Transcribed from the 1903 Longmans, Green, and Co. edition by David Price, email email@example.com
THE DISENTANGLERS by Andrew Lang
with illustrations by H. J. Ford
Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London New York and Bombay 1903
TO HERBERT HILLS, ESQ. These Studies OF LIFE AND CHARACTER ARE DEDICATED
It has been suggested to the Author that the incident of the Berbalangs, in The Adventure of the Fair American, is rather improbable. He can only refer the sceptical to the perfectly genuine authorities cited in his footnotes.
I. THE GREAT IDEA
The scene was a dusky shabby little room in Ryder Street. To such caves many repair whose days are passed, and whose food is consumed, in the clubs of the adjacent thoroughfare of cooperative palaces, Pall Mall. The furniture was battered and dingy; the sofa on which Logan sprawled had a certain historic interest: it was covered with cloth of horsehair, now seldom found by the amateur. A bookcase with glass doors held a crowd of books to which the amateur would at once have flown. They were in 'boards' of faded blue, and the paper labels bore alluring names: they were all First Editions of the most desirable kind. The bottles in the liqueur case were antique; a coat of arms, not undistinguished, was in relief on the silver stoppers. But the liquors in the flasks were humble and conventional. Merton, the tenant of the rooms, was in a Zingari cricketing coat; he occupied the arm-chair, while Logan, in evening dress, maintained a difficult equilibrium on the slippery sofa. Both men were of an age between twenty-five and twenty-nine, both were pleasant to the eye. Merton was, if anything, under the middle height: fair, slim, and active. As a freshman he had coxed his College Eight, later he rowed Bow in that vessel. He had won the Hurdles, but been beaten by his Cambridge opponent; he had taken a fair second in Greats, was believed to have been 'runner up' for the Newdigate prize poem, and might have won other laurels, but that he was found to do the female parts very fairly in the dramatic performances of the University, a thing irreconcilable with study. His father was a rural dean. Merton's most obvious vice was a thirst for general information. 'I know it is awfully bad form to know anything,' he had been heard to say, 'but everyone has his failings, and mine is occasionally useful.'
Logan was tall, dark, athletic and indolent. He was, in a way, the last of an historic Scottish family, and rather fond of discoursing on the ancestral traditions. But any satisfaction that he derived from them was, so far, all that his birth had won for him. His little patrimony had taken to itself wings. Merton was in no better case. Both, as they sat together, were gloomily discussing their prospects.
In the penumbra of smoke, and the malignant light of an ill trimmed lamp, the Great Idea was to be evolved. What consequences hung on the Great Idea! The peace of families insured, at a trifling premium. Innocence rescued. The defeat of the subtlest criminal designers: undreamed of benefits to natural science! But I anticipate. We return to the conversation in the Ryder Street den.
'It is a case of emigration or the workhouse,' said Logan.
'Emigration! What can you or I do in the Colonies? They provide even their own ushers. My only available assets, a little Greek and less Latin, are drugs in the Melbourne market,' answered Merton; 'they breed their own dominies. Protection!'
'In America they might pay for lessons in the English accent . . . ' said Logan.
'But not,' said Merton, 'in the Scotch, which is yours; oh distant cousin of a marquis! Consequently by rich American lady pupils "you are not one to be desired."'
'Tommy, you are impertinent,' said Logan. 'Oh, hang it, where is there an opening, a demand, for the broken, the stoney broke? A man cannot live by casual paragraphs alone.'
'And these generally reckoned "too high-toned for our readers,"' said Merton.
'If I could get the secretaryship of a golf club!' Logan sighed.
'If you could get the Chancellorship of the Exchequer! I reckon that there are two million applicants for secretaryships of golf clubs.'
'Or a land agency,' Logan murmured.
'Oh, be practical!' cried Merton. 'Be inventive! Be modern! Be up to date! Think of something new! Think of a felt want, as the Covenanting divine calls it: a real public need, hitherto but dimly present, and quite a demand without a supply.'
'But that means thousands in advertisements,' said Logan, 'even if we ran a hair-restorer. The ground bait is too expensive. I say, I once knew a fellow who ground-baited for salmon with potted shrimps.'
'Make a paragraph on him then,' said Merton.
'But results proved that there was no felt want of potted shrimps—or not of a fly to follow.'
'Your collaboration in the search, the hunt for money, the quest, consists merely in irrelevancies and objections,' growled Merton, lighting a cigarette.
'Lucky devil, Peter Nevison. Meets an heiress on a Channel boat, with 4,000l. a year; and there he is.' Logan basked in the reflected sunshine.
'Cut by her people, though—and other people. I could not have faced the row with her people,' said Merton musingly.
'I don't wonder they moved heaven and earth, and her uncle, the bishop, to stop it. Not eligible, Peter was not, however you took him,' Logan reflected. 'Took too much of this,' he pointed to the heraldic flask.
'Well, she took him. It is not much that parents, still less guardians, can do now, when a girl's mind is made up.'
'The emancipation of woman is the opportunity of the indigent male struggler. Women have their way,' Logan reflected.
'And the youth of the modern aged is the opportunity of our sisters, the girls "on the make,"' said Merton. 'What a lot of old men of title are marrying young women as hard up as we are!'
'And then,' said Logan, 'the offspring of the deceased marchionesses make a fuss. In fact marriage is always the signal for a family row.'
'It is the infernal family row that I never could face. I had a chance—'
Merton seemed likely to drop into autobiography.
'I know,' said Logan admonishingly.
'Well, hanged if I could take it, and she—she could not stand it either, and both of us—'
'Do not be elegiac,' interrupted Logan. 'I know. Still, I am rather sorry for people's people. The unruly affections simply poison the lives of parents and guardians, aye, and of the children too. The aged are now so hasty and imprudent. What would not Tala have given to prevent his Grace from marrying Mrs. Tankerville?'
Merton leapt to his feet and smote his brow.
'Wait, don't speak to me—a great thought flushes all my brain. Hush! I have it,' and he sat down again, pouring seltzer water into a half empty glass.
'Have what?' asked Logan.
'The Felt Want. But the accomplices?'
'But the advertisements!' suggested Logan.
'A few pounds will cover them. I can sell my books,' Merton sighed.
'A lot of advertising your first editions will pay for. Why, even to launch a hair-restorer takes—'
'Oh, but,' Merton broke in, 'this want is so widely felt, acutely felt too: hair is not in it. But where are the accomplices?'
'If it is gentleman burglars I am not concerned. No Raffles for me! If it is venal physicians to kill off rich relations, the lives of the Logans are sacred to me.'
'Bosh!' said Merton, 'I want "lady friends," as Tennyson says: nice girls, well born, well bred, trying to support themselves.'
'What do you want them for? To support them?'
'I want them as accomplices,' said Merton. 'As collaborators.'
'Blackmail?' asked Logan. 'Has it come to this? I draw the line at blackmail. Besides, they would starve first, good girls would; or marry Lord Methusalem, or a beastly South African richard.'
'Robert Logan of Restalrig, that should be'—Merton spoke impressively—'you know me to be incapable of practices, however lucrative, which involve taint of crime. I do not prey upon the society which I propose to benefit. But where are the girls?'
'Where are they not?' Logan asked. 'Dawdling, as jesters, from country house to country house. In the British Museum, verifying references for literary gents, if they can get references to verify. Asking leave to describe their friends' parties in The Leidy's News. Trying for places as golfing governesses, or bridge governesses, or gymnastic mistresses at girls' schools, or lady laundresses, or typewriters, or lady teachers of cookery, or pegs to hang costumes on at dress-makers'. The most beautiful girl I ever saw was doing that once; I met her when I was shopping with my aunt who left her money to the Armenians.'
'You kept up her acquaintance? The girl's, I mean,' Merton asked.
'We have occasionally met. In fact—'
'Yes, I know, as you said lately,' Merton remarked. 'That's one, anyhow, and there is Mary Willoughby, who got a second in history when I was up. She would do. Better business for her than the British Museum. I know three or four.'
'I know five or six. But what for?' Logan insisted.
'To help us in supplying the widely felt want, which is my discovery,' said Merton.
'And that is?'
'Disentanglers—of both sexes. A large and varied staff, calculated to meet every requirement and cope with every circumstance.' Merton quoted an unwritten prospectus.
'I don't follow. What the deuce is your felt want?'
'What we were talking about.'
'Ground bait for salmon?' Logan reverted to his idea.
'No. Family rows about marriages. Nasty letters. Refusals to recognise the choice of a son, a daughter, or a widowed but youthful old parent, among the upper classes. Harsh words. Refusals to allow meetings or correspondence. Broken hearts. Improvident marriages. Preaching down a daughter's heart, or an aged parent's heart, or a nephew's, or a niece's, or a ward's, or anybody's heart. Peace restored to the household. Intended marriage off, and nobody a penny the worse, unless—'
'Unless what?' said Logan.
'Practical difficulties,' said Merton, 'will occur in every enterprise. But they won't be to our disadvantage, the reverse—if they don't happen too often. And we can guard against that by a scientific process.'
'Now will you explain,' Logan asked, 'or shall I pour this whisky and water down the back of your neck?'
