THE BROTHER OF DAPHNE
Chapter I Punch and Judy Chapter II Clothes and the man Chapter III When it was dark Chapter IV Adam and New Year's eve Chapter V The Judgement of Paris Chapter VI Which to adore Chapter VII Every picture tells a story Chapter VIII The Busy Beers Chapter IX A point of honour Chapter X Pride goeth before Chapter XI The love scene Chapter XII The order of the bath Chapter XIII A lucid interval Chapter XIV A private view Chapter XV All found
PUNCH AND JUDY
"I said you'd do something," said Daphne, leaning back easily in her long chair.
I stopped swinging my legs and looked at her.
"Did you, indeed," I said coldly.
My sister nodded dreamily.
"Then you lied, darling. In your white throat," I said pleasantly.
"By the way, d'you know if the petrol's come?"
"I don't even care," said Daphne. "But I didn't lie, old chap. My word is—"
"Your bond? Quite so. But not mine. The appointment I have in Town that day—"
"Which day?" said Daphne, with a faint smile.
"The fete day."
It was a bazaar fete thing. Daphne and several others—euphemistically styled workers—had conspired and agreed together to obtain money by false pretences for and on behalf of a certain mission, to wit the Banana. I prefer to put it that way. There is a certain smack about the wording of an indictment. Almost a relish. The fact that two years before I had been let in for a stall and had defrauded fellow men and women of a considerable sum of money, but strengthened my determination not to be entrapped again. At the same time I realized that I was up against it.
The crime in question was fixed for Wednesday or Thursday—so much I knew. But no more. There was the rub. I really could not toil up to Town two days running.
"Let's see," I said carelessly, "the fete's on—er—Wednesday, or Thursday, is it?"
"Which day are you going up to Town?" said Daphne. I changed my ground.
"The Bananas are all right," I said, lighting a cigarette.
"They only ate a missionary the other day," said my sister.
"That's bad," said I musingly. "To any nation the consumption of home produce is of vital—"
"We want to make sixty pounds."
"To go towards their next meal? How much do missionaries cost?"
"To save their souls alive," said Daphne zealously.
"I'm glad something's to be saved alive," said I.
Before she could reply, tea began to appear. When the footman had retired to fetch the second instalment of accessories, I pointed the finger of scorn at the table, upon which he had set the tray.
"That parody emanated from a bazaar," I said contemptuously.
"It does for the garden," said my sister.
"It'd do for anything," said I. "Its silly sides, its crazy legs-"
"Crazy?" cried Daphne indignantly. "It'd bear an elephant."
"What if it would?" I said severely. "It's months since we gave up the elephants."
"Is the kettle ready?"
"It boils not, neither does it sing."
"For which piece of irreverence you will do something on Thursday."
"My dear girl," I said hurriedly, "if it were not imperative for me to be in Town—"
"You will do something on Thursday." I groaned.
"And this," I said, "this is my mother's daughter! We have been nursed together, scolded together, dandled in the same arms. If she had not been the stronger of the two, we should have played with the same toys."
I groaned again. Berry opened his eyes.
"The value of a siesta upon a summer afternoon—" he began.
I cut in with a bitter laugh. "What's he going to do?" I said.
"Take a stall, of course," said Daphne.
"Is he?" said Berry comfortably. "Is he? If motoring with Jonah to Huntercombe, and playing golf all day, is not incompatible with taking a stall on Thursday, I will sell children's underwear and egg cosies with eclat. Otherwise—"
"Golf," I said, "golf! Why don't I play golf?"
"I know," said Berry; "because—"
"Miserable man!" said Daphne.
"Who?" said her husband.
Berry turned to me. "You hear?" he said. "Vulgar abuse. And why? Simply because a previous engagement denies to me the opportunity of subscribing to this charitable imposition. Humble as would have been my poor assistance, it would have been rendered with a willing heart. But there!" he sighed—"It may not be. The Bananas will never know, never realize how—— By the way, who are the Bananas?"
"The Bananas?" said I. "Surely you know the—"
"Weren't at Ascot, were they?"
"Not in the Enclosure. No. The bold, bad Bananas are in many ways an engaging race. Indeed, some of the manners and customs which they affect are of a quite peculiar interest. Let us look, brother, for a moment, at their clothing. At the first blush—I use the word advisedly—it would seem that, like the fruit from which they take their name—"
"I thought you'd better do some tricks," said Daphne, throwing a dark look in my direction.
"Of course," I said; "the very thing. I've always been so good at tricks."
"I mean it," said Daphne.
"Of course you do. What about the confidence trick? Can any lady oblige me with a public-house?"
"She means trick-cycling, stupid," said Berry. "Riding backwards on one wheel while you count the ball-bearings."
"Look here," I said, "if Berry could have come and smoked a cigarette, I wouldn't have minded trying to flick the ash off it with a hunting-whip."
"Pity about that golf," mused Berry. "And you might have thrown knives round me afterwards. As it is, you'll have to recite."
In a few telling sentences I intimated that I would do nothing of the kind.
"I will appear," I said at last, "I will appear and run round generally, but I promise nothing more."
"Nonsense," said my sister. "I have promised, and I'm not going to let you break my word. You are going to do something definite."
"Definite. You have three days in which to get ready. There's Jill calling me. We're going to run over to Barley to whip up the Ashton crowd. D'you think we've enough petrol?"
"I don't even care," said I.
Daphne laughed softly. Then: "I must go," she said, getting up. "Give me a cigarette and tell me if you think this dress'll do. I'm going to change my shoes."
"If," said I, producing my cigarette-case, "if you were half as nice as you invariably look—"
"That's a dear," she said, taking a cigarette. "And now, good-bye."
I watched her retreating figure gloomily.
Berry began to recite 'We are Seven.'
Thursday morning broke cloudless and brilliant. I saw it break. Reluctantly, of course; I am not in the habit of rising at cock-crow. But on this occasion I rose because I could not sleep. When I went to bed on Wednesday night, I lay awake thinking deeply about what I was to do on the morrow. Daphne had proved inexorable. My brain, usually so fertile, had become barren, and for my three days' contemplation of the subject I had absolutely nothing to show. It was past midnight before I fell into a fitful slumber, only to be aroused three hours and a half later by the sudden burst of iniquity with which two or more cats saw fit to shake the silence of the rose-garden.
As I threw out the boot-jack, I noticed the dawn. And as further sleep seemed out of the question, I decided to dress and go out into the woods.
When I slipped out of Knight's Bottom into the sunlit road to find myself face to face with a Punch and Judy show, I was not far from being momentarily disconcerted. For a second it occurred to me that I might be dreaming, but, though I listened carefully, I could hear no cats, so I sat down on the bank by the side of the road and prepared to contemplate the phenomenon.
When I say 'Punch and Judy show' I am wrong. Although what I saw suggested the proximity of a Punch and a Judy, to say nothing of the likelihood of a show, I did not, as a matter of fact, descry any one of the three. The object that presented itself to my view was the tall, rectangular booth, gaudy and wide-mouthed, with which, until a few years ago, the streets of London were so familiar. Were! Dear old Punch and Judy, how quickly you are becoming a thing of the past! How soon you will have gone the way of Jack-i'-the Green, Pepper's Ghost, the Maypole, and many another old friend! Out of the light into the darkness. The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and in a little space men shall be content to wonder at your ancient memory as their grandfathers marvelled at that of the frolics of my Lord of Misrule. However.
There was the booth. But that was all. It stood quite alone at the side of the white road. I walked round it. Nothing. I glanced up and down the road, but there was no one in sight. I had been feeling hungry, for it was seven o'clock; but this was better than breakfast, and I returned to the bank. The little red curtains fluttered, as a passing breeze caught them, and I marked how bright and new they looked. It was certainly in good condition—this booth.
"Well?" said a voice.
"Well?" said I.
A pause. A girl's voice it was: coming from within the booth.
"You seem rather surprised," said the voice.
"No, no," I said, "not really surprised. Only a little staggered. You see, I know so few booths."
"What are you doing here?"
"To be frank, booth, I'm waiting."
"I'm waiting, too."
"So?" said I. "I wait, you wait, let us wait, ye shall have been about to see, they would—"
"What are you waiting for?"
"Developments. And you?"
I looked up and down the road. "I don't see it coming," I said anxiously. "What's it look like?"
"Milk. You don't happen to have any, I suppose?"
I felt in my pockets.
"There, now," I said, "I must have left it on the piano. I got up rather hurriedly this morning," I added apologetically.
"I'll tell you what, booth, I'll go and get some."
"No, thanks very much. Don't you bother; it'll come along presently."
"Are you sure? This isn't 'The Blue Bird.'"
"Yes, it's all right—really."
