She went to the ice-box, and produced milk and sardines. There was nothing finicky or affected about her guest. He was a good trencherman, and he did not care who knew it. He concentrated himself on the restoration of his tissues with the purposeful air of one whose last meal is a dim memory. Elizabeth, brooding over him like a Providence, wrinkled her forehead in thought.
'Joseph,' she said at last, brightening; 'that's your name. Now settle down, and start being a mascot.'
Joseph settled down amazingly. By the end of the second day he was conveying the impression that he was the real owner of the apartment, and that it was due to his good nature that Elizabeth was allowed the run of the place. Like most of his species, he was an autocrat. He waited a day to ascertain which was Elizabeth's favourite chair, then appropriated it for his own. If Elizabeth closed a door while he was in a room, he wanted it opened so that he might go out; if she closed it while he was outside, he wanted it opened so that he might come in; if she left it open, he fussed about the draught. But the best of us have our faults, and Elizabeth adored him in spite of his.
It was astonishing what a difference he made in her life. She was a friendly soul, and until Joseph's arrival she had had to depend for company mainly on the footsteps of the man in the flat across the way. Moreover, the building was an old one, and it creaked at night. There was a loose board in the passage which made burglar noises in the dark behind you when you stepped on it on the way to bed; and there were funny scratching sounds which made you jump and hold your breath. Joseph soon put a stop to all that. With Joseph around, a loose board became a loose board, nothing more, and a scratching noise just a plain scratching noise.
And then one afternoon he disappeared.
Having searched the flat without finding him, Elizabeth went to the window, with the intention of making a bird's-eye survey of the street. She was not hopeful, for she had just come from the street, and there had been no sign of him then.
Outside the window was a broad ledge, running the width of the building. It terminated on the left, in a shallow balcony belonging to the flat whose front door faced hers—the flat of the young man whose footsteps she sometimes heard. She knew he was a young man, because Francis had told her so. His name, James Renshaw Boyd, she had learned from the same source.
On this shallow balcony, licking his fur with the tip of a crimson tongue and generally behaving as if he were in his own backyard, sat Joseph.
'Jo-seph!' cried Elizabeth—surprise, joy, and reproach combining to give her voice an almost melodramatic quiver.
He looked at her coldly. Worse, he looked at her as if she had been an utter stranger. Bulging with her meat and drink, he cut her dead; and, having done so, turned and walked into the next flat.
Elizabeth was a girl of spirit. Joseph might look at her as if she were a saucerful of tainted milk, but he was her cat, and she meant to get him back. She went out and rang the bell of Mr James Renshaw Boyd's flat.
The door was opened by a shirt-sleeved young man. He was by no means an unsightly young man. Indeed, of his type—the rough-haired, clean-shaven, square-jawed type—he was a distinctly good-looking young man. Even though she was regarding him at the moment purely in the light of a machine for returning strayed cats, Elizabeth noticed that.
She smiled upon him. It was not the fault of this nice-looking young man that his sitting-room window was open; or that Joseph was an ungrateful little beast who should have no fish that night.
'Would you mind letting me have my cat, please?' she said pleasantly. 'He has gone into your sitting-room through the window.'
He looked faintly surprised.
'My black cat, Joseph. He is in your sitting-room.'
'I'm afraid you have come to the wrong place. I've just left my sitting-room, and the only cat there is my black cat, Reginald.'
'But I saw Joseph go in only a minute ago.'
'That was Reginald.'
For the first time, as one who examining a fair shrub abruptly discovers that it is a stinging-nettle, Elizabeth realized the truth. This was no innocent young man who stood before her, but the blackest criminal known to criminologists—a stealer of other people's cats. Her manner shot down to zero.
'May I ask how long you have had your Reginald?'
'Since four o'clock this afternoon.'
'Did he come in through the window?'
'Why, yes. Now you mention it, he did.'
'I must ask you to be good enough to give me back my cat,' said Elizabeth, icily.
He regarded her defensively.
'Assuming,' he said, 'purely for the purposes of academic argument, that your Joseph is my Reginald, couldn't we come to an agreement of some sort? Let me buy you another cat. A dozen cats.'
'I don't want a dozen cats. I want Joseph.'
'Fine, fat, soft cats,' he went on persuasively. 'Lovely, affectionate Persians and Angoras, and—'
'Of course, if you intend to steal Joseph—'
'These are harsh words. Any lawyer will tell you that there are special statutes regarding cats. To retain a stray cat is not a tort or a misdemeanour. In the celebrated test-case of Wiggins v. Bluebody it was established—'
'Will you please give me back my cat?'
She stood facing him, her chin in the air and her eyes shining, and the young man suddenly fell a victim to conscience.
'Look here,' he said, 'I'll throw myself on your mercy. I admit the cat is your cat, and that I have no right to it, and that I am just a common sneak-thief. But consider. I had just come back from the first rehearsal of my first play; and as I walked in at the door that cat walked in at the window. I'm as superstitious as a coon, and I felt that to give him up would be equivalent to killing the play before ever it was produced. I know it will sound absurd to you. You have no idiotic superstitions. You are sane and practical. But, in the circumstances, if you could see your way to waiving your rights—'
Before the wistfulness of his eye Elizabeth capitulated. She felt quite overcome by the revulsion of feeling which swept through her. How she had misjudged him! She had taken him for an ordinary soulless purloiner of cats, a snapper-up of cats at random and without reason; and all the time he had been reluctantly compelled to the act by this deep and praiseworthy motive. All the unselfishness and love of sacrifice innate in good women stirred within her.
'Why, of course you mustn't let him go! It would mean awful bad luck.'
'But how about you—'
'Never mind about me. Think of all the people who are dependent on your play being a success.'
The young man blinked.
'This is overwhelming,' he said.
'I had no notion why you wanted him. He was nothing to me—at least, nothing much—that is to say—well, I suppose I was rather fond of him—but he was not—not—'
'That's just the word I wanted. He was just company, you know.'
'Haven't you many friends?'
'I haven't any friends.'
'You haven't any friends! That settles it. You must take him back.'
'I couldn't think of it.'
'Of course you must take him back at once.'
'I really couldn't.'
'But, good gracious, how do you suppose I should feel, knowing that you were all alone and that I had sneaked your—your ewe lamb, as it were?'
'And how do you suppose I should feel if your play failed simply for lack of a black cat?'
He started, and ran his fingers through his rough hair in an overwrought manner.
'Solomon couldn't have solved this problem,' he said. 'How would it be—it seems the only possible way out—if you were to retain a sort of managerial right in him? Couldn't you sometimes step across and chat with him—and me, incidentally—over here? I'm very nearly as lonesome as you are. Chicago is my home. I hardly know a soul in New York.'
Her solitary life in the big city had forced upon Elizabeth the ability to form instantaneous judgements on the men she met. She flashed a glance at the young man and decided in his favour.
'It's very kind of you,' she said. 'I should love to. I want to hear all about your play. I write myself, you know, in a very small way, so a successful playwright is Someone to me.'
'I wish I were a successful playwright.'
'Well, you are having the first play you have ever written produced on Broadway. That's pretty wonderful.'
''M—yes,' said the young man. It seemed to Elizabeth that he spoke doubtfully, and this modesty consolidated the favourable impression she had formed.
* * * * *
The gods are just. For every ill which they inflict they also supply a compensation. It seems good to them that individuals in big cities shall be lonely, but they have so arranged that, if one of these individuals does at last contrive to seek out and form a friendship with another, that friendship shall grow more swiftly than the tepid acquaintanceships of those on whom the icy touch of loneliness has never fallen. Within a week Elizabeth was feeling that she had known this James Renshaw Boyd all her life.
And yet there was a tantalizing incompleteness about his personal reminiscences. Elizabeth was one of those persons who like to begin a friendship with a full statement of their position, their previous life, and the causes which led up to their being in this particular spot at this particular time. At their next meeting, before he had had time to say much on his own account, she had told him of her life in the small Canadian town where she had passed the early part of her life; of the rich and unexpected aunt who had sent her to college for no particular reason that anyone could ascertain except that she enjoyed being unexpected; of the legacy from this same aunt, far smaller than might have been hoped for, but sufficient to send a grateful Elizabeth to New York, to try her luck there; of editors, magazines, manuscripts refused or accepted, plots for stories; of life in general, as lived down where the Arch spans Fifth Avenue and the lighted cross of the Judson shines by night on Washington Square.
Ceasing eventually, she waited for him to begin; and he did not begin—not, that is to say, in the sense the word conveyed to Elizabeth. He spoke briefly of college, still more briefly of Chicago—which city he appeared to regard with a distaste that made Lot's attitude towards the Cities of the Plain almost kindly by comparison. Then, as if he had fulfilled the demands of the most exacting inquisitor in the matter of personal reminiscence, he began to speak of the play.
The only facts concerning him to which Elizabeth could really have sworn with a clear conscience at the end of the second week of their acquaintance were that he was very poor, and that this play meant everything to him.
The statement that it meant everything to him insinuated itself so frequently into his conversation that it weighed on Elizabeth's mind like a burden, and by degrees she found herself giving the play place of honour in her thoughts over and above her own little ventures. With this stupendous thing hanging in the balance, it seemed almost wicked of her to devote a moment to wondering whether the editor of an evening paper, who had half promised to give her the entrancing post of Adviser to the Lovelorn on his journal, would fulfil that half-promise.