He rose to his feet, menace in his eye.
'Bear fighting barred! We are no longer boys. We are men—broken men. Sit down, don't play the bear,' said Merton.
'Well, explain, or I fire!'
'Don't you see? The problem for the family, for hundreds of families, is to get the undesirable marriage off without the usual row. Very few people really like a row. Daughter becomes anaemic; foreign cures are expensive and no good. Son goes to the Devil or the Cape. Aged and opulent, but amorous, parent leaves everything he can scrape together to disapproved of new wife. Relations cut each other all round. Not many people really enjoy that kind of thing. They want a pacific solution—marriage off, no remonstrances.'
'And how are you going to do it?'
'Why,' said Merton, 'by a scientific and thoroughly organised system of disengaging or disentangling. We enlist a lot of girls and fellows like ourselves, beautiful, attractive, young, or not so young, well connected, intellectual, athletic, and of all sorts of types, but all broke, all without visible means of subsistence. They are people welcome in country houses, but travelling third class, and devilishly perplexed about how to tip the servants, how to pay if they lose at bridge, and so forth. We enlist them, we send them out on demand, carefully selecting our agents to meet the circumstances in each case. They go down and disentangle the amorous by—well, by entangling them. The lovers are off with the old love, the love which causes all the worry, without being on with the new love—our agent. The thing quietly fizzles out.'
'Quietly!' Logan snorted. 'I like "quietly." They would be on with the new love. Don't you see, you born gomeral, that the person, man or woman, who deserts the inconvenient A.—I put an A. B. case—falls in love with your agent B., and your B. is, by the nature of the thing, more ineligible than A.—too poor. A babe could see that. You disappoint me, Merton.'
'You state,' said Merton, 'one of the practical difficulties which I foresaw. Not that it does not suit us very well. Our comrade and friend, man or woman, gets a chance of a good marriage, and, Logan, there is no better thing. But parents and guardians would not stand much of that: of people marrying our agents.'
'Of course they wouldn't. Your idea is crazy.'
'Wait a moment,' said Merton. 'The resources of science are not yet exhausted. You have heard of the epoch-making discovery of Jenner, and its beneficent results in checking the ravages of smallpox, that scourge of the human race?'
'Oh don't talk like a printed book,' Logan remonstrated. 'Everybody has heard of vaccination.'
'And you are aware that similar prophylactic measures have been adopted, with more or less of success, in the case of other diseases?'
'I am aware,' said Logan, 'that you are in danger of personal suffering at my hands, as I already warned you.'
'What is love but a disease?' Merton asked dreamily. 'A French savant, Monsieur Janet, says that nobody ever falls in love except when he is a little bit off colour: I forget the French equivalent.'
'I am coming for you,' Logan arose in wrath.
'Sit down. Well, your objection (which it did not need the eyes of an Argus to discover) is that the patients, the lovers young, whose loves are disapproved of by the family, will fall in love with our agents, insist on marrying them, and so the last state of these afflicted parents—or children—will be worse than the first. Is that your objection?'
'Of course it is; and crushing at that,' Logan replied.
'Then science suggests prophylactic measures: something akin to vaccination,' Merton explained. 'The agents must be warranted "immune." Nice new word!'
'The object,' Merton answered, 'is to make it impossible, or highly improbable, that our agents, after disentangling the affections of the patients, curing them of one attack, will accept their addresses, offered in a second fit of the fever. In brief, the agents must not marry the patients, or not often.'
'But how can you prevent them if they want to do it?'
'By a process akin, in the emotional region of our strangely blended nature, to inoculation.'
'Hanged if I understand you. You keep on repeating yourself. You dodder!'
'Our agents must have got the disease already, the pretty fever; and be safe against infection. There must be on the side of the agent a prior attachment. Now, don't interrupt, there always is a prior attachment. You are in love, I am in love, he, she, and they, all of the broken brigade, are in love; all the more because they have not a chance. "Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth." So, you see, our agents will be quite safe not to crown the flame of the patients, not to accept them, if they do propose, or expect a proposal. "Every security from infection guaranteed." There is the felt want. Here is the remedy; not warranted absolutely painless, but salutary, and tending to the amelioration of the species. So we have only to enlist the agents, and send a few advertisements to the papers. My first editions must go. Farewell Shelley, Tennyson, Keats, uncut Waverleys, Byron, The Waltz, early Kiplings (at a vast reduction on account of the overflooded state of the market). Farewell Kilmarnock edition of Burns, and Colonel Lovelace, his Lucasta, and Tamerlane by Mr. Poe, and the rest. The money must be raised.' Merton looked resigned.
'I have nothing to sell,' said Logan, 'but an entire set of clubs by Philp. Guaranteed unique, and in exquisite condition.'
'You must part with them,' said Merton. 'We are like Palissy the potter, feeding his furnace with the drawing-room furniture.'
'But how about the recruiting?' Logan asked. 'It's like one of these novels where you begin by collecting desperados from all quarters, and then the shooting commences.'
'Well, we need not ransack the Colonies,' Merton replied. 'Patronise British industries. We know some fellows already and some young women.'
'I say,' Logan interrupted, 'what a dab at disentangling Lumley would have been if he had not got that Professorship of Toxicology at Edinburgh, and been able to marry Miss Wingan at last!'
'Yes, and Miss Wingan would have been useful. What a lively girl, ready for everything,' Merton replied.
'But these we can still get at,' Logan asked: 'how are you to be sure that they are—vaccinated?'
'The inquiry is delicate,' Merton admitted, 'but the fact may be almost taken for granted. We must give a dinner (a preliminary expense) to promising collaborators, and champagne is a great promoter of success in delicate inquiries. In vino veritas.'
'I don't know if there is money in it, but there is a kind of larkiness,' Logan admitted.
'Yes, I think there will be larks.'
'About the dinner? We are not to have Johnnies disguised as hansom cabbies driving about, and picking up men and women that look the right sort, in the streets, and compelling them to come in?'
'Oh no, that expense we can cut. It would not do with the women, obviously: heavens, what queer fishes that net would catch! The flag of the Disentanglers shall never be stained by—anything. You know some likely agents: I know some likely agents. They will suggest others, as our field of usefulness widens. Of course there is the oath of secrecy: we shall administer that after dinner to each guest apart.'
'Jolly difficult for those that are mixed up with the press to keep an oath of secrecy!' Logan spoke as a press man.
'We shall only have to do with gentlemen and ladies. The oath is not going to sanction itself with religious terrors. Good form—we shall appeal to a "sense of form"—now so widely diffused by University Extension Lectures on the Beautiful, the Fitting, the—'
'Oh shut up!' cried Logan. 'You always haver after midnight. For, look here, here is an objection; this precious plan of yours, parents and others could work it for themselves. I dare say they do. When they see the affections of a son, or a daughter, or a bereaved father beginning to stray towards A., they probably invite B. to come and stay and act as a lightning conductor. They don't need us.'
'Oh, don't they? They seldom have an eligible and satisfactory lightning conductor at hand, somebody to whom they can trust their dear one. Or, if they have, the dear one has already been bored with the intended lightning conductor (who is old, or plain, or stupid, or familiar, at best), and they won't look at him or her. Now our Disentanglers are not going to be plain, or dull, or old, or stale, or commonplace—we'll take care of that. My dear fellow, don't you know how dismal the parti selected for a man or girl invariably is? Now we provide a different and superior article, a fresh article too, not a familiar bore or a neighbour.'
'Well, there is a good deal in that, as you say,' Logan admitted. 'But decent people will think the whole speculation shady. How are you to get round that? There is something you have forgotten.'
'What?' Merton asked.
'Why it stares you in the face. References. Unexceptionable references; people will expect them all round.'
'Please don't say "unexceptionable"; say "references beyond the reach of cavil."' Merton was a purist. 'It costs more in advertisements, but my phrase at once enlists the sympathy of every liberal and elegant mind. But as to references (and I am glad that you have some common sense, Logan), there is, let me see, there is the Dowager.'
'The divine Althaea—Marchioness of Bowton?'
'The same,' said Merton. 'The oldest woman, and the most recklessly up- to-date in London. She has seen bien d'autres, and wants to see more.'
'She will do; and my aunt,' Logan said.
'Not, oh, of course not, the one who left her money to the Armenians?' Merton asked.
'No, another. And there's old Lochmaben's young wife, my cousin, widely removed, by marriage. She is American, you know, and perhaps you know her book, Social Experiments?'
'Yes, it is not half bad,' Merton conceded, 'and her heart will be in what I fear she will call "the new departure." And she is pretty, and highly respected in the parish.'
'And there's my aunt I spoke of, or great aunt, Miss Nicky Maxwell. The best old thing: a beautiful monument of old gentility, and she would give her left hand to help any one of the clan.'
'She will do. And there's Mrs. Brown-Smith, Lord Yarrow's daughter, who married the patent soap man. Elle est capable de tout. A real good woman, but full of her fun.'
'That will do for the lady patronesses. We must secure them at once.'
'But won't the clients blab?' Logan suggested.