There was another pause. Then:
"Hadn't you better be getting back to breakfast?" said the girl.
"Not much," said I. "I don't run up against booths every day. Besides—"
"Well, booth, I'm awfully curious."
"What do you want to know?"
"You're very good."
"I didn't say I'd tell you."
"I'll risk that. In a word, why are you?"
I waited in silence for a few moments. At length:
"Suppose," she said slowly, "suppose a bet had been made."
"Shocking! Go on."
"Well? Isn't that enough?"
"I don't think much of your imagination."
I raised my eyes to heaven. "A prophet is not without honour," I quoted.
"Is this your own country?"
"Oh, I say, you'd be the very man!"
"I am," I said. "Refuse substitutes."
It gradually appeared that, in a rash moment, she had made some silly wager that she could give a Punch and Judy show on her own in the village of Lynn Hammer and the vicinity. Of course, she had not meant it. She had spoken quite idly, secure in the very impracticability of the thing. But certain evil-disposed persons—referred to mysteriously as 'they'—had fastened greedily upon her words, and, waving aside her objection that she had no paraphernalia, deliberately proceeded to provide the same, that she might have no excuse. The booth was run up, the puppets procured. The gentle hint that she wanted to withdraw had been let fall at the exact moment with deadly effect, and—the wicked work was done. She had been motored over and here set down, complete with booth, half an hour ago. They were going to look back later, just to see how she was getting on. The ordeal was to be over and the wager won by six o'clock, and she might have the assistance of a native in her whimsical venture.
"Right up to the last I believe the brutes thought I would cry off," she said. "I very nearly did, too, when it came to it. Only I saw Peter smiling. It is rather a hopeless position, isn't it?"
"It was. But now that you've got your native—"
"Oh!" she said. Then: "But I've got one."
"He's getting the milk."
"I don't believe he is. Anyway, you can discharge him and take me on. I've been out of work for years. Besides, you've been sent. In your advent I descry the finger of Providence."
"I wish I did. What do you mean?"
"This day," I said, "I am perforce a zealot."
"A zealot—a Banana zealot. You, too, shall be a zealot. We will unite our zeal, and this day light such a candle—"
"The man's mad," she said. "Quite mad."
I explained. "You see," I said, "it's like this. Simply miles away, somewhere south south and by south of us, there are a lot of heathen. They're called Bananas. I don't know very much about it, but there seems to be a sort of understanding that we should keep them in missionaries. So every now and then the 'worker' push here get up a fete thing and take money off people. Then they find one and send him out. Well, there's one of these stunts on this afternoon, and I've been let in to do something. That's why I look so pale and interesting. The last day or two I've been desperate about it. But now..."
"If you'd let me help you to-day, we could take the show to the fete and simply rake it in. It's a splendid way of winning your bet, too. Oh, booth, isn't it obvious that you've been sent?"
"It certainly would be nicer than giving performances about the village," she said musingly. "If only I knew you—"
"You don't know the fellow who isn't getting the milk," I objected.
"That's different. He'd be only a servant."
"I would be the same."
There was a pause. A rabbit loped into the road and blinked curiously at the booth. Then he saw me and beat a hasty retreat.
"It is in a good cause," I urged. "You don't know the Bananas; they're absurdly—er—straight."
"It's all very well for you," she said; "you know everybody here. But it would be an impossible position for me; I don't know a soul. Now, if we were both strangers—"
"Well, then they wouldn't worry as to who we were and what we had to do with one another."
"Then let's both be strangers."
"How can you be strange to order?"
"Hush!" I said. "I will disguise me. At home I have put away a Pierrot dress not one of them knows anything about, and I think I can raise a mask. If I—"
A stifled exclamation from the booth made me look up. Framed in its mouth, her arms folded and resting on the ledge, was the girl.
What I could see of her was dressed as a Pierrot. Her hair was concealed under a black silk cap, and the familiar white felt conical hat sat jauntily over one ear. A straight, white nose, and a delicate chin, red lips parted and smiling a little, such a smile as goes always with eyebrows just raised, very alluring—so much only I saw. For the rest, a strip of black velvet made an irritating mask.
I made her a low bow.
"I can see this is going to be a big thing," I said. "Won't you come down?"
"I haven't even said I'll take you,"
"You're sure to be recognized, and then, what about me?"
"Oh, no, I shan't. If necessary, I'll wear a false nose. I've got one somewhere."
"Here's my milk."
I looked round and beheld a small boy approaching with a jug.
"Was that the best you could do in the native line?"
"You needn't sneer. I'm not over-confident about my second venture."
"Well, a knave's better than a fool, any day."
"I'm sure I hope so."
She slipped down out of sight into the booth again, to reappear a moment later in the road: and by her side a beautiful white bull-terrier, a Toby ruff about his sturdy neck.
"Good man," said my lady, pointing a finger at me. "Good man."
The dog came forward, wagging his tail. I stooped and spoke with him. Then I turned to his mistress. She had discarded her white hat and drawn on a long dust-coat, which reached almost to her ankles. She held it close about her, as she walked. It showed off her slim figure to great advantage. Below, the wide edges of white duck trousers just appeared above shining insteps and high heeled shoes.
When the urchin had come up, she took the jug from him with both hands.
"I shall have to drink out of it," she said, raising it to her lips with a smile.
"Of course. Why not? Only ..."
"Hadn't you better—I mean, won't the mask get in your way?"
She lowered the jug and looked at me. "No; it won't get in the way. Thanks all the same," she said steadily. "Not all to-day."
"It's in the way now."
"Not my way."
I saw her eyes watching my face as she drank, and when she took the jug from her lips she was smiling.
We had some difficulty in persuading the boy to leave us; but at length, a heavy bribe, coupled with the assurance that we should be at the fete in the afternoon, had the desired effect, and he went slowly away.
Thereafter we took counsel together.
As a result, it was decided that we should fold the booth—it shut up like a screen—and convey it, puppets and all, a little way into the wood. It was early yet, but some people would be passing along the road, and we were not yet ready to combat the curiosity that the appearance of a Punch and Judy show would be sure to arouse. That done, she would lie close in the wood with Toby, while I made off home and changed.
As I started off, after settling her in the bracken, I heard the village clock strike the half-hour. Half-past seven. I gained the house unobserved. No one was abroad except the servants, but I heard Daphne singing in the bathroom.
I had worn the Pierrot dress two years ago at a fancy-dress ball.
There it lay with its mask at the bottom of the wardrobe. The change was soon completed, and I stood up a proper Folly, from the skull cap upon my crown to the pumps upon my feet. It took some time to find the nose, but luck was with me, and at last I ran it to earth in an old collar-box. Truly an appalling article, it stuck straight out from my face like a fat, fiery peg, but between that and the mask, my disguise would defy detection.
Suddenly I had a brilliant idea. Sitting down, I scribbled a note to Daphne to the effect that, owing to a sleepless night, my nerve had forsaken me, and that, unable to face the terror of the bazaar, I had fled to Town, and should not be back till late. I added that I should be with her in the spirit, which, after all, was the main thing.
I put on a long overcoat and a soft hat. The nose went into one pocket, the mask into another. Then I went cautiously downstairs and into the dining-room. It was empty, and breakfast was partially laid.
In feverish haste I hacked about a pound of meat off a York ham and nearly as much off a new tongue. Wrapping the slices in a napkin, I thrust them into the pocket with the nose. To add half a brown loaf to the mask and drain the milk jug was the work of another moment, and, after laying the note on Daphne's plate, I slipped out of the French windows and into the bushes as I heard William come down the passage. A quarter of an hour later I was back again in the wood.
She was sitting on a log, swinging her legs to and fro. When I took off my coat and hat, she clapped her hands in delight.
"Wait till you see the nose," said I.
When presently I slipped that French monstrosity into place, she laughed so immoderately that her brown hair broke loose from under the black silk cap and tumbled gloriously about her shoulders.
"There now," she said. "See what you've done."
"Good for the nose," said I.
"It's all very well to say that, but it took me ages to get it all under the wretched cap this morning."
"I shouldn't put it back again if I were you. You see," I went on earnestly, "everybody will know you're a girl, Judy dear."
"Why, Punch?" She drew aside the dust coat and revealed the wide Pierrot trousers she was wearing.
"Priceless," I admitted. "But what I really love are your feet."
She looked concernedly at her little, high-heeled shoes.
I stooped to flick the dust from their patent leather.
"Thank you, Punch. What shall I do about my hair, then?"
"Wear it in a pig-tail. I'll plait it for you. It'll be worth another sovereign to the Bananas."
"If you put it like that—" she said slowly.
"I do, Judy."
If the suggestion was not prompted by motives which were entirely disinterested, I think I may be forgiven.
