BY WILLIAM McFEE
AUTHOR OF "CASUALS OF THE SEA"
GARDEN CITY NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1918
Copyright, 1918, by Doubleday, Page & Company.
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
TO MARGERY ALLINGHAM
[Publisher's Note: It should be explained that an earlier version of "Aliens" was published in London in 1914, and some copies were also distributed in the United States. After the issue of "Casuals of the Sea" the present publishers purchased the rights to "Aliens" and urged Mr. McFee to re-write the story. His account of the history of this book is here inserted, and will undoubtedly take its place among the most entertaining and interesting prefaces in modern literature.]
So many people are unaware of the number of works of fiction which have been rewritten after publication. I was rather surprised myself when I came to recapitulate them. I wouldn't go so far as to say that second editions, like second thoughts, are the best, because I at once think of "The Light that Failed." But I do believe that under the very unusual circumstances of the genesis and first issue of Aliens I am justified in offering a maturer and more balanced representation of what that book stands for.
The notion of a character like Mr. Carville came to me while I was busy finishing "Casuals of the Sea" during the late fall of 1912. A short story was the result. It went to many likely and unlikely publishers, for I knew very little of the field. I don't know whether the "Farm Journal" (of which I am a devoted reader) got it, but it is quite probable. A mad artist who lived near us, in an empty store along with a studio stove and three priceless Kakemonos, told me he would "put me next" an editor of his acquaintance. I forget the name of the paper now, but I think it had some connection with women's clothes. I sent in my story, but unfortunately my friend forgot to put me next, for I got neither cash nor manuscript. The next time I passed the empty store, I stepped in to explain, but the artist had a black eye, and his own interest was so engrossed in Chinese lacquer-work and a stormy divorce case he had coming on shortly, that I was struck dumb. What was a short story in comparison with such issues? And I knew he had no more opinion of me as an author than I had of him as an artist.
But when another typed copy came back from a round of visits to American magazines, I kept it. I had a strong conviction that, in making a book of what was then only a rather vague short story, I was not such a fool as the mad artist seemed to think. I reckoned his judgment had been warped by the highly eccentric environment in which he delighted. The empty store in which he lived, like a rat in a shipping-case, was new and blatant. It thrust its blind, lime-washed window-front out over the sidewalk. Over the lime-wash one could see the new pine shelving along the walls loaded with innumerable rolls of wall-paper. Who was responsible for this moribund stock I could never discover. Perhaps the mad artist imagined them to be priceless Kakemonos of such transcendent and blinding beauty that he did not dare unroll them. They resembled a library of papyrus manuscripts. Here and there among them stood some exquisitely hideous dragon or bird of misfortune. He had a bench in the store too, I remember, and seemed to have some sort of business in mending such things for dealers. And he did a little dealing himself too, for his madness had not destroyed his appreciation of the value of money. He would exhibit some piece of Oriental rubbish, and when one had politely admired it, he would say pleasantly, "Take it!" One took it, and a week later he would borrow its full value as a loan.
With his Kakemonos he was even more mystifying, for he would develop sudden and quite unnecessary bursts of rage, and announce his refusal of anything under a million for them. And then he would exhibit them, taking them from a broken Libby, McNeill and Libby milk case under his camp-bed, and holding the rolled splendours aloft. And then, with a grandiose gesture, as of some insane nobleman showing his interminable pedigree, he would let the thing unfold and one beheld a sad animal of unknown species sitting in a silver winter landscape, or a purple silk sunset. And over it glared the mad artist, a sallow fraud, yet watching with some impatience how the stranger regarded this secret preoccupation of his life. I knew nothing about such things and knew he scorned me for my ignorance. Like most artists, he was an unconscious liar. He strove also to give an impression of tremendous power. He had gestures which were supposed to register virility, irresistible force, abysmal contempt. And if the word had not been worked to death by people who don't know its meaning, I would have added that he was a votary of the kultur of his race. His ideal, I suppose, was more the Renaissance virtu than our milk-and-water virtue. He made me feel that I was a worm. In short, he was a very interesting, provocative and exasperating humbug, and his very existence seemed to me sufficient reason for turning Aliens into a book which would shed a flickering light upon the fascinating problem of human folly.
For that is what it amounted to. I was obsessed with the problem of human folly, and he focussed that obsession. It often happens that the character which inspires a book never appears in it. In all sincere work I think it must be so. And, with the mad artist in my mind all the time, I got a good deal of fun out of writing the book, and that, after all, is the main reason one has for writing books. I finished the thing and immediately became despondent, a condition from which I was raised by an unexpected admirer. This was the elderly gentleman who did my typewriting. He dwelt half way up a tall elevator shaft in Newark, N. J., and, as far as I could gather, had farmed himself out to a number of lawyers, none of whom had much to do except telephone to each other and smoke domestic cigars. They say no man is a hero to his valet. I have never had a valet except on ship-board, and I have no desire to compete with the heroes of the average steward; but I have had a typist, and I suppose it is equally rare for an author to be interesting to his amanuensis. And when I climbed one day (the elevator being out of order) to the eyrie where my elderly henchman had his nest, his bald head was shining in the westering sun, and he beamed like a jolly old sun himself as he apologised for not having finished. "He had got so interested in the parties," he explained, "that he hadn't got on as quick as he'd hoped to." I still like to think he was sincere when he said this. Anyhow, I was encouraged. I bound up my copies of typescript and shoved them out into the world. They came back. They became familiar at the local post-office. The mad artist, meeting me with a parcel, would divine the contents and inquire, "Well, and how's Aliens?" He would also inform me that there were several books called by that title. He would regard me with a glassy-eyed grin as I hurried on. He had no more faith in me than he had in himself. Sometimes he would pretend not to see me, but go stalking down the avenue, his fists twisted in his pockets, his head bent, his brows portentous with thought ... a grotesque humbug!
But the time came when, as I have explained elsewhere, I had had enough of artists and books. Of art I never grow weary, but she calls me over the world. I suspect the sedentary art-worker. Most of all, I suspect the sedentary writer. I divide authors into two classes—genuine artists, and educated men who wish to earn enough to let them live like country gentlemen. With the latter I have no concern. But the artist knows when his time has come. In the same way I turned with irresistible longing to the sea, whereon I had been wont to earn my living. It is a good life and I love it. I love the men and their ships. I find in them a never-ending panorama which illustrates my theme, the problem of human folly! Suffice it, I sent my manuscripts to London, looked out my sea dunnage, and the publishing offices of New York City knew me no more.
About a year later I received the proofs of Aliens while in Cristobal, Canal Zone. Without exaggeration, I scarcely knew what to do with them. The outward trappings of literature had fallen away from me with the heavy northern clothing which I had discarded on coming south. I was first assistant engineer on a mail-boat serving New Orleans, the West Indies and the Canal Zone. I had become inured once more to an enchanting existence which alternated between bunk and engine-room. I regarded the neatly-bound proof-copy of Aliens with misgiving. My esteemed Chief, a Scotsman in whose family learning is an honorable tradition, suggested an empty passenger cabin as a suitable study. I forget exactly how the proof-reading was dove-tailed into the watch below, but dove-tailed it was, and when the job was done, the book once more sailed across the Atlantic.
But I was not satisfied. Through the dense jungle of preoccupying affairs in which I was buried I could see that I was not satisfied. I was trying to eat my cake and have it. I make no complaint. If there be one person for whom I cherish a profound dislike it is the literary character who whines because his circumstances hinder his writing. I was no George Gissing, cursed with a dreary distaste of common toil and mechanical things. I love both the Grecian Isles and gas-burners. But for the moment I had chosen gas-burners, or rather steam engines, and I knew I could not have both. So Aliens went back to London, and I went my daily round of the Caribbean. I felt that for once I could trust the judgment of a first-class publisher.
The publishers of this new edition will understand me when I say that an author has no business to trust blindly to the judgment of any house, however first-class. He has no business to do so because that outside estimate of his work must of necessity be based on scanty data. The publisher, for all his enthusiasm, takes a chance, sometimes a pretty long one. An author, as I conceive it, must be his own most uneasy, captious, cantankerous critic. He dare not delegate this job to anyone else, for that way lies the pot-boiler and the formal romance, the "made" book. I was busy, and let go the reins. And I place on record here my gratitude to those who knew enough and cared enough to recall me to my post, that I might deal with the book afresh and do justice to the reader.
Much happened between the day when I mailed my proofs from the big Post Office on Canal Street in New Orleans, and the day when I set out to write this present version. I was now in another hemisphere and the world was at war. By a happy chance I laid hold of a copy of Aliens, sent previously to a naval relative serving on the same station. Up and down the AEgean Sea, past fields of mines and fields of asphodel, past many an isle familiar in happier days to me, I took my book and my new convictions about human folly. It was a slow business, for it so chanced that my own contribution to the war involved long hours. But Aliens grew.