'They can't,' Merton said. 'They would be laughed at consumedly. It will be their interest to hold their tongues.'
'Well, let us hope that they will see it in that light.' Logan was not too sanguine.
Merton had a better opinion of his enterprise.
'People, if they come to us at all for assistance in these very delicate and intimate affairs, will have too much to lose by talking about them. They may not come, we can only try, but if they come they will be silent as the grave usually is.'
'Well, it is late, and the whisky is low,' said Logan in mournful tones. 'May the morrow's reflections justify the inspiration of—the whisky. Good night!'
'Good night,' said Merton absently.
He sat down when Logan had gone, and wrote a few notes on large sheets of paper. He was elaborating the scheme. 'If collaboration consists in making objections, as the French novelist said, Logan is a rare collaborator,' Merton muttered as he turned out the pallid lamp and went to bed.
Next morning, before dressing, he revolved the scheme. It bore the change of light and survived the inspiration of alcohol. Logan looked in after breakfast. He had no new objections. They proceeded to action.
II. FROM THE HIGHWAYS AND HEDGES
The first step towards Merton's scheme was taken at once. The lady patronesses were approached. The divine Althaea instantly came in. She had enjoyed few things more since the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of Waterloo. Miss Nicky Maxwell at first professed a desire to open her coffers, 'only anticipating,' she said, 'an event'—which Logan declined in any sense to anticipate. Lady Lochmaben said that they would have a lovely time as experimental students of society. Mrs. Brown-Smith instantly offered her own services as a Disentangler, her lord being then absent in America studying the negro market for detergents.
'I think,' she said, 'he expects Brown-Smith's brand to make an Ethiopian change his skin, and then means to exhibit him as an advertisement.'
'And settle the negro question by making them all white men,' said Logan, as he gracefully declined the generous but compromising proposal of the lady. 'Yet, after all,' thought he, 'is she not right? The prophylactic precautions would certainly be increased, morally speaking, if the Disentanglers were married.' But while he pigeon-holed this idea for future reference, at the moment he could not see his way to accepting Mrs. Brown-Smith's spirited idea. She reluctantly acquiesced in his view of the case, but, like the other dames, promised to guarantee, if applied to, the absolute respectability of the enterprise. The usual vows of secrecy were made, and (what borders on the supernatural) they were kept.
Merton's first editions went to Sotheby's, 'Property of a gentleman who is changing his objects of collection.' A Russian archduke bought Logan's unique set of golf clubs by Philp. Funds accrued from other sources. Logan had a friend, dearer friend had no man, one Trevor, a pleasant bachelor whose sister kept house for him. His purse, or rather his cheque book, gaped with desire to be at Logan's service, but had gaped in vain. Finding Logan grinning one day over the advertisement columns of a paper at the club, his prophetic soul discerned a good thing, and he wormed it out 'in dern privacy.' He slapped his manly thigh and insisted on being in it—as a capitalist. The other stoutly resisted, but was overcome.
'You need an office, you need retaining fees, you need outfits for the accomplices, and it is a legitimate investment. I'll take interest and risks,' said Trevor.
So the money was found.
The inaugural dinner, for the engaging of accomplices, was given in a private room of a restaurant in Pall Mall.
The dinner was gay, but a little pathetic. Neatness, rather than the gloss of novelty (though other gloss there was), characterised the garments of the men. The toilettes of the women were modest; that amount of praise (and it is a good deal) they deserved. A young lady, Miss Maskelyne, an amber-hued beauty, who practically lived as a female jester at the houses of the great, shone resplendent, indeed, but magnificence of apparel was demanded by her profession.
'I am so tired of it,' she said to Merton. 'Fancy being more and more anxious for country house invitations. Fancy an artist's feelings, when she knows she has not been a success. And then when the woman of the house detests you! She often does. And when they ask you to give your imitation of So-and-so, and forget that his niece is in the room! Do you know what they would have called people like me a hundred years ago? Toad- eaters! There is one of us in an old novel I read a bit of once. She goes about, an old maid, to houses. Once she arrived in a snow storm and a hearse. Am I to come to that? I keep learning new drawing-room tricks. And when you fall ill, as I did at Eckford, and you can't leave, and you think they are tired to death of you! Oh, it is I who am tired, and time passes, and one grows old. I am a hag!'
Merton said 'what he ought to have said,' and what, indeed, was true. He was afraid she would tell him what she owed her dress-makers. Therefore he steered the talk round to sport, then to the Highlands, then to Knoydart, then to Alastair Macdonald of Craigiecorrichan, and then Merton knew, by a tone in the voice, a drop of the eyelashes, that Miss Maskelyne was—vaccinated. Prophylactic measures had been taken: this agent ran no risk of infection. There was Alastair.
Merton turned to Miss Willoughby, on his left. She was tall, dark, handsome, but a little faded, and not plump: few of the faces round the table were plump and well liking. Miss Willoughby, in fact, dwelt in one room, in Bloomsbury, and dined on cocoa and bread and butter. These were for her the rewards of the Higher Education. She lived by copying crabbed manuscripts.
'Do you ever go up to Oxford now?' said Merton.
'Not often. Sometimes a St. Ursula girl gets a room in the town for me. I have coached two or three of them at little reading parties. It gets one out of town in autumn: Bloomsbury in August is not very fresh. And at Oxford one can "tout," or "cadge," for a little work. But there are so many of us.'
'What are you busy with just now?'
'Vatican transcripts at the Record Office.'
'Any exciting secrets?'
'Oh no, only how much the priests here paid to Rome for their promotions. Secrets then perhaps: not thrilling now.'
'No schemes to poison people?'
'Not yet: no plots for novels, and oh, such long-winded pontifical Latin, and such awful crabbed hands.'
'It does not seem to lead to much?'
'To nothing, in no way. But one is glad to get anything.'
'Jephson, of Lincoln, whom I used to know, is doing a book on the Knights of St. John in their Relations to the Empire,' said Merton.
'Is he?' said Miss Willoughby, after a scarcely distinguishable but embarrassed pause, and she turned from Merton to exhibit an interest in the very original scheme of mural decoration behind her.
'It is quite a new subject to most people,' said Merton, and he mentally ticked off Miss Willoughby as safe, for Jephson, whom he had heard that she liked, was a very poor man, living on his fellowship and coaching. He was sorry: he had never liked or trusted Jephson.
'It is a subject sure to create a sensation, isn't it?' asked Miss Willoughby, a little paler than before.
'It might get a man a professorship,' said Merton.
'There are so many of us, of them, I mean,' said Miss Willoughby, and Merton gave a small sigh. 'Not much larkiness here,' he thought, and asked a transient waiter for champagne.
Miss Willoughby drank a little of the wine: the colour came into her face.
'By Jove, she's awfully handsome,' thought Merton.
'It was very kind of you to ask me to this festival,' said the girl. 'Why have you asked us, me at least?'
'Perhaps for many besides the obvious reason,' said Merton. 'You may be told later.'
'Then there is a reason in addition to that which most people don't find obvious? Have you come into a fortune?'
'No, but I am coming. My ship is on the sea and my boat is on the shore.'
'I see faces that I know. There is that tall handsome girl, Miss Markham, with real gold hair, next Mr. Logan. We used to call her the Venus of Milo, or Milo for short, at St. Ursula's. She has mantles and things tried on her at Madame Claudine's, and stumpy purchasers argue from the effect (neglecting the cause) that the things will suit them. Her people were ruined by Australian gold mines. And there is Miss Martin, who does stories for the penny story papers at a shilling the thousand words. The fathers have backed horses, and the children's teeth are set on edge. Is it a Neo-Christian dinner? We are all so poor. You have sought us in the highways and hedges.'
'Where the wild roses grow,' said Merton.
'I don't know many of the men, though I see faces that one used to see in the High. There is Mr. Yorker, the athletic man. What is he doing now?'
'He is sub-vice-secretary of a cricket club. His income depends on his bat and his curl from leg. But he has a rich aunt.'
'Cricket does not lead to much, any more than my ability to read the worst handwritings of the darkest ages. Who is the man that the beautiful lady opposite is making laugh so?' asked Miss Willoughby, without moving her lips.
Merton wrote 'Bulstrode of Trinity' on the back of the menu.
'What does he do?'
'Nothing,' said Merton in a low voice. 'Been alligator farming, or ostrich farming, or ranching, and come back shorn; they all come back. He wants to be an ecclesiastical "chucker out," and cope with Mr. Kensitt and Co. New profession.'
'He ought not to be here. He can ride and shoot.'
'He is the only son of his mother and she is a widow.'
'He ought to go out. My only brother is out. I wish I were a man. I hate dawdlers.' She looked at him: her eyes were large and grey under black lashes, they were dark and louring.
'Have you, by any chance, a spark of the devil in you?' asked Merton, taking a social header.
'I have been told so, and sometimes thought so,' said Miss Willoughby. 'Perhaps this one will go out by fasting if not by prayer. Yes, I have a spark of the Accuser of the Brethren.'
'Tant mieux,' thought Merton.
