THE HUSBANDS OF EDITH
GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
With Illustrations by Harrison Fisher and Decorations by Theodore B. Hapgood
New York Dodd, Mead & Company The University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A.
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OTHER BOOKS BY MR. McCUTCHEON
NEDRA BEVERLY OF GRAUSTARK THE DAY OF THE DOG THE PURPLE PARASOL THE SHERRODS GRAUSTARK CASTLE CRANEYCROW BREWSTER'S MILLIONS JANE CABLE COWARDICE COURT THE DAUGHTER OF ANDERSON CROW THE FLYERS
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I HUSBANDS AND WIFE 1
II THE SISTER-IN-LAW 17
III THE DISTANT COUSINS 37
IV THE WOULD-BE BROTHER-IN-LAW 51
V THE FRIENDS OF THE FAMILY 70
VI OTHER RELATIONS 87
VII THE THREE GUARDIANS 102
VIII THE PRODIGAL HUSBAND 116
"'Don't you think Connie is a perfect dear?'" (page 54) Frontispiece
"She began to detect a decided falling off in his ardour" 74
"'I do love you,' she said simply" 98
THE HUSBANDS OF EDITH
HUSBANDS AND WIFE
Brock was breakfasting out-of-doors in the cheerful little garden of the Hotel Chatham. The sun streamed warmly upon the concrete floor of the court just beyond the row of palms and oleanders that fringed the rail against which his Herald rested, that he might read as he ran, so to speak. He was the only person having dejeuner on the "terrace," as he named it to the obsequious waiter who always attended him. Charles was the magnet that drew Brock to the Chatham (that excellent French hotel with the excellent English name). It is beside the question to remark that one is obliged to reverse the English when directing a cocher to the Chatham. The Paris cabman looks blank and more than usually unintelligent when directed to drive to the Chatham, but his face radiates with joy when his fare is inspired to substitute Sha-t'am, with distinct emphasis on the final syllable. Then he cracks his whip and lashes his sorry nag, with passive appreciation of his own astuteness, all the way to the Rue Daunou. The street is so short that he almost invariably takes one to it instead of to the hotel itself. But one must say Sha-t'am!
Charles was standing, alert but pensive, quite near at hand, ready to replenish the bowl with honey (Brock was especially fond of it), but with his eyes cocked inquiringly, even eagerly, in the direction of an upstairs window across the court, beyond which a thoughtless guest of the establishment was making her toilette in blissful ignorance of the fact that the flimsy curtains were not tightly drawn. Brock had gone to the Chatham for years just because Charles was a fixture there. Charles spoke the most execrably picturesque English, served with a punctiliousness that savoured almost of the overbearing, and boasted that he had acquired the art of making American cocktails in the Waldorf during a five weeks' residence in the United States.
It was a lazy morning. Brock was happy. He was even interested when a porter came forth and unravelled a long roll of garden hose, with which he abruptly began to splash water upon the concrete surface of the court without regard for distance or direction. Moreover, he proceeded to water the palms at Brock's elbow, operating from a spot no less than twenty feet away. He likewise was casting inquiring glances at divers windows—few if any at the plants—until the faithful Charles restored him to earth by means of certain subdued injunctions and less moderate gesticulations, from which it could be readily gathered that "M'sieur was eating, not bathing." Whereupon the utterly uncrushed porter splashed water at right angles, much to Brock's relief, while all his fellow porters, free or engaged, took up the quarrel with rare disregard for cause or justice. A femme de chambre, from a convenient window, joined in the hubbub without in the least knowing what it was all about. Monsieur's comfort must be preserved: that seemed to be the issue in which, at once, all were united. "M'sieur will pardon the boy," apologised Charles in deepest humility, taking much for granted. "It will be very warm to-day. Your serviette, M'sieur—it is damp. Pardon!" He flew away and back with another napkin. "Of course, M'sieur, the Chatham is not the Waldorf," he announced deprecatingly. "Parbleu," beating himself on the forehead, "I forgot! M'sieur does not like the Waldorf. Eh, bien, Paris is not New York, no." Having sufficiently humbled Paris, he withdrew into the background, rubbing his hands as if he were cleansing them of something unsightly. Brock spread one of the buttered biscuits with honey and inwardly admitted that Paris was not New York.
He was a good-looking chap of thirty or thereabouts, an American to the core,—bright-eyed, keen-witted, smooth-faced, virile. From boyhood's earliest days he had spent a portion of his summers in Europe. Two or three years of his life had been employed in the Beaux Arts,—fruitful years, for Brock had not wasted his opportunities. He had gone in for architecture and building. To-day he stood high among the younger men in New York,—prosperous, successful, and a menace to the old cry that a son of the rich cannot thrive in his father's domain. Nowadays he came to the Old World for his breathing spells. He was able to combine dawdling and development without sacrificing one for the other, wherein lies the proof that his vacations were not akin to those taken by most of us.
The fortnight in Paris was to be followed by a week in St. Petersburg and a brief tour of Sweden and Norway. His stay in the gay city was drawing to a close. That very morning he expected to book for St. Petersburg, leaving in three days.
Suddenly his glance fell upon a name in the society column before him, "Roxbury Medcroft." His face lighted up with genuine pleasure. An old friend, a boon companion in bygone days, was this same Medcroft,—a broad-minded, broad-gauged young Englishman who had profited by a stay of some years in the States. They had studied together in Paris and they had toiled together in New York. This is what he read: "Mr. and Mrs. Roxbury Medcroft, of London, are stopping at the Ritz, en route to Vienna. Mr. Medcroft will attend the meeting of Austrian Architects, to be held there next week, and, with his wife, will afterwards spend a fortnight in the German Alps, the guests of the Alfred Rodneys, of Seattle."