And one evening, I remember, I left off in the middle of Mr. Carville's courtship and went to bed. We were speeding southward. It was a dark, moonless night. The islands of the Grecian Archipelago were roofed over with a vault of low-lying clouds, as if those ferriferous hummocks and limestone peaks were the invisible pillars of an enormous crypt. And since across the floor of this crypt many other vessels were speeding without lights, it was not wonderful that for once our good fortune failed us. For we had had good fortune. Aeroplanes had bombed, and missed us by yards. Zeppelins had come down in flaming ruin before our astonished eyes. Islands had loomed under the very fore-foot of our ship in a fog, and we had gone astern in time. But this time it was our turn. We were, in the succinct phraseology of the sea, in collision.
The story of that night will no doubt be told in its proper place and time. Suffice it that for some weeks we were laid aside, and local Levantine talent invoked to make good the disaster. And in spite of the clangour of rivetters, the unceasing cries of fezzed and turbaned mechanics, and the heavy blows of sweating carpenters, caulkers and blacksmiths, Aliens grew. There was a blessed interval, between five o'clock, when my day's work ended, and the late cabin-dinner at six-thirty, when the setting sun shone into my room and illumined my study-table—a board laid across an open drawer. And Aliens grew. For some time, while the smashed bulwarks and distorted frames of the upper-works were being hacked away outside my window, the uproar was unendurable, and I would go ashore, note-book in pocket, to find a refuge where I could write. I would walk through the city and sit in her gardens; and the story grew. I found obscure cafes where I could sit with coffee and narghileh, and watch the Arabic letter-writers worming the thoughts from their inarticulate clients, and Aliens grew. And later, near the Greek Patriarchate, I found that which to me is home—a secondhand book-store. For I mark my passage about this very wonderful world by old book-stores. London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Rotterdam, Genoa, Venice, New York, Ancona, Rouen, Tunis, Savannah, Kobe and New Orleans have in my memory their old book-stores, where I could browse in peace. And here in Alexandria I found one that might have been lifted out of Royal Street or Lafayette Square. A ramshackle wooden building, bleached and blistered by many a dust-storm and torrid sun, its cracked and distorted window-panes were curtained with decayed illustrated papers in many tongues, discoloured Greek and Italian penny-dreadfuls, and a few shelves of cheap curios. Over the door a long shingle displayed on one side the legend Librairie Universelle, while the other bore the word [Greek: BIBLIOPOLION], which you may translate as it please your fancy. Inside the narrow doors were craters and trenches and redoubts and dug-outs of books. They lay everywhere, underfoot and overhead. They ran up at the back in a steep glacis with embrasures for curios, and were reflected to infinity in tall dusty pier-glasses propped against the walls. High up under the mansard roof hung an antique oriental candelabrum with one candle. Hanging from twine were stuffed fish of grotesque globular proportions, and with staring apoplectic eyes. A stuffed monkey was letting himself down, one-hand, from a thin chain, and regarded the customer with a contemptuous sneer, the dust lying thick on his head and arms and his exquisitely curled tail. And out of an apparently bomb-proof shelter below several tons of books there emerged a little old gentleman in a brilliant tarbush, who looked inquiringly in my direction. For a moment I paused, fascinated by the notion that I had discovered the great Library of Alexandria, reported burnt so many centuries ago. For once within those musty, warped, unpainted walls one forgot the modern world. I looked out. Across the street, backed by the immense and level blaze of an Egyptian sunset, blocks of Carrara marble blushed to pink with mauve shadows, and turned the common stone mason's yard into a garden of gigantic jewels. The hum of a great city, the grind of the trolley-cars, the cries of the itinerant sellers of nuts and fruit, of chewing gum and lottery-tickets, of shoe laces and suspenders, of newspapers, and prawns, and oysters, and eggs, and bread, the rattle of carriages and all the flashing brilliance of the palaces of pleasure, were shut out from that quiet street near the Greek Patriarchate. I had the sudden notion of asking for permission to sit in that Universal Library, and write. And Mr. Bizikas, the little old gentleman in the vivid tarbush, who was lighting a very dirty tin lamp to assist the one candle in the oriental candelabrum, had no objection. I have a feeling occasionally that here I topped the rise of human felicity, as I conceive it. Perhaps I did. Anyhow, Aliens grew.
I must be brief. It came to pass, after certain days, that Aliens grew to accomplishment, and I made my way into the city through one of the many gates of the harbour. I sought the office of the Censor in a large building with a courtyard. It was a large room on the top floor, with a long table occupied by busy orderlies opening and stamping letters with astonishing rapidity. At the back, flanking an open balcony over whose balustrade I could see the blue Mediterranean and a flawless sapphire sky, were two roll-top desks concealing two officers whose polished bald heads shone above stacks of papers. At the deferential insistence of an orderly, one of the heads rose, and a large, ruddy Yorkshire face examined the intruder. In some diffidence I explained the delicate nature of my mission. I opened my parcel and displayed, with the pride of a parent, how Aliens had grown. The officer rose to his feet, a tall, strong, north-country figure, and looked keenly at me over his glasses. Was I a British subject? What was the nature of the manuscript? What was the name of my transport? What was my rank? And so on. To all of which I gave courteous and, I hope, truthful answers. "Well, there's a great deal of it, you know," he remarked. I bowed. I knew, having written it. "Well, call in a week's time." I retired, silently blessing the British Army Officer for his blunt courtesy, his admirable brevity and matchless common sense.
And I called in a week's time. It appeared that the Captain had gone through Aliens and was satisfied that it divulged nothing of military importance, nor did it provide any comfort for the King's enemies. An orderly, a fattish person with a fine mustache and scorched knees, was commanded to secure, seal and register the parcel. The tall officer with the good-humoured country-gentleman's face came to the balcony and discussed for a moment the production of literature under difficulties. "You know, we have very strict orders," he remarked, looking down thoughtfully. "We must be most careful ... h—m ... Neutral countries ... America." He seemed to regard the idea of America with misgiving. I agreed that America was food for thought. "And you write books at sea?" he inquired. Yes, I said, anywhere, everywhere. He nodded. "It is, you know," I added slyly, "our national art." He looked grave at this and said he supposed so. By this time the orderly had tied and sealed Aliens in so many places that I pitied anyone who tried to tamper with it; and so, with an expression of my profound appreciation, I retired. The officer bowed, and the orderly and I clattered down stairs and made our way into the Rue de la Poste. He was a Londoner, and professed great interest in literature, having a brother a news agent. We had some beer together, when Aliens had been safely bestowed. He was getting his leave soon, he said, and I informed him I hoped to get mine in a month or so. We drank to our three years' active service and to our safe trip home. He was much impressed by this coincidence, as he called it, and begged me, if I happened down Deptford way at all, to call and see him over his brother's shop. I asked him if he knew a certain old book-store in Deptford, where I had once gotten a Bandello's Novelle for four shillings, and he said he knew it well. But I think he only said this to please an obvious bibliomaniac. We parted with mutual good wishes, and I went back to the ship.
And so I send it to you, trusting to my good fortune to get it through. It may never reach you, and I shall have had my labour in vain. It may be, also, that ere it see the light I shall have gone away myself, an aggrieved participant in one of the trivial disasters of the sea-affair. But whatever betide, I shall have had my shot at the alluring yet ineluctable problem of human folly.
Port Said, Egypt, April 14, 1917.
I. THE "SCALDINO" 3
II. HIS CHILDREN 16
III. A LETTER FROM WIGBOROUGH 28
IV. MISS FRAENKEL 41
V. HE COMES 56
VI. HE BEGINS HIS TALE 70
VII. DIAPORESIS 105
VIII. HE CONTINUES HIS TALE 115
IX. WE AWAIT DEVELOPMENTS 168
X. ANOTHER LETTER FROM WIGBOROUGH 279
XI. MR. CARVILLE SEES THREE GREEN LIGHTS 296
XII. THE VISION FROM THE KILLS 327
XIII. MISCELLANY 352
XIV. DISCUSSION 374
XV. CONCLUSION 398
Long before any of us three had seen him we had become aware of his existence, and our brains were continually busy about him. His appearance, his age, his gait, his history, his voice, even his ultimate destiny, we conjectured over and over again as one by one the evidences of his existence accumulated and developed in our consciousness. It grew to be quite a game with us, this collection of data, and filled in much of our leisure before we became acquainted with many of our neighbours.
I think Bill was the first to notice something unusual about the family next door, something neither English nor American. "What do you think!" she exclaimed, coming in one morning as I was busy writing. "She's got a little iron grate on legs, and there's charcoal burning in it."
"Who? Where?" I asked, coming out of my work with a start. I was composing an advertisement at the time.
"Mrs. Carville," said Bill, pointing to the window.
From the window, across the intervening plot of ground, we saw our neighbour stooping over one of those small portable affairs so popular in Italy and known as scaldini, mere iron buckets in which coke or charcoal burns without flame, and which are carried from room to room as occasion arises.
"I thought," I said, "that she was Italian. That is a scaldino."
"Is it?" said Bill. "They'll set the house on fire if they use that here."