"I say, Judy," I said a little later, pausing unnecessarily in my work, and making pretence to comb with my fingers the tresses as yet ungathered into the plait.
"Yes? What a long time you are!"
Well, there was a knot.
She tried to look round into my face at that, but I vigorously unplaited about two inches, which seemed to satisfy her. For me, I thought of Penelope and her web and the wooers, and smiled.
"Well, what is it, Punch?"
"About the mask."
For the next two minutes I did a little listening. When she paused for breath:
"Have some ham," I suggested.
"Bother the ham! Do you hear what I say?"
"I heard you bother the ham."
"Something about a mask, was it?"
"Give me back my hair," she demanded.
"No, no," I said hastily, "not that! I won't ask again."
When I had finished the plaiting, I tied the ends with a piece of ribbon which she produced, kissed them, and sat down in the grass at her feet.
We had oceans of time, for the fete did not begin till two. But we agreed there must be a rehearsal of some kind.
"What do you know about yourself, Punch?"
"I have a foggy recollection of domestic differences."
"You used to beat me cruelly."
"Ah, but you had a nagging tongue, Judy. I can hear your defiant 'wootle' now."
Her lips parted in a smile at the reminiscence, and before they closed again she had slipped something between them. The next instant the wood rang with a regular hurricane of toots and wootles.
"Wootle?" she said inquiringly.
"Rather! But hush—you'll wake the echoes."
"And why not? They ought to be up and about by now."
I shook my head.
"They're a sleepy folk," I said; "they get so little rest. The day is noisy enough, but at night, what with dogs baying the moon, and the nightjars calling, when owls do cry—"
"When owls do cry—"
"—and the earnest but mistaken chanticleer, they have a rotten time. Poor echoes! And they wake very easily here."
"Don't they everywhere?"
"Oh, no! I know some that are very heavy sleepers. In fact, it's hopeless to try and wake them without the welkin."
"Yes, you make him ring, you know. They nearly always hear him. And if they don't the first time, you make him ring again."
For a little space she laughed helplessly. At last:
"I am an idiot to encourage you. Seriously," she added, "about the little play."
"Presently by us to be enacted?"
"The plot," I said, "is as follows. Punch has a row with Judy and knocks her out. (Laughter.) Various well-intentioned and benignant fools look in on Punch to pass the time of day, and get—very properly—knocked out for their pains. (Loud and prolonged laughter.) This is followed by the side-splitting incident in which a handy clown not only eludes the thirsty bludgeon, but surreptitiously steals the inevitable sausages. Exit clown. Punch, already irritated at having missed clown, misses sausages, and exit in high dudgeon. Re-enter Judy, followed by sausaged clown, who comforts her. (Oh, Judy!) Re-enter Punch. Justifiable tussle. Punch sees sausages and begins to find his length. Clown sees stars and exit. Punch knocks out Judy with a left hook. To him, gloating, enter constable. It seems Judy's knock-out more serious than usual. Constable suggests that Punch shall go quietly. Punch does not see it, and retires to fetch persuader. Constable protests and is persuaded. (Laughter.) Enter ghost—not clear whose ghost, but any ghost in a storm. Punch unnerved. Ghost gibbers. Punch more unnerved. Ghost gibbers again. Punch terrified. Exit ghost and enter hangman, to whom Punch, unstrung by recent encounter with apparition, falls an easy prey. Curtain. You bow from the mouth of the booth. I adjust nose and collect money in diminutive tin pail. How's that?"
"Lovely, Punch! But where does Toby dear come in?"
At the mention of his name the terrier rose and went to her. His mistress stroked his soft head.
"In the background," said I. "Or the offing (nautical). I don't think he'd better act. Let him be stage-door-keeper."
"All right. Now open the puppet-box."
It was a nice set of puppets, and they were very simple to manipulate. They fitted easily on to the hand, the forefinger controlling the head, and the thumb and second finger the arms. The old fellow's cudgel was a dream.
We decided that I had better stick to Punch and Punch alone. For the others she would be answerable.
After rehearsing for half an hour, we stopped for breakfast. In the absence of cutlery, it was a ragged meal, but what mattered that? We were for letting the world slip—we should ne'er be younger.
People were stirring now. Carts rumbled in the distance, and cars sang past on the long, white road. Presently came one that slowed and slowed and stopped.
It was unfortunate that, but a moment before, I should have grown impatient of a large piece of crust and thrust it bodily into my mouth. But although articulation at this interesting juncture was out of the question, I laid an eloquent hand upon her arm and crowded as much expression as I could into a swollen and distorted visage. She glanced at me and collapsed in silent infectious laughter. And so it happened that, while we two conspirators lay shaking in the bracken, her friends turned their car wonderingly round and drove slowly back into the village away from her they sought.
Another hour and a half of somewhat desultory rehearsal found us 'wootle' perfect and ready for anything. So we laid the puppets by, fed Toby with brown bread and tongue, and rested against the labours of the afternoon.
The time passed quickly enough—too quickly.
It was a few minutes past one when, having adjusted my mask and slid my nose into position, I got the booth upon my shoulders and stepped out into the road.
"Come along," I said encouragingly.
"I'm afraid. Oh, there's something coming."
"Nonsense! I wish I hadn't packed that bludgeon."
"I'm nervous, Punch."
"Will you make me drag you along by the hair of your head? Of course, it'd be in the picture right enough, but I rather want two hands for this infernal booth. However, let me once get a good grip on that soft pigtail—"
"Ah, that was in love, Judy."
The next second she had joined me on the white highway, the faithful Toby a short pace behind her. His not to reason why. A good fellow, Toby.
It was rather a nervous moment. But, in spite of an approaching wagonette, she walked bravely beside me with the puppet-box under her arm. The occupants of the vehicle began to evince great curiosity as we drew nearer, but their mare caught sight of my nose at the critical moment and provided an opportune diversion.
"So perish all our enemies!" she said with a sigh of relief.
"Stage-fright, Judy, dear. You'll be all right in a minute. We're bound to excite interest. It's what we're for and what we want. I'll keep it going. Give me your wootler."
She handed me the reed, and I held it ready between my lips.
"Buck up, lass!"
Ten minutes more and we entered the village. The grounds where the fete was to be holden lay three-quarters of a mile further on. The ball was opened by two small errand boys, on whose hands, as is usual with the breed, time was lying heavily. They were engaged in deep converse as we came up, and it was only when we were close upon them that they became aware of our presence. For a few seconds they stared at us, apparently rooted to the spot, and as if they could not believe their good fortune. Then one broke into an explosive bellow of delight, while the other ran off squeaking with excitement to find other devils who should share the treasure-trove. But, unlike his infamous predecessor, he was not content with seven. When he returned, it was but as the van of a fast-swelling rabble. His erstwhile companion, who had been backing steadily in front of me ever since he left, and had, after a hurried consideration of the respective merits of the booth and the box under Judy's arm, rejected them both in favour of my nose, kept his eyes fastened greedily upon that organ with so desperate an air of concentration that I was quite relieved when he tripped over a brick and fell on his back in the road.
And all this time our following grew. The news of our advent had spread like wildfire. Old men and maidens, young men and boys, the matron and the maid, alike came running. Altogether, Lynn Hammer was set throbbing with an excitement such as it had not experienced since the baker's assistant was wrongly arrested for petty larceny in 1904.
Amongst those who walked close about us, candid speculation as to the probable venue of the performance was rife, while its style, length, value, etc., were all frankly discussed. Many were the questions raised, and many the inaccurate explanations accepted as to the reason of our being; but though my companion came in for some inevitable discussion, I was relieved to find that my panache and a comic peculiarity of gait, which I thought it as well from time to time to affect, proved usefully diverting.
When the crowd had begun to assume considerable proportions, Judy had slipped her arm in mine, and an answering pressure to my encouraging squeeze told me that she was trying to buck up as well as she could. Good little Judy! It was an ordeal for you, but you came through it with flying colours, though with a flaming cheek.
When we reached the triangular piece of grass that lay in front of the village inn, I called a halt with such suddenness as to create great confusion in the swarming ranks that followed in our wake. But while they sorted themselves, I slipped the booth off my shoulders, gave one long, echoing call upon the reed, and, striking an attitude, made ready to address the expectant villagers.
After carefully polishing my nose with a silk handkerchief—an action which met with instant approval—I selected a fat, red-faced drayman, thanked him, and said that mine was a Bass, an assertion which found high favour with the more immediate cronies of the gentleman in question. Then I got to work.
After dwelling lightly on the renown in which the village of Lynn Hammer was held throughout the countryside, not to mention a gallant reference to the wit, beauty, and mirth which was assembled about me, I plunged into a facetious resume of recent local events. This, of course, came to me easily enough, but the crowd only saw therein the lucky ventures of a talkative stranger, and roared with merriment at each happy allusion. And so I came to the Bananas. Yes, we were for the fete. There should we be the livelong afternoon, giving free shows, and only afterwards soliciting contribution from such as could afford to give in a good cause. God save the King!