"Dear old Rox, I must look him up at once," mused Brock. "The Rodneys of Seattle? Never heard of 'em." He looked at his watch, signed his check, deposited the usual franc, acknowledged Charles's well-practised smile of thanks, and pushed back his chair, his gaze travelling involuntarily toward the portals of the American bar across the court, just beyond the concierge's quarters. Simultaneously a tall figure emerged from the bar, casting eager glances in all directions,—a tall figure in a checked suit, bowler hat, white reindeer gloves, high collar, and grey spats. Brock came to his feet quickly. The monocle dropped from the other's eye, and his long legs carried him eagerly toward the American.
"Medcroft! Bless your heart! I was just on the point of looking you up at the Ritz. It's good to see you," Brock cried as they clasped hands.
"Of all the men and of all the times, Brock, you are the most opportune," exclaimed the other. "I saw that you were here and bolted my breakfast to catch you. These beastly telephones never work. Oh, I say, old man, have you finished yours?"
"Quite—but luckily I didn't have to bolt it. You're off for Vienna, I see. Sit down, Rox. Won't you have another egg and a cup of coffee? Do!"
"Thanks and no to everything you suggest. Wot you doing for the next half-hour or so? I'm in a deuce of a dilemma and you've got to help me out of it." The Englishman looked at his watch and fumbled it nervously as he replaced it in his upper coat pocket. "That's a good fellow, Brock. You will be the ever present help in time of trouble, won't you?"
"My letter of credit is at your disposal, old man," said Brock promptly. He meant it. It readily may be seen from this that their friendship is no small item to be considered in the development of this tale.
"My dear fellow, that's the very thing I'm eager to thrust upon you—my letter of credit," exclaimed the other.
"What's that?" demanded Brock.
"I say, Brock, can't we go up to your rooms? Dead secret, you know. Really, old chap, I mean it. No one must get a breath of it. That's why I'm whispering. I'm not a lunatic, so don't stare like that. I'd do as much for you if the conditions were reversed."
"I dare say you would, Rox, but what the devil is it you want me to do?"
"Do I appear to be agitated?"
"Well, I should say so."
"Well, I am. You know how I loathe asking a favour of anyone. Besides, it's rather an extraordinary one I'm going to ask of you. Came to me in a flash this morning when I saw your name in the paper. Sort of inspiration, 'pon my word. I think Edith sees it the same as I, although I haven't had time to go into it thoroughly with her. She's ripping, you know; pluck to the very core."
Brock's face expressed bewilderment and perplexity.
"Won't you have another drink, old man?" he asked gently.
"Another? Hang it all, I haven't had one in a week. Come along. I must talk it all over with you before I introduce you to her. You must be prepared."
"Introduce me to whom?" demanded Brock, pricking up his ears. He was following Medcroft to the elevator.
"To my wife—Edith," said Medcroft, annoyed by the other's obtuseness.
"Does it require preparation for an ordeal so charming?" laughed Brock. He was recalling the fact that Medcroft had married a beautiful Philadelphia girl some years ago in London, a young lady whom he had never seen, so thoroughly expatriated had she become in consequence of almost a lifetime residence in England. He remembered now that she was rich and that he had sent her a ridiculously expensive present and a congratulatory cablegram at the time of the wedding. Also, it occurred to him that the Medcrofts had asked him to visit them at their shooting-box for several seasons in succession, and that their town house was always open to him. While he had not ignored the invitations, he had never responded in person. He began to experience twinges of remorse: Medcroft was such a good fellow!
The Londoner did not respond to the innocuous query. He merely stared in a preoccupied, determined manner at the succeeding etages as they slipped downward. At the fourth floor they disembarked, and Brock led the way to his rooms, overlooking the inner court. Once inside, with the door closed, he turned upon the Englishman.
"Now, what's up, Rox? Are you in trouble?" he demanded.
"Are we quite alone?" Medcroft glanced significantly at the transom and the half-closed bathroom door. With a laugh, Brock led him into the bathroom and out, and then closed the transom.
"You're darned mysterious," he said, pointing to a chair near the window. Medcroft drew another close up and seated himself.
"Brock," he said, lowering his voice and leaning forward impressively, "I want you to go to Vienna in my place." Brock stared hard. "You are a godsend, old man. You're just in time to do me the greatest of favours. It's utterly impossible for me to go to Vienna as I had planned, and yet it is equally unwise for me to give up the project. You see, I've just got to be in London and Vienna at the same time."
"It will require something more than a stretch of the imagination to do that, old man. But I'm game, and my plans are such that they can be changed readily to oblige a friend. I shan't mind the trip in the least and I'll be only too happy to help you out! 'Gad, I thought by your manner that you were in some frightful difficulty. Have a cigaret."
"By Jove, Brock, you're a brick," cried Medcroft, shaking the other's hand vigorously. At the same time his face expressed considerable uncertainty and no little doubt as to the further welfare of his as yet partially divulged proposition.
"It's easy to be a brick, my boy, if it involves no more than the changing of a single letter in one's name. I'd like to attend the convention, anyway," said Brock amiably.
"Well, you see, Brock," said Medcroft lamely, "I fear you don't quite appreciate the situation. I want you to pose as Roxbury Medcroft."
"You—What do you mean?"
"I thought you'd find that a facer. That's just it: you are to go to Vienna as Roxbury Medcroft, not as yourself. Ha, ha! Ripping, eh?"
"'Pon my soul, Rox, you are not in earnest?"
"Never more so."
"But, my dear fellow—"
"You won't do it? That's what your tone means," in despair.
"It isn't that, and you know it. I've got nothing to lose. It's you that will have to suffer. You're known all over Europe. What will be said when the trick is discovered? 'Gad, man!"
"Then you will go?" with beaming eyes. "I knew it would appeal to you, as an American."
"What does it all mean?"
"It's all very simple, if one looks at it from the right angle, Brock. Up to last night, I was blissfully committed to the most delightful of outings, so to speak. At ten o'clock everything was changed. Mrs. Medcroft and I sat up all night discussing the situation with the messenger—my solicitor, by the way. The Vienna trip is out of the question, so far as I am concerned. It is of vital importance that I should return to London to-night, but is even more vitally important that the world should say that I am in Vienna. See what I mean?"
