I will wire you the address. I have not settled on my hotel yet. I am popping over'—he paused—'I am popping over,' he resumed, carelessly, 'to Monte.'
'To who?' inquired Mr Flower.
'To Monte. Monte Carlo, you know.'
Mr Flower blinked twice rapidly, then pulled himself together.
'Yus, I don't think!' he said.
And that settled it.
The George who strolled that pleasant morning on the Promenade des Strangers differed both externally and internally from the George who had fallen out with Harold Flower in the offices of the Planet Insurance Company. For a day after his arrival he had clung to the garb of middle-class England. On the second he had discovered that this was unpleasantly warm and, worse, conspicuous. At the Casino Municipale that evening he had observed a man wearing an arrangement in bright yellow velvet without attracting attention. The sight had impressed him. Next morning he had emerged from his hotel in a flannel suit so light that it had been unanimously condemned as impossible by his Uncle Robert, his Aunt Louisa, his Cousins Percy, Eva, and Geraldine, and his Aunt Louisa's mother, and at a shop in the Rue Lasalle had spent twenty francs on a Homburg hat. And Roville had taken it without blinking.
Internally his alteration had been even more considerable. Roville was not Monte Carlo (in which gay spot he had remained only long enough to send a picture post-card to Harold Flower before retiring down the coast to find something cheaper), but it had been a revelation to him. For the first time in his life he was seeing colour, and it intoxicated him. The silky blueness of the sea was startling. The pure white of the great hotels along the promenade and the Casino Municipale fascinated him. He was dazzled. At the Casino the pillars were crimson and cream, the tables sky-blue and pink. Seated on a green-and-white striped chair he watched a revue, of which from start to finish he understood but one word—'out', to wit—absorbed in the doings of a red-moustached gentleman in blue who wrangled in rapid French with a black-moustached gentleman in yellow, while a snow-white commere and a compere in a mauve flannel suit looked on at the brawl.
It was during that evening that there flitted across his mind the first suspicion he had ever had that his Uncle Robert's mental outlook was a little limited.
And now, as he paced the promenade, watching the stir and bustle of the crowd, he definitely condemned his absent relative as a narrow-minded chump.
If the brown boots which he had polished so assiduously in his bedroom that morning with the inside of a banana-skin, and which now gleamed for the first time on his feet, had a fault, it was that they were a shade tight. To promenade with the gay crowd, therefore, for any length of time was injudicious; and George, warned by a red-hot shooting sensation that the moment had arrived for rest, sank down gracefully on a seat, to rise at once on discovering that between him and it was something oblong with sharp corners.
It was a book—a fat new novel. George drew it out and inspected it. There was a name inside—Julia Waveney.
George, from boyhood up, had been raised in that school of thought whose watchword is 'Findings are keepings', and, having ascertained that there was no address attached to the name, he was on the point, I regret to say, of pouching the volume, which already he looked upon as his own, when a figure detached itself from the crowd, and he found himself gazing into a pair of grey and, to his startled conscience, accusing eyes.
'Oh, thank you! I was afraid it was lost.'
She was breathing quickly, and there was a slight flush on her face. She took the book from George's unresisting hand and rewarded him with a smile.
'I missed it, and I couldn't think where I could have left it. Then I remembered that I had been sitting here. Thank you so much.'
She smiled again, turned, and walked away, leaving George to reckon up all the social solecisms he had contrived to commit in the space of a single moment. He had remained seated, he reminded himself, throughout the interview; one. He had not raised his hat, that fascinating Homburg simply made to be raised with a debonair swish under such conditions; two. Call it three, because he ought to have raised it twice. He had gaped like a fool; four. And, five, he had not uttered a single word of acknowledgement in reply to her thanks.
Five vast bloomers in under a minute I What could she have thought of him? The sun ceased to shine. What sort of an utter outsider could she have considered him? An east wind sprang up. What kind of a Cockney bounder and cad could she have taken him for? The sea turned to an oily grey; and George, rising, strode back in the direction of his hotel in a mood that made him forget that he had brown boots on at all.