At an early stage in their friendship the young man had told her the plot of the piece; and if he had not unfortunately forgotten several important episodes and had to leap back to them across a gulf of one or two acts, and if he had referred to his characters by name instead of by such descriptions as 'the fellow who's in love with the girl—not what's-his-name but the other chap'—she would no doubt have got that mental half-Nelson on it which is such a help towards the proper understanding of a four-act comedy. As it was, his precis had left her a little vague; but she said it was perfectly splendid, and he said did she really think so. And she said yes, she did, and they were both happy.
Rehearsals seemed to prey on his spirits a good deal. He attended them with the pathetic regularity of the young dramatist, but they appeared to bring him little balm. Elizabeth generally found him steeped in gloom, and then she would postpone the recital, to which she had been looking forward, of whatever little triumph she might have happened to win, and devote herself to the task of cheering him up. If women were wonderful in no other way, they would be wonderful for their genius for listening to shop instead of talking it.
Elizabeth was feeling more than a little proud of the way in which her judgement of this young man was being justified. Life in Bohemian New York had left her decidedly wary of strange young men, not formally introduced; her faith in human nature had had to undergo much straining. Wolves in sheep's clothing were common objects of the wayside in her unprotected life; and perhaps her chief reason for appreciating this friendship was the feeling of safety which it gave her.
Their relations, she told herself, were so splendidly unsentimental. There was no need for that silent defensiveness which had come to seem almost an inevitable accompaniment to dealings with the opposite sex. James Boyd, she felt, she could trust; and it was wonderful how soothing the reflexion was.
And that was why, when the thing happened, it so shocked and frightened her.
It had been one of their quiet evenings. Of late they had fallen into the habit of sitting for long periods together without speaking. But it had differed from other quiet evenings through the fact that Elizabeth's silence hid a slight but well-defined feeling of injury. Usually she sat happy with her thoughts, but tonight she was ruffled. She had a grievance.
That afternoon the editor of the evening paper, whose angelic status not even a bald head and an absence of wings and harp could conceal, had definitely informed her that the man who had conducted the column hitherto having resigned, the post of Heloise Milton, official adviser to readers troubled with affairs of the heart, was hers; and he looked to her to justify the daring experiment of letting a woman handle so responsible a job. Imagine how Napoleon felt after Austerlitz, picture Colonel Goethale contemplating the last spadeful of dirt from the Panama Canal, try to visualize a suburban householder who sees a flower emerging from the soil in which he has inserted a packet of guaranteed seeds, and you will have some faint conception how Elizabeth felt as those golden words proceeded from that editor's lips. For the moment Ambition was sated. The years, rolling by, might perchance open out other vistas; but for the moment she was content.
Into James Boyd's apartment she had walked, stepping on fleecy clouds of rapture, to tell him the great news.
She told him the great news.
He said, 'Ah!'
There are many ways of saying 'Ah!' You can put joy, amazement, rapture into it; you can also make it sound as if it were a reply to a remark on the weather. James Boyd made it sound just like that. His hair was rumpled, his brow contracted, and his manner absent. The impression he gave Elizabeth was that he had barely heard her. The next moment he was deep in a recital of the misdemeanours of the actors now rehearsing for his four-act comedy. The star had done this, the leading woman that, the juvenile something else. For the first time Elizabeth listened unsympathetically.
The time came when speech failed James Boyd, and he sat back in his chair, brooding. Elizabeth, cross and wounded, sat in hers, nursing Joseph. And so, in a dim light, time flowed by.
Just how it happened she never knew. One moment, peace; the next chaos. One moment stillness; the next, Joseph hurtling through the air, all claws and expletives, and herself caught in a clasp which shook the breath from her.
One can dimly reconstruct James's train of thought. He is in despair; things are going badly at the theatre, and life has lost its savour. His eye, as he sits, is caught by Elizabeth's profile. It is a pretty—above all, a soothing—profile. An almost painful sentimentality sweeps over James Boyd. There she sits, his only friend in this cruel city. If you argue that there is no necessity to spring at your only friend and nearly choke her, you argue soundly; the point is well taken. But James Boyd was beyond the reach of sound argument. Much rehearsing had frayed his nerves to ribbons. One may say that he was not responsible for his actions.
That is the case for James. Elizabeth, naturally, was not in a position to take a wide and understanding view of it. All she knew was that James had played her false, abused her trust in him. For a moment, such was the shock of the surprise, she was not conscious of indignation—or, indeed, of any sensation except the purely physical one of semi-strangulation. Then, flushed, and more bitterly angry than she could ever have imagined herself capable of being, she began to struggle. She tore herself away from him. Coming on top of her grievance, this thing filled her with a sudden, very vivid hatred of James. At the back of her anger, feeding it, was the humiliating thought that it was all her own fault, that by her presence there she had invited this.
She groped her way to the door. Something was writhing and struggling inside her, blinding her eyes, and robbing her of speech. She was only conscious of a desire to be alone, to be back and safe in her own home. She was aware that he was speaking, but the words did not reach her. She found the door, and pulled it open. She felt a hand on her arm, but she shook it off. And then she was back behind her own door, alone and at liberty to contemplate at leisure the ruins of that little temple of friendship which she had built up so carefully and in which she had been so happy.
The broad fact that she would never forgive him was for a while her only coherent thought. To this succeeded the determination that she would never forgive herself. And having thus placed beyond the pale the only two friends she had in New York, she was free to devote herself without hindrance to the task of feeling thoroughly lonely and wretched.
The shadows deepened. Across the street a sort of bubbling explosion, followed by a jerky glare that shot athwart the room, announced the lighting of the big arc-lamp on the opposite side-walk. She resented it, being in the mood for undiluted gloom; but she had not the energy to pull down the shade and shut it out. She sat where she was, thinking thoughts that hurt.
The door of the apartment opposite opened. There was a single ring at her bell. She did not answer it. There came another. She sat where she was, motionless. The door closed again.
* * * * *
The days dragged by. Elizabeth lost count of time. Each day had its duties, which ended when you went to bed; that was all she knew—except that life had become very grey and very lonely, far lonelier even than in the time when James Boyd was nothing to her but an occasional sound of footsteps.
Of James she saw nothing. It is not difficult to avoid anyone in New York, even when you live just across the way.
* * * * *
It was Elizabeth's first act each morning, immediately on awaking, to open her front door and gather in whatever lay outside it. Sometimes there would be mail; and always, unless Francis, as he sometimes did, got mixed and absent-minded, the morning milk and the morning paper.
One morning, some two weeks after that evening of which she tried not to think, Elizabeth, opening the door, found immediately outside it a folded scrap of paper. She unfolded it.
I am just off to the theatre. Won't you wish me luck? I feel sure it is going to be a hit. Joseph is purring like a dynamo.—J.R.B.
In the early morning the brain works sluggishly. For an instant Elizabeth stood looking at the words uncomprehendingly; then, with a leaping of the heart, their meaning came home to her. He must have left this at her door on the previous night. The play had been produced! And somewhere in the folded interior of the morning paper at her feet must be the opinion of 'One in Authority' concerning it!
Dramatic criticisms have this peculiarity, that if you are looking for them, they burrow and hide like rabbits. They dodge behind murders; they duck behind baseball scores; they lie up snugly behind the Wall Street news. It was a full minute before Elizabeth found what she sought, and the first words she read smote her like a blow.
In that vein of delightful facetiousness which so endears him to all followers and perpetrators of the drama, the 'One in Authority' rent and tore James Boyd's play. He knocked James Boyd's play down, and kicked it; he jumped on it with large feet; he poured cold water on it, and chopped it into little bits. He merrily disembowelled James Boyd's play.
Elizabeth quivered from head to foot. She caught at the door-post to steady herself. In a flash all her resentment had gone, wiped away and annihilated like a mist before the sun. She loved him, and she knew now that she had always loved him.
It took her two seconds to realize that the 'One in Authority' was a miserable incompetent, incapable of recognizing merit when it was displayed before him. It took her five minutes to dress. It took her a minute to run downstairs and out to the news-stand on the corner of the street. Here, with a lavishness which charmed and exhilarated the proprietor, she bought all the other papers which he could supply.
Moments of tragedy are best described briefly. Each of the papers noticed the play, and each of them damned it with uncompromising heartiness. The criticisms varied only in tone. One cursed with relish and gusto; another with a certain pity; a third with a kind of wounded superiority, as of one compelled against his will to speak of something unspeakable; but the meaning of all was the same. James Boyd's play was a hideous failure.
Back to the house sped Elizabeth, leaving the organs of a free people to be gathered up, smoothed, and replaced on the stand by the now more than ever charmed proprietor. Up the stairs she sped, and arriving breathlessly at James's door rang the bell.
Heavy footsteps came down the passage; crushed, disheartened footsteps; footsteps that sent a chill to Elizabeth's heart. The door opened. James Boyd stood before her, heavy-eyed and haggard. In his eyes was despair, and on his chin the blue growth of beard of the man from whom the mailed fist of Fate has smitten the energy to perform his morning shave.
Behind him, littering the floor, were the morning papers; and at the sight of them Elizabeth broke down.
'Oh, Jimmy, darling!' she cried; and the next moment she was in his arms, and for a space time stood still.
How long afterwards it was she never knew; but eventually James Boyd spoke.
'If you'll marry me,' he said hoarsely, 'I don't care a hang.'
'Jimmy, darling!' said Elizabeth, 'of course I will.'
Past them, as they stood there, a black streak shot silently, and disappeared out of the door. Joseph was leaving the sinking ship.