"No, I'm hanged if I do."
"What I have just heard from London makes me shudder to think of the consequences if I go on east to-night. I may as well tell you that there is a plot on foot to perpetrate a gigantic fraud against the people. The County Council is to be hoodwinked out and out into moving forward certain building projects, involving millions of the people's money. Our firm has opposed a certain band of grafters, and when I left England it was pretty well settled that we had blocked their game. They have learned of my proposed absence and intend to steal a march on us while I am away. Without assuming too much credit to myself, I may say that I, your old friend, Roxbury, I am the one man who has proved the real thorn in the sides of these scoundrels. With me out of the way, they feel that they can secure the adoption of all these infamous measures. My partners and the leaders on our side have sent for me to return secretly. They won't bring the matter to issue if they find that I've returned; it would be suicidal. Therefore it is necessary that we steal a march on 'em. I know the inside workings of the scheme. If I can steal back and keep under cover as an advisory chief, so to speak, we can well afford to let 'em rush the matter through, for then we can spring the coup and defeat them for good and all. But, don't you see, old man, unless they know that I've gone to Vienna they won't undertake the thing. That's why I'm asking you to go on to Vienna and pose as Roxbury Medcroft while I steal back to London and set the charge under these demmed bloodsuckers. Really, you know, it's a terribly serious matter, Brock. It means fortune and honour to me, as well as millions to the rate-payers of Greater London. All you've got to do is to register at the Bristol, get interviewed by the papers, attend one or two sessions of the convention, which lasts three days, and then go off into the mountains with the Rodneys,—the society reporters will do the rest."
"With the Rodneys? My dear fellow, suppose that they object to the substitution! Really, you know, it's not to be thought of."
"Deuce take it, man, the Rodneys are not to know that there has been a substitution. Perfectly simple, can't you see?"
"I'm damned if I do."
"What a stupid ass you are, Brock! The Rodneys have never laid eyes on me. They know of me as Edith's husband, that's all. They are to take you in as Medcroft, of course."
At this point Brock set up an emphatic remonstrance. He began by laughing his friend to scorn; then, as Medcroft persisted, went so far as to take him severely to task for the proposed imposition on the unsuspecting Rodneys, to say nothing of the trick he would play upon the convention of architects.
"I'd be recognised as an impostor," he said warmly, "and booted out of the convention. I shudder to think of what Mr. Rodney will do to me when he learns the truth. Why, Medcroft, you must be crazy. There will be dozens of architects there who know you personally or by sight. You—"
"My dear boy, if they don't see me there, they can't very well recognise me, can they? If necessary, you can affect an illness and stay away from the sessions altogether. Give a statement to the press from the privacy of the sickroom—regret your inability to take part in the discussions, and all that, you know. Hire a nurse, if necessary. You might venture to express an opinion or two on vital topics, in my name. I don't care a hang what you say. I only want 'em to think I'm there. No doubt our enemies will have a spy or two hanging about to see that I am actually off for a jaunt with the Rodneys, but they will be Viennese and they won't know me from Adam. What's the odds, so long as Edith is there to stand by you? If she's willing to assume that you are her husband—"
"Good Lord!" half shouted Brock, leaping to his feet, wide-eyed. "You don't mean to say that she is—is—is to go to Vienna with me?"
"Emphatically, yes. She's also invited. Of course, she's going."
"You mean that she's going just as you are going—by proxy?" murmured Brock helplessly.
"Proxy, the devil! 'Pon my soul, Brock, you're downright stupid. She can't have a proxy. They know her. The Rodneys are in some way connections of hers, and all that—third cousins. If she isn't there to vouch for you, how the deuce can you expect to—"
"Medcroft, you are crazy! No one but an insane man would submit his wife to—Why, good Lord, man, think of the scandal! She won't have a shred left—"
"At the proper time the matter will be explained to the Rodneys,—not at first, you know,—and I'll be in a position to step into your shoes before the party returns to Paris. Afterwards the whole trick will be exposed to the world, and she'll be a heroine."
"I'm absolutely paralysed!" mumbled Brock.
"Brace up, old chap. I'm going to take you around to the Ritz at once to introduce you to my wife—to your wife, I might say. She'll be waiting for us, and, take my word for it, she's in for the game. She appreciates its importance. Come now, Brock, it means so little to you, and it means everything to me. You will do this for me? For us?"
For ten minutes Brock protested, his argument growing weaker and weaker as the true humour of the project developed in his mind. He came at last to realise that Medcroft was in earnest, and that the situation was as serious as he pictured it. The Englishman's plea was unusual, but it was not as rattle-brained as it had seemed at the outset. Brock was beginning to see the possibilities that the ruse contained; to say the least, he would be running little or no risk in the event of its miscarriage. In spite of possible unpleasant consequences, there were the elements of a rare lark in the enterprise; he felt himself being skilfully guided past the pitfalls and dangers.
"I shall insist upon talking it over thoroughly with Mrs. Medcroft before consenting," he said in the end. "If she's being bluffed into the game, I'll revoke like a flash. If she's keen for the adventure, I'll go, Rox. But I've got to see her first and talk it all over—"
"'Pon my word, old chap, she's ripping, awfully good sort, even though I say it myself. She's true blue, and she'll do anything for me. You see, Brock," and his voice grew very tender, "she loves me. I'm sure of her. There isn't a nobler wife in the world than mine. Nor a prettier one, either," he concluded, with fine pride in his eyes. "You won't be ashamed of her. You will be proud of the chance to point her out as your wife, take my word for it." Then they set out for the Ritz.
"Roxbury," said Brock soberly, when they were in the Rue de la Paix, after walking two blocks in contemplative silence, "my peace of mind is poised at the brink of an abyss. I have a feeling that I am about to chuck it over."
"Nonsense. You'll buck up when Edith has had a fling at you."
"I suppose I'm to call her Edith."