His mind was active. Several times since he had come to Roville he had been conscious of a sensation which he could not understand, a vague, yearning sensation, a feeling that, splendid as everything was in this paradise of colour, there was nevertheless something lacking. Now he understood. You had to be in love to get the full flavour of these vivid whites and blues. He was getting it now. His mood of dejection had passed swiftly, to be succeeded by an exhilaration such as he had only felt once in his life before, about half-way through a dinner given to the Planet staff on a princely scale by a retiring general manager.
He was exalted. Nothing seemed impossible to him. He would meet the girl again on the promenade, he told himself, dashingly renew the acquaintance, show her that he was not the gaping idiot he had appeared. His imagination donned its seven-league boots. He saw himself proposing—eloquently—accepted, married, living happily ever after.
It occurred to him that an excellent first move would be to find out where she was staying. He bought a paper and turned to the list of visitors. Miss Waveney. Where was it. He ran his eye down the column.
And then, with a crash, down came his air-castles in hideous ruin.
'Hotel Cercle de la Mediterranee. Lord Frederick Weston. The Countess of Southborne and the Hon. Adelaide Liss. Lady Julia Waveney—'
He dropped the paper and hobbled on to his hotel. His boots had begun to hurt him again, for he no longer walked on air.
* * * * *
At Roville there are several institutions provided by the municipality for the purpose of enabling visitors temporarily to kill thought. Chief among these is the Casino Municipale, where, for a price, the sorrowful may obtain oblivion by means of the ingenious game of boule. Disappointed lovers at Roville take to boule as in other places they might take to drink. It is a fascinating game. A wooden-faced high priest flicks a red india-rubber ball into a polished oaken bowl, at the bottom of which are holes, each bearing a number up to nine. The ball swings round and round like a planet, slows down, stumbles among the holes, rests for a moment in the one which you have backed, then hops into the next one, and you lose. If ever there was a pastime calculated to place young Adam Cupid in the background, this is it.
To the boule tables that night fled George with his hopeless passion. From the instant when he read the fatal words in the paper he had recognized its hopelessness. All other obstacles he had been prepared to overcome, but a title—no. He had no illusions as to his place in the social scale. The Lady Julias of this world did not marry insurance clerks, even if their late mother's cousin had left them a thousand pounds. That day-dream was definitely ended. It was a thing of the past—all over except the heartache.
By way of a preliminary sip of the waters of Lethe, before beginning the full draught, he placed a franc on number seven and lost. Another franc on six suffered the same fate. He threw a five-franc cart-wheel recklessly on evens. It won.
It was enough. Thrusting his hat on the back of his head and wedging himself firmly against the table, he settled down to make a night of it.
There is nothing like boule for absorbing the mind. It was some time before George became aware that a hand was prodding him in the ribs. He turned, irritated. Immediately behind him, filling the landscape, were two stout Frenchmen. But, even as he searched his brain for words that would convey to them in their native tongue his disapproval of this jostling, he perceived that they, though stout and in a general way offensive, were in this particular respect guiltless. The prodding hand belonged to somebody invisible behind them. It was small and gloved, a woman's hand. It held a five-franc piece.
Then in a gap, caused by a movement in the crowd, he saw the face of Lady Julia Waveney.
She smiled at him.
'On eight, please, would you mind?' he heard her say, and then the crowd shifted again and she disappeared, leaving him holding the coin, his mind in a whirl.
The game of boule demands undivided attention from its devotees. To play with a mind full of other matters is a mistake. This mistake George made. Hardly conscious of what he was doing, he flung the coin on the board. She had asked him to place it on eight, and he thought that he had placed it on eight. That, in reality, blinded by emotion, he had placed it on three was a fact which came home to him neither then nor later.