My friend is rather hard on the Mediterranean nations, giving as a reason "they are so dirty," but meaning, I imagine, that they lack our habits of order and dignified reticence. Their colonies in American cities and country-side are not models for town-planners and municipal idealists. And Bill has, in addition, much of the average Englishwoman's suspicion of foreign domestic economy. The past glories of Greece and Spain and Rome are nothing to her if the cooking utensils of the present generation are greasy or their glassware unpolished. There is, when one gets well away from them, quite a Dutch primness and staid rectangularity about English ideals in the matter of front and back yards, hen-runs, flower-beds and the like. And although her own small tract of New Jersey woefully failed to come anywhere near those same ideals she had a weakness for the gentle disparagement of Latin untidiness and lack of finish.
But, firm believers as we were in the authentic picturesqueness of American life, if we only looked for it, we had been struck more than once by the fugitive glimpses of herself which our neighbour had so far vouchsafed to us. To tell the bald truth, we stood in awe of her. We discriminated between her and her environment. And we paid to her, in spite of our prejudices and limitations, a certain homage which beauty ever commands and receives, so potent is its inspiration to the hearts of men.
On revision, that word "beauty" scarcely stands its own in this connection, and for this reason. We three, deriving our entire sustenance from art in some guise or other, had widely divergent opinions upon the indispensable attributes of beauty per se. From my experience of artists, this condition of things is not unusual. We always agreed to differ, Bill rapturous among her flowers and revelling in their colour; Mac catching with a fine enthusiasm and assured technique the fugitive tints of a sunrise through a tracery of leaves and twigs; and I, quiescently receptive, pondering at intervals upon the sublime mystery of the human form, especially the grandiose renderings of it in the works of Michael Angelo. Thus it will be seen that I alone was unprejudiced in my predilections, and qualified, however inadequately, to do justice to Mrs. Carville. Mac was annoyed because she had cut down a tree. That it was her own tree made no difference. To cut down a living tree was, in Mac's view, a sacrilege. Bill had an additional grievance in the fact that Mrs. Carville not only grew no flowers herself, but permitted her chickens to wander deleteriously among ours.
A brief and passing glance from the street would have given a stranger no inkling of the state of affairs. Indeed, Mrs. Carville's domain and ours were un-American in the fact that there had at one time been a fence between us. Even now it is a good enough fence in front; but it gradually degenerated until, at the bottom of the yards, it was a mere fortuitous concourse of rotten and smashed palings through which multitudinous armies of fowls came at unseasonable hours and against which all Bill's ladylike indignation was vented in vain. As we watched behind the curtains a Dorking stepped through and began to prospect among the sumach and stramonium that Bill had encouraged along our frontiers, under an illusion that plants labelled "poisonous" in her American gardening book would decimate the fowls.
"I wish they wouldn't," said Bill sadly, and added, "It's rotten, you know. I shall speak to them about it one of these days."
For myself, though trained habit enabled me to make note of the Dorking, my whole conscious attention was riveted upon the little group round the scaldino on the back porch. Mrs. Carville was, as I have said, stooping over the brazier. Her movements were being watched not only by ourselves, but by her two children. Fortunately, they were beyond her, their legs planted far apart, their hands behind them, so that I could see without stint the magnificent pose of the woman's body. Her arms hovered over the vessel, the left resting at times upon it, the other selecting pieces of fuel from a box at her side. The line of her back from hip to shoulder seemed incredibly straight and long. The cold wind that was blowing gustily and which was the ostensible cause of her preparations, pressed her thin dress to her form and showed with sportive candour the fine modelling of bosom and limbs. Chiefly, however, I was attracted by the superb disdain in the poise of the head. It was a dark head, coiled heavily with black hair and set back in the hollow of the shoulders. Her face may be called dark too, the black eye-brows and olive skin being unrelieved by colour in the cheeks. Her whole expression was, you might say, forbidding, and I was not surprised when one of the boys received a push as he bent his head over the brazier. There was such an electric quickness in the gesture, such a dispassionate resumption of her former pose, that one involuntarily conceded to her a fierce and peremptory disposition. One felt that such a woman would listen with some impatience to complaints about predatory fowls, that she would stand no nonsense from her children either, that....
The same thought flashed through our minds simultaneously, and in strict accordance with our differing temperaments Bill voiced it.
"I wonder if they don't get on," she said.
"I wonder," I assented.
The brazier full, Mrs. Carville rose, the handle in her hand. Pointing to the box, she spoke to her children, who hastily removed it to a shed at the bottom of the yard. She turned to enter the house, her large black eyes swept our windows in a swift comprehensive glance of suspicion and then she vanished.
I retired hastily to my desk, acutely conscious that we had been, well, that we had been impolite! Bill went away without speaking, and for a couple of hours I was absorbed in my work. Growing weary of the thing, I took up my pipe and went upstairs to the studio.
"Just in time for tea," said Bill. "Have a cookie?"
The studio was in some disorder, and the atmosphere was heavy with the odour of printer's ink. The etching press had been dragged out from the wall, trays of water, bottles of benzine, rags of muslin, rolls of paper, palettes of ink, copper plates and all the materiel of etching were lying in considerable confusion about the room, and Mac himself, draped in a blue cotton overall, stood in negligent attitude against an easel, drinking a cup of tea. I had caught the phrase, "They're a funny lot," and I divined that Bill's hasty offer of cookies was a mere ruse to put me off the track of a possibly interesting conversation.
"Finished?" asked Mac, passing me a cup of tea.
"Not yet," I replied. "Another thousand words will do it, though."
Mac, in accordance with a vow made in all sincerity, and approved by us, set apart one day a week for etching, just as I was supposed to consecrate some part of my time to literature. At first we were to work together, select themes, write them up and illustrate them conjointly. This, we argued, could not fail to condense into fame and even wealth. Our friend Hooker had done this, and he had climbed to a one-man show in Fifth Avenue. But by some fatality, whenever Mac took a day off for high art, on that day did I invariably feel sordidly industrious. I might idle for a week, smoking too much and getting in Bill's way as she busied herself with housework, but as soon as the etching-press scraped across the studio-floor, or Mac came down with camera and satchel and dressed for a tramp, I became the victim of a mania for work, and stuck childishly to my desk. Personally I did not believe in Hooker's story at all. Hooker's mythical librettist never materialized. I was always on the look-out for a secondhand book containing Hooker's letterpress. It suited the others to believe in him, but even a writer of advertising booklets and "appreciations" has a certain literary instinct that cannot be deceived. And so I felt, as I have said, sordidly industrious and inclined to look disparagingly upon a man who was frittering away his time with absurd scratchings upon copper and whose hands were just then in a most questionable condition.
"I thought you were going to help me," he sneered over his cup.
"The fit was on me," I explained, and my eye roved round the studio. I caught sight of a piece of paper on a chair. Mac made a movement to pick it up, but he was hampered by the cup and saucer, and I secured it.
"Ah—h!" I remarked, and they two regarded each other sheepishly. "Very good indeed, old man!"
And it was very good. With the slap-dash economy of effort which he had learned of Van Roon, when that ill-fated genius was in Chelsea, Mac had caught the salient curves and angles of Mrs. Carville as she stooped over her scaldino, had caught to a surprising degree the sombre expression of her face and the tigerish energy of her crouched body. I studied it with great pleasure for a moment, and then it recurred to me that he had not been with us at the window. I say recurred, though I had known it all along, and my ejaculation, for that matter, was but a sign of triumph over catching him at the same game of peeping-Tom that we had been playing in the room below. Yet so quickly and over-lappingly do our minds work that at the same moment I had no less than three blurred emotions. I was pleased to find my friend was guilty, I was pleased with the sketch, yet puzzled to know how he had come to make it. Suddenly I saw light.
"You were on the stairs?" I said, and pointed with the paper over my shoulder. He nodded.
"Happened to look out," he remarked, setting his cup down.
It is my custom to risk a good deal sometimes by uttering thoughts which my friends are free to disown. They may not be quite honest in this, but none the less, according to the social contract, they are free to disown. So, in this case, when I said, "I wonder if they are really married," both of these generous souls repudiated the suggestion at once.
"But you must admit we have some reason for suspicion," I went on, looking into my cup. "Of course, I am not speaking now as a gentleman——"
"No," said Bill, maliciously. I continued.
"——but as an investigator into the causes of psychological phenomena. Placing them upon the dissecting-table, so to speak, and probing with the forceps of observation and the needle of wit——"
"Rubbish!" snorted the etcher rudely, turning to his plates.
"But, my dear chap!" I urged, "let me explain. I happened to be reading Balzac last night, that is all. You know how stimulating he is, and how readily one falls in with his plans for forming a complete Science of Applied Biology of the human race. Put it another way if you like. What are the facts? Item: A grass widow, obviously foreign, presumably Italian. Item: Two children indisputably American, one fair, the other dark. Item: A scaldino. Item: Male clothing on the line. Item: A reserved attitude toward her intelligent and cultivated neighbours. Item: Ignorance of the well-known fact that the Indian Summer is now setting in. Item:——shall I go on? Have we not here evidence sufficiently discrepant to warrant a certain conjecture?"
"Male clothing, you said?" remarked Bill, a certain respect for my perspicacity in her manner; "When?"