"Certainly, and I won't mind a 'dear' or two when it seems propitious. It's rather customary, you know, even among the unhappily married. Of course, I've always been opposed to kissing or caressing in public; it's so middle-class."
"And I daresay Mrs. Medcroft will object to it in private," lamented Brock good-naturedly.
"I daresay," said her husband cheerfully. "She's your wife in public only. By the way, you'll have to get used to the name of Roxbury. Don't look around as if you expected to find me standing behind your back when she says, 'Roxbury, dear!' I shan't be there, you know. She'll mean you. Don't forget that."
"Oh, I say," exclaimed Brock, halting abruptly, and staring in dismay at the confident conspirator, "will I have to wear a suit of clothes like that, and an eyeglass, and—and—good Lord! spats?"
"By Jove, you shall wear this very suit!" cried Medcroft, inspired. "We're of a size, and it won't fit you any better than it does me. Our clothes never fit us in London. Clever idea of yours, Brock, to think of it. And, here! We'll stop at this shop and pick up a glass. You can have all day for practice with it. And, I say, Brock, don't you think you can cultivate a—er—little more of an English style of speech? That twang of yours won't—"
"Heavens, man, I'm to be a low comedian, too," gasped Brock, as he was fairly pushed onto the shop. Three minutes later they were on the sidewalk, and Brock was in possession of an object he had scorned most of all things in the world,—a monocle.
Arm in arm, they sauntered into the Ritz. Medcroft retained his clasp on his friend's elbow as they went up in the lift, after the fashion of one who fears that his victim is contemplating flight. As they entered the comfortable little sitting-room of the suite, a young woman rose gracefully from the desk at which she had been writing. With perfect composure she smiled and extended her slim hand to the American as he crossed the room with Medcroft's jerky introduction dinging in his ears.
"My old friend Brock, dear. He has consented to be your husband. You've never met your wife, have you, old man?" A blush spread over her exquisite face.
"Oh, Roxbury, how embarrassing! He hasn't even proposed to me. So glad to meet you, Mr. Brock. I've been trying to picture what you would look like, ever since Roxbury went out to find you. Sit here, please, near me. Roxbury, has Mr. Brock really fallen into your terrible trap? Isn't it the most ridiculous proceeding, Mr. Brock—"
"Call him Roxbury, my dear. He's fully prepared for it. And now let's get down to business. He insists upon talking it over with you. You don't mind me being present, do you, Brock? I daresay I can help you out a bit. I've been married four years."
For an hour the trio discussed the situation from all sides and in all its phases. When Brock arose to take his departure, he was irrevocably committed to the enterprise; he was, moreover, completely enchanted by the vista of harmless fun and sweet adventure that stretched before him. He went away with his head full of the brilliant, quick-witted, loyal young American who was entering so heartily into the plot to deceive her own friends for the time being in order that her husband might profit in high places.
"She is ripping," he said to Medcroft in the hallway. All of the plans had been made and all of them had been approved by the young wife. She had shown wonderful perspicacity and foresight in the matter of details; her capacity for selection and disposal was even more comprehensive than that of the two men, both of whom were somewhat staggered by the boldness of more than one suggestion which came from her fruitful storehouse of romantic ideas. She had grasped the full humour of the situation, from inception to denouement, and, to all appearance, was heart and soul deep in the venture, despising the risks because she knew that succour was always at her elbow in the shape of her husband's loyal support. There was no condition involved which could not be explained to her credit; adequate compensation for the merry sacrifice was to be had in the brief detachment from rigid English conventionality, in the hazardous injection of quixotism into an otherwise overly healthful life of platitudes. Society had become the sepulchre of youthful inspirations; she welcomed the resurrection. The exquisite delicacy with which she analysed the cost and computed the interest won for her the warmest regard of her husband's friend, fellow conspirator in a plot which involved the subtlest test of loyalty and honour.
"Yes," said Medcroft simply. "You won't have reason to change your opinion, Brock." He hesitated for a moment and then burst out, rather plaintively: "She's an awfully good sort, demme, she is. And so are you, Brock,—it's mighty decent of you. You're the only man in all the world that I could or would have asked to do this for me. You are my best friend, Brock,—you always have been." He seized the American's hand and wrung it fervently. Their eyes met in a long look of understanding and confidence.
"I'll take good care of her," said Brock quietly.
"I know you will. Good-by, then. I'll see you late this afternoon. You leave this evening at seven-twenty by the Orient Express. I've had the reservations booked and—and—" He hesitated, a wry smile on his lips, "I daresay you won't mind making a pretence of looking after the luggage a bit, will you?"
"I shall take this opportunity to put myself in training against the day when I may be travelling away with a happy bride of my own. By the way, how long am I expected to remain in this state of matrimonial bliss? That's no small detail, you know, even though it escaped for the moment."
"Three weeks?" He almost reeled.
"That's a long time in these days of speedy divorces," said Medcroft blandly.
The Gare de l'Est was thronged with people when Brock appeared, fully half an hour before departing time. In no little dismay, he found himself wondering if the whole of Paris was going away or, on the other hand, if the rest of the continent was arriving. He felt a fool in Medcroft's unspeakable checked suit; and the eyeglass was a much more obstinate, untractable thing than he had even suspected it could be. The right side of his face was in a condition of semi-paralysis due to the muscular exactions required; he had a sickening fear that the scowl that marked his brow was destined to form a perpetual alliance with the smirk at the corner of his nose, forever destroying the symmetry of his face. If one who has not the proper facial construction will but attempt the feat of holding a monocle in place for unbroken hours, he may come to appreciate at least one of the trials which beset poor Brock.
Every one seemed to be staring at him. He heard more than one American in the scurrying throng say to another, "English," and he felt relieved until an Englishman or two upset his confidence by brutally alluding to him as a "confounded American toady."
It was quite train time before Mrs. Medcroft was seen hurrying in from the carriage way, pursued by a trio of facteurs, laden with bags and boxes.
"Don't shake hands," she warned in a quick whisper, as they came together. "I recognised you by the clothes."