'Let him go, the fraud,' said Elizabeth bitterly. 'I shall never believe in black cats again.'
But James was not of this opinion.
'Joseph has brought me all the luck I need.'
'But the play meant everything to you.'
'It did then.'
'Jimmy, dear, it's all right, you know. I know you will make a fortune out of your next play, and I've heaps for us both to live on till you make good. We can manage splendidly on my salary from the Evening Chronicle.'
'What! Have you got a job on a New York paper?'
'Yes, I told you about it. I am doing Heloise Milton. Why, what's the matter?'
He groaned hollowly.
'And I was thinking that you would come back to Chicago with me!'
'But I will. Of course I will. What did you think I meant to do?'
'What! Give up a real job in New York!' He blinked. 'This isn't really happening. I'm dreaming.'
'But, Jimmy, are you sure you can get work in Chicago? Wouldn't it be better to stay on here, where all the managers are, and—'
He shook his head.
'I think it's time I told you about myself,' he said. 'Am I sure I can get work in Chicago? I am, worse luck. Darling, have you in your more material moments ever toyed with a Boyd's Premier Breakfast-Sausage or kept body and soul together with a slice off a Boyd's Excelsior Home-Cured Ham? My father makes them, and the tragedy of my life is that he wants me to help him at it. This was my position. I loathed the family business as much as dad loved it. I had a notion—a fool notion, as it has turned out—that I could make good in the literary line. I've scribbled in a sort of way ever since I was in college. When the time came for me to join the firm, I put it to dad straight. I said, "Give me a chance, one good, square chance, to see if the divine fire is really there, or if somebody has just turned on the alarm as a practical joke." And we made a bargain. I had written this play, and we made it a test-case. We fixed it up that dad should put up the money to give it a Broadway production. If it succeeded, all right; I'm the young Gus Thomas, and may go ahead in the literary game. If it's a fizzle, off goes my coat, and I abandon pipe-dreams of literary triumphs and start in as the guy who put the Co. in Boyd & Co. Well, events have proved that I am the guy, and now I'm going to keep my part of the bargain just as squarely as dad kept his. I know quite well that if I refused to play fair and chose to stick on here in New York and try again, dad would go on staking me. That's the sort of man he is. But I wouldn't do it for a million Broadway successes. I've had my chance, and I've foozled; and now I'm going back to make him happy by being a real live member of the firm. And the queer thing about it is that last night I hated the idea, and this morning, now that I've got you, I almost look forward to it.'
He gave a little shiver.
'And yet—I don't know. There's something rather gruesome still to my near-artist soul in living in luxury on murdered piggies. Have you ever seen them persuading a pig to play the stellar role in a Boyd Premier Breakfast-Sausage? It's pretty ghastly. They string them up by their hind legs, and—b-r-r-r-r!'
'Never mind,' said Elizabeth soothingly. 'Perhaps they don't mind it really.'
'Well, I don't know,' said James Boyd, doubtfully. 'I've watched them at it, and I'm bound to say they didn't seem any too well pleased.'
'Try not to think of it.'
'Very well,' said James dutifully.
There came a sudden shout from the floor above, and on the heels of it a shock-haired youth in pyjamas burst into the apartment.
'Now what?' said James. 'By the way, Miss Herrold, my fiancee; Mr Briggs—Paul Axworthy Briggs, sometimes known as the Boy Novelist. What's troubling you, Paul?'
Mr Briggs was stammering with excitement.
'Jimmy,' cried the Boy Novelist, 'what do you think has happened! A black cat has just come into my apartment. I heard him mewing outside the door, and opened it, and he streaked in. And I started my new novel last night! Say, you do believe this thing of black cats bringing luck, don't you?'
'Luck! My lad, grapple that cat to your soul with hoops of steel. He's the greatest little luck-bringer in New York. He was boarding with me till this morning.'
'Then—by Jove! I nearly forgot to ask—your play was a hit? I haven't seen the papers yet'
'Well, when you see them, don't read the notices. It was the worst frost Broadway has seen since Columbus's time.'
'But—I don't understand.'
'Don't worry. You don't have to. Go back and fill that cat with fish, or she'll be leaving you. I suppose you left the door open?'
'My God!' said the Boy Novelist, paling, and dashed for the door.
'Do you think Joseph will bring him luck?' said Elizabeth, thoughtfully.
'It depends what sort of luck you mean. Joseph seems to work in devious ways. If I know Joseph's methods, Briggs's new novel will be rejected by every publisher in the city; and then, when he is sitting in his apartment, wondering which of his razors to end himself with, there will be a ring at the bell, and in will come the most beautiful girl in the world, and then—well, then, take it from me, he will be all right.'
'He won't mind about the novel?'
'Not in the least.'
'Not even if it means that he will have to go away and kill pigs and things.'
'About the pig business, dear. I've noticed a slight tendency in you to let yourself get rather morbid about it. I know they string them up by the hind-legs, and all that sort of thing; but you must remember that a pig looks at these things from a different standpoint. My belief is that the pigs like it. Try not to think of it.'
'Very well,' said Elizabeth, dutifully.
THE ROMANCE OF AN UGLY POLICEMAN
Crossing the Thames by Chelsea Bridge, the wanderer through London finds himself in pleasant Battersea. Rounding the Park, where the female of the species wanders with its young by the ornamental water where the wild-fowl are, he comes upon a vast road. One side of this is given up to Nature, the other to Intellect. On the right, green trees stretch into the middle distance; on the left, endless blocks of residential flats. It is Battersea Park Road, the home of the cliff-dwellers.
Police-constable Plimmer's beat embraced the first quarter of a mile of the cliffs. It was his duty to pace in the measured fashion of the London policeman along the front of them, turn to the right, turn to the left, and come back along the road which ran behind them. In this way he was enabled to keep the king's peace over no fewer than four blocks of mansions.
It did not require a deal of keeping. Battersea may have its tough citizens, but they do not live in Battersea Park Road. Battersea Park Road's speciality is Brain, not Crime. Authors, musicians, newspaper men, actors, and artists are the inhabitants of these mansions. A child could control them. They assault and batter nothing but pianos; they steal nothing but ideas; they murder nobody except Chopin and Beethoven. Not through these shall an ambitious young constable achieve promotion.
At this conclusion Edward Plimmer arrived within forty-eight hours of his installation. He recognized the flats for what they were—just so many layers of big-brained blamelessness. And there was not even the chance of a burglary. No burglar wastes his time burgling authors. Constable Plimmer reconciled his mind to the fact that his term in Battersea must be looked on as something in the nature of a vacation.
He was not altogether sorry. At first, indeed, he found the new atmosphere soothing. His last beat had been in the heart of tempestuous Whitechapel, where his arms had ached from the incessant hauling of wiry inebriates to the station, and his shins had revolted at the kicks showered upon them by haughty spirits impatient of restraint. Also, one Saturday night, three friends of a gentleman whom he was trying to induce not to murder his wife had so wrought upon him that, when he came out of hospital, his already homely appearance was further marred by a nose which resembled the gnarled root of a tree. All these things had taken from the charm of Whitechapel, and the cloistral peace of Battersea Park Road was grateful and comforting.
And just when the unbroken calm had begun to lose its attraction and dreams of action were once more troubling him, a new interest entered his life; and with its coming he ceased to wish to be removed from Battersea. He fell in love.
It happened at the back of York Mansions. Anything that ever happened, happened there; for it is at the back of these blocks of flats that the real life is. At the front you never see anything, except an occasional tousle-headed young man smoking a pipe; but at the back, where the cooks come out to parley with the tradesmen, there is at certain hours of the day quite a respectable activity. Pointed dialogues about yesterday's eggs and the toughness of Saturday's meat are conducted fortissimo between cheerful youths in the road and satirical young women in print dresses, who come out of their kitchen doors on to little balconies. The whole thing has a pleasing Romeo and Juliet touch. Romeo rattles up in his cart. 'Sixty-four!' he cries. 'Sixty-fower, sixty-fower, sixty-fow—' The kitchen door opens, and Juliet emerges. She eyes Romeo without any great show of affection. 'Are you Perkins and Blissett?' she inquires coldly. Romeo admits it. 'Two of them yesterday's eggs was bad.' Romeo protests. He defends his eggs. They were fresh from the hen; he stood over her while she laid them. Juliet listens frigidly. 'I don't think,' she says. 'Well, half of sugar, one marmalade, and two of breakfast bacon,' she adds, and ends the argument. There is a rattling as of a steamer weighing anchor; the goods go up in the tradesman's lift; Juliet collects them, and exits, banging the door. The little drama is over.
Such is life at the back of York Mansions—a busy, throbbing thing.
The peace of afternoon had fallen upon the world one day towards the end of Constable Plimmer's second week of the simple life, when his attention was attracted by a whistle. It was followed by a musical 'Hi!'
Constable Plimmer looked up. On the kitchen balcony of a second-floor flat a girl was standing. As he took her in with a slow and exhaustive gaze, he was aware of strange thrills. There was something about this girl which excited Constable Plimmer. I do not say that she was a beauty; I do not claim that you or I would have raved about her; I merely say that Constable Plimmer thought she was All Right.
'Miss?' he said.
'Got the time about you?' said the girl. 'All the clocks have stopped.'
'The time,' said Constable Plimmer, consulting his watch, 'wants exactly ten minutes to four.'
'Not at all, miss.'