Consequently, when the ball ceased to roll and a sepulchral voice croaked the news that eight was the winning number, he fixed on the croupier a gaze that began by being joyful and expectant and ended, the croupier remaining entirely unresponsive, by being wrathful.
He leaned towards him.
'Monsieur,' he said. 'Moi! J'ai jete cinq francs sur huit!'
The croupier was a man with a pointed moustache and an air of having seen all the sorrow and wickedness that there had ever been in the world. He twisted the former and permitted a faint smile to deepen the melancholy of the latter, but he did not speak.
George moved to his side. The two stout Frenchmen had strolled off, leaving elbow-room behind them.
He tapped the croupier on the shoulder.
'I say,' he said. 'What's the game? J'ai jete cinq francs sur huit, I tell you, moi!'
A forgotten idiom from the days of boyhood and French exercises came to him.
'Moi qui parle,' he added.
'Messieurs, faites vos jeux,' crooned the croupier, in a detached manner.
To the normal George, as to most Englishmen of his age, the one cardinal rule in life was at all costs to avoid rendering himself conspicuous in public. Than George normal, no violet that ever hid itself in a mossy bank could have had a greater distaste for scenes. But tonight he was not normal. Roville and its colour had wrought a sort of fever in his brain. Boule had increased it. And love had caused it to rage. If this had been entirely his own affair it is probable that the croupier's frigid calm would have quelled him and he would have retired, fermenting but baffled. But it was not his own affair. He was fighting the cause of the only girl in the world. She had trusted him. Could he fail her? No, he was dashed if he could. He would show her what he was made of. His heart swelled within him. A thrill permeated his entire being, starting at his head and running out at his heels. He felt tremendous—a sort of blend of Oliver Cromwell, a Berserk warrior, and Sir Galahad.
'Monsieur,' he said again. 'Hi! What about it?'
This time the croupier did speak.
'C'est fini,' he said; and print cannot convey the pensive scorn of his voice. It stung George, in his exalted mood, like a blow. Finished, was it? All right, now he would show them. They had asked for it, and now they should get it. How much did it come to? Five francs the stake had been, and you got seven times your stake. And you got your stake back. He was nearly forgetting that. Forty francs in all, then. Two of those gold what-d'you-call'ems, in fact. Very well, then.
He leaned forward quickly across the croupier, snatched the lid off the gold tray, and removed two louis.
It is a remarkable fact in life that the scenes which we have rehearsed in our minds never happen as we have pictured them happening. In the present case, for instance, it had been George's intention to handle the subsequent stages of this little dispute with an easy dignity. He had proposed, the money obtained, to hand it over to its rightful owner, raise his hat, and retire with an air, a gallant champion of the oppressed. It was probably about one-sixteenth of a second after his hand had closed on the coins that he realized in the most vivid manner that these were not the lines on which the incident was to develop, and, with all his heart, he congratulated himself on having discarded those brown boots in favour of a worn but roomy pair of gent's Oxfords.
For a moment there was a pause and a silence of utter astonishment, while the minds of those who had witnessed the affair adjusted themselves to the marvel, and then the world became full of starting eyes, yelling throats, and clutching hands. From all over the casino fresh units swarmed like bees to swell the crowd at the centre of things. Promenaders ceased to promenade, waiters to wait. Elderly gentlemen sprang on to tables.
But in that momentary pause George had got off the mark. The table at which he had been standing was the one nearest to the door, and he had been on the door side of it. As the first eyes began to start, the first throats to yell, and the first hands to clutch, he was passing the counter of the money-changer. He charged the swing-door at full speed, and, true to its mission, it swung. He had a vague glimpse from the corner of his eye of the hat-and-cloak counter, and then he was in the square with the cold night breeze blowing on his forehead and the stars winking down from the blue sky.