"Thank God, it wasn't my face!" he cried. "Are your trunks checked?"
"Yes,—this afternoon. I have nothing but the bags. You have the tickets? Then let us get aboard. I just couldn't get here earlier," she whispered guiltily. "We had to say good-by, you know. Poor old Roxy! How he hated it! I sent Burton and O'Brien on ahead of me. My sister brought them here in her carriage, and I daresay they're aboard and abed by this time. You didn't see them? But of course you wouldn't know my maids. How stupid of me! Don't be alarmed. They have their instructions, Roxbury. Doesn't it sound odd to you?"
Brock was icy-cold with apprehension as they walked down the line of wagon-lits in the wake of the bag-bearers. Mrs. Medcroft was as self-possessed and as degage as he was ill at ease and awkward. As they ascended the steps of the carriage, she turned back to him and said, with the most malicious twinkle in her eyes,—
"I'm not a bit nervous."
"But you've been married so much longer than I have," he responded.
Then came the disposition of the bags and parcels. She calmly directed the porters to put the overflow into the upper berth. The garde came up to remonstrate in his most rapid French.
"But where is M'sieur to sleep if the bags go up there?" he argued.
Mrs. Medcroft dropped her toilet bag and turned to Brock with startled eyes, her lips parted. He was standing in the passage, his two bags at his feet, an aroused gleam in his eyes. A deep flush overspread her face; an expression of utter rout succeeded the buoyancy of the moment before.
"Really," she murmured and could go no farther. The loveliest pucker came into her face. Brock waved the garde aside.
"It's all right," he explained. "I shan't occupy the—I mean, I'll take one of the other compartments." As the garde opened his lips to protest, she drew Brock inside the compartment and closed the door. Mrs. Medcroft was agitated.
"Oh, what a wretched contretemps!" she cried in despair. "Roxy has made a frightful mess of it, after all. He has not taken a compartment for you. I'm—I'm afraid you'll have to take this one and—and let me go in with—"
"Nonsense!" he broke in. "Nothing of the sort! I'll find a bed, never fear. I daresay there's plenty of room on the train. You shan't sleep with the servants. And don't lie awake blaming poor old Rox. He's lonesome and unhappy, and he—"
"But he has a place to sleep," she lamented. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Brock. It's perfectly horrid, and I'm—I'm dreadfully afraid you won't be able to get a berth. Roxbury tried yesterday for a lower for himself."
"And he—couldn't get one?"
"No, Mr. Brock. But I'll ask the maids to give up their—"
"Please, please don't worry—and please don't call me Mr. Brock. I hate the name. Good night! Now don't think about me. I'll be all right. You'll find me as gay as a lark in the morning."
He did not give her a chance for further protest, but darted out of the compartment. As he closed the door he had the disquieting impression that she was sitting upon the edge of her berth, giggling hysterically.
The garde listened to his demand for a separate compartment with the dejection of a capable French attendant who is ever ready with joint commiseration and obduracy. No, he was compelled to inform Monsieur the American (to the dismay of the pseudo-Englishman) it would be impossible to arrange for another compartment. The train was crowded to its capacity. Many had been turned away. No, a louis would not be of avail. The deepest grief and anguish filled his soul to see the predicament of Monsieur, but there was no relief.
Brock's miserable affectation of the English drawl soon gave way to sharp, emphatic Americanisms. It was after eight o'clock and the train was well under way. The street lamps were getting fewer and fewer, and the soft, fresh air of the suburbs was rushing through the window.
"But, hang it all, I can't sit up all night!" growled Brock in exasperated finality.
"Monsieur forgets that he has a berth. It is not the fault of the compagnie that he is without a bed. Did not M'sieur book the compartment himself? Tres bien!"
As the result of strong persuasion, the garde consented to make "the grand tour" of the train de luxe in search of a berth. It goes without saying that he was intensely mystified by Brock's incautious remark that he would be satisfied with "an upper if he couldn't do any better." For the life of him, Monsieur the garde could not comprehend the situation. He went away, shaking his head and looking at the tickets, as much as to say that an American is never satisfied—not even with the best.
Brock lowered a window-seat in the passage and sat down, staring blankly and blackly out into the whizzing night. The predicament had come upon him so suddenly that he had not until now found the opportunity to analyse it in its entirety. The worst that could come of it, of course, was the poor comfort of a night in a chair. He knew that it was a train of sleeping-coaches—Ah! He suddenly remembered the luggage van! As a last resort, he might find lodging among the trunks!
And then, too, there was something irritating in the suspicion that she had laughed as if it were a huge joke—perhaps, even now, she was doubled up in her narrow couch, stifling the giggle that would not be suppressed.
When the garde came back with the lugubrious information that nothing, positively nothing, was to be had, it is painful to record that Brock swore in a manner which won the deepest respect of the trainman.
"At four o'clock in the morning, M'sieur, an old gentleman and his wife will get out at Strassburg, their destination. They are in this carriage and you may take their compartment, if M'sieur will not object to sleeping in a room just vacated by two mourners who to-day buried a beloved son in Paris. They have kept all of the flowers in their—"
"Four o'clock! Good Lord, what am I to do till then?" groaned Brock, glaring with unmanly hatred at the door of the Medcroft compartment.
"Perhaps Madame may be willing to take the upper—" ventured the guard timorously, but Brock checked him with a peremptory gesture. He proposed, instead, the luggage van, whereupon the guard burst into a psalm of utter dejection. It was against the rules, irrevocably.
"Then I guess I'll have to sit here all night," said Brock faintly. He was forgetting his English.
"If M'sieur will not occupy his own bed, yes," said the guard, shrugging his shoulders and washing his hands of the whole incomprehensible affair. "M'sieur will then be up to receive the Customs officers at the frontier. Perhaps he will give me the keys to Madame's trunks, so that she may not be disturbed."
"Ask her for 'em yourself," growled Brock, after one dazed moment of dismay.