The girl was inclined for conversation. It was that gracious hour of the day when you have cleared lunch and haven't got to think of dinner yet, and have a bit of time to draw a breath or two. She leaned over the balcony and smiled pleasantly.
'If you want to know the time, ask a pleeceman,' she said. 'You been on this beat long?'
'Just short of two weeks, miss.'
'I been here three days.'
'I hope you like it, miss.'
'So-so. The milkman's a nice boy.'
Constable Plimmer did not reply. He was busy silently hating the milkman. He knew him—one of those good-looking blighters; one of those oiled and curled perishers; one of those blooming fascinators who go about the world making things hard for ugly, honest men with loving hearts. Oh, yes, he knew the milkman.
'He's a rare one with his jokes,' said the girl.
Constable Plimmer went on not replying. He was perfectly aware that the milkman was a rare one with his jokes. He had heard him. The way girls fell for anyone with the gift of the gab—that was what embittered Constable Plimmer.
'He—' she giggled. 'He calls me Little Pansy-Face.'
'If you'll excuse me, miss,' said Constable Plimmer coldly, 'I'll have to be getting along on my beat.'
Little Pansy-Face! And you couldn't arrest him for it! What a world! Constable Plimmer paced upon his way, a blue-clad volcano.
It is a terrible thing to be obsessed by a milkman. To Constable Plimmer's disordered imagination it seemed that, dating from this interview, the world became one solid milkman. Wherever he went, he seemed to run into this milkman. If he was in the front road, this milkman—Alf Brooks, it appeared, was his loathsome name—came rattling past with his jingling cans as if he were Apollo driving his chariot. If he was round at the back, there was Alf, his damned tenor doing duets with the balconies. And all this in defiance of the known law of natural history that milkmen do not come out after five in the morning. This irritated Constable Plimmer. You talk of a man 'going home with the milk' when you mean that he sneaks in in the small hours of the morning. If all milkmen were like Alf Brooks the phrase was meaningless.
He brooded. The unfairness of Fate was souring him. A man expects trouble in his affairs of the heart from soldiers and sailors, and to be cut out by even a postman is to fall before a worthy foe; but milkmen—no! Only grocers' assistants and telegraph-boys were intended by Providence to fear milkmen.
Yet here was Alf Brooks, contrary to all rules, the established pet of the mansions. Bright eyes shone from balconies when his 'Milk—oo—oo' sounded. Golden voices giggled delightedly at his bellowed chaff. And Ellen Brown, whom he called Little Pansy-Face, was definitely in love with him.
They were keeping company. They were walking out. This crushing truth Edward Plimmer learned from Ellen herself.
She had slipped out to mail a letter at the pillar-box on the corner, and she reached it just as the policeman arrived there in the course of his patrol.
Nervousness impelled Constable Plimmer to be arch.
''Ullo, 'ullo, 'ullo,' he said. 'Posting love-letters?'
'What, me? This is to the Police Commissioner, telling him you're no good.'
'I'll give it to him. Him and me are taking supper tonight.'
Nature had never intended Constable Plimmer to be playful. He was at his worst when he rollicked. He snatched at the letter with what was meant to be a debonair gaiety, and only succeeded in looking like an angry gorilla. The girl uttered a startled squeak.
The letter was addressed to Mr A. Brooks.
Playfulness, after this, was at a discount. The girl was frightened and angry, and he was scowling with mingled jealousy and dismay.
'Ho!' he said. 'Ho! Mr A. Brooks!'
Ellen Brown was a nice girl, but she had a temper, and there were moments when her manners lacked rather noticeably the repose which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.
'Well, what about it?' she cried. 'Can't one write to the young gentleman one's keeping company with, without having to get permission from every—' She paused to marshal her forces from the assault. 'Without having to get permission from every great, ugly, red-faced copper with big feet and a broken nose in London?'
Constable Plimmer's wrath faded into a dull unhappiness. Yes, she was right. That was the correct description. That was how an impartial Scotland Yard would be compelled to describe him, if ever he got lost. 'Missing. A great, ugly, red-faced copper with big feet and a broken nose.' They would never find him otherwise.
'Perhaps you object to my walking out with Alf? Perhaps you've got something against him? I suppose you're jealous!'
She threw in the last suggestion entirely in a sporting spirit. She loved battle, and she had a feeling that this one was going to finish far too quickly. To prolong it, she gave him this opening. There were a dozen ways in which he might answer, each more insulting than the last; and then, when he had finished, she could begin again. These little encounters, she held, sharpened the wits, stimulated the circulation, and kept one out in the open air.
'Yes,' said Constable Plimmer.
It was the one reply she was not expecting. For direct abuse, for sarcasm, for dignity, for almost any speech beginning, 'What! Jealous of you. Why—' she was prepared. But this was incredible. It disabled her, as the wild thrust of an unskilled fencer will disable a master of the rapier. She searched in her mind and found that she had nothing to say.
There was a tense moment in which she found him, looking her in the eyes, strangely less ugly than she had supposed, and then he was gone, rolling along on his beat with that air which all policemen must achieve, of having no feelings at all, and—as long as it behaves itself—no interest in the human race.
Ellen posted her letter. She dropped it into the box thoughtfully, and thoughtfully returned to the flat. She looked over her shoulder, but Constable Plimmer was out of sight.
Peaceful Battersea began to vex Constable Plimmer. To a man crossed in love, action is the one anodyne; and Battersea gave no scope for action. He dreamed now of the old Whitechapel days as a man dreams of the joys of his childhood. He reflected bitterly that a fellow never knows when he is well off in this world. Any one of those myriad drunk and disorderlies would have been as balm to him now. He was like a man who has run through a fortune and in poverty eats the bread of regret. Amazedly he recollected that in those happy days he had grumbled at his lot. He remembered confiding to a friend in the station-house, as he rubbed with liniment the spot on his right shin where the well-shod foot of a joyous costermonger had got home, that this sort of thing—meaning militant costermongers—was 'a bit too thick'. A bit too thick! Why, he would pay one to kick him now. And as for the three loyal friends of the would-be wife-murderer who had broken his nose, if he saw them coming round the corner he would welcome them as brothers.
And Battersea Park Road dozed on—calm, intellectual, law-abiding.
A friend of his told him that there had once been a murder in one of these flats. He did not believe it. If any of these white-corpuscled clams ever swatted a fly, it was much as they could do. The thing was ridiculous on the face of it. If they were capable of murder, they would have murdered Alf Brooks.
He stood in the road, and looked up at the placid buildings resentfully.
'Grr-rr-rr!' he growled, and kicked the side-walk.
And, even as he spoke, on the balcony of a second-floor flat there appeared a woman, an elderly, sharp-faced woman, who waved her arms and screamed, 'Policeman! Officer! Come up here! Come up here at once!'
Up the stone stairs went Constable Plimmer at the run. His mind was alert and questioning. Murder? Hardly murder, perhaps. If it had been that, the woman would have said so. She did not look the sort of woman who would be reticent about a thing like that. Well, anyway, it was something; and Edward Plimmer had been long enough in Battersea to be thankful for small favours. An intoxicated husband would be better than nothing. At least he would be something that a fellow could get his hands on to and throw about a bit.
The sharp-faced woman was waiting for him at the door. He followed her into the flat.
'What is it, ma'am?'
'Theft! Our cook has been stealing!'
She seemed sufficiently excited about it, but Constable Plimmer felt only depression and disappointment. A stout admirer of the sex, he hated arresting women. Moreover, to a man in the mood to tackle anarchists with bombs, to be confronted with petty theft is galling. But duty was duty. He produced his notebook.
'She is in her room. I locked her in. I know she has taken my brooch. We have missed money. You must search her.'
'Can't do that, ma'am. Female searcher at the station.'
'Well, you can search her box.'
A little, bald, nervous man in spectacles appeared as if out of a trap. As a matter of fact, he had been there all the time, standing by the bookcase; but he was one of those men you do not notice till they move and speak.
The little man seemed to swallow something.
'I—I think that you may possibly be wronging Ellen. It is just possible, as regards the money—' He smiled in a ghastly manner and turned to the policeman. 'Er—officer, I ought to tell you that my wife—ah—holds the purse-strings of our little home; and it is just possible that in an absent-minded moment I may have—'
'Do you mean to tell me, Henry, that you have been taking my money?'
'My dear, it is just possible that in the abs—'
He wavered perceptibly. Conscience was beginning to lose its grip.
'Oh, not often.'
'How often? More than once?'
Conscience had shot its bolt. The little man gave up the Struggle.
'No, no, not more than once. Certainly not more than once.'
'You ought not to have done it at all. We will talk about that later. It doesn't alter the fact that Ellen is a thief. I have missed money half a dozen times. Besides that, there's the brooch. Step this way, officer.'
Constable Plimmer stepped that way—his face a mask. He knew who was waiting for them behind the locked door at the end of the passage. But it was his duty to look as if he were stuffed, and he did so.
* * * * *
She was sitting on her bed, dressed for the street. It was her afternoon out, the sharp-faced woman had informed Constable Plimmer, attributing the fact that she had discovered the loss of the brooch in time to stop her a direct interposition of Providence. She was pale, and there was a hunted look in her eyes.
'You wicked girl, where is my brooch?'
She held it out without a word. She had been holding it in her hand.
'You see, officer!'
'I wasn't stealing of it. I 'adn't but borrowed it. I was going to put it back.'
'Stuff and nonsense! Borrow it, indeed! What for?'
'I—I wanted to look nice.'
The woman gave a short laugh. Constable Plimmer's face was a mere block of wood, expressionless.