A paper-seller on the pavement, ever the man of business, stepped forward and offered him the Paris edition of the Daily Mail, and, being in the direct line of transit, shot swiftly into the road and fell into a heap, while George, shaken but going well, turned off to the left, where there seemed to be rather more darkness than anywhere else.
And then the casino disgorged the pursuers.
To George, looking hastily over his shoulder, there seemed a thousand of them. The square rang with their cries. He could not understand them, but gathered that they were uncomplimentary. At any rate, they stimulated a little man in evening dress strolling along the pavement towards him, to become suddenly animated and to leap from side to side with outstretched arms.
Panic makes Harlequin three-quarters of us all. For one who had never played Rugby football George handled the situation well. He drew the defence with a feint to the left, then, swerving to the right, shot past into the friendly darkness. From behind came the ringing of feet and an evergrowing din.
It is one of the few compensations a fugitive pursued by a crowd enjoys that, while he has space for his manoeuvres, those who pursue are hampered by their numbers. In the little regiment that pounded at his heels it is probable that there were many faster runners than George. On the other hand, there were many slower, and in the early stages of the chase these impeded their swifter brethren. At the end of the first half-minute, therefore, George, not sparing himself, had drawn well ahead, and for the first time found leisure for connected thought.
His brain became preternaturally alert, so that when, rounding a corner, he perceived entering the main road from a side-street in front of him a small knot of pedestrians, he did not waver, but was seized with a keen spasm of presence of mind. Without pausing in his stride, he pointed excitedly before him, and at the same moment shouted the words, 'La! La! Vite! Vite!'
His stock of French was small, but it ran to that, and for his purpose it was ample. The French temperament is not stolid. When the French temperament sees a man running rapidly and pointing into the middle distance and hears him shouting, 'La! La! Vite! Vite!' it does not stop to make formal inquiries. It sprints like a mustang. It did so now, with the happy result that a moment later George was racing down the road, the centre and recognized leader of an enthusiastic band of six, which, in the next twenty yards, swelled to eleven.
Five minutes later, in a wine-shop near the harbour, he was sipping the first glass of a bottle of cheap but comforting vin ordinaire while he explained to the interested proprietor, by means of a mixture of English, broken French, and gestures that he had been helping to chase a thief, but had been forced by fatigue to retire prematurely for refreshment. The proprietor gathered, however, that he had every confidence in the zeal of his still active colleagues.
It is convincing evidence of the extent to which love had triumphed over prudence in George's soul that the advisability of lying hid in his hotel on the following day did not even cross his mind. Immediately after breakfast, or what passed for it at Roville, he set out for the Hotel Cercle de la Mediterranee to hand over the two louis to their owner.
Lady Julia, he was informed on arrival, was out. The porter, politely genial, advised monsieur to seek her on the Promenade des Etrangers.
She was there, on the same seat where she had left the book.
'Good morning,' he said.
She had not seen him coming, and she started at his voice. The flush was back on her face as she turned to him. There was a look of astonishment in the grey eyes.
He held out the two louis.
'I couldn't give them to you last night,' he said.
A horrible idea seized him. It had not occurred to him before.
'I say,' he stammered—'I say, I hope you don't think I had run off with your winnings for good! The croupier wouldn't give them up, you know, so I had to grab them and run. They came to exactly two louis. You put on five francs, you know, and you get seven times your stake. I—'
An elderly lady seated on the bench, who had loomed from behind a parasol towards the middle of these remarks, broke abruptly into speech.
'Who is this young man?'
George looked at her, startled. He had hardly been aware of her presence till now. Rapidly he diagnosed her as a mother—or aunt. She looked more like an aunt. Of course, it must seem odd to her, his charging in like this, a perfect stranger, and beginning to chat with her daughter, or niece, or whatever it was. He began to justify himself.
'I met your—this young lady'—something told him that was not the proper way to put it, but hang it, what else could he say?—'at the casino last night.'
He stopped. The effect of his words on the elderly lady was remarkable. Her face seemed to turn to stone and become all sharp points. She stared at the girl.