The hours crawled slowly by. He paced the length of the wriggling corridor a hundred times, back and forth; he sat on every window-seat in the carriage; he nodded and dozed and groaned, and laughed at himself in the deepest derision all through the dismal night. Daylight came at four; he saw the sun rise for the first time in his life. He neither enjoyed nor appreciated the novelty. Never had he witnessed anything so mournfully depressing as the first grey tints that crept up to mock him in his vigil; never had he seen anything so ghastly as the soft red glow that suffused the morning sky.
"I'll sleep all day if I ever get into that damned bed," he said to himself, bitterly wistful.
The Customs officers had eyed him suspiciously at the border. They evidently had been told of his strange madness in refusing to occupy the berth he had paid for. Their examination of his effects was more thorough than usual. It may have entered their heads that he was standing guard over the repose of a fair accomplice. They asked so many embarrassing and disconcerting questions that he was devoutly relieved when they passed on, still suspicious.
The train was late, and at five o'clock he was desperately combating an impulse to leave it at Strassburg, find lodging in a hotel, and then, refreshed, set out for London to have it out with the malevolent Medcroft. The disembarking of the venerable mourners, however, restored him to a degree of his peace of mind. After all, he reviewed, it would be cowardly and base to desert a trusting wife; he pictured her as asleep and securely confident in his stanchness. No: he would have it out with Medcroft at some later day.
He was congratulating himself on the acquisition of a bed—although it might possess the odour of a bed of tuberoses—when all of his pleasant calculations were upset by the appearance of a German burgher and his family. It was then that he learned that these people had booked le compartement from Strassburg to Munich.
Brock resumed his window-seat and despondently awaited the call to breakfast. He fell sound asleep with his monocle in position; nor did it matter to him that his hat dropped through the window and went scuttling off across the green Rhenish fields. When next he looked at his watch, it was eight o'clock. A small boy was standing at the end of the passage, staring wide-eyed at him. Two little girls came piling, half dressed, from a compartment, evidently in response to the youngster's whispered command to hurry out and see the funny man. Brock scowled darkly, and the trio darted swiftly into the compartment.
He dragged his stiff legs into the dining-car at Stuttgart and shoved them under a table. The car was quite empty. As he was staring blankly at the menu, the conducteur from his car hurried in with the word that Madame would not breakfast until nine. She was still very sleepy. Would Monsieur Medcroft be good enough to order her coffee and rolls brought to her compartment at that hour? And would he mind seeing that the maid saw to it that Raggles surely had his biscuit and a walk at the next station?
"Raggles?" queried Brock, passing his hand over his brow. The other shrugged his shoulders and looked askance. "Oh, yes,—I—understand," murmured the puzzled one, recovering himself. For the next ten minutes he wondered who Raggles could be.
He had eaten his strawberries and was waiting for the eggs and coffee, resentfully eying the early risers who were now coming in for their coffee and rolls. They had slept—he could tell by the complacent manner in which their hair was combed and by the interest they found in the scenery which he had come, by tedious familiarity, to loathe and scorn.
The actions of two young women near the door attracted his attention. From their actions he suddenly gathered that they were discussing him,—and in a more or less facetious fashion, at that. They whispered and looked shy and grinned in a most disconcerting manner. He turned red about the ears and began to wonder, fiercely, why his eggs and coffee were so slow in coming. Then, to his consternation, the young women, plainly of the serving-class, bore down upon him with abashed smiles. He noticed for the first time that one of them was carrying a very small child in her arms; as she came alongside, grinning sheepishly, she extended the small one toward the astounded Brock, and said in excellent old English:
"Good morning, Mr. Medcroft." Then, with a rare inspiration, "Baby, kiss papa—come, now."
She pushed the infant almost into Brock's face. He did not observe that it was a beautiful child and that it had a look of terror in its eyes; he only knew that he was glaring wildly at the fiendish nurse, the truth slowly beating its way into his be-addled brain. For a full minute he stared as if petrified. Then, administering a sickly grin, he sought to bring his wits up to the requirements of the extraordinary situation. He lifted his hand and mumbled: "Come, Raggles! I haven't a biscuit, but here, have a roll, do. Give me a—a kiss!" He added the last in most heroic surrender.
The nurse and the maid stared hard at him; the baby turned in affright to cling closely to the neck of the former.
"Good Lord, sir," whispered the nurse, with a nervous glance about her; "this ain't Raggles, sir. This is a baby."
"Do you think I'm blind, madam?" whispered he, savagely. "I can see it's a baby, but I didn't know there was to be one. Its father didn't mention it to me."
"It's a wise father that knows his own child," said the nurse, with prompt sarcasm.
"I think they should have prepared me for this," growled he. "Is it supposed to be mine? Does—does Mrs. Medcroft know about it?"
"You mean, about the baby, sir? Of course she does. It's hers. Please don't look so odd, sir. My word, sir, I didn't know you didn't know it, sir. I wasn't told, was I, O'Brien? There, sir, you see! Mrs. Medcroft said as I was to bring Tootles in to you, sir. She said—"
"Tootles?" murmured Brock. "Tootles and Raggles. I daresay there's a distinction without much of a difference. Are you Burton?"
"Yes, Mr. Medcroft. The nurse. Won't you take baby for a minute, sir? Just to get acquainted, and for appearance's sake." She whispered the well-meant entreaty. Brock, now well into the spirit of the situation, obligingly extended his arms. The baby set up a lusty howl of aversion.
"For God's sake, take him back to his mother!" groaned Brock hastily. "He doesn't like strangers! Take him away!"
"It isn't a he, sir," whispered the maid, as the nurse prepared to beat a hasty retreat with the Medcroft offspring. "It's a her, sir."
Brock's face was a study in perplexity as they hurried from the car.
"By George," he muttered, "what next!"