'And what about the money I've been missing? I suppose you'll say you only borrowed that?'
'I never took no money.'
'Well, it's gone, and money doesn't go by itself. Take her to the police-station, officer.'
Constable Plimmer raised heavy eyes.
'You make a charge, ma'am?'
'Bless the man! Of course I make a charge. What did you think I asked you to step in for?'
'Will you come along, miss?' said Constable Plimmer.
* * * * *
Out in the street the sun shone gaily down on peaceful Battersea. It was the hour when children walk abroad with their nurses; and from the green depths of the Park came the sound of happy voices. A cat stretched itself in the sunshine and eyed the two as they passed with lazy content.
They walked in silence. Constable Plimmer was a man with a rigid sense of what was and what was not fitting behaviour in a policeman on duty: he aimed always at a machine-like impersonality. There were times when it came hard, but he did his best. He strode on, his chin up and his eyes averted. And beside him—
Well, she was not crying. That was something.
Round the corner, beautiful in light flannel, gay at both ends with a new straw hat and the yellowest shoes in South-West London, scented, curled, a prince among young men, stood Alf Brooks. He was feeling piqued. When he said three o'clock, he meant three o'clock. It was now three-fifteen, and she had not appeared. Alf Brooks swore an impatient oath, and the thought crossed his mind, as it had sometimes crossed it before, that Ellen Brown was not the only girl in the world.
'Give her another five min—'
Ellen Brown, with escort, at that moment turned the corner.
Rage was the first emotion which the spectacle aroused in Alf Brooks. Girls who kept a fellow waiting about while they fooled around with policemen were no girls for him. They could understand once and for all that he was a man who could pick and choose.
And then an electric shock set the world dancing mistily before his eyes. This policeman was wearing his belt; he was on duty. And Ellen's face was not the face of a girl strolling with the Force for pleasure.
His heart stopped, and then began to race. His cheeks flushed a dusky crimson. His jaw fell, and a prickly warmth glowed in the parts about his spine.
His fingers sought his collar.
He was hot all over.
'Goo' Lor'! She's been pinched!'
He tugged at his collar. It was choking him.
Alf Brooks did not show up well in the first real crisis which life had forced upon him. That must be admitted. Later, when it was over, and he had leisure for self-examination, he admitted it to himself. But even then he excused himself by asking Space in a blustering manner what else he could ha' done. And if the question did not bring much balm to his soul at the first time of asking, it proved wonderfully soothing on constant repetition. He repeated it at intervals for the next two days, and by the end of that time his cure was complete. On the third morning his 'Milk—oo—oo' had regained its customary carefree ring, and he was feeling that he had acted in difficult circumstances in the only possible manner.
Consider. He was Alf Brooks, well known and respected in the neighbourhood; a singer in the choir on Sundays; owner of a milk-walk in the most fashionable part of Battersea; to all practical purposes a public man. Was he to recognize, in broad daylight and in open street, a girl who walked with a policeman because she had to, a malefactor, a girl who had been pinched?
Ellen, Constable Plimmer woodenly at her side, came towards him. She was ten yards off—seven—five—three—Alf Brooks tilted his hat over his eyes and walked past her, unseeing, a stranger.
He hurried on. He was conscious of a curious feeling that somebody was just going to kick him, but he dared not look round.
* * * * *
Constable Plimmer eyed the middle distance with an earnest gaze. His face was redder than ever. Beneath his blue tunic strange emotions were at work. Something seemed to be filling his throat. He tried to swallow it.
He stopped in his stride. The girl glanced up at him in a kind of dull, questioning way. Their eyes met for the first time that afternoon, and it seemed to Constable Plimmer that whatever it was that was interfering with the inside of his throat had grown larger, and more unmanageable.
There was the misery of the stricken animal in her gaze. He had seen women look like that in Whitechapel. The woman to whom, indirectly, he owed his broken nose had looked like that. As his hand had fallen on the collar of the man who was kicking her to death, he had seen her eyes. They were Ellen's eyes, as she stood there now—tortured, crushed, yet uncomplaining.
Constable Plimmer looked at Ellen, and Ellen looked at Constable Plimmer. Down the street some children were playing with a dog. In one of the flats a woman began to sing.
'Hop it,' said Constable Plimmer.
He spoke gruffly. He found speech difficult.
The girl started.
'Hop it. Get along. Run away.'
'What do you mean?'
Constable Plimmer scowled. His face was scarlet. His jaw protruded like a granite break-water.
'Go on,' he growled. 'Hop it. Tell him it was all a joke. I'll explain at the station.'
Understanding seemed to come to her slowly.
'Do you mean I'm to go?'
'What do you mean? You aren't going to take me to the station?'
She stared at him. Then, suddenly, she broke down,
'He wouldn't look at me. He was ashamed of me. He pretended not to see me.'
She leaned against the wall, her back shaking.
'Well, run after him, and tell him it was all—'
'No, no, no.'
Constable Plimmer looked morosely at the side-walk. He kicked it.
She turned. Her eyes were red, but she was no longer crying. Her chin had a brave tilt.
'I couldn't—not after what he did. Let's go along. I—I don't care.'
She looked at him curiously.
'Were you really going to have let me go?'
Constable Plimmer nodded. He was aware of her eyes searching his face, but he did not meet them.
He did not answer.
'What would have happened to you, if you had have done?'
Constable Plimmer's scowl was of the stuff of which nightmares are made. He kicked the unoffending side-walk with an increased viciousness.
'Dismissed the Force,' he said curtly.
'And sent to prison, too, I shouldn't wonder.'
He heard her draw a deep breath, and silence fell upon them again. The dog down the road had stopped barking. The woman in the flat had stopped singing. They were curiously alone.
'Would you have done all that for me?' she said.
'Because I don't think you ever did it. Stole that money, I mean. Nor the brooch, neither.'
'Was that all?'
'What do you mean—all?'
'Was that the only reason?'
He swung round on her, almost threateningly.
'No,' he said hoarsely. 'No, it wasn't, and you know it wasn't. Well, if you want it, you can have it. It was because I love you. There! Now I've said it, and now you can go on and laugh at me as much as you want.'
'I'm not laughing,' she said soberly.
'You think I'm a fool!'
'No, I don't.'
'I'm nothing to you. He's the fellow you're stuck on.'
She gave a little shudder.
'What do you mean?'
'I've changed.' She paused. 'I think I shall have changed more by the time I come out.'
'Come out of prison.'
'You're not going to prison.'
'Yes, I am.'
'I won't take you.'
'Yes, you will. Think I'm going to let you get yourself in trouble like that, to get me out of a fix? Not much.'
'You hop it, like a good girl.'
He stood looking at her like a puzzled bear.
'They can't eat me.'
'They'll cut off all of your hair.'
'D'you like my hair?'
'Well, it'll grow again.'
'Don't stand talking. Hop it.'
'I won't. Where's the station?'
'Well, come along, then.'
* * * * *
The blue glass lamp of the police-station came into sight, and for an instant she stopped. Then she was walking on again, her chin tilted. But her voice shook a little as she spoke.
'Nearly there. Next stop, Battersea. All change! I say, mister—I don't know your name.'
'Plimmer's my name, miss. Edward Plimmer.'
'I wonder if—I mean it'll be pretty lonely where I'm going—I wonder if—What I mean is, it would be rather a lark, when I come out, if I was to find a pal waiting for me to say "Hallo".'
Constable Plimmer braced his ample feet against the stones, and turned purple.
'Miss,' he said, 'I'll be there, if I have to sit up all night. The first thing you'll see when they open the doors is a great, ugly, red-faced copper with big feet and a broken nose. And if you'll say "Hallo" to him when he says "Hallo" to you, he'll be as pleased as Punch and as proud as a duke. And, miss'—he clenched his hands till the nails hurt the leathern flesh—'and, miss, there's just one thing more I'd like to say. You'll be having a good deal of time to yourself for awhile; you'll be able to do a good bit of thinking without anyone to disturb you; and what I'd like you to give your mind to, if you don't object, is just to think whether you can't forget that narrow-chested, God-forsaken blighter who treated you so mean, and get half-way fond of someone who knows jolly well you're the only girl there is.'
She looked past him at the lamp which hung, blue and forbidding, over the station door.
'How long'll I get?' she said. 'What will they give me? Thirty days?'
'It won't take me as long as that,' she said. 'I say, what do people call you?—people who are fond of you, I mean?—Eddie or Ted?'
A SEA OF TROUBLES
Mr Meggs's mind was made up. He was going to commit suicide.
There had been moments, in the interval which had elapsed between the first inception of the idea and his present state of fixed determination, when he had wavered. In these moments he had debated, with Hamlet, the question whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But all that was over now. He was resolved.
Mr Meggs's point, the main plank, as it were, in his suicidal platform, was that with him it was beside the question whether or not it was nobler to suffer in the mind. The mind hardly entered into it at all. What he had to decide was whether it was worth while putting up any longer with the perfectly infernal pain in his stomach. For Mr Meggs was a martyr to indigestion. As he was also devoted to the pleasures of the table, life had become for him one long battle, in which, whatever happened, he always got the worst of it.
He was sick of it. He looked back down the vista of the years, and found therein no hope for the future. One after the other all the patent medicines in creation had failed him. Smith's Supreme Digestive Pellets—he had given them a more than fair trial. Blenkinsop's Liquid Life-Giver—he had drunk enough of it to float a ship. Perkins's Premier Pain-Preventer, strongly recommended by the sword-swallowing lady at Barnum and Bailey's—he had wallowed in it. And so on down the list. His interior organism had simply sneered at the lot of them.