"The last time I came home with the milk," I replied. "The moon was shining with some brilliance. As I looked out of my window before getting into bed I saw some one moving over there. A further scrutiny revealed to me a number of undeniable suits of pyjamas which were being taken hurriedly from the line."
"You didn't say anything about it before?"
"No, because I attached no significance to the fact before. To tell you the truth, I was under the impression that they were doing laundry work and that, to conceal the fact more effectively, they were doing the male garments at night. We had not then heard the item I was waiting permission to enumerate."
"Is it one we know or one you're going to spring on us?" inquired the lady, reaching out for my cup.
"You may know it," I replied. Mac was bending over his plate, rubbing the ink in with deft fingers, and I saw his lowered glance flutter in my direction for a moment.
"You mean Mac knows and you don't feel sure whether he's told me," interpreted Bill, shaking the tea-pot. I laughed.
"Into that we will not go," I said. "Suffice it that if he knows it was because I told him."
"I knew it was something you were ashamed of," she exclaimed, triumphantly. "Go on: out with it!"
"How can I be ashamed of it since I am about to tell you?" I demanded, incautiously.
"Why, because your love of scandal is so tremendous that you sacrifice even yourself to it!" she answered.
"Thank you," I said. "Here is my item: They correspond."
"That's nothing to go on!" cried the lady. I dared no more than smile. Mac grinned as he lifted the plate from the gas stove and, giving it a final polish, carried it to the press. "Oh, well!" went on Bill, irrelevantly, "let us all be honest and say we're interested. If he exists, he will come along some time."
The press creaked and the spokes turned. We both paused involuntarily as Mac bent over and lifted the blankets. This is always a moment of anxiety. It was a theory among us that when Samuel Johnson wrote "The Vanity of Human Wishes" he had been pulling proofs from copper. Bill had confessed to me that she could not help holding her breath, sometimes. Her husband turned upon us with a smile of satisfaction.
"If we're all going to be honest," he remarked, "we all ought to know as much as each other, eh? Well then, tell us about the correspondence, old man. What do you know?"
"Miss Fraenkel ..." I began, and Bill breathed, "I knew it!"
"In the course of a casual conversation," I continued, "Miss Fraenkel mentioned to me the fact that letters pass between them. In a way, I suppose, she shouldn't do it. A post-mistress is in a delicate position. And yet why not? One may say without prejudice that a certain man writes to his wife. We might even have assumed it, since we see the postman deliver letters with our own eyes. Miss Fraenkel, however, overstepped the bounds of prudence when she implied something wrong. Her exact words, as far as I can remember, were, 'It is funny he writes from New York.'"
"Does he?" said Bill.
"So Miss Fraenkel says. So you see, your ... our unspoken thoughts were justified, to say the least. We may recast Item one and say, A grass widow, undoubtedly Italian, with a husband in New York, twenty miles away."
"Well, in that case it's no business of ours," said Mac, as he spread the heavy viscid ink upon a new plate. "They may have their troubles, but it's pretty clear they don't need our sympathy, do they?"
"No," assented Bill.
"But what becomes of our inquiry?" I protested. "My dear Mac, this does credit to your kind heart, but since we are agreed to be honest, let us have the fruits of our honesty. Consider that anyhow we are doing them no harm. You are too gentle. Indeed, I think that we have been stand-offish. Why should not Bill call and—er—leave a card?"
"Me! Call on an Italian?" The voice was almost shrill.
"A neighbourly act," I remarked. "And we may find out something."
"We're a pretty lot, us and our honesty," put in Mac, in some disgust, rubbing his nose with the back of his wrist.
"My dear friends," I said, "I give you my word of honour that is how modern novels are made. If you put an end to espionage the book market would be given over entirely to such works as 'The Automobile and How to Drive It' and 'Jane Austen and Her Circle.'"
"Then it's a very shady trade, mean and dishonourable," said Mac.
"We agreed upon that, you remember, when my novel was refused publication," I said, laughing.
"Yes," said Bill. "But when they accepted it, you got very stuck-up and refused to write any advertisements for a fortnight and said that whoever had written a good book was one of a noble company, and a lot more of it. It depends on the point of view."
"Of course it does, ma mie. In this case, the honest point of view is the one we must take. We must forget for a moment that we are English lady and gentlemen——"
"Never!" said Bill, firmly, lighting a cigarette.
"——and remember that we are students of life. What would Balzac or Flaubert have known of life if they had been merely gentlemen? Nothing! What does a gentleman know? Nothing. What does he do in the world? Nothing. Of what use is he beyond his interest as a vestige of a defunct feudalism? This is the Twentieth Century, in the United States of America, not the——"
"Oh stop, stop!" she said, laughing. "Go down and get that thousand words finished."
It was a week later, and we were sitting on the verandah looking out across Essex County towards Manhattan. To us, who some five years before had been shaken from our homestead in San Francisco and hurried penniless and almost naked across the continent, our location here in the Garden State, looking eastward towards the Western Ocean and our native isle, had always appeared as "almost home." We endeavoured to impress this upon our friends in England, explaining that "we could be home in four or five days easily"; and what were four or five days? True, we have never gone so far as to book our passage; but there is undoubted comfort in the fact that in a week at the outside, we could walk down Piccadilly. Out on the Pacific Slope we were, both physically and spiritually, a world away.
It pleased us, too, to detect in the configuration of the district a certain identity with our own county of Essex, in England, where a cousin of Bill's had a cottage, and where, some day, we were to have a cottage too. Our home is called Wigboro' House, after the cousin's, and we have settled it that, just as you catch a glimpse of grey sea across Mersea Island from Wigborough, so we may catch the glint and glare of the lights of Manhattan, and, on stormy nights, feel on our lips the sharpness of the salt wind that blows across Staten Island from the Atlantic. It is an innocent conceit, and our only critic so far had been Miss Fraenkel, who had objected to the name, and advocated with American succinctness the advantage of a number. As Bill had remarked mournfully, "It wouldn't be so bad if it was number three or four, but Five hundred and Eighty-two Van Diemen's Avenue is horrible!" We had given in to Miss Fraenkel of course, save that none of us had the courage to disillusion Bill's cousin. We still received from him letters addressed in his sprawling painter's hand "Wigboro' House, Netley Heights, N. J., U. S. A.," a mail or so late. We never told him of Van Diemen's Avenue, nor for that matter had we mentioned our neighbours. Curiously enough, it was he, that painter cousin of Bill's, thousands of miles away in that other Essex, who told us something that we were only too quick to appreciate, about our neighbours.
We were talking of him, I remember, that afternoon as we sat on the stoop, Bill saying he would be writing soon, and Mac raising the vexed question of the Fourth Chair. You see, we have four rocking-chairs on our verandah, though there are but three of us, and Bill usually claims the hammock. It was no answer, I found, to suggest future friends as occupants for this chair. It grew to be a legend that some day I should bring home a bride and she should have it. I submitted to this badinage and even hinted that at first we should need but one chair.... I had heard ... nay seen, such things in San Francisco, before the earthquake. In the meantime I had vamped up a very pretty story of the painter-cousin getting a commission to paint a prima-donna in New York and coming over to visit us in great state. He might be induced to sit awhile in the vacant chair. It seemed more probable than Bill's legend, for I knew Miss F——, anybody I married, say, would want the hammock. There was one drawback to my dream, and that was the humiliation of revealing to him Van Diemen's Avenue. He is a university man, and from his letters and Bill's description I should say he has a rather embarrassing laugh when he finds a person out in a deception like that. But so far he had not yet received a commission to paint a prima-donna in New York, and he still pictures our Wigboro' house standing alone on Netley Heights, looking out across rolling country to the sea. Of course the photos that we send do not show any other houses near, and the verandahs make the place look bigger than it really is. He must be tremendously impressed, too, by Bill's courageous declaration (in inverted commas) that at the back the land is ours "as far as the eye can see." It is true, too, though the eye cannot see very far. There is a "dip," you know, common enough to Triassic regions; and as you stand at the back door and look westward the sky comes down and touches our cabbages, fifty yards away. It does, really!
Well, we were talking of him and incidentally of the Fourth Chair, when the children came round the corner of the house and, finding us there, stood looking at us.
That is all; just stood staring at us, with feet planted firmly on the gravel, hands in pockets and an expression of unwinking candour in their young eyes. It was absurd, of course, that we three grown-ups should have been so embarrassed by a couple of urchins, but we were. The cool nerve of it, the unimaginable audacity of it, took our breath away. It was almost as though they were saying, "Well, and what are you doing here, hey?" There was something almost indelicate in their merciless scrutiny. We quailed.
There was, moreover, a deeper reason for our disquietude. We realized, afterward, that those children, one dark and one fair, had been quite unconscious of our existence before. Numberless times they had passed us, even crossing our land on a short cut to the forest road, but without recognition. And though, in a pause between two absorbing interests, in a moment of disengagement from the more important matters of American childhood, they now deigned to favour us with their frank attention, it was rather disparagement than curiosity they exhibited. We now know the feelings of a Living Wonder in a show.
"Hello," remarked the elder, the dark one, dispassionately, and we almost jumped. The other child fixed his eye on my slippers, which were of carpet and roomy. It seemed to me that the time had come to tell them of their lack of good manners.