All the people were talking and laughing now. Miss Maskelyne told a story to the table. She did a trick with a wine glass, forks, and a cork. Logan interviewed Miss Martin, who wrote tales for the penny fiction people, on her methods. Had she a moral aim, a purpose? Did she create her characters first, and let them evolve their fortunes, or did she invent a plot, and make her characters fit in?
Miss Martin said she began with a situation: 'I wish I could get one somewhere as secretary to a man of letters.'
'They can't afford secretaries,' said Logan. 'Besides they are family men, married men, and so—'
'And so what?'
'Go look in any glass, and say,' said Logan, laughing. 'But how do you begin with a situation?'
'Oh, anyhow. A lot of men in a darkened room. Pitch dark.'
'No, a conspiracy. They are in the dark that when arrested they may swear they never saw each other.'
'They could swear that anyhow.'
'Conspirators have consciences. Then there comes a red light shining between the door and the floor. Then the door breaks down under a hammer, the light floods the room. There is a man in it whom the others never saw enter.'
'How did he get in?'
'He was there before they came. Then the fighting begins. At the end of it where is the man?'
'Well, where is he? What was he up to?'
'I don't know yet,' said Miss Martin, 'it just comes as I go on. It has just got to come. It is a fourteen hours a day business. All writing. I crib things from the French. Not whole stories. I take the opening situation; say the two men in a boat on the river who hook up a sack. I don't read the rest of the Frenchman, I work on from the sack, and guess what was in it.'
'What was in the sack?'
'In the Sack! A name for a story! Anything, from the corpse of a freak (good idea, corpse of a freak with no arms and legs, or with too many) to a model of a submarine ship, or political papers. But I am tired of corpses. They pervade my works. They give "a bouquet, a fragrance," as Mr. Talbot Twysden said about his cheap claret.'
'You read the old Masters?'
'The obsolete Thackeray? Yes, I know him pretty well.'
'What are you publishing just now?'
'This to an author? Don't you know?'
'I blush,' said Logan.
'Unseen,' said Miss Martin, scrutinising him closely.
'Well, you do not read the serials to which I contribute,' she went on. 'I have two or three things running. There is The Judge's Secret.'
'What was that?'
'He did it himself.'
'Killed the bishop. He is not a very plausible judge in English: in French he would be all right, a juge d'instruction, the man who cross- examines the prisoners in private, you know.'
'Judges don't do that in England,' said Logan.
'No, but this case is an exception. The judge was such a very old friend, a college friend, of the murdered bishop. So he takes advantage of his official position, and steals into the cell of the accused. My public does not know any better, and, of course, I have no reviewers. I never come out in a book.'
'And why did the judge assassinate the prelate?'
'The prelate knew too much about the judge, who sat in the Court of Probate and Divorce.'
'Satan reproving sin?' asked Logan.
'Yes, exactly; and the bishop being interested in the case—'
'No scandal about Mrs. Proudie?'
'No, not that exactly, still, you see the motive?'
'I do,' said Logan. 'And the conclusion?'
'The bishop was not really dead at all. It takes some time to explain. The corpus delicti—you see I know my subject—was somebody else. And the bishop was alive, and secretly watching the judge, disguised as Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Oh, I know it is too much in Dickens's manner. But my public has not read Dickens.'
'You interest me keenly' said Logan.
'I am glad to hear it. And the penny public take freely. Our circulation goes up. I asked for a rise of three pence on the thousand words.'
'Now this is what I call literary conversation,' said Logan. 'It is like reading The British Weekly Bookman. Did you get the threepence? if the inquiry is not indelicate.'
'I got twopence. But, you see, there are so many of us.'
'Tell me more. Are you serialising anything else?'
'Serialising is the right word. I see you know a great deal about literature. Yes, I am serialising a featured tale.'
'A featured tale?'
'You don't know what that is? You do not know everything yet! It is called Myself.'
'Oh, because the narrator did it—the murder. A stranger is found in a wood, hung to a tree. Nobody knows who he is. But he and the narrator had met in Paraguay. He, the murdered man, came home, visited the narrator, and fell in love with the beautiful being to whom the narrator was engaged. So the narrator lassoed him in a wood.'
'Oh, the old stock reason. He knew too much.'
'What did he know?'
'Why, that the narrator was living on a treasure originally robbed from a church in South America.'
'But, if it was a treasure, who would care?'
'The girl was a Catholic. And the murdered man knew more.'
'How much more?'
'This: to find out about the treasure, the narrator had taken priest's orders, and, of course, could not marry. And the other man, being in love with the girl, threatened to tell, and so the lasso came in handy. It is a Protestant story and instructive.'
'Jolly instructive! But, Miss Martin, you are the Guy Boothby of your sex!'
At this supreme tribute the girl blushed like dawn upon the hills.
'My word, she is pretty!' thought Logan; but what he said was, 'You know Mr. Tierney, your neighbour? Out of a job as a composition master. Almost reduced to University Extension Lectures on the didactic Drama.'
Tierney was talking eagerly to his neighbour, a fascinating lady laundress, la belle blanchisseuse, about starch.
Further off a lady instructress in cookery, Miss Frere, was conversing with a tutor of bridge.
'Tierney,' said Logan, in a pause, 'may I present you to Miss Martin?' Then he turned to Miss Markham, formerly known at St. Ursula's as Milo. She had been a teacher of golf, hockey, cricket, fencing, and gymnastics, at a very large school for girls, in a very small town. Here she became society to such an alarming extent (no party being complete without her, while the colonels and majors never left her in peace), that her connection with education was abruptly terminated. At present raiment was draped on her magnificent shoulders at Madame Claudine's. Logan, as he had told Merton, 'occasionally met her,' and Logan had the strongest reasons for personal conviction that she was absolutely proof against infection, in the trying circumstances to which a Disentangler is professionally exposed. Indeed she alone of the women present knew from Logan the purpose of the gathering.
Cigarettes had replaced the desire of eating and drinking. Merton had engaged a withdrawing room, where he meant to be closeted with his guests, one by one, administer the oath, and prosecute delicate inquiries on the important question of immunity from infection. But, after a private word or two with Logan, he deemed these conspicuous formalities needless. 'We have material enough to begin with,' said Logan. 'We knew beforehand that some of the men were safe, and certain of the women.'
There was a balcony. The providence of nature had provided a full moon, and a night of balm. The imaginative maintained that the scent of hay was breathed, among other odours, over Pall Mall the Blest. Merton kept straying with one guest or another into a corner of the balcony. He hinted that there was a thing in prospect. Would the guest hold himself, or herself, ready at need? Next morning, if the promise was given, the guest might awake to peace of conscience. The scheme was beneficent, and, incidentally, cheerful.
To some he mentioned retainers; money down, to speak grossly. Most accepted on the strength of Merton's assurances that their services must always be ready. There were difficulties with Miss Willoughby and Miss Markham. The former lady (who needed it most) flatly refused the arrangement. Merton pleaded in vain. Miss Markham, the girl known to her contemporaries as Milo, could not hazard her present engagement at Madame Claudine's. If she was needed by the scheme in the dead season she thought that she could be ready for whatever it was.
Nobody was told exactly what the scheme was. It was only made clear that nobody was to be employed without the full and exhaustive knowledge of the employers, for whom Merton and Logan were merely agents. If in doubt, the agents might apply for counsel to the lady patronesses, whose very names tranquilised the most anxious inquirers. The oath was commuted for a promise, on honour, of secrecy. And, indeed, little if anything was told that could be revealed. The thing was not political: spies on Russia or France were not being recruited. That was made perfectly clear. Anybody might withdraw, if the prospect, when beheld nearer, seemed undesirable. A mystified but rather merry gathering walked away to remote lodgings, Miss Maskelyne alone patronising a hansom.
On the day after the dinner Logan and Merton reviewed the event and its promise, taking Trevor into their counsels. They were not ill satisfied with the potential recruits.
'There was one jolly little thing in white,' said Trevor. 'So pretty and flowering! "Cherries ripe themselves do cry," a line in an old song, that's what her face reminded me of. Who was she?'
'She came with Miss Martin, the penny novelist,' said Logan. 'She is stopping with her. A country parson's daughter, come up to town to try to live by typewriting.'
'She will be of no use to us,' said Merton. 'If ever a young woman looked fancy-free it is that girl. What did you say her name is, Logan?'
'I did not say, but, though you won't believe it, her name is Miss Blossom, Miss Florry Blossom. Her godfathers and godmothers must bear the burden of her appropriate Christian name; the other, the surname, is a coincidence—designed or not.'
'Well, she is not suitable,' said Merton sternly. 'Misplaced affections she might distract, but then, after she had distracted them, she might reciprocate them. As a conscientious manager I cannot recommend her to clients.'
'But,' said Trevor, 'she may be useful for all that, as well as decidedly ornamental. Merton, you'll want a typewriter for your business correspondence, and Miss Blossom typewrites: it is her profession.'
'Well,' said Merton, 'I am not afraid. I do not care too much for "that garden in her face," for your cherry-ripe sort of young person. If a typewriter is necessary I can bear with her as well as another.'
'I admire your courage and resignation,' said Trevor, 'so now let us go and take rooms for the Society.'