'Death, where is thy sting?' thought Mr Meggs, and forthwith began to make his preparations.
Those who have studied the matter say that the tendency to commit suicide is greatest among those who have passed their fifty-fifth year, and that the rate is twice as great for unoccupied males as for occupied males. Unhappy Mr Meggs, accordingly, got it, so to speak, with both barrels. He was fifty-six, and he was perhaps the most unoccupied adult to be found in the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. He toiled not, neither did he spin. Twenty years before, an unexpected legacy had placed him in a position to indulge a natural taste for idleness to the utmost. He was at that time, as regards his professional life, a clerk in a rather obscure shipping firm. Out of office hours he had a mild fondness for letters, which took the form of meaning to read right through the hundred best books one day, but actually contenting himself with the daily paper and an occasional magazine.
Such was Mr Meggs at thirty-six. The necessity for working for a living and a salary too small to permit of self-indulgence among the more expensive and deleterious dishes on the bill of fare had up to that time kept his digestion within reasonable bounds. Sometimes he had twinges; more often he had none.
Then came the legacy, and with it Mr Meggs let himself go. He left London and retired to his native village, where, with a French cook and a series of secretaries to whom he dictated at long intervals occasional paragraphs of a book on British Butterflies on which he imagined himself to be at work, he passed the next twenty years. He could afford to do himself well, and he did himself extremely well. Nobody urged him to take exercise, so he took no exercise. Nobody warned him of the perils of lobster and welsh rabbits to a man of sedentary habits, for it was nobody's business to warn him. On the contrary, people rather encouraged the lobster side of his character, for he was a hospitable soul and liked to have his friends dine with him. The result was that Nature, as is her wont, laid for him, and got him. It seemed to Mr Meggs that he woke one morning to find himself a chronic dyspeptic. That was one of the hardships of his position, to his mind. The thing seemed to hit him suddenly out of a blue sky. One moment, all appeared to be peace and joy; the next, a lively and irritable wild-cat with red-hot claws seemed somehow to have introduced itself into his interior.
So Mr Meggs decided to end it.
In this crisis of his life the old methodical habits of his youth returned to him. A man cannot be a clerk in even an obscure firm of shippers for a great length of time without acquiring system, and Mr Meggs made his preparations calmly and with a forethought worthy of a better cause.
And so we find him, one glorious June morning, seated at his desk, ready for the end.
Outside, the sun beat down upon the orderly streets of the village. Dogs dozed in the warm dust. Men who had to work went about their toil moistly, their minds far away in shady public-houses.
But Mr Meggs, in his study, was cool both in mind and body.
Before him, on the desk, lay six little slips of paper. They were bank-notes, and they represented, with the exception of a few pounds, his entire worldly wealth. Beside them were six letters, six envelopes, and six postage stamps. Mr Meggs surveyed them calmly.
He would not have admitted it, but he had had a lot of fun writing those letters. The deliberation as to who should be his heirs had occupied him pleasantly for several days, and, indeed, had taken his mind off his internal pains at times so thoroughly that he had frequently surprised himself in an almost cheerful mood. Yes, he would have denied it, but it had been great sport sitting in his arm-chair, thinking whom he should pick out from England's teeming millions to make happy with his money. All sorts of schemes had passed through his mind. He had a sense of power which the mere possession of the money had never given him. He began to understand why millionaires make freak wills. At one time he had toyed with the idea of selecting someone at random from the London Directory and bestowing on him all he had to bequeath. He had only abandoned the scheme when it occurred to him that he himself would not be in a position to witness the recipient's stunned delight. And what was the good of starting a thing like that, if you were not to be in at the finish?
Sentiment succeeded whimsicality. His old friends of the office—those were the men to benefit. What good fellows they had been! Some were dead, but he still kept intermittently in touch with half a dozen of them. And—an important point—he knew their present addresses.
This point was important, because Mr Meggs had decided not to leave a will, but to send the money direct to the beneficiaries. He knew what wills were. Even in quite straightforward circumstances they often made trouble. There had been some slight complication about his own legacy twenty years ago. Somebody had contested the will, and before the thing was satisfactorily settled the lawyers had got away with about twenty per cent of the whole. No, no wills. If he made one, and then killed himself, it might be upset on a plea of insanity. He knew of no relative who might consider himself entitled to the money, but there was the chance that some remote cousin existed; and then the comrades of his youth might fail to collect after all.
He declined to run the risk. Quietly and by degrees he had sold out the stocks and shares in which his fortune was invested, and deposited the money in his London bank. Six piles of large notes, dividing the total into six equal parts; six letters couched in a strain of reminiscent pathos and manly resignation; six envelopes, legibly addressed; six postage-stamps; and that part of his preparations was complete. He licked the stamps and placed them on the envelopes; took the notes and inserted them in the letters; folded the letters and thrust them into the envelopes; sealed the envelopes; and unlocking the drawer of his desk produced a small, black, ugly-looking bottle.
He opened the bottle and poured the contents into a medicine-glass.
It had not been without considerable thought that Mr Meggs had decided upon the method of his suicide. The knife, the pistol, the rope—they had all presented their charms to him. He had further examined the merits of drowning and of leaping to destruction from a height.
There were flaws in each. Either they were painful, or else they were messy. Mr Meggs had a tidy soul, and he revolted from the thought of spoiling his figure, as he would most certainly do if he drowned himself; or the carpet, as he would if he used the pistol; or the pavement—and possibly some innocent pedestrian, as must infallibly occur should he leap off the Monument. The knife was out of the question. Instinct told him that it would hurt like the very dickens.
No; poison was the thing. Easy to take, quick to work, and on the whole rather agreeable than otherwise.
Mr Meggs hid the glass behind the inkpot and rang the bell.
'Has Miss Pillenger arrived?' he inquired of the servant.
'She has just come, sir.'
'Tell her that I am waiting for her here.'
Jane Pillenger was an institution. Her official position was that of private secretary and typist to Mr Meggs. That is to say, on the rare occasions when Mr Meggs's conscience overcame his indolence to the extent of forcing him to resume work on his British Butterflies, it was to Miss Pillenger that he addressed the few rambling and incoherent remarks which constituted his idea of a regular hard, slogging spell of literary composition. When he sank back in his chair, speechless and exhausted like a Marathon runner who has started his sprint a mile or two too soon, it was Miss Pillenger's task to unscramble her shorthand notes, type them neatly, and place them in their special drawer in the desk.
Miss Pillenger was a wary spinster of austere views, uncertain age, and a deep-rooted suspicion of men—a suspicion which, to do an abused sex justice, they had done nothing to foster. Men had always been almost coldly correct in their dealings with Miss Pillenger. In her twenty years of experience as a typist and secretary she had never had to refuse with scorn and indignation so much as a box of chocolates from any of her employers. Nevertheless, she continued to be icily on her guard. The clenched fist of her dignity was always drawn back, ready to swing on the first male who dared to step beyond the bounds of professional civility.
Such was Miss Pillenger. She was the last of a long line of unprotected English girlhood which had been compelled by straitened circumstances to listen for hire to the appallingly dreary nonsense which Mr Meggs had to impart on the subject of British Butterflies. Girls had come, and girls had gone, blondes, ex-blondes, brunettes, ex-brunettes, near-blondes, near-brunettes; they had come buoyant, full of hope and life, tempted by the lavish salary which Mr Meggs had found himself after a while compelled to pay; and they had dropped off, one after another, like exhausted bivalves, unable to endure the crushing boredom of life in the village which had given Mr Meggs to the world. For Mr Meggs's home-town was no City of Pleasure. Remove the Vicar's magic-lantern and the try-your-weight machine opposite the post office, and you practically eliminated the temptations to tread the primrose path. The only young men in the place were silent, gaping youths, at whom lunacy commissioners looked sharply and suspiciously when they met. The tango was unknown, and the one-step. The only form of dance extant—and that only at the rarest intervals—was a sort of polka not unlike the movements of a slightly inebriated boxing kangaroo. Mr Meggs's secretaries and typists gave the town one startled, horrified glance, and stampeded for London like frightened ponies.
Not so Miss Pillenger. She remained. She was a business woman, and it was enough for her that she received a good salary. For five pounds a week she would have undertaken a post as secretary and typist to a Polar Expedition. For six years she had been with Mr Meggs, and doubtless she looked forward to being with him at least six years more.
Perhaps it was the pathos of this thought which touched Mr Meggs, as she sailed, notebook in hand, through the doorway of the study. Here, he told himself, was a confiding girl, all unconscious of impending doom, relying on him as a daughter relies on her father. He was glad that he had not forgotten Miss Pillenger when he was making his preparations.
He had certainly not forgotten Miss Pillenger. On his desk beside the letters lay a little pile of notes, amounting in all to five hundred pounds—her legacy.
Miss Pillenger was always business-like. She sat down in her chair, opened her notebook, moistened her pencil, and waited expectantly for Mr Meggs to clear his throat and begin work on the butterflies. She was surprised when, instead of frowning, as was his invariable practice when bracing himself for composition, he bestowed upon her a sweet, slow smile.
All that was maidenly and defensive in Miss Pillenger leaped to arms under that smile. It ran in and out among her nerve-centres. It had been long in arriving, this moment of crisis, but here it undoubtedly was at last. After twenty years an employer was going to court disaster by trying to flirt with her.