"Hello, little boy," I replied. I decided to approach the subject of manners circuitously.
"You ain't so very big yerself," said the elder boy, quite without emotion and merely as a stated fact. I admit freely that this, in the jargon of the streets, was "one on me." My general diminutiveness of person has always been more than compensated, I think, by a corresponding magnitude of mind; but one is none the less sensitive to wayside ribaldry. I have never been able to quench a certain satisfaction in the fact that the children who mocked the prophet were devoured by bears. An occasional example is certainly wholesome, if only to bring young people to their senses.
"You mustn't speak like that," I said, gently. "What is your name?"
"What yo' want to know for?" came the answer, and he joined his brother in examining my slippers. The baffling thing was that there was really nothing intentionally rude about these two rather pretty little fellows. They were merely exhibiting, in a somewhat disconcerting fashion, it is true, the influence of republican freedom upon natures unwarped by feudal traditions of courtesy and noblesse oblige. It was baffling, as I say, but encouraging for all that. I felt that if the others could restrain their indignation and I could school myself to pursue the catechism, I should eventually discover some avenue of inquiry that might lead to fresh knowledge of the menage next door. I tried again.
"Well, you see," I explained, "we would like to get acquainted with you. You tell us your names and we'll tell you ours. Eh?"
"I know your name, I do," he said, glancing at my face for a moment. I put out my hand to calm Bill's restlessness. It appeared afterwards that she "thought she was going to choke."
"Gee! you do? Well then, you can tell me yours," I went on.
"Giuseppe Mazzini Carville," he returned, and before we fully realized the stupendous possibilities which this implied the younger child raised his eyes to our faces.
"Want to know my name too?" he queried, not a quiver of an eyelid to show any self-consciousness.
"Of course," I said; "what is it?" We waited an instant, breathlessly.
"Benvenuto Cellini Carville," he pronounced carefully, and added as an afterthought, "I'm Ben; he's Beppo."
"Fancy giving a child a name like that!" muttered Bill, compassionately. "I call it a shame!" And she leaned over towards the two children. "Do you know my name then?" she asked.
The clear, steady eyes rested for a moment upon her face, and a slight smile curved the lips of the elder as he answered.
"Ma calls you the woman with two husbands," he remarked.
"Oh!" said Bill, and fell back into the hammock.
"Say, Kiddo," said Mac, reaching out a long arm and capturing them, "what do they teach you down in that old school anyway, eh?"
"It is useless to try and force anything out of them," I warned. "Remember the school-teacher is forbidden by law even to touch them." They slipped away from his knee, and stood as before.
"Listen," I continued. "Got a father, Beppo?"
He surveyed me with some slight astonishment.
"Sure," he replied. "Of course I got a father, silly."
"Well, where is he?"
They looked at each other, their arms folded behind them, their toes digging the gravel.
"At sea," said Beppo, and Mac slapped his knee.
"Eh?" I said, blankly, for I had not caught the phrase.
"We are a lot of duffers!" muttered Mac. "The man is a sailor and he's at sea."
"Oh!" I said, and for a moment I felt downcast at the tame ending of our investigation. "When is he coming home, Beppo?"
"I dunno," he answered, indifferently. "What do you want to know for?"
Here was a quandary. I was caught fairly and squarely prying into another person's business. I don't know why, but these two little chaps, with their clean-cut unembarrassed features, their relentless stare and their matter-of-fact outlook upon life, seemed to have in a supreme degree the faculty of inspiring and snubbing curiosity. I think the others, since I had borne the brunt of the ordeal, sympathized with me, for they were silent. I stared at our visitors in some perplexity; and then in the most exasperating manner they turned away and ran across our ground to a huge hollow stump near the forest path and began to play.
"Pretty tough, eh?" murmured Mac, rocking himself. I began to wonder whether I ought to have been more indignant about that reflection upon my height. Bill looked up and twisted round so that she could see what they were doing.
"What are they playing?" she whispered. No one answered. I was thinking. Sailor—sixty dollars a month rent—Italian wife—letters from New York.
"I will see," I said, and stepping down I walked across to the stump.
I was fully resolved to sift the matter as far as I could to the bottom. I was aware of the disadvantage of being a small man, for I saw that I should be compelled to climb up to look into the stump. But with small stature is often joined a certain tenacious, terrier-like fortitude. I advanced with firmness.
Ben was nowhere to be seen. Beppo, a stick on his shoulder, stood in a statuesque pose in front of the stump.
"G'way!" he hissed, as I came up.
"What's the game?" I whispered.
"Indians. I'm on guard. G'way!" he whispered back.
"Is this the fort?" I searched for a foothold.
"Yep. This is the middle-watch. What'd you butt in for?"
I scrambled up and looked. Just below me, lying on a soft bed of mouldering tinder wood and leaves, was Benvenuto Cellini Carville, simulating profound slumber. As I clung there, a somewhat undignified figure, he opened one eye.
"Let me play too?" I pleaded.
"Can you follow a trail?" said Beppo's voice at my side.
"Well, you go down there," he pointed to Bill's cabbage patch, "and be a hostile, see?"
I saw. As I slipped down and hastened away as directed (avoiding the cabbages), it seemed to me absurdly paradoxical that the only way to be friendly with these precocious beings was to be a "hostile." I looked round. Beppo stood at rigid attention, and at the studio back window I saw two grinning heads surveying my performance. I was not at all clear in my mind how a hostile should act; it was thirty years since I had read "Deerslayer." Should I drop on my knees and crawl through the long grass, snooping round the beanpoles and taking the devoted block-house in flank? I swallowed my stiff-necked English pride and began to crawl. Then I saw a better plan. I slipped through the sparse line of dwarf oaks smothered with crimson poison-ivy that bordered the forest path and crept as silently as I could towards the street until I was abreast of the stump. As I paused Beppo was making his round of the fort and espied me. Instantly crying "Hostiles!" he presented his stick, banged, reloaded, banged again, reloaded and banged yet again. I took up a stick and presented it—bang! With amazing verisimilitude Beppo rolled over—shot through the heart. Really, for a moment I had a mad apprehension that in some occult way, some freak of hypnotic suggestion, I had actually wrought the child harm. I stood there breathlessly triumphant and wondering whether it was now my business to rush in and scalp the defenceless prisoners. I became aware of a head and a stick above the stump.
"Bang!" said the garrison. Obviously I was shot. I fell, desperately wounded, and endeavoured to drag myself away into the forest of dwarf oaks, when the garrison hailed me.
"Surrender!" he called, presenting his piece. I put up my hands. He climbed down nimbly.
"Now you help me bring in the dead and wounded," he ordered, and together we, the victorious garrison, dragged the slain warrior into the shadow of the stump. All at once he became alive, jumped up and danced gleefully.
"Say, that's bully!" he chanted. "You play some Indian!"
I looked down modestly and blushed I fear, for I knew that the grinning heads were still at the studio window.
"Well," I said, picking the thistle burrs off my trousers, "let us sit down for a spell, shall we?" To my surprise, they consented. We went round to the stoop and I took a big rocker. For a moment they stared, as though considering me in the new light of a perfect "hostile."
"Say," began Beppo, "what you doin' in there?" and he pointed to the house.
"What do you want to know for?" I retorted, humorously, stroking his dark head. I am fond of children in a way, especially boys. He twisted his head away, but without ill-temper, and looked at me gravely.
"Don't you work?" he demanded.
"A little, sometimes," I replied earnestly, feeling for my cigarettes.
"What sort of work?" said Benvenuto, standing in front of me.
"We make pictures," I said, evasively. I have a silly reluctance to talk of literature as work.
"Huh!" they remarked, and surveyed me afresh.
"What does your father work at?" I asked, cautiously.
"He's at sea," said Beppo.
And that was all they knew. I tried the question in many ways, but they had no other answer. Evidently they had grown up with that phrase in their ears, "at sea," and were satisfied.
"Don't you want to see him?" I suggested. They "supposed so." I left that subject.
"How old are you?"
"Seven," said Beppo. "Ben's six."
"You are very precocious," I remarked, to myself chiefly.
"Precocious," I repeated, rising to meet the postman. He handed me several business letters and one for Bill with an English stamp, a fat package.
"Who's that from?" asked Beppo, and I was pulling his ear gently as Bill came out with a rush. The postman went along to the next house.
At this moment my perceptions became blurred. I remember handing the letters to Bill and Mac. I remember the quick scuffle of the two children as they hastened toward their own home. All this is blurred. What stands out sharply in my memory is the figure of Mrs. Carville, her waist pressed hard against the fence, a long envelope in her hand, gesticulating to the children as they went towards her. I saw her wave them peremptorily indoors and then remain by the fence, regarding me with profound distrust. I made a step forward to speak, for I should have had to shout at that distance, but she turned and swung up the steps of her porch and slammed the door.
"A letter from Cecil," said Bill as I took my seat, a little downcast at the encounter. Cecil is the painter-cousin, at Wigborough, Essex, England.
"What does he say?" I inquired.