They found rooms, lordly rooms, which Trevor furnished in a stately manner, hanging a selection of his mezzotints on the walls—ladies of old years, after Romney, Reynolds, Hoppner, and the rest. A sober opulence and comfort characterised the chambers; a well-selected set of books in a Sheraton bookcase was intended to beguile the tedium of waiting clients. The typewriter (Miss Blossom accepted the situation) occupied an inner chamber, opening out of that which was to be sacred to consultations.
The firm traded under the title of Messrs. Gray and Graham. Their advertisement—in all the newspapers—addressed itself 'To Parents, Guardians, Children and others.' It set forth the sorrows and anxieties which beset families in the matter of undesirable matrimonial engagements and entanglements. The advertisers proposed, by a new method, to restore domestic peace and confidence. 'No private inquiries will, in any case, be made into the past of the parties concerned. The highest references will in every instance be given and demanded. Intending clients must in the first instance apply by letter to Messrs. Gray and Graham. No charge will be made for a first interview, which can only be granted after satisfactory references have been exchanged by letter.'
'If that does not inspire confidence,' said Merton, 'I don't know what will.'
'Nothing short of it will do,' said Logan.
'But the mezzotints will carry weight,' said Trevor, 'and a few good cloisonnes and enamelled snuff-boxes and bronzes will do no harm.'
So he sent in some weedings of his famous collection.
III. ADVENTURE OF THE FIRST CLIENTS
Merton was reading the newspaper in the office, expecting a client. Miss Blossom was typewriting in the inner chamber; the door between was open. The office boy knocked at Merton's outer door, and the sound of that boy's strangled chuckling was distinctly audible to his employer. There is something irritating in the foolish merriment of a youthful menial. No conduct could be more likely than that of the office boy to irritate the first client, arriving on business of which it were hard to exaggerate the delicate and anxious nature.
These reflections flitted through Merton's mind as he exclaimed 'Come in,' with a tone of admonishing austerity.
The office boy entered. His face was scarlet, his eyes goggled and ran water. Hastily and loudly exclaiming 'Mr. and Miss Apsley' (which ended with a crow) he stuffed his red pocket handkerchief into his mouth and escaped. At the sound of the names, Merton had turned towards the inner door, open behind him, whence came a clear and piercing trill of feminine laughter from Miss Blossom. Merton angrily marched to the inner door, and shut his typewriter in with a bang. His heart burned within him. Nothing could be so insulting to clients; nothing so ruinous to a nascent business. He wheeled round to greet his visitors with a face of apology; his eyes on the average level of the human countenance divine. There was no human countenance divine. There was no human countenance at that altitude. His eyes encountered the opposite wall, and a print of 'Mrs. Pelham Feeding Chickens.'
In a moment his eyes adjusted themselves to a lower elevation. In front of him were standing, hand in hand, a pair of small children, a boy of nine in sailor costume, but with bare knees not usually affected by naval officers, and a girl of seven with her finger in her mouth.
The boy bowed gravely. He was a pretty little fellow with a pale oval face, arched eyebrows, promise of an aquiline nose, and two large black eyes. 'I think, sir,' said the child, 'I have the pleasure of redressing myself to Mr. Gray or Mr. Graham?'
'Graham, at your service,' said Merton, gravely; 'may I ask you and Miss Apsley to be seated?'
There was a large and imposing arm-chair in green leather; the client's chair. Mr. Apsley lifted his little sister into it, and sat down beside her himself. She threw her arms round his neck, and laid her flaxen curls on his shoulder. Her blue eyes looked shyly at Merton out of her fleece of gold. The four shoes of the clients dangled at some distance above the carpet.
'You are the author of this article, I think, Mr. Graham?' said Mr. Apsley, showing his hand, which was warm, and holding out a little crumpled ball of paper, not precisely fresh.
Merton solemnly unrolled it; it contained the advertisement of his firm.
'Yes,' he said, 'I wrote that.'
'You got our letters, for you answered them,' said Mr. Apsley, with equal solemnity. 'Why do you want Bats and me?'
'The lady's name is Bats?' said Merton, wondering why he was supposed to 'want' either of the pair.
'My name is Batsy. I like you: you are pretty,' said Miss Apsley.
Merton positively blushed: he was unaccustomed to compliments so frank from a member of the sex at an early stage of a business interview. He therefore kissed his fair client, who put up a pair of innocent damp lips, and then allowed her attention to be engrossed by a coin on his watch-chain.
'I don't quite remember your case, sir, or what you mean by saying I wanted you, though I am delighted to see you,' he said to Mr. Apsley. 'We have so many letters! With your permission I shall consult the letter book.'
'The article says "To Parents, Guardians, Children, and others." It was in print,' remarked Mr. Apsley, with a heavy stress on "children," 'and she said you wanted us.'
The mystified Merton, wondering who 'she' was, turned the pages of the letter book, mumbling, 'Abernethy, Applecombe, Ap. Davis, Apsley. Here we are,' he began to read the letter aloud. It was typewritten, which, when he saw his clients, not a little surprised him.
'Gentlemen,' the letter ran, 'having seen your advertisement in the Daily Diatribe of to-day, May 17, I desire to express my wish to enter into communication with you on a matter of pressing importance.—I am, in the name of my sister, Miss Josephine Apsley, and myself,
'Faithfully yours, 'THOMAS LLOYD APSLEY.'
'That's the letter,' said Mr. Apsley, 'and you wrote to us.'
'And what did I say?' asked Merton.
'Something about preferences, which we did not understand.'
'References, perhaps,' said Merton. 'Mr. Apsley, may I ask whether you wrote this letter yourself?'
'No; None-so-pretty printed it on a kind of sewing machine. She told us to come and see you, so we came. I called her None-so-pretty, out of a fairy story. She does not mind. Gran says she thinks she rather likes it.'
'I shouldn't wonder if she did,' said Merton. 'But what is her real name?'
'She made me promise not to tell. She was staying at the Home Farm when we were staying at Gran's.'
'Is Gran your grandmother?'
'Yes,' replied Mr. Apsley.
Hereon Bats remarked that she was 'velly hungalee.'
'To be sure,' said Merton. 'Luncheon shall be brought at once.' He rang the bell, and, going out, interpellated the office boy.
'Why did you laugh when my friends came to luncheon? You must learn manners.'
'Please, sir, the kid, the young gentleman I mean, said he came on business,' answered the boy, showing apoplectic symptoms.
'So he did; luncheon is his business. Go and bring luncheon for—five, and see that there are chicken, cutlets, tartlets, apricots, and ginger- beer.'
The boy departed and Merton reflected. 'A hoax, somebody's practical joke,' he said to himself. 'I wonder who Miss None-so-pretty is.' Then he returned, assured Batsy that luncheon was even at the doors, and leaving her to look at Punch, led Mr. Apsley aside. 'Tommy,' he said (having seen his signature), 'where do you live?'
The boy named a street on the frontiers of St. John's Wood.
'And who is your father?'
'Major Apsley, D.S.O.'
'And how did you come here?'
'In a hansom. I told the man to wait.'
'How did you get away?'
'Father took us to Lord's, with Miss Limmer, and there was a crowd, and Bats and I slipped out; for None-so-pretty said we ought to call on you.'
'Who is Miss Limmer?'
'Have you a mother?'
The child's brown eyes filled with tears, and his cheeks flushed. 'It was in India that she—'
'Yes, be a man, Tommy. I am looking the other way,' which Merton did for some seconds. 'Now, Tommy, is Miss Limmer kind to you?'
The child's face became strangely set and blank; his eyes looking vacant. 'Miss Limmer is very kind to us. She loves us and we love her dearly. Ask Batsy,' he said in a monotonous voice, as if he were repeating a lesson. 'Batsy, come here,' he said in the same voice. 'Is Miss Limmer kind to us?'
Batsy threw up her eyes—it was like a stage effect, 'We love Miss Limmer dearly, and she loves us. She is very, very kind to us, like our dear mamma.' Her voice was monotonous too. 'I never can say the last part,' said Tommy. 'Batsy knows it; about dear mamma.'
'Indeed!' said Merton. 'Tommy, why did you come here?'
'I don't know. I told you that None-so-pretty told us to. She did it after she saw that when we were bathing.' Tommy raised one of his little loose breeks that did not cover the knee.
That was not pleasant to look on: it was on the inside of the right thigh.
'How did you get hurt there?' asked Merton.
The boy's monotonous chant began again: his eyes were fixed and blank as before. 'I fell off a tree, and my leg hit a branch on the way down.'
'Curious accident,' said Merton; 'and None-so-pretty saw the mark?'
'And asked you how you got it?'
'Yes, and she saw blue marks on Batsy, all over her arms.'
'And you told None-so-pretty that you fell off a tree?'
'And she told you to come here?'
'Yes, she had read your printed article.'
'Well, here is luncheon,' said Merton, and bade the office boy call Miss Blossom from the inner chamber to share the meal. Batsy had as low a chair as possible, and was disposing her napkin to do the duty of a pinafore.
Miss Blossom entered from within with downcast eyes.