Mr Meggs went on smiling. You cannot classify smiles. Nothing lends itself so much to a variety of interpretations as a smile. Mr Meggs thought he was smiling the sad, tender smile of a man who, knowing himself to be on the brink of the tomb, bids farewell to a faithful employee. Miss Pillenger's view was that he was smiling like an abandoned old rip who ought to have been ashamed of himself.
'No, Miss Pillenger,' said Mr Meggs, 'I shall not work this morning. I shall want you, if you will be so good, to post these six letters for me.'
Miss Pillenger took the letters. Mr Meggs surveyed her tenderly.
'Miss Pillenger, you have been with me a long time now. Six years, is it not? Six years. Well, well. I don't think I have ever made you a little present, have I?'
'You give me a good salary.'
'Yes, but I want to give you something more. Six years is a long time. I have come to regard you with a different feeling from that which the ordinary employer feels for his secretary. You and I have worked together for six long years. Surely I may be permitted to give you some token of my appreciation of your fidelity.' He took the pile of notes. 'These are for you, Miss Pillenger.'
He rose and handed them to her. He eyed her for a moment with all the sentimentality of a man whose digestion has been out of order for over two decades. The pathos of the situation swept him away. He bent over Miss Pillenger, and kissed her on the forehead.
Smiles excepted, there is nothing so hard to classify as a kiss. Mr Meggs's notion was that he kissed Miss Pillenger much as some great general, wounded unto death, might have kissed his mother, his sister, or some particularly sympathetic aunt; Miss Pillenger's view, differing substantially from this, may be outlined in her own words.
'Ah!' she cried, as, dealing Mr Meggs's conveniently placed jaw a blow which, had it landed an inch lower down, might have knocked him out, she sprang to her feet. 'How dare you! I've been waiting for this Mr Meggs. I have seen it in your eye. I have expected it. Let me tell you that I am not at all the sort of girl with whom it is safe to behave like that. I can protect myself. I am only a working-girl—'
Mr Meggs, who had fallen back against the desk as a stricken pugilist falls on the ropes, pulled himself together to protest.
'Miss Pillenger,' he cried, aghast, 'you misunderstand me. I had no intention—'
'Misunderstand you? Bah! I am only a working-girl—'
'Nothing was farther from my mind—'
'Indeed! Nothing was farther from your mind! You give me money, you shower your vile kisses on me, but nothing was farther from your mind than the obvious interpretation of such behaviour!' Before coming to Mr Meggs, Miss Pillenger had been secretary to an Indiana novelist. She had learned style from the master. 'Now that you have gone too far, you are frightened at what you have done. You well may be, Mr Meggs. I am only a working-girl—'
'Miss Pillenger, I implore you—'
'Silence! I am only a working-girl—'
A wave of mad fury swept over Mr Meggs. The shock of the blow and still more of the frightful ingratitude of this horrible woman nearly made him foam at the mouth.
'Don't keep on saying you're only a working-girl,' he bellowed. 'You'll drive me mad. Go. Go away from me. Get out. Go anywhere, but leave me alone!'
Miss Pillenger was not entirely sorry to obey the request. Mr Meggs's sudden fury had startled and frightened her. So long as she could end the scene victorious, she was anxious to withdraw.
'Yes, I will go,' she said, with dignity, as she opened the door. 'Now that you have revealed yourself in your true colours, Mr Meggs, this house is no fit place for a wor—'
She caught her employer's eye, and vanished hastily.
Mr Meggs paced the room in a ferment. He had been shaken to his core by the scene. He boiled with indignation. That his kind thoughts should have been so misinterpreted—it was too much. Of all ungrateful worlds, this world was the most—
He stopped suddenly in his stride, partly because his shin had struck a chair, partly because an idea had struck his mind.
Hopping madly, he added one more parallel between himself and Hamlet by soliloquizing aloud.
'I'll be hanged if I commit suicide,' he yelled.
And as he spoke the words a curious peace fell on him, as on a man who has awakened from a nightmare. He sat down at the desk. What an idiot he had been ever to contemplate self-destruction. What could have induced him to do it? By his own hand to remove himself, merely in order that a pack of ungrateful brutes might wallow in his money—it was the scheme of a perfect fool.
He wouldn't commit suicide. Not if he knew it. He would stick on and laugh at them. And if he did have an occasional pain inside, what of that? Napoleon had them, and look at him. He would be blowed if he committed suicide.
With the fire of a new resolve lighting up his eyes, he turned to seize the six letters and rifle them of their contents.
They were gone.
It took Mr Meggs perhaps thirty seconds to recollect where they had gone to, and then it all came back to him. He had given them to the demon Pillenger, and, if he did not overtake her and get them back, she would mail them.
Of all the mixed thoughts which seethed in Mr Meggs's mind at that moment, easily the most prominent was the reflection that from his front door to the post office was a walk of less than five minutes.
* * * * *
Miss Pillenger walked down the sleepy street in the June sunshine, boiling, as Mr Meggs had done, with indignation. She, too, had been shaken to the core. It was her intention to fulfil her duty by posting the letters which had been entrusted to her, and then to quit for ever the service of one who, for six years a model employer, had at last forgotten himself and showed his true nature.
Her meditations were interrupted by a hoarse shout in her rear; and, turning, she perceived the model employer running rapidly towards her. His face was scarlet, his eyes wild, and he wore no hat.
Miss Pillenger's mind worked swiftly. She took in the situation in a flash. Unrequited, guilty love had sapped Mr Meggs's reason, and she was to be the victim of his fury. She had read of scores of similar cases in the newspapers. How little she had ever imagined that she would be the heroine of one of these dramas of passion.
She looked for one brief instant up and down the street. Nobody was in sight. With a loud cry she began to run.
It was the fierce voice of her pursuer. Miss Pillenger increased to third speed. As she did so, she had a vision of headlines.
'Stop!' roared Mr Meggs.
'UNREQUITED PASSION MADE THIS MAN MURDERER,' thought Miss Pillenger.
'CRAZED WITH LOVE HE SLAYS BEAUTIFUL BLONDE,' flashed out in letters of crimson on the back of Miss Pillenger's mind.
'SPURNED, HE STABS HER THRICE.'
To touch the ground at intervals of twenty yards or so—that was the ideal she strove after. She addressed herself to it with all the strength of her powerful mind.
In London, New York, Paris, and other cities where life is brisk, the spectacle of a hatless gentleman with a purple face pursuing his secretary through the streets at a rapid gallop would, of course, have excited little, if any, remark. But in Mr Meggs's home-town events were of rarer occurrence. The last milestone in the history of his native place had been the visit, two years before, of Bingley's Stupendous Circus, which had paraded along the main street on its way to the next town, while zealous members of its staff visited the back premises of the houses and removed all the washing from the lines. Since then deep peace had reigned.
Gradually, therefore, as the chase warmed up, citizens of all shapes and sizes began to assemble. Miss Pillenger's screams and the general appearance of Mr Meggs gave food for thought. Having brooded over the situation, they decided at length to take a hand, with the result that as Mr Meggs's grasp fell upon Miss Pillenger the grasp of several of his fellow-townsmen fell upon him.
'Save me!' said Miss Pillenger.
Mr Meggs pointed speechlessly to the letters, which she still grasped in her right hand. He had taken practically no exercise for twenty years, and the pace had told upon him.
Constable Gooch, guardian of the town's welfare, tightened his hold on Mr Meggs's arm, and desired explanations.
'He—he was going to murder me,' said Miss Pillenger.
'Kill him,' advised an austere bystander.
'What do you mean you were going to murder the lady?' inquired Constable Gooch.
Mr Meggs found speech.
'I—I—I—I only wanted those letters.'
'You charge her with stealing 'em?'
'He gave them me to post with his own hands,' cried Miss Pillenger.
'I know I did, but I want them back.'
By this time the constable, though age had to some extent dimmed his sight, had recognized beneath the perspiration, features which, though they were distorted, were nevertheless those of one whom he respected as a leading citizen.
'Why, Mr Meggs!' he said.
This identification by one in authority calmed, if it a little disappointed, the crowd. What it was they did not know, but, it was apparently not a murder, and they began to drift off.
'Why don't you give Mr Meggs his letters when he asks you, ma'am?' said the constable.
Miss Pillenger drew herself up haughtily.
'Here are your letters, Mr Meggs, I hope we shall never meet again.'
Mr Meggs nodded. That was his view, too.
All things work together for good. The following morning Mr Meggs awoke from a dreamless sleep with a feeling that some curious change had taken place in him. He was abominably stiff, and to move his limbs was pain, but down in the centre of his being there was a novel sensation of lightness. He could have declared that he was happy.
Wincing, he dragged himself out of bed and limped to the window. He threw it open. It was a perfect morning. A cool breeze smote his face, bringing with it pleasant scents and the soothing sound of God's creatures beginning a new day.
An astounding thought struck him.
'Why, I feel well!'
'It must be the exercise I took yesterday. By George, I'll do it regularly.'
He drank in the air luxuriously. Inside him, the wild-cat gave him a sudden claw, but it was a half-hearted effort, the effort of one who knows that he is beaten. Mr Meggs was so absorbed in his thoughts that he did not even notice it.
'London,' he was saying to himself. 'One of these physical culture places.... Comparatively young man.... Put myself in their hands.... Mild, regular exercise....'
He limped to the bathroom.