That which did come next was even more amazing than the unexpected advent of Tootles. He barely had recovered his equanimity—with his coffee—when a young lady entered the car. That, of itself, was not much to speak of, but what followed was something that not even he could have dreamed of if he had been given the chance. He afterward recalled, in some distress of mind, that his second quick glance at the newcomer developed into little less than a rude stare of admiration. Small wonder, let it be advanced in his defence.
She was astoundingly fair to look upon—dazzling, it might be said, with some support to the adjective. Moreover, she was looking directly into his eyes from her unstable position near the door; what was more, a shy, even mischievous, smile crept into her face as her glance caught his. Never had he seen a more exquisite face than hers; never had he looked upon a more perfect picture of grace and loveliness and—aye, smartness. She was smiling with unmistakable friendliness and recognition, and yet he could have sworn he had not seen her before in his life. As if he could have forgotten such a face! A sudden sense of enchantment swept over him, indescribable, yet delicious.
She was coming toward him—still smiling shyly, her lips parted as if she were breathing quickly from fear or another emotion. He set down his coffee-cup without regard to taste or direction, his gaze fixed upon the trim, slender figure in blue. He now saw that her dark eyes were filled with a soft seriousness that belied her brave smile; a delicate pink had come into her clear, high-bred face; the hesitancy of the gentlewoman enveloped her with a mantle that shielded her from any suspicion of boldness. Brock struggled to his feet, amazement written in his face.
"Good morning, Roxbury," she said, in the most impersonal of greetings. Her smile deepened as the blankness increased in his face. In the most casual, matter-of-fact manner, she appropriated the chair across the table from his. "Please sit down, Roxy."
He sat down abruptly. For a single, tense, abashed moment they looked searchingly into each other's eyes.
"Are you Raggles?" he asked politely.
"You poor man!" she cried, aghast. "Raggles is Edith's French poodle. Has no one told you of the poodle?" She half whispered this. He began to adore her at that very moment,—a circumstance well worth remembering.
"No one has told me of you, for that matter," he apologised, thrilling with a delight such as he had never known before. "Would you mind whispering to me just who you are? Am I supposed to be your father—or what?"
"It is all so delightfully casual, isn't it?" she said. "I daresay they forgot to tell you that you are a man of family. Didn't they mention me in any way at all?" She pouted very prettily.
"No, they ignored you and Raggles and Tootles. Are there any more in my family that I haven't met?"
"You see, we got to the station quite a bit ahead of Edith. That's how you happened to miss meeting us. We saw you there, however. I recognised you by your clothes. You seemed very unhappy. Oh, I forgot. You wanted to know who I am. Well, I am your sister-in-law." She ordered coffee and toast while he sat there figuring it out. When the waiter departed, he leaned forward and said quite frankly,—
"You'll pardon me, I'm sure, but I can't understand how I was so short-sighted as to marry your sister."
"Well, you see, you didn't catch a glimpse of me until after you were married," she railed. "I was in the Sacred Heart convent, you remember."
"Ah, that explains the oversight. I am considered an unusually discriminating person. Let me see: I married a Miss Fowler, didn't I?"
"Yes, Roxbury. Four years ago, in London, at St. George's, in Hanover Square, at four o'clock, on a Saturday. Didn't they tell you all that?"
"I don't think they said anything about it being four o'clock. I'm glad to know the awful details, believe me. Thanks! Do you know I decided you were an American the instant I saw you in the door," he went on, quite irrelevantly.
"How clever of you, Roxbury!"
"Oh, I say, Miss Fowler, I'm not such an ass as I look, really I'm not. I'm trying to look like—"
"'Sh! If you want me to believe you are not the ass you think you look, be careful what you say. Remember I am not Miss Fowler to you. I am Constance—sometimes Connie. Can you remember that,—Roxbury?"
He drew a long breath. "Oh, I say, Connie, I'd much rather be plain Brock to you."
"Please don't forget that I am doing this for my sister,—not for myself, by any manner of means," she said stiffly. He flushed painfully, conscious of the rebuke.
"Please overlook my faults for the time being," he said. "I'll do better. You see, I've been rather overcome by the sense of my own importance. I'm not used to being the head of an establishment. It has dazed me. A great many things have happened to me since I left the Gare de l'Est last night." He was considerate in not referring to his unhappy mode of travelling. "For instance, I've completely lost my head." He might have said hat, but that would have sounded commonplace and earthy.
"One does, you know, when he loses his identity," she said sympathetically. "Edith says you are ripping, and all that sort of thing," she went on hurriedly, in perfect mimicry. "You come very highly recommended as a brother-in-law."
"Are you to be with us until the end of the play?"
"Yes. The Rodneys are my friends, not Edith's. Katherine Rodney was in the convent with me. We see a great deal of each other. I'm sure you will like her. Everybody falls dreadfully in love with her."
"How very amiable of you to permit it," he protested gallantly. "I'm sure I shall enjoy falling in love. Which reminds me that I've never had a sister-in-law. They're very nice, I'm told. It's odd that Medcroft didn't tell me about you. Would you mind advancing a bit of general information about yourself—and, I may say, about my family in general? It may come handy."
"I feel as though I had known you for years," she said, frankly returning his gaze. She leaned forward, her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands. "I'm merely Edith's sister. We live in Paris,—that is, father and I. I'm three years younger than Edith. Of course, you know how old your wife is, so we won't dwell upon that. You don't? Then I'd demand it of her. I haven't been in Philadelphia since I was seven—and that's ages ago. I have no mother, and father is off in South America on business. So, you see, little sister has to tag after big sister. Oh!" She interrupted the recital with an abrupt change of manner. "I'm so sorry you've finished your coffee. Now you'll have to go. Roxbury always does."
"But I haven't finished," he exclaimed eagerly. "I'm going to have three or four more pots. You have no idea how—"
"It's all right then," she said with her rarest and most confident smile. "Well, Edith asked me to come to London for the season. The Rodneys were in Paris at the time, however, and they had asked me to join them for a fortnight in the Tyrol. When I said that I was off for a visit with the—with you, I mean—they insisted that you all should come too. They are connections, in a way, don't you see. So we accepted. And here we are."