'So you were gambling at the casino last night?' she said.
She rose from the seat, a frozen statue of displeasure.
'I shall return to the hotel. When you have arranged your financial transactions with your—friend, I should like to speak to you. You will find me in my room.'
George looked after her dumbly.
The girl spoke, in a curiously strained voice, as if she were speaking to herself.
'I don't care,' she said. 'I'm glad.'
George was concerned.
'I'm afraid your mother is offended, Lady Julia.'
There was a puzzled look in her grey eyes as they met his. Then they lit up. She leaned back in the seat and began to laugh, softly at first, and then with a note that jarred on George. Whatever the humour of the situation—and he had not detected it at present—this mirth, he felt, was unnatural and excessive.
She checked herself at length, and a flush crept over her face.
'I don't know why I did that,' she said, abruptly. 'I'm sorry. There was nothing funny in what you said. But I'm not Lady Julia, and I have no mother. That was Lady Julia who has just gone, and I am nothing more important than her companion.'
'I had better say her late companion. It will soon be that. I had strict orders, you see, not to go near the casino without her—and I went.'
'Then—then I've lost you your job—I mean, your position! If it hadn't been for me she wouldn't have known. I—'
'You have done me a great service,' she said. 'You have cut the painter for me when I have been trying for months to muster up the courage to cut it for myself. I don't suppose you know what it is to get into a groove and long to get out of it and not have the pluck. My brother has been writing to me for a long time to join him in Canada. And I hadn't the courage, or the energy, or whatever it is that takes people out of grooves. I knew I was wasting my life, but I was fairly happy—at least, not unhappy; so—well, there it was. I suppose women are like that.'
'And now you have jerked me out of the groove. I shall go out to Bob by the first boat.'
He scratched the concrete thoughtfully with his stick.
'It's a hard life out there,' he said.
'But it is a life.'
He looked at the strollers on the promenade. They seemed very far away—in another world.
'Look here,' he said, hoarsely, and stopped. 'May I sit down?' he asked, abruptly. 'I've got something to say, and I can't say it when I'm looking at you.'
He sat down, and fastened his gaze on a yacht that swayed at anchor against the cloudless sky.
'Look here,' he said. 'Will you marry me?'
He heard her turn quickly, and felt her eyes upon him. He went on doggedly.
'I know,' he said, 'we only met yesterday. You probably think I'm mad.'
'I don't think you're mad,' she said, quietly. 'I only think you're too quixotic. You're sorry for me and you are letting a kind impulse carry you away, as you did last night at the casino. It's like you.'
For the first time he turned towards her.
'I don't know what you suppose I am,' he said, 'but I'll tell you. I'm a clerk in an insurance office. I get a hundred a year and ten days' holiday. Did you take me for a millionaire? If I am, I'm only a tuppenny one. Somebody left me a thousand pounds a few weeks ago. That's how I come to be here. Now you know all about me. I don't know anything about you except that I shall never love anybody else. Marry me, and we'll go to Canada together. You say I've helped you out of your groove. Well, I've only one chance of getting out of mine, and that's through you. If you won't help me, I don't care if I get out of it or not. Will you pull me out?'
She did not speak. She sat looking out to sea, past the many-coloured crowd.
He watched her face, but her hat shaded her eyes and he could read nothing in it.
And then, suddenly, without quite knowing how it had got there, he found that her hand was in his, and he was clutching it as a drowning man clutches a rope.
He could see her eyes now, and there was a message in them that set his heart racing. A great content filled him. She was so companionable, such a friend. It seemed incredible to him that it was only yesterday that they had met for the first time.
'And now,' she said, 'would you mind telling me your name?'
* * * * *
The little waves murmured as they rolled lazily up the beach. Somewhere behind the trees in the gardens a band had begun to play. The breeze, blowing in from the blue Mediterranean, was charged with salt and happiness. And from a seat on the promenade, a young man swept the crowd with a defiant gaze.