Then I called for mine host, and after ordering ginger beer for Judy and old ale for myself, slapped silver into his hand, and begged as many as would so honour her to drink the lady's health.
About that there was no difficulty, and when I had despatched the original boy—who all this while had never wavered in his constancy to my proboscis—for a small tin pail, I prepared to get my burden once more upon my back. But this was not to be. Four good fellows insisted on constituting themselves booth-bearers, and the burly drayman gallantly relieved my fair companion of the box of puppets.
So we came in state to the grounds where the bazaar was to be held. The parley with the gatekeeper was of short duration, for the 'workers' scented money in our admission, and, with an eye to the Bananas' main chance, made us quickly welcome. On my explaining our intention to put our efforts at their service, and any increment that might result into their pockets, their expression of gratitude was quite touching.
The entrance fee deterred some, and their daily occupation more of those who had formed our kindly escort, from following us into the fete, but I believe that most of them contrived to return before six o'clock.
When I think of all that I said and did on that sunny afternoon, I get hot all over.
I could not go very far wrong during the actual performance, but it was afterwards, when Judy sat smiling in the mouth of the booth, and I went forth, pail in hand, seeking whom I might devour.
I drew my arm familiarly through that of a reluctant curate, and walked him smartly up and down, discussing volubly the merits of my nose in tones which suggested that I had no roof to my mouth, Did a lady protest that she had already contributed, I repeated "Oh, madam!" reproachfully and crescendo till the hush-money was paid, while in front of those who affected not to see my out-stretched hand, I stood as if rooted to the spot. I borrowed the vicar's wideawake, ostensibly for a conjuring trick, and wore it assiduously for the rest of the afternoon and, on his demurring to such use, I explained, in the voice of G.P.Huntley, that it went so well with the nose.
In short, I played the mountebank to a degree that astonished myself, but apparently to some purpose, for the money came in properly.
The performances went with a bang, and when, at the conclusion of the playlet, I lifted Judy to the rickety shelf, so that her head and shoulders were framed in the mouth of the booth, it was the signal for a burst of applause.
On one of these occasions:
"It's not fair that I should take every call," she said, looking down at my upturned face.
"My dear Judy, I have my reward."
"Don't I lift you up every time?"
She laughed pleasedly.
"Gallant Punch, you're easily satisfied."
"Am I, Judy—am I?" I said gently, taking her hand.
"Yes," she said, snatching it away. "You are and will be. Go out and get the money."
I adjusted my nose thoughtfully. Daphne was, of course, in great evidence. Anxious to run no unnecessary risk, I avoided her when possible, and when I did find myself in her proximity, I at once indulged in some of my more extravagant behaviour.
"Where's your brother?" I heard a worker say.
"Brother!" said Daphne bitterly. "Coward! And I really thought we should have him this time. Fled to London before we were up this morning, thank you. From the amount of food he took with him, and the way he took it, anyone would have thought he was an escaped convict. Guilty conscience, I suppose. One hears a good deal about record flights nowadays, but I'd back my miserable brother against any aviator. My husband's promised to look in about five, if he's back from Huntercombe. That's something. But they're a wretched lot. Oh, here's one of the Pierrots!"
I hung the pail on my nose and looked at her.
"As one of the organizers of the fete," she said hastily, "I must thank you—"
"Nothing doing, madam," said I, in an assumed voice.
"Free list entirely suspended, madam," and I shook the pail mercilessly.
A small and grinning crowd had begun to collect, so Daphne parted up with a forced smile, and I went off chuckling to queer the animals' race.
Our penultimate performance was over, and I was in the midst of my vagaries again, when I saw Berry. Unanxious to tempt Providence, I retired precipitately to the shelter of the booth. My companion was sitting disconsolately upon the box on which she stood to work her puppets.
"Is it time for the next show?" she said.
"Not for a quarter of an hour."
I sat down at her feet and removed my mask and nose.
"I'm afraid I persuaded your hand last time, Judy."
"You touched it."
"Let me look."
"It doesn't show."
"Let me look."
After examining the knuckles carefully, I turned my attention to the soft little palm.
"Obstinacy," I said. "Obstinacy is clearly indicated by the dimple situate below Saturn and to the right of the watering-pot."
She tried to draw it away, but I tightened my hold and proceeded with my investigation.
"A gentle and confiding nature, characterized by a penchant for escapade, is denoted by the joy-wheel at the base of Halley's Comet. And so we come to the life-belt. This—my word, this is all right! Unrivalled for resistance to damp and wear, will last three to six times as long as ordinary paint—I mean life—of extraordinary durability. Now for the heart-line. The expert will here descry a curious mixture of—"
Further investigation she cut short by so determined an attempt at withdrawal that I let her hand go.
"Oughtn't we to be beginning again?"
"You're very eager for the last show."
"No, I'm not, but I want to get it over."
She laid her hand on my shoulder.
"No, Punch, no, I didn't mean that. It's been—great fun."
"It's sweet of you to say that."
"It's not. Don't you think I've liked it?"
I leaned forward.
"Dear Judy," I said, "very soon it will be over, and we shall go our several ways once more. And if we don't meet, as the months and years go by, when other cleverer, better men walk by your side, and glorious days crowd thick about you, throw a spare thought to the old time when you were a strolling player, and the poor fool you gave the honour of your company."
She turned her head away, but she did not speak.
"You'll not forget me, Judy?"
She caught her breath and slipped a hand under her mask for a second. Then:
"Next show, Punch," she cried. "No, of course, I shan't. You've been very good to me."
She was on her feet by now and busily arranging the puppets. I groaned. The next moment she had wound a long call upon the reed, which put further converse out of the question.
The last performance began. The first quarrel seemed to lack its wonted bitterness. Punch appeared halfhearted, and Judy was simply walking through.
I glanced at the girl and stroked her pig-tail—my pig-tail.
"Wootle," I said encouragingly. "Wootle, wootle."
She started at my touch. Then she seemed to remember, and flung herself into her part with abandon.
When the ghost was on, I had a brilliant idea.
"Leave the hangman out," I whispered, "and put up Judy instead. We'll have a reconciliation to finish with."
And so to Punch, sobered, shaking, cowering in the corner, with his little plaster hands before his face, came his poor wife. (Oh, but she did it well!) Gently, timidly, bravely, she laid a trembling hand upon his shoulder, and coaxed his hands from before his frightened eyes, then, backing, stood with outstretched, appealing little arms—a gesture at once so loving and pathetic that Punch was fain to thrust his sleeve before his eyes and turn his face in shame to the wall. Softly went Judy to him again, touched him, and waited. And as he turned again, to find two little arms stealing about his neck, and a poor, bare, bruised head upon his chest, he flung his arms about her with a toot of joy, and clasped her in the accepted fashion. Oh, very charming.
This was greeted with prolonged applause.
"Hold it," I said. "Hold the picture!"
As she obeyed I slid my left arm about her, ready to lift her up.
Suddenly Punch became limp and lifeless in his wife's embrace, and with my freed right hand I slipped her mask over her forehead, smiled into her eyes, and kissed them.
"I promised not to ask again."
So for a moment we two let the world wag. Then the whole booth fell heavily over, mouth uppermost, and we within it. It was the final of the animal race that was responsible for our overthrow. The black pig, blind with jealous rage and mortification at being beaten on the tape by a cochin china, had borne violently down upon the booth and upset it, with wicked grunts of satisfaction.
"Hurt, dear?" said I.
As she slipped her mask into place, Berry put his head in at the mouth of the booth. Maskless, noseless, I looked at him. Slowly his astonished features relaxed in a grin.
"So!" he said softly. "I might have known."
CLOTHES AND THE MAN
"This," said Berry, "is all right. By which I mean—"
We assured him we knew what he meant, and that no explanation was necessary.
"All right," he said at last. "There. I've said it again now. You're quite sure you do know what I mean? Because, if you've the least hesitation—"
"Will you be quiet?" said Daphne.
It was a beautiful August morning. After a roaring season in town, we had, all five—Berry, Daphne, Jonah, Jill, and myself—girded our jaded loins, packed, crawled into the car, and rolled down to Cornwall, there to build up the wasted tissues, go to bed at ten, and forget that there were such things as theatres and ballrooms.
We took a couple of days coming down by road, and our run was not without incident.
I wish cyclists would not hang on behind.
In Kingston a monger's boy, with some fish that were patently feeling the heat, took hold of the cape-hood. I spoke with him after a little.