'None-so-pretty!' shouted the children, while Tommy rushed to throw his arms round her neck, to meet which she stooped down, concealing a face of blushes. Batsy descended from her chair, waddled up, climbed another chair, and attacked the girl from the rear. The office boy was arranging luncheon. Merton called him to the writing-table, scribbled a note, and said, 'Take that to Dr. Maitland, with my compliments.'
Maitland had been one of the guests at the inaugural dinner. He was entirely devoid of patients, and was living on the anticipated gains of a great work on Clinical Psychology.
'Tell Dr. Maitland he will find me at luncheon if he comes instantly,' said Merton as the boy fled on his errand. 'I see that I need not introduce you to my young friends, Miss Blossom,' said Merton. 'May I beg you to help Miss Apsley to arrange her tucker?'
Miss Blossom, almost unbecomingly brilliant in her complexion, did as she was asked. Batsy had cold chicken, new potatoes, green peas, and two helpings of apricot tart. Tommy devoted himself to cutlets. A very mild shandygaff was compounded for him in an old Oriel pewter. Both children made love to Miss Blossom with their eyes. It was not at all what Merton felt inclined to do; the lady had entangled him in a labyrinth of puzzledom.
'None-so-pretty,' exclaimed Tommy, 'I am glad you told us to come here. Your friends are nice.'
Merton bowed to Tommy, 'I am glad too,' he said. 'Miss Blossom knew that we were kindred souls, same kind of chaps, I mean, you and me, you know, Tommy!'
Miss Blossom became more and more like the fabled peony, the crimson variety. Luckily the office boy ushered in Dr. Maitland, who, exchanging glances of surprise with Merton, over the children's heads, began to make himself agreeable. He had nearly as many tricks as Miss Maskelyne. He was doing the short-sighted man eating celery, and unable to find the salt because he is unable to find his eyeglass.
Merton, seeing his clients absorbed in mirth, murmured something vague about 'business,' and spirited Miss Blossom away to the inner chamber.
'Sit down, pray, Miss Blossom. There is no time to waste. What do you know about these children? Why did you send them here?'
The girl, who was pale enough now, said, 'I never thought they would come.'
'They are here, however. What do you know about them?'
'I went to stay, lately, at the Home Farm on their grandmother's place. We became great friends. I found out that they were motherless, and that they were being cruelly ill-treated by their governess.'
'Yes. But they both said they loved her dearly. They always said that when asked. I gathered from their grandmother, old Mrs. Apsley, that their father would listen to nothing against the governess. The old lady cried in a helpless way, and said he was capable of marrying the woman, out of obstinacy, if anybody interfered. I had your advertisement, and I thought you might disentangle him. It was a kind of joke. I only told them that you were a kind gentleman. I never dreamed of their really coming.'
'Well, you must take them back again presently, there is the address. You must see their father; you must wait till you see him. And how are you to explain this escapade? I can't have the children taught to lie.'
'They have been taught that lesson already.'
'I don't think they are aware of it,' said Merton.
Miss Blossom stared.
'I can't explain, but you must find a way of keeping them out of a scrape.'
'I think I can manage it,' said Miss Blossom demurely.
'I hope so. And manage, if you please, to see this Miss Limmer and observe what kind of person she is,' said Merton, with his hand on the door handle, adding, 'Please ask Dr. Maitland to come here, and do you keep the children amused for a moment.'
Miss Blossom nodded and left the room; there was laughter in the other chamber. Presently Maitland joined Merton.
'Look here,' said Merton, 'we must be rapid. These children are being cruelly ill-treated and deny it. Will you get into talk with the boy, and ask him if he is fond of his governess, say "Miss Limmer," and notice what he says and how he says it? Then we must pack them away.'
'All right,' said Maitland.
They returned to the children. Miss Blossom retreated to the inner room. Bats simplified matters by falling asleep in the client's chair. Maitland began by talking about schools. Was Tommy going to Eton?
Tommy did not know. He had a governess at home.
'Not at a preparatory school yet? A big fellow like you?'
Tommy said that he would like to go to school, but they would not send him.
Tommy hesitated, blushed, and ended by saying that they didn't think it safe, as he walked in his sleep.
'You will soon grow out of that,' said Maitland, 'but it is not very safe at school. A boy I knew was found sound asleep on the roof at school.'
'He might have fallen off,' said Tommy.
'Yes. That's why your people keep you at home. But in a year or two you will be all right. Know any Latin yet?'
Tommy said that Miss Limmer taught him Latin.
'Are you and she great friends?'
Tommy's face and voice altered as before, while he mechanically repeated the tale of the mutual affection which linked him with Miss Limmer.
'That's all very jolly,' said Maitland.
'Now, Tommy,' said Merton, 'we must waken Batsy, and Miss Blossom is going to take you both home. Hope we shall often meet.'
He called Miss Blossom; Batsy kissed both of her new friends. Merton conducted the party to the cab, and settled, in spite of Tommy's remonstrances, with the cabman, who made a good thing of it, and nodded when told to drive away as soon as he had deposited his charges at their door. Then Merton led Maitland upstairs and offered him a cigar.
'What do you think of it?' he asked.
'Common post-hypnotic suggestion by the governess,' said Maitland.
'I guessed as much, but can it really be worked like that? You are not chaffing?'
'Simplest thing to work in the world,' said Maitland. 'A lot of nonsense, however, that the public believes in can't be done. The woman could not sit down in St. John's Wood, and "will" Tommy to come to her if he was in the next room. At least she might "will" till she was black in the face, and he would know nothing about it. But she can put him to sleep, and make him say what he does not want to say, in answer to questions, afterwards, when he is awake.'
'You're sure of it?'
'It is as certain as anything in the world up to a certain point.'
'The girl said something that the boy did not say, more gushing, about his dead mother.'
'The hypnotised subject often draws a line somewhere.'
'The woman must be a fiend,' said Merton.
'Some of them are, now and then,' said the author of Clinical Psychology.
* * * * *
Miss Blossom's cab, the driver much encouraged by Tommy, who conversed with him through the trap in the roof, dashed up to the door of a house close to Lord's. The horse was going fast, and nearly cannoned into another cab-horse, also going fast, which was almost thrown on its haunches by the driver. Inside the other hansom was a tall man with a pale face under the tan, who was nervously gnawing his moustache. Miss Blossom saw him, Tommy saw him, and cried 'Father!' Half-hidden behind a blind of the house Miss Blossom beheld a woman's face, expectant. Clearly she was Miss Limmer. All the while that they were driving Miss Blossom's wits had been at work to construct a story to account for the absence and return of the children. Now, by a flash of invention, she called to her cabman, 'Drive on—fast!' Major Apsley saw his lost children with their arms round the neck of a wonderfully pretty girl; the pretty girl waved her parasol to him with a smile, beckoning forwards; the children waved their arms, calling out 'A race! a race!'
What could a puzzled parent do but bid his cabman follow like the wind? Miss Blossom's cab flew past Lord's, dived into Regent's Park, leading by two lengths; reached the Zoological Gardens, and there its crew alighted, demurely waiting for the Major. He leaped from his hansom, and taking off his hat, strode up to Miss Blossom, as if he were leading a charge. The children captured him by the legs. 'What does this mean, Madam? What are you doing with my children? Who are you?'
'She's None-so-pretty,' said Tommy, by way of introduction.
Miss Blossom bowed with grace, and raising her head, shot two violet rays into the eyes of the Major, which were of a bistre hue. But they accepted the message, like a receiver in wireless telegraphy. No man, let be a Major, could have resisted None-so-pretty at that moment. 'Come into the gardens,' she said, and led the way. 'You would like a ride on the elephant, Tommy?' she asked Master Apsley. 'And you, Batsy?'
The children shouted assent.
'How in the world does she know them?' thought the bewildered officer.
The children mounted the elephant.
'Now, Major Apsley,' said Miss Blossom, 'I have found your children.'
'I owe you thanks, Madam; I have been very anxious, but—'
'It is more than your thanks I want. I want you to do something for me, a very little thing,' said Miss Blossom, with the air of a supplicating angel, the violet eyes dewy with tears.
'I am sure I shall be delighted to do anything you ask, but—'
'Will you promise? It is a very little thing indeed!' and her hands were clasped in entreaty. 'Please promise!'
'Well, I promise.'
'Then keep your word: it is a little thing! Take Tommy home this instant, let nobody speak to him or touch him—and—make him take a bath, and see him take it.'
'Take a bath!'
'Yes, at once, in your presence. Then ask him . . . any questions you please, but pay extreme attention to his answers and his face, and the sound of his voice. If that is not enough do the same with Batsy. And after that I think you had better not let the children out of your sight for a short time.'
'These are very strange requests.'
'And it was by a strange piece of luck that I met you driving home to see if the lost children were found, and secured your attention before it could be pre-engaged.'
'But where did you find them and why?'
Miss Blossom interrupted him, 'Here is the address of Dr. Maitland, I have written it on my own card; he can answer some questions you may want to ask. Later I will answer anything. And now in the name of God,' said the girl reverently, with sudden emotion, 'you will keep your promise to the letter?'