"Read it to us," said she, and handed me a dozen sheets of tracing paper pinned together.
I began to read.
A LETTER FROM WIGBOROUGH
Dear Bill,—At last I find myself with an hour or so to spare, so here goes! How are you all? Well, I hope. I received your little present on the anniversary. Many thanks, old girl. How on earth do you remember the date of everybody's birthday? Honestly, I should have let it pass without noticing if that wee book had not arrived two days before. So you see, you are of some use in the world after all! (This is a joke.) How's Mac getting on with the etching? Tell him I've taken to using only forty per cent. nitric acid in distilled water. This gives very good results for all ordinary work, much more certain than the nitrous, and doesn't make such a stink. There's no demand just now for modern work, in England at any rate. I can hardly believe what you say about the shows in New York. London's dead for etchers. Every dealer is clamorous for copies of the old masters. The rotten thing is that it pays better than doing original work, you know. I have a job on now—twenty plates at L50 a plate, simply copying Girtins and Bartolozzis. I shall do four plates a year. I take things pretty easily, work in the morning, potter round the garden in the afternoon, tennis and cycling when the weather permits. This has been a terrible summer. English weather gets worse, I believe. We had rain for a solid week in July. I was out on a tramp through the midlands and got caught in it, which reminds me of a most remarkable chap I met at the time. I really must tell you about him, because I don't remember anyone who has so impressed his personality upon me as this man did.
"It was this way. I had been sketching round about Market Overton, and getting rather sick of the incessant rain, so I packed up my knapsack and started home. It really is much more jolly walking in the rain than sitting in a stuffy inn parlour waiting for it to stop. Well, at Peterboro' I heard the country eastward was flooded and farmers ruined. Of course, my road lay through March and Ely to Newmarket and Colchester, and I wouldn't believe the boys who called to me that I'd be stopped; but sure enough, not two miles east of Peterboro' the road slid under water and people were punting themselves about on doors, and cooking their grub upstairs. In the fields the hay-cocks and corn-ricks were just showing themselves above the water. It made one's heart ache for the farmers. Well, I turned back, of course, and took the London road to Huntingdon, which runs high all the way to Alconbury. I was getting jolly tired and wondering if I should find a decent bed before I reached Huntingdon, when I came to Saxon Cross. At the cross-roads stands a fine inn all by itself, and to judge by the names and addresses in the visitors' book, it is nearly as well known in America as in England. The Saxon Cross Hotel is not really a hotel at all, being a hunting inn. But it is very comfortable, with brushes hung all round the walls and fine old engravings of sporting scenes in all the rooms.
"At first I only went into the bar-parlour to get a drink. It was rather dark in there, for it was very near sunset and the windows were small, and I had slipped off my knapsack and dropped into a big comfortable chair before I noticed a clean-shaven man with a big hooked nose and gleaming eyes seated in the far corner. It was like the beak of a bird, that nose, and I was so fascinated by it that I didn't answer the landlord when he came in and said 'Good evening.' The man opposite said 'Good evening' too, so I suppose that it must have been just a mistaken idea of mine, but I really thought at first that he had something against me, his glance was so confoundedly malevolent. He was a tall young chap in a Norfolk suit with a soft silk collar and scarlet tie, russia-leather shoes and a watch in an alligator case on his left wrist. A gentleman evidently by the look of him and when he said to me, in the refined voice of the ordinary university man, 'Are you walking down country?' I made up my mind that he was O. K. and began to converse.
"One thing rather puzzled me, and that was the fact that he and the landlord did not speak to each other. While I was drinking my whisky they both talked to me and I to them, but they did not exchange a word. I thought it was strange that a landlord should ignore a guest like that, especially as the guest didn't look as if he would stand much ignoring. Indeed, there was a sort of glint in his dark eyes as he made the most ordinary remark that struck me as particularly baleful. However, we talked of the floods and my tramp and hunting, etc., and finally I decided to stop the night there. The landlord went off to order supper and my new friend came over and sat down beside me. Somehow or other I found myself talking over old times. On thinking the matter over I have come to the conclusion that it was his use of one or two words like 'tool,' meaning 'to run hard,' that led me to accept him as one of us. 'Topping' was another word. Before I was aware of it, and without his definitely stating the fact, I was treating him as a public-school man.
"'Do you know Surrey?' he asked me. 'It's rather jolly.'
"'I know Guildford,' I said. 'I was at school there.'
"'Were you really?' he replied, and he began to hum 'As I was going to Salisbury,' which is Winchester and nothing else as you will remember. That settled it, and I asked him whose house he was in. 'Jerry Bud's,' he told me. 'I was in old Martin's,' I said. 'Did you know Belvoir? He was in Bud's.'
"'The wine merchant's son?' he said, and I nodded.
"He gave me a curious look at this, as though he was suspicious of me. 'Seen him lately?' he asked. 'Not for years,' I said. 'What became of him?' 'Oh, I don't know,' he said as though relieved. 'I thought perhaps you'd kept it up. He went into the army, I believe.'
"We talked on like this, giving each other little items of information about different fellows we knew, and gradually I gave him my own history, what there is of it. There isn't much, as you know; Slade, Beaux Arts, Chelsea, and now Wigborough. He wasn't a bit interested, didn't seem to know what the word artist meant. Regular stereotyped public-school man in that. And he didn't offer me a drink, I noticed, after we had had a peg or two at my expense. However, when the bath was ready and I got up to go to it, he said, 'I'll take supper with you if you don't mind.' I said, 'with pleasure,' 'charmed,' of course, and all that sort of thing, and went off. I met the landlord as I was coming down and buttonholed him. He told me all about it at once.
"'Mr. Carville, sir? Yes, that's his name. Well, it's a rather curious case. I don't know what to make of it myself. He came down here with a party of university gentlemen about a month ago. Very nice gentlemen they were, sir, and were very free with their money, Mr. Carville especially. And then they all went off except him with a motorin' party that spent a week-end here. Mr. Carville he said they was coming back, you see, and he'd wait for 'em. Well, that's three weeks gone and he's still here as you see. He says that he expects a cheque any day, but up to the present——.'
"'Why, hasn't he got any money?' I said.
"'Well, at present, sir, there's a month's bill. Bein' a gentleman, of course, I knew it 'ud be all right, so I let it run.'
"'Perhaps he's overdrawn,' I said.
"'It's possible, sir,' said the landlord.
"Well, I went down to supper, full of the poor chap's story, and found him at the table walking into a hefty veal-and-ham pie, and with a bottle of wine at his elbow.
"'Come on,' he says, 'or you'll be too late.'
"We went at it and made a good meal, and he accepted one of my cigars. It suddenly occurred to me that I knew nothing definite about the man. He hadn't even told me his profession. He wasn't Church, that was clear. He wasn't Navy. I didn't think he was Bar either. Army? Yes, but you know a chap in the army is bound to let something out about himself in the course of conversation. And, moreover, you don't find army men hiding in hunting hotels in July. Carville? Carville? And then I decided he was proud and kept quiet for fear I would offer him a loan. Poor chap!
"There was no one else staying at the Saxon Cross Hotel that night, and we had the big smoking-room to ourselves. And after a time I put it to him pointblank: 'What on earth are you hanging about down here for, man?'
"'Simply because,' said he, 'I haven't the cash to pay my bill, and the inland revenue has run dry.'
"'Where do you bank?' I asked, and he slapped his pocket.
"'Pa's bank,' he replied, 'but he is in a bit of a temper with me, I think. If I could only get up to town.'
"'Why didn't you explain to the landlord?' I asked him. He looked at me with a scowl. 'I don't explain anything to people of that class,' he said.
"'What'll you take?' I asked him, and he leaned over and put his face close to mine. 'Oh, damn the money,' he said. 'The fellow will take an IOU if you endorse it.' 'Nay,' I said. 'Let me pay it, and when your ship comes home, all right.' He took another whisky. 'Will you?' he said. 'Will you help a stranger like that?'
"'An old public school man is not a stranger,' I said. 'I think your pals are rather a rotten lot to leave you in the lurch like this.' 'Fair weather friends,' he answered. 'Young men with too much money. Very decent chaps so long as you have plenty of cash. Very awkward. I have business in town as a matter of fact. Will you really take my IOU for this? It's only a few quid, you know.'
"It was fourteen pounds, and took up the balance of my holiday stock. Rather foolish I know you will say, but after all we ought to stand by each other. And it was worth it. Honestly, it was worth it! That chap became the most animated creature in Huntingdonshire when the arrangement was concluded. He opened the piano and sang song after song, he jabbered at me in French, he got on the big table and danced, he took a tumbler and a napkin and did conjuring tricks, he ordered a bottle of brandy and cigars. I was rather tired when I came in, but he would have none of it. He told me stories, and I judged he must have traveled a good deal. He asked me if I knew anything about automobiles. I rather wondered at this. 'I am going to take up an agency,' he said. 'That's why I want to get to town.' It seemed a mad thing for a gentleman to do, and I said so. He darted a fierce look at me over his glass of brandy. 'It takes a gentleman to sell to a gentleman,' he said.