"The use of this hood," I said, "for heavy and bulky packages involves risk of injury to passengers, and is prohibited. Didn't you know that?"
He regarded me with a seraphic smile, nearly lost his life by getting into a tram-line, and said I ought to know better than to talk to the man at the wheel.
"Friend," said I, "I perceive you are a humorist. Lo, here in this car are already three humorists. Under these unfortunate circumstances, I have no alternative but to ask you to withdraw."
It was just then that the near hind tyre burst exactly under him.
We gave him half a sovereign towards buying a new bicycle, but I believe he will always think we did it on purpose.
It had been arranged that we should spend the night at Salisbury and push on to Cornwall on the following day. We made the Cathedral city soon after five and slipped out to see Stonehenge. There were a few other people there, and one or two of them turned to watch our arrival. Berry left the car and went straight to the nearest—a fat tradesman, wearing a new imitation panama and a huge calabash.
"Can you tell me if this is Stoke Poges?" we heard him say. The rest of us alighted and walked hurriedly away in the opposite direction. Clearly my brother-in-law was in a certain mood and no fit companion for the sensitive. Memories of the unutterable torment, to which on like occasions we had been mercilessly subjected, by reason of Berry's most shameless behaviour among strangers, rose up before us. The fact that he called after us caused Daphne to break into a run.
Our luck was out. When we had completed the circle of the cromlechs, we came suddenly upon him. More to our dismay than surprise he had become the centre of a little knot of excursionists, who were listening to him eagerly. As we appeared:
"Ah," he said to the interested company, "here is my Aunt! She'll tell you. Aunt Daphne, wasn't it here that father lost the string bag?"
"Wretched fool!" said Daphne under her breath, turning hurriedly in the direction of the car.
Berry watched her retreat, and turned to his listeners with a sigh.
"I'm afraid I've gone and upset her now," he said. "I oughtn't to have reminded her of the untoward incident. It was the only string bag they had, and it was an awful blow to her. It upset him, too, terribly. Never the same man again. In fact, from that day he began to go wrong—criminally, I mean."
The little group grew closer to him than ever. Like a fool, I stayed to hear more.
"Yes," Berry went on, "in less than a month he was up at the Old Bailey, under the Merchandise Marks Act, for selling Gruyere cheese with too big holes in it. Five years his sentence was. Let's see, he ought to be coming out in about—oh, about—When does father come out, Cousin Albert?"
The excursionists gazed greedily at me—the felon's son. I approached Berry and laid a hand upon his arm. Then I turned to the little group.
"This fellow," I said, "has got us into trouble before. Those of you who have motor-cars will understand me when I refer to the great difficulty of securing a really trustworthy chauffeur. Now, this man is honest and a most careful driver, but when he is, so to speak, off duty, he is so unfortunate as to suffer from delusions, usually connected with crime and the administration of the criminal law. While we were having lunch at Whitchurch only this afternoon, he went off to the police-station and tried to give himself up for the Hounslow murder, didn't you?"
"Yes, sir," faltered Berry.
"And all the time," I went on, "I'm not at all satisfied myself that he did murder the woman, although things certainly looked rather black—"
"I did!" said Berry fiercely.
The crowd of excursionists recoiled, and a small boy in a green flannel blazer burst into tears.
"Any way," I said, "there isn't anything like enough evidence against you, so we won't argue it. Now, then, we want to be going. Come along."
"Half a shake, sir," said Berry, feeling in his pockets. "You know that knife—"
The company began nervously to disperse. Some exhorted one another to observe some feature of the cromlechs which was only visible from some point of vantage on the side other to that on which we stood. Others agreed that they had no idea that it was so late, and the fat tradesman gave a forced shiver and announced that he must have left his coat behind "that big one."
"I'll get it for you, sir," said Berry, opening his knife.
I was forced to admit that Stonehenge looked far more impressive when apparently deserted, than with one or two tourists, however genial and guileless, in a high holiday humour in the foreground. At the same time, as we walked back to the car, I felt that I owed it to myself to lodge a grave protest against the indecent and involving methods my brother-in-law had seen fit to employ.
"After all," I concluded, "the fellow's your brother, and even if his panama wasn't a real one, that's no reason why he should be made to do the hundred in about twelve seconds. He wasn't in strict training either. You could see that. Besides, why rope me in? For yourself, if you must play the comic idiot—"
"He wasn't in the picture," said Berry. "None of them were. That kid's blazer absolutely killed the grass for miles around. Didn't you see how brown it had gone? That," he added coolly, "is the worst of having an artistic eye. One must pay for these things."
After spending the night at Salisbury, we pushed on to the Cornish coast. It was not until we were within three miles of our village that we lost the way. When we found it again, we were seven miles off. That is the worst of a car. However.
Stern is a place, where the coast-line is a great glory. The cliffs rise there, tall, dark, majestic-grave, too, especially grave. When the sky is grey, they frown always, and even the warm rays of the setting sun but serve to light their grand solemnity. Very different is the changing sea at their foot. At times it will ripple all day, agog with smiling; anon, provoked by an idle breeze's banter, you shall see it black with rage. In the morning, maybe, it will sleep placidly enough in the sunshine, but at eventide the wind has ruffled its temper, so that it mutters and heaves with anger, breathing forth threatenings. Yet the next dawn finds it alive with mischievous merriment and splitting its sides with laughter, to think how it has duped you the night before. The great grave cliffs and the shifting sea, and, beyond, woodland and pastures and deep meadows, where the cows low in the evenings, while the elms tower above them, their leaves unshaken by the wind—it is not difficult to grow fond of Stern.
And now we were sitting on the cliffs in the heat of the morning sun, half a mile from the village and another from the places where it was best to bathe.
After a while:
"Aren't you glad I made you come here?" said Daphne triumphantly.
I sat up and stared at her sorrowfully.
"Well?" she said defiantly.
"You have taken my breath away," I said, "Kindly return it, and I will deal with you and your interrogatories."
"I suppose you're going to say it was you—"
"It was. I did. I have. But for me you would not. You are. I took the rooms. I drove the car nearly the whole way down. I got you all here. I sent the luggage on in advance."
"With the result that it got here two days after we did, and I had to wear the same tie three days running, and go down to bathe in patent-leather boots, thanks very much," said Berry.
Beyond saying that I was not responsible for the crass and purblind idiocy of railway officials, I ignored this expression of ingratitude and continued to deal with Daphne.
"You know," I said, "there are times when I tremble for you. Only yesterday, just before dinner, I trembled for you like anything."
"It's the heat," said my target, as if explaining something.
"And my reward is covert reflections upon my sanity. Need I say more?"
"No," said everybody.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind attention. The next performance will be at four o'clock this afternoon, underneath the promenade pier."
I relapsed into comfortable silence and sank back into the bracken. My sister got up from the clump of heather in which she was ensconced, crossed to where I was, took my pipe out of my mouth and kissed me.
"Sorry, old boy," she said; "you're not such a bad sort, really."
"Dear love," said I, "what have you left behind?"
"My bathing-dress, darling."
In spite of the fact that I returned to the hotel and got it, they were positively rude about the bathing-cove I selected.
"Bathe there?" sneered Berry, as we looked down upon it, all smiling in the sun, from the top of the cliffs.
"Thanks awfully, I simply love the flints, don't you, Jill? Personally, my doctor bled me just before I came away. But don't let me stop you others. Lead on, brother—lead the way to the shambles!"
Of course, Daphne took up the running.
"My dear boy, look at the seaweed on the rocks! Why, we should slip and break our legs before we'd taken two steps!"
"That's all right," said Berry. "We have between us three shirts. Torn into strips, they will make excellent bandages, while for a splint—"
"The cove," I said, "is ideal. Its sand is a field of lilies, its sea perfumed, its boulders sweet-smelling cushions."
"Of course," said Berry. "Why do you tarry? Forward, friends all! This way to the drug department. To the lions, O Christians! For myself, if I start at once, I shall be able to get back with the coastguard's ambulance before you've been lying there more than an hour or two, and I can wire for your relatives at the same time."
"Anybody would think the place was an oubliette," said I. "As a matter of fact, the path down is an easy one, there are no flints, and there is a singular paucity of seaweed of any description. On the other hand, the sun is hot, the sand is soft, and I have already selected that rock, in the seclusion of whose shade I shall prepare myself for the waves. Sorry it's too dangerous for you. I'll write about some bathing-machines to-night. Do you like them with red or green doors?"
Without waiting for their reply, which would probably have been of the caustic and provocative type, I turned down the path I had not trodden for some three years. At one of the bends I looked up and saw them moving north along the coast-line.