'It isn't true,' it seemed to say. 'I'm not a jelly-fish.'
AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
It was to Wilson, his valet, with whom he frequently chatted in airy fashion before rising of a morning, that Rollo Finch first disclosed his great idea. Wilson was a man of silent habit, and men of silent habit rarely escaped Rollo's confidences.
'Wilson,' he said one morning from the recesses of his bed, as the valet entered with his shaving-water, 'have you ever been in love?'
'Yes, sir,' said the valet, unperturbed.
One would hardly have expected the answer to be in the affirmative. Like most valets and all chauffeurs, Wilson gave the impression of being above the softer emotions.
'What happened?' inquired Rollo.
'It came to nothing, sir,' said Wilson, beginning to strop the razor with no appearance of concern.
'Ah!' said Rollo. 'And I bet I know why. You didn't go the right way to work.'
'Not one fellow in a hundred does. I know. I've thought it out. I've been thinking the deuce of a lot about it lately. It's dashed tricky, this making love. Most fellows haven't a notion how to work it. No system. No system, Wilson, old scout.'
'Now, I have a system. And I'll tell it you. It may do you a bit of good next time you feel that impulse. You're not dead yet. Now, my system is simply to go to it gradually, by degrees. Work by schedule. See what I mean?'
'Not entirely, sir.'
'Well, I'll give you the details. First thing, you want to find the girl.'
'Just so, sir.'
'Well, when you've found her, what do you do? You just look at her. See what I mean?'
'Not entirely, sir.'
'Look at her, my boy. That's just the start—the foundation. You develop from that. But you keep away. That's the point. I've thought this thing out. Mind you, I don't claim absolutely all the credit for the idea myself. It's by way of being based on Christian Science. Absent treatment, and all that. But most of it's mine. All the fine work.'
'Yes. Absolutely all the fine work. Here's the thing in a nutshell. You find the girl. Right. Of course, you've got to meet her once, just to establish the connexion. Then you get busy. First week, looks. Just look at her. Second week, letters. Write to her every day. Third week, flowers. Send her some every afternoon. Fourth week, presents with a bit more class about them. Bit of jewellery now and then. See what I mean? Fifth week,—lunches and suppers and things. Sixth week, propose, though you can do it in the fifth week if you see a chance. You've got to leave that to the fellow's judgement. Well, there you are. See what I mean?'
Wilson stropped his master's razor thoughtfully.
'A trifle elaborate, sir, is it not?' he said.
Rollo thumped the counterpane.
'I knew you'd say that. That's what nine fellows out of ten would say. They'd want to rush it. I tell you, Wilson, old scout, you can't rush it.'
Wilson brooded awhile, his mind back in the passionate past.
'In Market Bumpstead, sir—'
'What the deuce is Market Bumpstead?'
'A village, sir, where I lived until I came to London.'
'In Market Bumpstead, sir, the prevailing custom was to escort the young lady home from church, buy her some little present—some ribbons, possibly—next day, take her for a walk, and kiss her, sir.'
Wilson's voice, as he unfolded these devices of the dashing youth of Market Bumpstead, had taken on an animation quite unsuitable to a conscientious valet. He gave the impression of a man who does not depend on idle rumour for his facts. His eye gleamed unprofessionally for a moment before resuming its habitual expression of quiet introspection.
Rollo shook his head.
'That sort of thing might work in a village,' he said, 'but you want something better for London.'
* * * * *
Rollo Finch—in the present unsatisfactory state of the law parents may still christen a child Rollo—was a youth to whom Nature had given a cheerful disposition not marred by any superfluity of brain. Everyone liked Rollo—the great majority on sight, the rest as soon as they heard that he would be a millionaire on the death of his Uncle Andrew. There is a subtle something, a sort of nebulous charm, as it were, about young men who will be millionaires on the death of their Uncle Andrew which softens the ruggedest misanthrope.