'I will,' said the Major, and Miss Blossom waved her parasol to the children. 'You must give the poor elephant a rest, he is tired,' she cried, and the tender-hearted Batsy needed no more to make her descend from the great earth-shaking beast. The children attacked her with kisses, and then walked off, looking back, each holding one of the paternal hands, and treading, after the manner of childhood, on the paternal toes.
Miss Blossom walked till she met an opportune omnibus.
About an hour later a four-wheeler bore a woman with blazing eyes, and a pile of trunks gaping untidily, from the Major's house in St. John's Wood Road.
The Honourable Company had won its first victory: Major Apsley, having fulfilled Miss Blossom's commands, had seen what she expected him to see, and was disentangled from Miss Limmer.
The children still call their new stepmother None-so-pretty.
IV. ADVENTURE OF THE RICH UNCLE
'His God is his belly, Mr. Graham,' said the client, 'and if the text strikes you as disagreeably unrefined, think how it must pain me to speak thus of an uncle, if only by marriage.'
The client was a meagre matron of forty-five, or thereabouts. Her dark scant hair was smooth, and divided down the middle. Acerbity spoke in every line of her face, which was of a dusky yellow, where it did not rather verge on the faint hues of a violet past its prime. She wore thread gloves, and she carried a battered reticule of early Victorian days, in which Merton suspected that tracts were lurking. She had an anxious peevish mouth; in truth she was not the kind of client in whom Merton's heart delighted.
And yet he was sorry for her, especially as her rich uncle's cook was the goddess of the gentleman whose god had just been denounced in scriptural terms by the client, a Mrs. Gisborne. She was sad, as well she might be, for she was a struggler, with a large family, and great expectations from the polytheistic uncle who adored his cook and one of his nobler organs.
'What has his history been, this gentleman's—Mr. Fulton, I think you called him?'
'He was a drysalter in the City, sir,' and across Merton's mind flitted a vision of a dark shop with Finnan haddocks, bacon, and tongues in the window, and smelling terribly of cheese.
'Oh, a drysalter?' he said, not daring to display ignorance by asking questions to corroborate his theory of the drysalting business.
'A drysalter, sir, and isinglass importer.'
Merton was conscious of vagueness as to isinglass, and was distantly reminded of a celebrated racehorse. However, it was clear that Mr. Fulton was a retired tradesman of some kind. 'He went out of isinglass—before the cheap scientific substitute was invented (it is made out of old quill pens)—with seventy-five thousand pounds. And it ought to come to my children. He has not another relation living but ourselves; he married my aunt. But we never see him: he said that he could not stand our Sunday dinners at Hampstead.'
A feeling not remote from sympathy with Mr. Fulton stole over Merton's mind as he pictured these festivals. 'Is his god very—voluminous?'
Mrs. Gisborne stared.
'Is he a very portly gentleman?'
'No, Mr. Graham, he is next door to a skeleton, though you would not expect it, considering.'
'Considering his devotion to the pleasures of the table?'
'Gluttony, shameful waste I call it. And he is a stumbling block and a cause of offence to others. He is a patron of the City and Suburban College of Cookery, and founded two scholarships there, for scholars learning how to pamper the—'
'The epicure,' said Merton. He knew the City and Suburban College of Cookery. One of his band, a Miss Frere, was a Fellow and Tutor of that academy.
'And about what age is your uncle?' he asked.
'About sixty, and not a white hair on his head.'
'Then he may marry his cook?'
'He will, sir.'
'And is very likely to have a family.'
Mrs. Gisborne sniffed, and produced a pocket handkerchief from the early Victorian reticule. She applied the handkerchief to her eyes in silence. Merton observed her with pity. 'We need the money so; there are so many of us,' said the lady.
'Do you think that Mr. Fulton is—passionately in love, with his domestic?'
'He only loves his meals,' said Mrs. Gisborne; 'he does not want to marry her, but she has a hold over him through—his—'
'Passions, not of the heart,' said Merton hastily. He dreaded an anatomical reference.
'He is afraid of losing her. He and his cronies give each other dinners, jealous of each other they are; and he actually pays the woman two hundred a year.'
'And beer money?' said Merton. He had somewhere read or heard of beer money as an item in domestic finance.
'I don't know about that. The cruel thing is that she is a woman of strict temperance principles. So am I. I am sure it is an awful thing to say, Mr. Graham, but Satan has sometimes put it into my heart to wish that the woman, like too, too many of her sort, was the victim of alcoholic temptations. He has a fearful temper, and if once she was not fit for duty at one of his dinners, this awful gnawing anxiety would cease to ride my bosom. He would pack her off.'
'Very natural. She is free from the besetting sin of the artistic temperament?'
'If you mean drink, she is; and that is one reason why he values her. His last cook, and his last but one—' Here Mrs. Gisborne narrated at some length the tragic histories of these artists.
'Providential, I thought it, but now,' she said despairingly.
'She certainly seems a difficult woman to dislodge,' said Merton. 'A dangerous entanglement. Any followers allowed? Could anything be done through the softer emotions? Would a guardsman, for instance—?'
'She hates the men. Never one of them darkens her kitchen fire. Offers she has had by the score, but they come by post, and she laughs and burns them. Old Mr. Potter, one of his cronies, tried to get her away that way, but he is over seventy, and old at that, and she thought she had another chance to better herself. And she'll take it, Mr. Graham, if you can't do something: she'll take it.'
'Will you permit me to say that you seem to know a good deal about her! Perhaps you have some sort of means of intelligence in the enemy's camp?'
'The kitchen maid,' said Mrs. Gisborne, purpling a little, 'is the sister of our servant, and tells her things.'
'I see,' said Merton. 'Now can you remember any little weakness of this, I must frankly admit, admirable artist and exemplary woman?'
'You are not going to take her side, a scheming red-faced hussy, Mr. Graham?'
'I never betrayed a client, Madam, and if you mean that I am likely to help this person into your uncle's arms, you greatly misconceive me, and the nature of my profession.'
'I beg your pardon, sir, but I will say that your heart does not seem to be in the case.'
'It is not quite the kind of case with which we are accustomed to deal,' said Merton. 'But you have not answered my question. Are there any weak points in the defence? To Venus she is cold, of Bacchus she is disdainful.'
'I never heard of the gentlemen I am sure, sir, but as to her weaknesses, she has the temper of a—' Here Mrs. Gisborne paused for a comparison. Her knowledge of natural history and of mythology, the usual sources of parallels, failed to provide a satisfactory resemblance to the cook's temper.
'The temper of a Megaera,' said Merton, admitting to himself that the word was not, though mythological, what he could wish.
'Of a Megaera as you know that creature, sir, and impetuous! If everything is not handy, if that poor girl is not like clockwork with the sauces, and herbs, and things, if a saucepan boils over, or a ham falls into the fire, if the girl treads on the tail of one of the cats—and the woman keeps a dozen—then she flies at her with anything that comes handy.'
'She is fond of cats?' said Merton; 'really this lady has sympathetic points:' and he patted the grey Russian puss, Kutuzoff, which was a witness to these interviews.
'She dotes on the nasty things: and you may well say "lady!" Her Siamese cat, a wild beast he is, took the first prize at the Crystal Palace Show. The papers said "Miss Blowser's Rangoon, bred by the exhibitor." Miss Blowser! I don't know what the world is coming to. He stands on the doorsteps, the cat, like a lynx, and as fierce as a lion. Why he got her into the police-court: flew at a dog, and nearly tore his owner, a clergyman, to pieces. There were articles about it in the papers.'
'I seem to remember it,' said Merton. 'Christianos ad Leones'. In fact he had written this humorous article himself. 'But is there nothing else?' he asked. 'Only a temper, so natural to genius disturbed or diverted in the process of composition, and a passion for the felidae, such as has often been remarked in the great. There was Charles Baudelaire, Mahomet—'
'I don't know what you mean, sir, and,' said Mrs. Gisborne, rising, and snapping her reticule, 'I think I was a fool for answering your advertisement. I did not come here to be laughed at, and I think common politeness—'
'I beg a thousand pardons,' said Merton. 'I am most distressed at my apparent discourtesy. My mind was preoccupied by the circumstances of this very difficult case, and involuntarily glided into literary anecdote on the subject of cats and their owners. They are my passion—cats—and I regret that they inspire you with antipathy.' Here he picked up Kutuzoff and carried him into the inner room.
'It is not that I object to any of Heaven's creatures kept in their place,' said Mrs. Gisborne somewhat mollified, 'but you must make allowances, sir, for my anxiety. It sours a mother of nine. Friday is one of his gorging dinner-parties, and who knows what may happen if she pleases him? The kitchen maid says, I mean I hear, that she wears an engaged ring already.'
'That is very bad,' said Merton, with sympathy. 'The dinner is on Friday, you say?' and he made a note of the date.
'Yes, 15 Albany Grove, on the Regent's Canal.'
'You can think of nothing else—no weakness to work on?'
'No, sir, just her awful temper; I would save him from it, for he has another as bad. And besides hopes from him have kept me up so long, his only relation, and times are so hard, and schooling and boots, and everything so dear, and we so many in family.' Tears came into the poor lady's eyes.