I had the cove to myself, and was soon in my bathing-dress. The water was magnificent. I swam out about forty yards, and turned just in time to see Berry & Co. disappear in the distance, apparently descending into a neighbouring cove. After a rest on a rock, I set out to swim round and join them. It was further than I thought, and I was glad to wade out of the water and lie down on the sand in the sun. No sign of the others, by the way. But hereabouts the coast was very ragged. It must have been the next cove they were making for.
"Quite still, please," said somebody, and the next moment a camera clicked.
"You might have given me time to moisten the lips," said I.
"I doubt if it would have done any good."
"Thanks, very much. By the way, I suppose you're The Daily Glass? How did you find me out?"
"Rumour travels apace, sir."
"And I had been congratulating myself on eluding the Press since breakfast. Well, well! Only this morning—"
I apostrophized the sea.
"I don't want to have to report the chap," I said, "but if—"
The camera clicked again.
"I'm not sure this isn't an assault," I said. "That it is a trespass, I know. Who are your solicitors? And may I take it that they will accept service?" (Here I rolled over and leaned on my elbow.) "You do look fit. Just move your heel out of that pool—there's an anemone going to mistake it for a piece of alabaster. That's right! Oh, but, Mermaid, do tell me how you keep your hair so nice when you're bathing?"
"I love it."
"I simply don't put my head under."
"A most dangerous practice, believe me."
"It's worth the risk."
"I belive it is."
She was sitting on a low slab of rock, clad in a bathing-costume of plain dark blue, and fashioned just like my own. Her dark hair was parted in the middle and divided at the back into two long, thick plaits which were turned up and hair-pinned round the top of her head. Her features were beautiful and her eyes big and dark as her hair. Her figure was slim and graceful, and her arms and hands and feet were very shapely. One brown knee was crossed over the other, and her left hand held the camera.
"I do have luck, you know," I said.
"Well, honestly, it's a great pleasure to meet you like this, when I might have spent all day talking with my silly crowd and never have known of your existence. Don't be afraid. I merely mean that I am enjoying your society, and I'm glad I came round the corner. I'm not in love with you, and I don't want never to leave your side again, but—oh, you understand, Mermaid, don't you? You look as if you could if you liked."
My companion stared out to sea with a faint smile on her lips. I flung out an arm with a gesture of despair.
"Oh, if you knew how sick I am of the girl about town, the girl of to-day, who won't be natural herself, and won't let you be natural either, who is always bored, and who has no use for anyone who isn't forever making mock love to her, or—Why on earth can't a man tell a woman he likes her company, and mean it, without the woman thinking he wants to kiss her, or marry her, or something?"
I broke off and looked at her.
"Go on," she said. "You interest me."
"Oh, Heavens," I said falteringly. "Why have you got such big eyes?"
At this, to my discomfiture, she broke into peals of merriment.
"Before you looked at me like that, I was really enjoying your company without wanting to kiss you."
"Besides your eyes, there's your—Look here, it isn't fair."
"That'll do. I'll race you to that rock out there."
She was in the water first, but I beat her easily. We swam back together, and she took her seat on the slab, while I stretched myself on the sand by her side.
"You're a very singular man," she said after a while.
"I have been told so of many."
"And rather dull."
I sat up.
"Don't say you want me to make love to you!"
"Not much!" This emphatically.
"Ah, glad of a change, I suppose."
There was a silence, while she eyed me suspiciously. At length:
"I shall ask you to leave my cove if you're not careful," she said.
"Mermaid," I said, "I apologize. I was unaware that I had the honour to speak to the lady of the manor."
"Well, if you didn't really know who I was—— But you mustn't be dull."
I drew her attention to a sailing ship in the distance. "Now, that," I said, "is what I call a really good ship."
"Barque, I mean. It must be—"
"About five thousand tons"
"Burthen. Exactly. By the way, I never know what that really means unless it means that, if you wanted to lift it, you couldn't."
"Thank you. It was off just such an one that I was cast away two years ago come Michaelmas. We were just standing by in the offing, when she sterruck with a grinding crash. There was a matter of seventy souls aboard, and I shall never forget the look on the captain's face as the ship's cat stole his place in the stern-sheets of the jolly-boat. I was thrown up on a desert island, I was. You ought to have seen me milking the goats on Spyglass Hill."
"Did you wear a goatskin cap?"
"Did I not! And two muskets. But my snake belt was the great thing. You see—"
"Which reminds me—I think it's about time I got civilized again."
"Not yet, Mermaid," I pleaded; "the sun is yet high."
"You don't suppose I'm going to stay here all day, do you? We're not on your precious island now."
"I only wish we were. I had my loaf of bread and jug of wine all right, but the one thing I wanted, Mermaid, was—"
"A woman to keep him company without thinking he wanted to kiss her, or marry her, or something. Whatever's that?"
I jumped to my feet and looked towards where she was pointing.
"It looks rather like—forgive me—a chemise."
Before I had time to move, she rushed into the surf and secured the floating garment, made another dart at something else, and was knocked down by a roller. I had her on her feet in a moment, but she dashed the water out of her eves and looked wildly to and fro over the sea.
"What is it, Mermaid?"
She tried to stamp her foot; but the four inches of water in which she was standing were against her.
"Can't you see, idiot? This is mine—this chemise—so's this shoe. The tide's come up into my cave while I've been making a fool of myself talking to you, and all my things are gone. There's the other shoe."
"All right—I'll get it."
I got it, and one stocking, but though I swam about till I was tired, and even climbed on to the rock, now almost submerged, to which we had raced, I could see nothing else. I returned temporarily exhausted to the cove. She waded out to meet me.
"Tell me exactly where your cave is," I said, as I handed her the flotsam.
She showed me, and, after a moment or two's rest, I swam out and round to the mouth, only to find the water too high to enter. I did try, but a wave lifted me up to the roof, and I only saved a broken head at the expense of a nasty cut on the back of my hand.
She was anxiously awaiting me, and listened to my report without a word. When I had finished, she deliberately wrung the last atom of water out of the derelict stocking, smoothed it out carefully by the side of the chemise in the sun, laid herself down on the sand, and burst into tears.
I tried to comfort her. I patted her shoulder and took her hand in mine.
"Don't worry, Mermaid dear," I said. "Trust me—I'll think of something. I know. I'll swim round to my cove and dress, and then go and get you some fresh clothes before anyone's the wiser. See? I'll go now," I added, getting up and licking the blood off my hand. "You wait here and—"
I broke off abruptly, and one of the more violent expletives, indicative of combined horror and amazement, escaped my lips before I could stop it.
"What is it?" wailed the Mermaid.
On the crest of a wave, some thirty yards from the shore, danced my grey hat. Beyond it, a little to the right, was something which might be a shirt.
Stammering incoherent sentences, I staggered into the water and swam for the hat. When I had caught it, I went on to get the shirt. I would have gone on round the headland to my cove, only the shirt was not my shirt. It was Berry's! Yes, it was—had his name on it and all. And not ten yards away floated Daphne's straw hat. For the next two minutes I was in imminent danger of drowning. At last I began to swim feebly, blindly back. When I reached the shore, I fell on my knees in the surf and laughed till the eighth wave knocked me head over heels and the ninth broke into my open jaws and choked me. The next moment the girl caught me by the arm, and I stumbled out and lay down on the dry sand with the shirt clasped to my breast. My hat had gone again ages ago. Then I looked at the girl kneeling anxiously by my side, and began to laugh again. She sat back on her heels, with one hand to her lips and a scared expression on her face.
"He's mad," she said, half to herself, "mad! Must have been stung by a jelly-fish or something. I've heard—"
I cut her short.
"Mermaid dear, I'm as sane as you are, only—"
"Everybody's doing it"—she recoiled—"doing it! Listen to me. True, that is your chemise. True, that out there is my hat—there it is. But here is Berry's shirt, and miles out there is Daphne's straw hat. If I'd stayed long enough, I've no doubt I should have seen Jonah's trousers and Jill's chemisette, which means or mean—whichever you like—that...."
Hurriedly I explained, and then fell again into uproarious laughter. This time she joined me in my mirth. At length:
"But, after all," she said, "it doesn't make it any better for me, because I'm all alone, while you're a party."
"I admit it has been said that Unity is Strength," said I, "but I don't know that that exactly applies—"
"And I can't walk home like this, even with that on." She indicated the chemise.
"Certainly not with that on: it'd only make it more indec—"
"Er—unusual. Indeed, it would."
She regarded me suspiciously. Then:
"What about you?"
"Me? How d'you mean?" I said uneasily.
"Well, couldn't you slip back to the hotel somehow? Quite quietly, I mean, and—"
"I could slip all right," said I. "The short grass on the top of the cliffs would help me there. But, my dear girl, how on earth can I do anything quietly in this dress?"
"Everybody will be—"
"Just finishing lunch or sitting on the terrace. Thanks very much."