Rollo's mother had been a Miss Galloway, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.; and Andrew Galloway, the world-famous Braces King, the inventor and proprietor of the inimitable 'Tried and Proven', was her brother. His braces had penetrated to every corner of the earth. Wherever civilization reigned you would find men wearing Galloway's 'Tried and Proven'.
Between Rollo and this human benefactor there had always existed friendly relations, and it was an open secret that, unless his uncle were to marry and supply the world with little Galloways as well as braces, the young man would come into his money.
So Rollo moved on his way through life, popular and happy. Always merry and bright. That was Rollo.
Or nearly always. For there were moments—we all have our greyer moments—when he could have wished that Mr Galloway had been a trifle older or a trifle less robust. The Braces potentate was at present passing, in excellent health, through the Indian summer of life. He was, moreover, as has been stated, by birth and residence a Pittsburgh man. And the tendency of middle-aged Pittsburgh millionaires to marry chorus-girls is notoriously like the homing instinct of pigeons. Something—it may be the smoke—seems to work on them like a charm.
In the case of Andrew Galloway, Nature had been thwarted up till now by the accident of an unfortunate attachment in early life. The facts were not fully known, but it was generally understood that his fiancee had exercised Woman's prerogative and changed her mind. Also, that she had done this on the actual wedding-day, causing annoyance to all, and had clinched the matter by eloping to Jersey City with the prospective bridegroom's own coachman. Whatever the facts, there was no doubt about their result. Mr Galloway, having abjured woman utterly, had flung himself with moody energy into the manufacture and propagation of his 'Tried and Proven' Braces, and had found consolation in it ever since. He would be strong, he told himself, like his braces. Hearts might snap beneath a sudden strain. Not so the 'Tried and Proven'. Love might tug and tug again, but never more should the trousers of passion break away from the tough, masterful braces of self-control.
As Mr Galloway had been in this frame of mind for a matter of eleven years, it seemed to Rollo not unreasonable to hope that he might continue in it permanently. He had the very strongest objection to his uncle marrying a chorus-girl; and, as the years went on and the disaster did not happen, his hopes of playing the role of heir till the fall of the curtain grew stronger and stronger. He was one of those young men who must be heirs or nothing. This is the age of the specialist, and years ago Rollo had settled on his career. Even as a boy, hardly capable of connected thought, he had been convinced that his speciality, the one thing he could do really well, was to inherit money. All he wanted was a chance. It would be bitter if Fate should withhold it from him.
He did not object on principle to men marrying chorus-girls. On the contrary, he wanted to marry one himself.
It was this fact which had given that turn to his thoughts which had finally resulted in the schedule.
* * * * *
The first intimation that Wilson had that the schedule was actually to be put into practical operation was when his employer, one Monday evening, requested him to buy a medium-sized bunch of the best red roses and deliver them personally, with a note, to Miss Marguerite Parker at the stage-door of the Duke of Cornwall's Theatre.
Wilson received the order in his customary gravely deferential manner, and was turning to go; but Rollo had more to add.
'Flowers, Wilson,' he said, significantly.
'So I understood you to say, sir. I will see to it at once.'
'See what I mean? Third week, Wilson.'
Rollo remained for a moment in what he would have called thought.
'Charming girl, Wilson.'
'Seen the show?'
'Not yet, sir.'
'You should,' said Rollo, earnestly. 'Take my advice, old scout, and see it first chance you get. It's topping. I've had the same seat in the middle of the front row of the stalls for two weeks.'
'Looks, Wilson! The good old schedule.'
'Have you noticed any satisfactory results, sir?'
'It's working. On Saturday night she looked at me five times. She's a delightful girl, Wilson. Nice, quiet girl—not the usual sort. I met her first at a lunch at Oddy's. She's the last girl on the O.P. side. I'm sure you'd like her, Wilson.'
'I have every confidence in your taste, sir.'