THE MAN WITH TWO LEFT FEET
Students of the folk-lore of the United States of America are no doubt familiar with the quaint old story of Clarence MacFadden. Clarence MacFadden, it seems, was 'wishful to dance, but his feet wasn't gaited that way. So he sought a professor and asked him his price, and said he was willing to pay. The professor' (the legend goes on) 'looked down with alarm at his feet and marked their enormous expanse; and he tacked on a five to his regular price for teaching MacFadden to dance.'
I have often been struck by the close similarity between the case of Clarence and that of Henry Wallace Mills. One difference alone presents itself. It would seem to have been mere vanity and ambition that stimulated the former; whereas the motive force which drove Henry Mills to defy Nature and attempt dancing was the purer one of love. He did it to please his wife. Had he never gone to Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, that popular holiday resort, and there met Minnie Hill, he would doubtless have continued to spend in peaceful reading the hours not given over to work at the New York bank at which he was employed as paying-cashier. For Henry was a voracious reader. His idea of a pleasant evening was to get back to his little flat, take off his coat, put on his slippers, light a pipe, and go on from the point where he had left off the night before in his perusal of the BIS-CAL volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—making notes as he read in a stout notebook. He read the BIS-CAL volume because, after many days, he had finished the A-AND, AND-AUS, and the AUS-BIS. There was something admirable—and yet a little horrible—about Henry's method of study. He went after Learning with the cold and dispassionate relentlessness of a stoat pursuing a rabbit. The ordinary man who is paying instalments on the Encyclopaedia Britannica is apt to get over-excited and to skip impatiently to Volume XXVIII (VET-ZYM) to see how it all comes out in the end. Not so Henry. His was not a frivolous mind. He intended to read the Encyclopaedia through, and he was not going to spoil his pleasure by peeping ahead.
It would seem to be an inexorable law of Nature that no man shall shine at both ends. If he has a high forehead and a thirst for wisdom, his fox-trotting (if any) shall be as the staggerings of the drunken; while, if he is a good dancer, he is nearly always petrified from the ears upward. No better examples of this law could have been found than Henry Mills and his fellow-cashier, Sidney Mercer. In New York banks paying-cashiers, like bears, tigers, lions, and other fauna, are always shut up in a cage in pairs, and are consequently dependent on each other for entertainment and social intercourse when business is slack. Henry Mills and Sidney simply could not find a subject in common. Sidney knew absolutely nothing of even such elementary things as Abana, Aberration, Abraham, or Acrogenae; while Henry, on his side, was scarcely aware that there had been any developments in the dance since the polka. It was a relief to Henry when Sidney threw up his job to join the chorus of a musical comedy, and was succeeded by a man who, though full of limitations, could at least converse intelligently on Bowls.
Such, then, was Henry Wallace Mills. He was in the middle thirties, temperate, studious, a moderate smoker, and—one would have said—a bachelor of the bachelors, armour-plated against Cupid's well-meant but obsolete artillery. Sometimes Sidney Mercer's successor in the teller's cage, a sentimental young man, would broach the topic of Woman and Marriage. He would ask Henry if he ever intended to get married. On such occasions Henry would look at him in a manner which was a blend of scorn, amusement, and indignation; and would reply with a single word:
It was the way he said it that impressed you.
But Henry had yet to experience the unmanning atmosphere of a lonely summer resort. He had only just reached the position in the bank where he was permitted to take his annual vacation in the summer. Hitherto he had always been released from his cage during the winter months, and had spent his ten days of freedom at his flat, with a book in his hand and his feet on the radiator. But the summer after Sidney Mercer's departure they unleashed him in August.
It was meltingly warm in the city. Something in Henry cried out for the country. For a month before the beginning of his vacation he devoted much of the time that should have been given to the Encyclopaedia Britannica in reading summer-resort literature. He decided at length upon Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm because the advertisements spoke so well of it.
Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm was a rather battered frame building many miles from anywhere. Its attractions included a Lovers' Leap, a Grotto, golf-links—a five-hole course where the enthusiast found unusual hazards in the shape of a number of goats tethered at intervals between the holes—and a silvery lake, only portions of which were used as a dumping-ground for tin cans and wooden boxes. It was all new and strange to Henry and caused him an odd exhilaration. Something of gaiety and reckless abandon began to creep into his veins. He had a curious feeling that in these romantic surroundings some adventure ought to happen to him.
At this juncture Minnie Hill arrived. She was a small, slim girl, thinner and paler than she should have been, with large eyes that seemed to Henry pathetic and stirred his chivalry. He began to think a good deal about Minnie Hill.
And then one evening he met her on the shores of the silvery lake. He was standing there, slapping at things that looked like mosquitoes, but could not have been, for the advertisements expressly stated that none were ever found in the neighbourhood of Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, when along she came. She walked slowly, as if she were tired. A strange thrill, half of pity, half of something else, ran through Henry. He looked at her. She looked at him.
'Good evening,' he said.
They were the first words he had spoken to her. She never contributed to the dialogue of the dining-room, and he had been too shy to seek her out in the open.
She said 'Good evening,' too, tying the score. And there was silence for a moment.
Commiseration overcame Henry's shyness.
'You're looking tired,' he said.
'I feel tired.' She paused. 'I overdid it in the city.'
'Oh, dancing. Did you dance much?'
'Yes; a great deal.'
A promising, even a dashing start. But how to continue? For the first time Henry regretted the steady determination of his methods with the Encyclopaedia. How pleasant if he could have been in a position to talk easily of Dancing. Then memory reminded him that, though he had not yet got up to Dancing, it was only a few weeks before that he had been reading of the Ballet.
'I don't dance myself,' he said, 'but I am fond of reading about it. Did you know that the word "ballet" incorporated three distinct modern words, "ballet", "ball", and "ballad", and that ballet-dancing was originally accompanied by singing?'
It hit her. It had her weak. She looked at him with awe in her eyes. One might almost say that she gaped at Henry.
'I hardly know anything,' she said.
'The first descriptive ballet seen in London, England,' said Henry, quietly, 'was "The Tavern Bilkers", which was played at Drury Lane in—in seventeen—something.'
'And the earliest modern ballet on record was that given by—by someone to celebrate the marriage of the Duke of Milan in 1489.'
There was no doubt or hesitation about the date this time. It was grappled to his memory by hoops of steel owing to the singular coincidence of it being also his telephone number. He gave it out with a roll, and the girl's eyes widened.
'What an awful lot you know!'
'Oh, no,' said Henry, modestly. 'I read a great deal.'
'It must be splendid to know a lot,' she said, wistfully. 'I've never had time for reading. I've always wanted to. I think you're wonderful!'
Henry's soul was expanding like a flower and purring like a well-tickled cat. Never in his life had he been admired by a woman. The sensation was intoxicating.
Silence fell upon them. They started to walk back to the farm, warned by the distant ringing of a bell that supper was about to materialize. It was not a musical bell, but distance and the magic of this unusual moment lent it charm. The sun was setting. It threw a crimson carpet across the silvery lake. The air was very still. The creatures, unclassified by science, who might have been mistaken for mosquitoes had their presence been possible at Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, were biting harder than ever. But Henry heeded them not. He did not even slap at them. They drank their fill of his blood and went away to put their friends on to this good thing; but for Henry they did not exist. Strange things were happening to him. And, lying awake that night in bed, he recognized the truth. He was in love.
After that, for the remainder of his stay, they were always together. They walked in the woods, they sat by the silvery lake. He poured out the treasures of his learning for her, and she looked at him with reverent eyes, uttering from time to time a soft 'Yes' or a musical 'Gee!'
In due season Henry went back to New York.
'You're dead wrong about love, Mills,' said his sentimental fellow-cashier, shortly after his return. 'You ought to get married.'
'I'm going to,' replied Henry, briskly. 'Week tomorrow.'
Which stunned the other so thoroughly that he gave a customer who entered at that moment fifteen dollars for a ten-dollar cheque, and had to do some excited telephoning after the bank had closed.
Henry's first year as a married man was the happiest of his life. He had always heard this period described as the most perilous of matrimony. He had braced himself for clashings of tastes, painful adjustments of character, sudden and unavoidable quarrels. Nothing of the kind happened. From the very beginning they settled down in perfect harmony. She merged with his life as smoothly as one river joins another. He did not even have to alter his habits. Every morning he had his breakfast at eight, smoked a cigarette, and walked to the Underground. At five he left the bank, and at six he arrived home, for it was his practice to walk the first two miles of the way, breathing deeply and regularly. Then dinner. Then the quiet evening. Sometimes the moving-pictures, but generally the quiet evening, he reading the Encyclopaedia—aloud now—Minnie darning his socks, but never ceasing to listen.
Each day brought the same sense of grateful amazement that he should be so wonderfully happy, so extraordinarily peaceful. Everything was as perfect as it could be. Minnie was looking a different girl. She had lost her drawn look. She was filling out.
Sometimes he would suspend his reading for a moment, and look across at her. At first he would see only her soft hair, as she bent over her sewing. Then, wondering at the silence, she would look up, and he would meet her big eyes. And then Henry would gurgle with happiness, and demand of himself, silently:
'Can you beat it!'
It was the anniversary of their wedding. They celebrated it in fitting style. They dined at a crowded and exhilarating Italian restaurant on a street off Seventh Avenue, where red wine was included in the bill, and excitable people, probably extremely clever, sat round at small tables and talked all together at the top of their voices. After dinner they saw a musical comedy. And then—the great event of the night—they went on to supper at a glittering restaurant near Times Square.