"There's a back door."
"I never thought of that. Splendid! Leading to the kitchen, of course. They'd never notice me there. And I could just drop in at the office for the key of my room, and see if there were any letters on the way up, and—— My dear girl, how can I? I admit I've a good deal of nerve, but there is a limit. I know one can do most things nowadays, but—"
"But this is a special occasion."
"You seem to want to make it one."
"And it can't be helped. This sort of modesty's out of date."
"Not my date."
"Besides, everybody'd understand."
"I know they would. That's just what I'm afraid of."
"Well, we must do something, and if you—"
Suddenly there fell upon our ears the scrambling, clattering noise which invariably accompanies the descent of anybody rash enough to enter a Cornish cove with undue haste in leather-soled shoes. The Mermaid darted behind a rock, and I advanced gratefully up the foreshore to the fringe of stones. The noise grew louder, and the slips more frequent, until there was one long one, and then a thud. Up rose a fat oath. After a moment or two, there limped into sight—oh, blessed spectacle!—one of the hotel porters, conventionally hatless and coatless.
"Ah!" said I.
"The coastguard you sent hailed me, sir, across the fields yonder. Said something had happened—he didn't know what—but he heard the word 'hotel.' You see, you shouting to him from here, and he being up on top, he couldn't hear anything else rightly, so I came straight down."
"Why didn't he come down himself when—er—when I shouted?"
"He was taking a telegram to the post office sir. Said he told you so; but I suppose you didn't hear."
Berry's coastguard. Berry's porter.
I told him that my clothes had been washed away, and that the mermaid was in the same plight. I gave him implicit instructions and, with her assistance, the numbers of our respective rooms. He wrote it all down. He was to get some clothes for me himself, and enlist the services of a chambermaid for my companion.
"Be as quick as you can," I said, as he turned to go. "You're sure you'll know this cove again? They're all rather alike."
"That's all right, sir."
The next moment he was half-way up the path. If he had looked back, he would have beheld the singular and doubtless pleasing spectacle of the Mermaid and myself doing the real Argentine tango along the stretch of yellow sand.
She did not see the blood on my hand for a minute or two. Then:
"My dear lad, what have you done to your hand?"
"Cut on the rocks," I said laconically. "Nothing of any consequence, I assure you. I shall be able to proceed home."
"After attention. Let me look at it."
And so it came about that, when the boots returned, my left hand was bound up with a strip of chemise, and the bandage was tied with the pale-pink ribbon that had lately lain upon the Mermaid's shoulder.
We received him delightedly. The Mermaid's garments had been placed by the thoughtful chambermaid in a little dressing-case. Mine were tied together with a piece of string, after the manner of costumes at Nathan's. But they were all right.
The girl started to dress behind a rock, and I told the fellow to wait at the foot of the path. "I have reason," I said, "reason to believe that there are others even now in the same or self-same plight as that in which you found us. Therefore remain within call. Don't investigate for yourself. This is my show. But don't go."
Half an hour later he was once more on his way to the hotel with a note from me for Daphne's maid, and the promise of half a sovereign, while the Mermaid and I stood at the top of the path which led down to the cove where the rest of my party were chafing in exasperated idleness—with the exception of Berry, that is. Prior to our arrival, he had been hovering about on the top of the cliff, but the instant he descried us, and while we were yet a great way off, he had retired precipitately, and was now busy rejoining the others with Agag's walk and a profusion of embryo profanity. He explained afterwards that if he had been wearing his own bathing-dress, instead of a green and red striped one—his own was being mended—he should have remained, but that he did not like to be seen wearing the colours of the Redruth Rangers before he had been elected.
After waiting a minute or two to compose ourselves and settle finally our plan of action, we followed gaily in Berry's wake.
I was just saying in a clear voice that, perhaps, it was rather soon after lunch to bathe again, when we came upon them the other side of a large rock. One and all they sprawled easily on the sand in the hot sunshine, as if care were a thing of the past—forgotten, never known.
This was no more than I had expected of them. All of us hate to be caught bending. Berry especially. That artist was busily fashioning a miniature rampart of sand. He looked up at my greeting, and rose to his feet.
I introduced them all to the Mermaid.
"We made friends at lunch," I explained, "over the lobsters."
"And then, as we wanted a walk, we thought we'd come along to fetch you back to tea."
There was a polite murmur of appreciation.
"I must say," I went on, "it is glorious. I almost wish I'd given up my lunch, too."
The Mermaid stiffened, but none of the others noticed the error.
I felt myself colouring like a fool.
"Aren't you going to bathe again?" said Berry.
There was the note of eagerness in his voice, and I saw a vision of Berry in my clothes striding triumphantly homewards.
"I don't think so," I said carelessly. "Rather too soon after lunch. But I'm going to take off my coat and sit down in the sun."
After all, he couldn't do much with a coat.
The Mermaid was already seated between Daphne and Jill, talking vivaciously. Jonah pretended to be asleep. After a furtive glance at the top of the cliff, Berry resumed his building operations with awful deliberation.
After a while:
"Well, if you aren't going to bathe any more, aren't you going to dress?" said I.
"And leave this beauty spot?" said Berry. "Shame, shame on you, brother! Go your ways if you will. 'Then wander forth the sons of Belial.' You'll just be in time. But leave us here in peace. I have almost evolved a post-futurist picture which will revolutionize the artistic world. I shall call it 'The Passing of a Bathe: a Fantasy. It will present to the minds of all who have not seen it, what they would have rejected for lunch if they had. To get the true effect, no one must see it."
"But if some one does?"
"I shall have already left the country."
This was too much for Daphne, and she asked Jonah to come and help her to get some mussels. They walked away together.
"What on earth does she want mussels for?" said I.
"The garden paths," said Berry. "Our cobbles aren't wearing at all well."
I turned to the Mermaid. She was chattering away to Jill, with her back towards me. Over her shoulder, Jill's grey eyes regarded me wistfully. I made a rapid calculation. Yes, the porter ought to have arrived by now. I had told him to keep out of sight till I called him.
I waited until Daphne and Jonah came strolling back empty-handed. They had forgotten about the mussels. Daphne's brows were knitted, and Jonah was looking ruefully at the sun. It was getting on for half-past three. One could guess that much.
I rose and picked up my coat. "I say, aren't you ever going to dress any more?" I said.
Daphne swallowed before replying, and with the tail of my eye I saw Berry start and wreck six inches of architecture. Then:
"Presently," said my big sister. "You two go on and order a big tea at the farm, and by the time it's ready—"
"You can't have tea like that," I said. "There'll be a row."
In the dead silence that followed this remark, the Mermaid rose and brushed the sand from her dress.
I went up to Daphne and kissed her.
"Don't think I'm not proud of you, darling, and Jill looks lovely, too, but they wouldn't stand it, you know."
No one stirred except the Mermaid, and she, obedient to the instructions I had given her, strolled naturally enough towards the path up the cliff. The other four were looking at me straitly—I could feel their gaze—wondering whether, whether I knew.
I shaded my eyes with my hand and stared seawards.
"Do dress," I said absently.
"We shall dress when we want to," said Daphne sharply.
I turned to see the Mermaiden reach the path. A good start is everything.
"If you really mean that," I said slowly, "I'll send your other clothes back again." Then I raised my voice:
"Porter!" I cried.
"Sir!" came from above us.
I let the rest of the quotation go, as I wanted to rejoin the mermaid, looking as she had last seen me. Berry said afterwards that Jonah gained on me while the sand lasted, but the loose stones at the foot of the path were my salvation.
As I passed the porter, I told him to say that a square meal would be awaiting them at the farm. We ordered it generously enough, but, despite our hunger, the Mermaid and I decided to have our own tea at the hotel. Thither we set out to walk through the fields. Suddenly she stopped as we were crossing a deep lane.
"I don't know why you're here," she said.
"Try and think, Mermaid."
"You'd better go and have another bathe."
"Now, Mermaid, you know—"
"Afterwards you'll be wishing you had given up your tea, if you don't."
"I knew we should have this," I said.
"Well, it wasn't very polite of you, was it?"
"It wouldn't have been."
"She eyed me scornfully for a moment. Then:
"I'm disappointed in you," she said.
"You'll be more so in a moment," said I.
"You're not going to have a change, after all."
"Don't say you're going to make—"
"Love to you? Yes, I am."
She looked me up and down for a moment.
"And this is the man," she said slowly—"this is the man"
"Who said he was not in love with you, and that he didn't want never to leave your side again. Yes, it is. I might have known better than to say a thing like that. All the same, it wasn't meant for a challenge, Mermaiden."
She looked at me with a mischievous smile. "And now—"
I broke off and took her small, brown hand. Up went the dark eyebrows.