"I didn't lie awake very long after we did go to bed, I can assure you. We took our candles, I remember, and I told him we must breakfast together. The next thing I remember was the chambermaid knocking at my door and saying it was ten o'clock. Of course he was gone. You've been expecting me to tell you that, I suppose. So he had gone and I was fourteen pounds to the bad, unless he redeemed his IOU. He had told the landlord to drive him into Peterboro'; and as I came down to breakfast the trap returned. Of course, neither of us ever expected to see him again, and when I looked at his IOU in the cold light of the day, it seemed a very flimsy guarantee for my money. There was only one thing about that IOU. It was written on the unused page torn from a letter, and the watermark of the paper was Lydgate Bond. It was the same size as Trojan Club paper too, for you know I belong to the Trojan Club, and Trojans are not men who write to outsiders much. Not on club paper anyway. In fact, the very audacity of the man led me to blame myself for doubting him. He had not behaved just as a gentleman should, but on the other hand he had done nothing underhand. There was a damn-you look about him that made it unbelievable that he was a fraud. Soon after breakfast I set out on my tramp, and, going through Stilton and Huntingdon, made for Cambridge. All the way along I could not help thinking about my boon companion of the night before, and wondering if I should ever meet him again. It seemed very unlikely. He was so interesting, quite apart from his peculiar financial position, and he gave one such an impression of indomitable will power, with his hawk-like face and brilliant eyes, that I wished I had made some sketches of him. But he had not even asked to see my portfolio.
"Two or three days later I reached home, and in the general worry of getting into harness again I forgot my gentleman for a while. It so happened, however, that my dealer, about a fortnight later, asked me to run up and call at his place in the Haymarket, as he had a commission for me and his client wanted to see me. I biked into Colchester and took the train to London. Business over, I went round to look in at the Trojan's before I took a taxi for Liverpool Street. Just as I turned into Dover Street, an enormous claret-coloured car came up with a horrible noise on the horn, and stopped at the Trojan's door-step. I know there are plenty of cars of large size about, but this one was overwhelming. Everything about it was huge. The head-light was as big as a dog-kennel, and the steering-wheel was a yard across. As the car stopped, a lot of fellows got out of the tonneau and the driver followed, taking off his goggles.
"Yes, my dear Bill, it is just as you imagine. The driver was my companion of the Saxon Cross Hotel. He recognized me at once as I turned to enter the Club. He really was a big man and he looked much bigger in his long motoring overall than in his knickerbockers. 'Great Scott!' he exclaimed. 'It's you! Do come in. I say, you chaps,' he called. 'Here's a bit of luck. A friend of mine,' I was introduced, and he towered over me smiling, his great hook nose dividing his face and distracting one's attention from his eyes. We sat down to tea, and he told the other men the tale of our meeting, omitting any mention of the fourteen pounds, however, for which I was rather glad. I shouldn't like those chaps to think I was a bally usurer. I made a move to go, but he wouldn't hear of it. I was to go to his place to dinner. We went in the car. It was more like an omnibus than a private vehicle. I sat beside him as we flew down Dover Street, across Piccadilly and into St. James'. He told me he had sold three cars like this in a week to Lord This and the Duke of That—I forget the names. He told me, moreover, that his commission on each car was four hundred pounds. And when we reached his chambers and I saw his furniture and flowers and pictures and servants' livery, I could quite believe it. He was living at the rate of ten thousand a year. Well, we dined as we were, Carville insisting that as I was up from the country they should bar evening dress for one night. This was rather pretty in its way, and I found he was a curious mixture of prettiness and downright brutal ruthlessness. I found a man I knew slightly among the guests, a chap named Effon, son of the soap man, and he told me that Carville was one of the most extraordinary men he had ever met, that women would almost come to him at the crooking of his finger, and even men of mature age were dominated by him. And, as a matter of fact, soon after Effon told me this, there was a case in point. Carville's flat looked from the second floor on St. James' Street. One of the men who lived at Chislehurst wanted to catch the 12.6 at Victoria and mentioned casually to the servant to bring a car round. 'You won't catch the 12.6,' says Carville. 'Oh, yes, I shall,' said the other man. 'I bet you a fiver you won't,' says Carville. 'Done,' said the other. It was about twenty minutes to twelve then, and in the buzz of conversation and a couple of games of cards Carville forgot his bet for a moment. Suddenly he saw that the fellow was gone. He rushed to the door and found it locked. Of course we all saw the game, and believed that Carville would laugh and admit himself out-manoeuvred. Not a bit of it. He turned on us, one hand on the door handle, and his face grew absolutely black with rage. Honest Injun, I was scared of him then! He bounded across the room, opened the window, sprang out upon the big stone coping and ran along to the next flat. Here he opened the window—(I've heard afterward that the people were just getting into bed)—stepped in, explained he was doing it for a bet, ran to the door, down the stairs, and taking a flying leap from the top step landed with both feet on the bonnet of the car just as it was starting. Of course, he smashed the sparking plugs, ignition gear and a lot of other details. We all crowded to the window and looked out. He had won his bet.
"He came back smiling and assuring the chap that the morning would do just as well for Chislehurst. The party broke up soon after and we went to bed. At breakfast the next morning he was charming, wrote me a cheque for the money, sitting in a gilt chair and writing on a Louis Seize secretaire.
"'I forgot about you,' he told me. 'I had to rush round rather when I came to town, and it put the matter out of my head. You don't go in for motoring, I suppose, down in Essex?' I said, no, I was working. He looked at his watch. 'I race to-day at three,' he said. 'Where?' I asked. 'I'd like to go to see it.' 'Ashby-de-la-Zouch,' he answered. 'It takes just three hours to run down.' Of course, I couldn't go down into Leicestershire, and said so. He smiled 'another time.' We exchanged cards again and his man called a cab for me. A chauffeur came up with a prodigiously long-bonneted and low-seated machine, and Carville followed me down stairs. He got in and waved his hand. With a spring the car leaped from the kerb—no other word will describe the starting of that car. I suppose it must have been at least a hundred horse power. In a flash it was round the corner and gone. I climbed into my cab and made my humble way to Liverpool Street, eventually reaching Wigborough, and taking up the daily round and the common task.
"Now what do you think of that chap, Bill? I think you will disapprove, because for all your wild-West adventures, San Francisco earthquakes, etc., you are a steady-going old girl and object to such rampaging persons as this Carville. But I have been thinking that after all, if one is an artist, everything in the world has a certain 'value.' I don't quite know how to explain what I really do feel, but anyhow men like Carville appear to me as vivid bits of colour in the composition of life. Taken by themselves they are all out of drawing, and too loud, but in the general arrangement they fit in perfectly. They inspire one's imagination too, don't you think? I shall never forget that chap's black rage, his blazing eyes, his hooked nose as he stood by the locked door. I wonder what the people next door thought, just getting into bed!
"This is a letter, eh! Well, I must dry up, or I shall never get to bed. If I see any more of my strange friend I'll let you know. Love to all at Netley as usual. When are you coming home to dear old rainy England?
"Yours ever, "CECIL.
"P. S.—If you could get me some of those jolly little paper fans you sent me from Chinatown last Christmas, please do.
I folded up the thin crackling sheets of paper and handed them to Bill, who took them without comment, and for some time we sat rocking in the twilight, absorbed in our own thoughts. It must not be imagined for a moment that we, and least of all I, an experienced and professional author, accepted this contribution to our investigations without reserve. A lengthy apprenticeship to life warned us that "things do not happen that way." But just for a few moments (and this was the cause of our silence) we revelled in the delicious sensation of having beheld in one of its most incredible gestures the long arm of coincidence. Swiftly we sketched out the story. Eagle-faced adventurer—marries his mistress—casts her off—leaves her penniless in New York—she blackmails him—he grants her an income—agent in New York takes charge of letters—yes, it hung together—it hung together, coincided!
Personally I was a little disappointed after the first flush of excitement. I thought it a little melodramatic and I abhor melodrama. I wanted something finer, something with a touch of great sentiment, something commensurate with the beauty and dignity of the woman's bodily frame, something that would explain and gild with delicate interest the expression of sombre and uncommunicative melancholy that hung like a cloud over her face. I felt reluctant to delve further into a history that was footed upon so unsatisfactory a foundation as this enigmatic creature who had blazed suddenly upon the painter-cousin's vision, a mere spendthrift man of pleasure, inarticulate save in his startlingly decadent behaviour. After all, what had he done, this fine gentleman with an eagle face and iron will? Sold a few automobiles to the aristocracy. Pooh! In America he would pass as a hustling business man with unconventional ideas. In grey, feudal old London, no doubt, he appeared as a meteoric genius, a veritable Napoleon of salesmanship, a marvel. But here——!
"Well," I said, at length, "what do you think of it?"
Bill slipped out of her chair and prepared to go in and get the dinner ready. We dine at six.
"I think," said she, "that there is nothing in it. It's hardly likely that—well, is it?" she asked, vaguely.
"No," we agreed, "it isn't."
"Still," I added, "it is a most interesting commentary upon our own little problem. It only shows how indefinitely one might extend the ramifications of a trivial tale. Of course, the children believe implicitly in the statement that he is at sea. If that be a legend, it is clever. But then—it is impossible."