'I'll give the case my very best attention,' he said, shaking hands with the client. To Merton's horror she tried, Heaven help her, to pass a circular packet, wrapped in paper, into his hand. He evaded it. It was a first interview, for which no charge was made. 'What can be done shall be done, though I confess that I do not see my way,' and he accompanied her downstairs to the street.
'I behaved like a cad with my chaff,' he said to himself, 'but hang me if I see how to help her. And I rather admire that cook.'
He went into the inner room, wakened the sleeping partner, Logan, on the sofa, and unfolded the case with every detail. 'What can we do, que faire!'
'There's an exhibition of modern, mediaeval, ancient, and savage cookery at Earl's Court, the Cookeries,' said Logan. 'Couldn't we seduce an artist like Miss Blowser there, I mean thither of course, the night before the dinner, and get her up into the Great Wheel and somehow stop the Wheel—and make her too late for her duties?'
'And how are you going to stop the Wheel?'
'Speak to the Man at the Wheel. Bribe the beggar.'
'Dangerous, and awfully expensive. Then think of all the other people on the Wheel! Logan, vous chassez de race. The old Restalrig blood is in your veins.'
'My ancestors nearly nipped off with a king, and why can't I carry off a cook? Hustle her into a hansom—'
'Oh, bah! these are not modern methods.'
'Il n'y a rien tel que d'enlever,' said Logan.
'I never shall stain the cause with police-courts,' said Merton. 'It would be fatal.'
'I've heard of a cook who fell on his sword when the fish did not come up to time. Now a raid on the fish? She might fall on her carving knife when they did not arrive, or leap into the flames of the kitchen fire, like OEnone, don't you know.'
'Bosh. Vatel was far from the sea, and he had not a fish-monger's shop round the corner. Be modern.'
Logan rumpled his hair, 'Can't I get her to lunch at a restaurant and ply her with the wines of Eastern France? No, she is Temperance personified. Can't we send her a forged telegram to say that her mother is dying? Servants seem to have such lots of mothers, always inconveniently, or conveniently, moribund.'
'I won't have forgery. Great heavens, how obsolete you are! Besides, that would not put her employer in a rage.'
'Could I go and consult —-?' he mentioned a specialist. 'He is a man of ideas.'
'He is a man of the purest principles—and an uncommonly hard hitter.'
'It is his purity I want. My own mind is hereditarily lawless. I want something not immoral, yet efficacious. There was that parson, whom you say the woman's cat nearly devoured. Like Paul with beasts he fought the cat. Now, I wonder if that injured man is not meditating some priestly revenge that would do our turn and get rid of Miss Blowser?'
Merton shook his head impatiently. His own invention was busy, but to no avail. Miss Blowser seemed impregnable. Kutuzoff Hedzoff, the puss, stalked up to Logan and leaped on his knees. Logan stroked him, Kutuzoff purred and blinked, Logan sought inspiration in his topaz eyes. At last he spoke: 'Will you leave this affair to me, Merton? I think I have found out a way.'
'That's my secret. You are so beastly moral, you might object. One thing I may tell you—it does not compromise the Honourable Company of Disentanglers.'
'You are not going to try any detective work; to find out if she is a woman with a past, with a husband living? You are not going to put a live adder among the eels? I daresay drysalters eat eels. It is the reading of sensational novels that ruins our youth.'
'What a suspicious beggar you are. Certainly I am neither a detective nor a murderer a la Montepin!
'No practical jokes with the victuals?'
'Of course not.'
'No kidnapping Miss Blowser?'
'Certainly no kidnapping—Miss Blowser.'
'Now, honour bright, is your plan within the law? No police-court publicity?'
'No, the police will have no say or show in the matter; at least,' said Logan, 'as far as my legal studies inform me, they won't. But I can take counsel's opinion if you insist on it.'
'Then you are sailing near the wind?'
'Really I don't think so: not really what you call near.'
'I am sorry for that unlucky Mrs. Gisborne,' said Merton, musingly. 'And with two such tempers as the cook's and Mr. Fulton's the match could not be a happy one. Well, Logan, I suppose you won't tell me what your game is?'
'Better not, I think, but, I assure you, honour is safe. I am certain that nobody can say anything. I rather expect to earn public gratitude, on the whole. You can't appear in any way, nor the rest of us. By-the- bye do you remember the address of the parson whose dog was hurt?'
'I think I kept a cutting of the police case; it was amusing,' said Merton, looking through a kind of album, and finding presently the record of the incident.
'It may come in handy, or it may not,' said Logan. He then went off, and had Merton followed him he might not have been reassured. For Logan first walked to a chemist's shop, where he purchased a quantity of a certain drug. Next he went to the fencing rooms which he frequented, took his fencing mask and glove, borrowed a fencing glove from a left- handed swordsman whom he knew, and drove to his rooms with this odd assortment of articles. Having deposited them, he paid a call at the dwelling of a fair member of the Disentanglers, Miss Frere, the lady instructress in the culinary art, at the City and Suburban College of Cookery, whereof, as we have heard, Mr. Fulton, the eminent drysalter, was a patron and visitor. Logan unfolded the case and his plan of campaign to Miss Frere, who listened with intelligent sympathy.
'Do you know the man by sight?' he asked.
'Oh yes, and he knows me perfectly well. Last year he distributed the prizes at the City and Suburban School of Cookery, and paid me the most extraordinary compliments.'
'Well deserved, I am confident,' said Logan; 'and now you are sure that you know exactly what you have to do, as I have explained?'
'Yes, I am to be walking through Albany Grove at a quarter to four on Friday.'
'You may rely on me,' said Miss Frere.
Logan next day went to Trevor's rooms in the Albany; he was the capitalist who had insisted on helping to finance the Disentanglers. To Trevor he explained the situation, unfolded his plan, and asked leave to borrow his private hansom.
'Delighted,' said Trevor. 'I'll put on an old suit of tweeds, and a seedy bowler, and drive you myself. It will be fun. Or should we take my motor car?'
'No, it attracts too much attention.'
'Suppose we put a number on my cab, and paint the wheels yellow, like pirates, you know, when they are disguising a captured ship. It won't do to look like a private cab.'
'These strike me as judicious precautions, Trevor, and worthy of your genius. That is, if we are not caught.'
'Oh, we won't be caught,' said Trevor. 'But, in the meantime, let us find that place you mean to go to on a map of London, and I'll drive you there now in a dog-cart. It is better to know the lie of the land.'
Logan agreed and they drove to his objective in the afternoon; it was beyond the border of known West Hammersmith. Trevor reconnoitred and made judicious notes of short cuts.
On the following day, which was Thursday, Logan had a difficult piece of diplomacy to execute. He called at the rooms of the clergyman, a bachelor and a curate, whose dog and person had suffered from the assaults of Miss Blowser's Siamese favourite. He expected difficulties, for a good deal of ridicule, including Merton's article, Christianos ad Leones, had been heaped on this martyr. Logan looked forward to finding him crusty, but, after seeming a little puzzled, the holy man exclaimed, 'Why, you must be Logan of Trinity?'
'The same,' said Logan, who did not remember the face or name (which was Wilkinson) of his host.
'Why, I shall never forget your running catch under the scoring-box at Lord's,' exclaimed Mr. Wilkinson, 'I can see it now. It saved the match. I owe you more than I can say,' he added with deep emotion.
'Then be grateful, and do me a little favour. I want—just for an hour or two—to borrow your dog,' and he stooped to pat the animal, a fox-terrier bearing recent and glorious scars.
'Borrow Scout! Why, what can you want with him?'
'I have suffered myself through an infernal wild beast of a cat in Albany Grove,' said Logan, 'and I have a scheme—it is unchristian I own—of revenge.'
The curate's eyes glittered vindictively: 'Scout is no match for the brute,' he said in a tone of manly regret.
'Oh, Scout will be all right. There is not going to be a fight. He is only needed to—give tone to the affair. You will be able to walk him safely through Albany Grove after to-morrow.'
'Won't there be a row if you kill the cat? He is what they think a valuable animal. I never could stand cats myself.'
'The higher vermin,' said Logan. 'But not a hair of his whiskers shall be hurt. He will seek other haunts, that's all.'
'But you don't mean to steal him?' asked the curate anxiously. 'You see, suspicion might fall on me, as I am known to bear a grudge to the brute.'
'I steal him! Not I,' said Logan. 'He shall sleep in his owner's arms, if she likes. But Albany Grove shall know him no more.'
'Then you may take Scout,' said Mr. Wilkinson. 'You have a cab there, shall I drive to your rooms with you and him?'
'Do,' said Logan, 'and then dine at the club.' Which they did, and talked much cricket, Mr. Wilkinson being an enthusiast.
* * * * *
Next day, about 3.40 P.M., a hansom drew up at the corner of Albany Grove. The fare alighted, and sauntered past Mr. Fulton's house. Rangoon, the Siamese puss, was sitting in a scornful and leonine attitude, in a tree of the garden above the railings, outside the open kitchen windows, whence came penetrating and hospitable smells of good fare. The stranger passed, and as he returned, dropped something here and there on the pavement. It was valerian, which no cat can resist.