"I shouldn't like you to think that I thought you wanted to kiss me," she said.
"I think nothing," said I. "But one thing I know."
"And that is?"
"That it would be a crime if I didn't. The very stones would cry out."
"I don't think they would."
"I'm afraid they might," said I.
WHEN IT WAS DARK
Daphne pointed suddenly to the stile. "This is it," she said. "We get over here and go across the meadow, and there's the wood beyond the gate that we've got to—to—what's the word?"
"Encompass?" I hazarded.
"Skirt?" said Jonah.
"Skirt—thank you—till we come upon the carttrack."
"And then?" said I.
"Then we're all right," she said defiantly.
"Which means, that about two hours from now we shall, with a fine disregard for the highest traditions of British pugilism, strike the high road below the belt of firs, a good six miles from the roof-tree we should never have left. God forgive you."
"Am I," said Berry, "am I to understand in cold blood that, reckoning three miles to the league, some four leagues lie directly between me and the muffins?"
"You are," said I.
"To think that my wife is a bag," he said wearily.
It was an autumn afternoon in the county of Devon. There were we staying at a retired farmhouse, fleeting the time carelessly, simply, healthily. Sickened by forty-eight hours of continuous rain, we had fastened greedily upon the chance which a glorious October day at length offered, and had set out, complete with sandwiches, for one of the longer walks. Daphne constituted herself guide. We never asked her to. But as such we just accepted her. We were quite passive in the matter. Going, she had guided us with a careless confidence which shamed suspicion. But coming back, she had early displayed unmistakable signs of hesitation and anxiety. Thereafter she had plunged desperately, with the result that at three o'clock we found ourselves reduced to a swine-herd who had been drinking. The latter detailed to us four several routes, and assured us that it was utterly impossible to miss any one of them.
To put it quite shortly, he was mistaken.
Within half an hour we had missed them all. Lost on a heath (which I have every reason to suppose was blasted) in a strange county, and not a soul in sight. That was the position.
We plodded in silence across the meadow.
"Didn't say anything about a bog, did he? said Berry, drawing his left leg out of some mire with a noise that made me shudder. Jill slid a warm arm into mine, and broke into long laughter.
"Don't encourage the fool," said Daphne.
We skirted the wood successfully to find that there never could have been a cart-track.
Berry leaned against a wall of stones. "What a picture," he said ecstatically. "The setting sun, the little band, the matron and the maid, mist rising, shadows falling—subject for next year's Academy, 'The Walkers.'"
"Idiot!" said Daphne shortly.
"Do I hear aright?" said Berry.
"I said 'idiot.'"
Berry covered his face with his hat, and begged us to excuse his emotion. Daphne stamped her foot.
"I have an idea," said I.
"If it's one of your usual ones, we don't want it," said Daphne.
"Thank you, dear. We are undoubtedly lost. No, that is not my idea. But, as a would-have-been boy-scout, I recognize in this spot a natural camping-place. That water is close at hand, we know from Scout Berry. Jonah can take the first watch, Berry the second, Jonah the third, and—and so on. My own energy I shall reserve for the dog-watch."
"Oh, stop him, somebody," wailed Daphne.
"I said dog-watch, dear, not stop-watch. Before we bivouac I will scale yon beetling mount if peradventure I may perceive one that will point us homeward. Scout Berry!"
"Sir," said Berry.
"You know your duties!"
"I do that, sir."
"Tis well. If the worst comes to the worst, kill the women out of hand, or with your own hand—I don't care which. Age before honesty, you know."
With that I left them, and turned to climb the hill which rose sharply on our right, its side dotted with furze-bushes, and its crest hidden by a clump of trees.
Five minutes later I was back among them again.
"Well," said Daphne eagerly, "you haven't been right to the top, have you?"
"Oh, no. I only came back to say that when I said 'Age before honesty' just now, I really meant 'Death before dishonour,' you know," and I turned up the bank again.
I regret to say that Berry and Jonah thought it decent to attempt to stone my retreating figure. Ten minutes' walking brought me to a clearing on the top, which afforded a magnificent view. Hill and dale, woodland and pasture, stone wall and hedgerow, as far as I could see. The sinking sun was lighting gloriously the autumn livery of the woods, and, far in the distance, I could see the silver streak of the river flowing to the village on whose skirts stood the house that was our bourne. When I returned to the camp to find them gone I was rather bored.
The note that they had left made it worse:
"Regret compelled retire owing to serious outflanking movement on part of the Blues. Sorry, but that's the worst of being picket. The natural intuition which characterizes all BSS will enable you to discern our route. So long."
Although I tried four times—mainly because Jonah had my matches—I was unable to discern their route. At last I came down to shouting, but only succeeded in arousing the curiosity of three cows and a well-nourished ram. The latter was so well nourished that when he had stamped for the second time, I thought it prudent to get over the wall. I did so with about four seconds to spare. Nothing daunted, the winning animal took a short run and butted the wall with surprising vigour. When three large stones had fallen for seven runs, I offered up a short prayer that Berry & Co. might return to look for me, and hastened to put two more walls between us. I suppose it was the river that I saw in the distance, from the summit of that fair hill...
Three and a half hours later I came upon the first signs of animal life as opposed to vegetable—since the ram. Up hill, down dale, along roads, along imitation roads, along future roads, along past roads, across moors I had tramped doggedly, blindly, and rather angrily. If I had had one match—only one match—it would have been different.
Yes, it was a dog-cart. And through the gloom I could distinctly see the shape of some one sitting in it, holding the reins.
I quickened my steps.
"I say, have you got a match?"
A girl's voice.
"That's about the worst thing you could have said." said I.
"Because a match is the one thing I've been wanting for the last four hours."
"Sorry. Swear for me, will you?"
"Certainly, madam. What sort of an oath would you like? We have a very large assortment in stock—fresh lot in only this afternoon. Let me see. Now, I've got a very nice thing in oaths—"
"I want a round one."
"Round? Certainly. And the usual black, I presume. We have been doing rather a lot in the way of blue oaths lately. No? Damn. How do you like that, madam?"
"Much obliged to you, madam. Sign, please. Nothing else I can show you? Nothing in the curse line?"
"No, thanks. Good day."
There was a pause. Presently:
"I said 'good day,'" said the girl.
"Yes," said I; "but, then, we were only playing."
"Oh, were you?"
"Any way, you haven't paid yet," I said desperately.
"How much do you want? It was a very common oath."
"I've plenty more, if you like. For instance—"
"Hush! Not before the mare. What's your price?"
"The privilege of accompanying you on foot till we can get a light. You can't drive at more than a walking pace on this road without lamps. And it's not right for you to be alone."
"You are very good. But are you going my way?"
"I've not the faintest idea."
"Are you lost, then?"
"Hopelessly. Have been for hours."
"Where do you want to get to?"
"A farmhouse three miles out of Lorn."
"Which side of Lorn?"
"Well, if I'm the same side of Lorn as I was at one o'clock this afternoon, it's the other side."
"Well, but aren't you?"
"My dear girl, I don't know."
She laughed. "Well, I'm going to Lorn, any way," she said, "so come along."
"Heaven will reward you," said I, and climbed into the cart.
"You'd better drive."
I took the reins. We had to go very slowly, for it was one of the imitation roads, and when we were not scaling an ascent that positively beetled, we were going down a descent which I was glad it was too dark to see. After a minute or two, I took the near wheel eighteen inches up the bank.
"Sorry," said the girl, as she disengaged herself from my neck and arms and resumed her seat, "but it was your fault for taking it up the bank."
"I know. I hope you weren't frightened. I'm awfully sorry."
"You drive rather well, considering."
"Steady the Buffs. Considering what?"
"Considering it's your first shot."
In silence I gave her the reins.
"After that," I said icily, "after that there is no more to be said. Was it for this that, at the age of four, I was borne by two reluctant goats along the Hastings strand? Pardon me, those last six words comprise an iambic line—a fact which is itself the best evidence of my agitation. It is a little winning way I have. Most criminals when charged make no reply. When I am arrested, I shall protest in anapaests. As I was saying, was it for this—?"
"Stop, stop," she said, laughing; "you drive all right—beautifully."
I took the reins again.
It was getting very cold, and I put the rug carefully about her.
"You're very good," she said, "but wait."
I felt her hand on my knee.
"Oh, you haven't got any of it."
She would have untucked it again if I hadn't caught her wrist.
"That's all right," I said. "I'm not allowed rugs."
"My dear, doctor's orders. The last thing the great Harley Street specialist said to me, as I pushed the two pounds two shillings beneath the current number of The Lancet, was, 'Now, mind, no rugs. Eat and drink what you like. Smoke in moderation, and get up as late as you please. But no rugs.'"