"It's not a common name," remarked Mac, filling his pipe.
"It's a very easily assumed one," I argued. "It's a name you can't argue about. It might be Irish, French, Italian, Spanish or American. It tells you nothing."
Bill paused at the door.
"I don't suppose he had anything to do with giving the children those awful names," she suggested.
"Oh, as for that, I have known plenty of mothers who claim that right," I responded. "That does not amount to much. No. There are two points that seem to me to invalidate the claim of this gentleman to any connection with our neighbours, but that is not one of them."
"What are they?" inquired Mac. Bill opened the door and went in. I cleared my throat.
"First," I said, "there is the entirely fanciful argument that such a man as Cecil has described would not be attracted by such a woman as—Mrs. Carville. I can't explain in so many words why I think so, but I do. I don't believe she would attract him. If you consider a moment, you will see it. The English gentleman of good family and birth, when he has once broken out of his own social world, does not show much taste and discrimination in the choice of a wife or mistress."
"Well," said Mac.
"Second, we have the incontestable fact that Benvenuto Cellini, though sharing his illustrious brother's features and histrionic talent, has blue eyes and fair hair. Where did he get them?"
"Something in that," my friend admitted, throwing his match into the darkness. "We'll have to hunt round for a tertium quid, so to speak."
"You put it pithily," I asserted. "Personally I am coming to the conclusion that Cecil's story, while certainly interesting in itself, does not help us at all with our own difficulty. I am inclined to think that he is of our nation and fair complexion. Really, when you reflect, it is unjust to assume your tertium quid and complicate the story—yet. We have no actual evidence of her—obliquity."
"No," said Mac. "Let's wait."
"We must," I replied. "The children themselves will no doubt provide us with plenty of food for conjecture if they go on as they have begun. We are good friends now, they and I."
"You surpassed yourself as an Indian," he laughed.
"Hostile," I corrected. "Did you notice the realistic way in which Giuseppe Mazzini fell?" He nodded.
"You'll have to be a cow-boy to-morrow," he remarked. "You might suggest rounding up their confounded chickens and set them to repairing that fence."
"I shall be a cow-boy with enthusiasm," I said. "Under my breast beats an adventurous heart, believe me. As for the fence, I would rather not get into trouble by interfering with their affairs."
"She didn't seem any too friendly."
"Hostile would describe it better."
"Still, if you could get a word with her, it might elucidate the mystery?" "Yes," I said, as the gong tinkled within.
"Chop," said he, and we went in to dinner.
We had reached the cheese and celery before Bill contributed a piece of news that impressed us in different ways.
"I 'phoned Miss Fraenkel this morning," she said, "and asked her to come up after dinner this evening. She said she'd be tickled to death to come."
I said nothing at first, and Mac, annexing an unusually large piece of cheese, grinned.
"Say," he said, "suppose we get Miss Fraenkel's opinion of the chap with the hooked nose. She's American; she'll be sure to have an opinion."
"No doubt," I conceded. "We shall see whether we have not taken too much for granted. There's only one thing, and that is, are we not exposing Miss Fraenkel to temptation by exciting her curiosity yet more about her neighbour?"
"Oh, bunk!" said Mac. "Women don't have to be led into that sort of temptation. They take it in with their mother's milk."
"You cynical old devil!" exclaimed Bill, indignantly.
"Well, it's true," he defended himself stoutly. "I'll bet you a quarter Miss Fraenkel's already tried them and found them guilty."
"Of what?" demanded Bill.
"Oh, ask Miss Fraenkel," said he. "How should I know?"
"I think," I said, gently, "you are making a mistake. Consider! Miss Fraenkel is no doubt interested in her neighbours, like any other woman. But you make a big mistake if you imagine that ordinary people, people who are not professionally concerned with human nature, are accustomed to draw conclusions and observe character, as—as we do, for example. I have always thought," I went on, stirring my coffee, "that Jane Austen made this same mistake. She takes a small community, much like Netley, N. J., and suggests, by the conversation of the characters, that they are all as observant and as shrewd as herself. We feel it was not so. Nay, we know it was not so, for Jane's genius in that direction was almost uncanny. Now there is, I am safe in saying, nothing uncanny about Miss Fraenkel."
"She's very nice!" said Bill, nodding blithely at me over her cup.
I am loth to give any colour to the suspicion that I am about to confuse my narrative with extraneous details; but I must confess that Bill's laconic benison had for me a personal appeal. She was, I felt, entirely and generously right. She had not overstepped the mark at all. Miss Fraenkel was very nice, but—it has nothing to do with my story. It is a point of honour with me to put Miss Fraenkel in her place, if I may express it so without discourtesy, and that place is certainly modest and inconspicuous. Miss Fraenkel's light was very clear and very bright, but illuminated only a small area. She wrote an admirable paper and read it clearly and impressively at the Women's Club on "The Human Touch in Ostrovsky." Indeed, for one who had read so little of Ostrovsky it was a most creditable piece of work. It was in her estimate of the English character that she was, I venture to think, less successful, more narrow in fact. You see, she was naturally confused by two facts. In the first place the similarity of the English and American languages seemed to her to warrant a certain similitude between the two nations; and secondly, her intimacy with the English people was practically confined to us three, who had been in America nearly seven years, and who, in consequence, had shrouded our more salient insularities beneath a cloak of cosmopolitan aplomb. Neither our speech nor our outlook upon life could be taken as typical of our great and noble-hearted nation. Yet she did take us in that sense, with the result that in her conception of the United Kingdom it was a rather fantastic and clumsily-fashioned small-scale model of the United States.
We had first met her, not in New Jersey at all, but in New York. After the earthquake, which I have mentioned as lifting us and many others from more or less comfortable sockets in San Francisco and scattering us over the Union, we found it a matter of some difficulty to rise to our accustomed level in New York. It really seemed, what with the failure of inspiration and our lack of suitable introductions, that the mighty mill-stream of Manhattan would bear us away and fling us over the rocks to destruction before we could ever get our heads above the surface.
Of those first days in East 118th Street none of us are disposed to speak. We might have gone back to England—surely so dire a calamity, so utter a personal ruin, justified a relinquishment of our purpose. But we had not gone anyway. We could not contemplate the solicitous sympathy of friends who disliked America, who had protested against our emigration in the first place. We did not dislike America, nor did we blame her for our misfortunes. Our friends, even the painter-cousin, could not understand that we did not dislike America. They were misled by our occasional and quite natural sighs for a sight of the quiet English landscape, and our joking remarks about the customs regulations. So we stayed and fought, with our backs to the not over-clean walls of 118th Street. It was slow progress from 118th to 18th Street and from there to a real flat in Lexington Avenue, where it so happened that Miss Fraenkel had, and still has, a married sister. Bill and the married sister became warm friends, discovering in each other a common dislike of pink, and it was she who introduced us formally; though in a casual way Miss Fraenkel and I met occasionally on the stairs. And so it came about that when we felt able to abandon Lexington Avenue, in favour of a purer air and water supply, Miss Fraenkel chanted the praises of her own Netley in the Garden State, and Bill, journeying thither to spy out the land, returned an hour late for dinner, and incoherent with horticultural details.
It will be seen that though undoubtedly competent to criticize Ostrovsky or Mrs. Carville per se, Miss Fraenkel's opinion of the painter-cousin's discovery would be interesting only for its novelty and irrelevance. I did not express my conviction quite as frankly as this, since my friend, though in sympathy with his wife's matrimonial plans, could not forbear to indulge in a mild hazing at my expense. I contented myself with opening the piano and pushing him into the seat. It is our custom to have music after dinner.
Only those who have written verse professionally can realize the extent to which music acts as a solvent upon apparently insoluble difficulties of rhyme and sentiment. It had become a habit with me to leave any such problem of prosody to one side and take it up again only when my friend opened his piano. Having completed an opera some time before, I had at this time no such trouble, and so, as he broke abruptly into that prodigious composition, the Overture to Tannhaeuser, I gave myself up to an unfettered consideration of the mystery of life and the complexity of our multitudinous contacts with one another. It is not enough, I reflected, to say that we make and pass. We make and remake, we pass and, pausing on the brink of oblivion, return to spoil our first fine careless raptures. We make and pass; but the early dawn of our making is reddened by the sunset of another's decline. We are agitated by the originality of our ideas, unaware that they are born simultaneously in a thousand minds, and are woven into the texture of our time-spirit in a thousand-times-repeated design. Von Roon, in Chelsea, used to say that "a man's mind was like a chamber papered with used postage stamps. Examine them separately and they were of no value; they were merely cancelled symbols of forgotten messages. View them as a whole and they formed an interesting and confusing composition." Time, and our proximity to other cancelled symbols is no guarantee of interior understanding. The Great Decorator has arranged us without regard for our individual merits or past intrinsic values, we are but points of colour in his immense and arbitrary arrangement. I was following up this thought, when the brass Canterbury Pilgrim that serves us for a knocker was vigorously sounded, and I sprang to open the door to Miss Fraenkel.