'You'll see her for yourself this evening. Don't let the fellow at the stage-door put you off. Slip him half a crown or a couple of quid or something, and say you must see her personally. Are you a close observer, Wilson?'
'I think so, sir.'
'Because I want you to notice particularly how she takes it. See that she reads the note in your presence. I've taken a good deal of trouble over that note, Wilson. It's a good note. Well expressed. Watch her face while she's reading it.'
'Very good, sir. Excuse me, sir.'
'I had almost forgotten to mention it. Mr Galloway rang up on the telephone shortly before you came in.'
'What! Is he in England?'
Mr Galloway was in the habit of taking occasional trips to Great Britain to confer with the general manager of his London branch. Rollo had grown accustomed to receiving no notice of these visits.
'He arrived two days ago on the Baltic, sir. He left a message that he was in London for a week, and would be glad if you would dine with him tomorrow at his club.'
Rollo nodded. On these occasions it was his practice to hold himself unreservedly at Mr Galloway's disposal. The latter's invitations were royal commands. Rollo was glad that the visit had happened now. In another two weeks it might have been disastrous to the schedule.
The club to which the Braces King belonged was a richly but gloomily furnished building in Pall Mall, a place of soft carpets, shaded lights, and whispers. Grave, elderly men moved noiselessly to and fro, or sat in meditative silence in deep arm-chairs. Sometimes the visitor felt that he was in a cathedral, sometimes in a Turkish bath; while now and then there was a suggestion of the waiting-room of a more than usually prosperous dentist. It was magnificent, but not exhilarating.
Rollo was shown into the smoking-room, where his uncle received him. There was a good deal of Mr Andrew Galloway. Grief, gnawing at his heart, had not sagged his ample waistcoat, which preceded him as he moved in much the same manner as Birnam Woods preceded the army of Macduff. A well-nourished hand crept round the corner of the edifice and enveloped Rollo's in a powerful grip.
'Ah, my boy!' bellowed Mr Galloway cheerfully. His voice was always loud. 'Glad you've come.'
It would be absurd to say that Rollo looked at his uncle keenly. He was not capable of looking keenly at anyone. But certainly a puzzled expression came into his face. Whether it was the heartiness of the other's handshake or the unusual cheeriness of his voice, he could not say; but something gave him the impression that a curious change had come over the Braces King. When they had met before during the last few years Mr Galloway had been practically sixteen stone five of blood and iron—one of those stern, soured men. His attitude had been that of one for whom Life's music had ceased. Had he then inserted another record? His manner conveyed that idea.
Sustained thought always gave Rollo a headache. He ceased to speculate.
'Still got the same chef here, uncle?' he said. 'Deuced brainy fellow. I always like dining here.'
'Here!' Mr Galloway surveyed the somnolent occupants of the room with spirited scorn. 'We aren't going to dine in this forsaken old mausoleum. I've sent in my resignation today. If I find myself wanting this sort of thing at any time, I'll go to Paris and hunt up the Morgue. Bunch of old dead-beats! Bah! I've engaged a table at Romano's. That's more in my line. Get your coat, and let's be going.'
In the cab Rollo risked the headache. At whatever cost this thing must be pondered over. His uncle prattled gaily throughout the journey. Once he whooped—some weird, forgotten college yell, dragged from the misty depths of the past. It was passing strange. And in this unusual manner the two rolled into the Strand, and drew up at Romano's door.
Mr Galloway was a good trencherman. At a very early date he had realized that a man who wishes to make satisfactory braces must keep his strength up. He wanted a good deal here below, and he wanted it warm and well cooked. It was, therefore, not immediately that his dinner with Rollo became a feast of reason and a flow of soul. Indeed, the two revellers had lighted their cigars before the elder gave forth any remark that was not purely gastronomic.
When he did jerk the conversation up on to a higher plane, he jerked it hard. He sent it shooting into the realms of the soulful with a whiz.