"You don't, by any chance, happen to be engaged to be married, or anything of that sort," he ventured. "Don't crush me! It's only as a safeguard, you know. People may ask questions."
"You are not obliged to answer them, Roxbury," she said. The flush had deepened in her cheek. It convinced him that she was in love—and engaged. He experienced a queer sinking of the heart. "You can say that you don't know, if anyone should be so rude as to ask." Suddenly she caught her breath and stared at him in a sort of panic. "Heavens," she whispered, the toast poised half-way to her lips, "you're not, by any chance, engaged, are you? Appalling thought!"
He laughed delightedly. "People won't ask about me, my dear Constance. I'm already married, you know. But if anyone should ask, you're not obliged to answer."
She looked troubled and uncertain. "You may be really married, after all," she speculated. "Who knows? Poor old Roxbury wouldn't have had the tact to inquire."
"I am a henpecked bachelor, believe me."
For the next quarter of an hour they chatted in the liveliest, most inconsequential fashion, getting on excellent terms with each other and arriving at a fair sense of appreciation of what lay ahead of them in the shape of peril and adventure.
She was the most delightful person he had ever met, as well as being the most beautiful. There was a sprightly, ever-growing air of self-reliance about her that charmed and reassured him. She possessed the capacity for divining the sane and the ridiculous with splendid discrimination. Moreover, she could jest and be serious with an impartial intelligence that gratified his vanity without in the least inspiring the suspicion that she was merely clever. He became blissfully imbued with the idea that she had surprised herself by the discovery that he was really quite attractive. In fact, he was quite sincerely pleased with himself—for which he may be pardoned if one stops to think how resourceful a woman of tact may be if she is very, very pretty.
And, by way of further analogy, Brock was a thoroughly likable chap, beside being handsome and a thoroughbred to the core. It's not betraying a secret to affirm, cold-bloodedly, that Miss Fowler had not allied herself with the enterprise until after she had pinned Roxbury down to facts concerning Brock's antecedents. She was properly relieved to find that he came of a fine old family and that he had led more than one cotillion in New York.
He experienced a remarkable change of front in respect to Roxbury Medcroft before the breakfast was over. It may have been due to the spell of her eyes or to the call of her voice, but it remains an unchallenged fact that he no longer thought of Medcroft as a stupid bungler; instead, he had come to regard him as a good and irreproachable Samaritan. All of which goes to prove that a divinity shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may.
"I'm sure we shall get on famously," he said, as she signified her desire to return to the compartment. "I've always longed for a nice, agreeable sister-in-law."
"Her mission in life, up to a certain stage, is to make the man appreciate the fact that he has, after all, been snapped up by a small but deserving family," she said blithely. "It is also her duty to pour oil on troubled waters and strew flowers along the connubial highway, so long as her kind offices are not resented. By the way, Roxbury, I am now about to preserve you from bitter reproaches. You have forgotten to order coffee and rolls for your wife."
"Great Scott! So I have! It's nine o'clock." He ordered the coffee and rolls to be sent in at once. "I hope she hasn't starved to death."
"My dear Roxbury," she said sternly, "I must take you under my wing. You have much to accomplish in the next twenty-four hours, not the least of your duties being the subjugation of Tootles and Raggles. Tootles is fifteen months old, it may interest you to know. We can't afford to have Tootles scream with terror every time she sees you, and it would be most unfortunate if Raggles should growl and snap at you as he does at all suspicious strangers. Once in a while he bites too. Do you like babies?"
"Yes, I—I think I do," he said doubtingly. "I daresay I could cultivate a taste for 'em. But, I say," with eager enthusiasm, "I love dogs!"
"It may be distinctly in your favour that Raggles loathes the real Roxbury. He growls every time that Roxy kisses Edith."
"Has he ever bitten Roxy for it?"
"No," dubiously, "but Roxy has had to kick him on several occasions."
"How very tiresome,—to kick and kiss at the same time."
"Raggles is very jealous, you understand."
"That's more than I can say for dear old Roxy. But I'll try to anticipate Raggles by compelling Edith to keep her distance," he said, scowling darkly. "Has it not occurred to you that Tootles will be pretty—er—much of a nuisance when it comes to mountain climbing?" He felt his way carefully in saying this.
"Oh, dear me, Roxbury, would you have left the poor little darling at home—in all that dreadful heat?"
"I'm sure I couldn't have been blamed for leaving her at home," he protested. "She didn't exist until half an hour ago. Heavens! how they do spring up!"
The remainder of Brock's day was spent in getting acquainted with his family—or, rather, his menage. There were habits and foibles, demands and restrictions, that he had to adapt himself to with unvarying benignity. He made a friend of Raggles without half trying; dogs always took to him, he admitted modestly. Tootles was less vulnerable. She howled consistently at each of his first half-dozen advances; his courage began to wane with shocking rapidity; his next half-hearted advances were in reality inglorious retreats. Spurred on by the sustaining Constance, he stood by his guns and at last was gratified to see faint signs of surrender. By midday he had conquered. Tootles permitted him to carry her up and down the station platform (she was too young to realise the risk she ran). Edith and Constance, with the beaming nurse and O'Brien, applauded warmly when he returned from his first promenade, bearing Tootles and proudly heeled by Raggles. Fond mothers in the crowd of hurrying travellers found time to look upon him and smile as if to say, "What a nice man!" He could almost hear them saying it. Which, no doubt, accounted for the intense ruddiness of his cheeks.
"Do you ever spank her?" he demanded once of Mrs. Medcroft, after Tootles had brought tears to his eyes with a potent attack upon his nose. She caught the light of danger in his grey eyes and hastily snatched the offending Tootles from his arms.
Miss Fowler kept him constantly at work with his eyeglass and his English, neither of which he was managing well enough to please her critical estimate. In fact, he laboured all day with the persistence, if not the sullenness, of a hard-driven slave. He did not have time to become tired. There was always something new to be done or learned or unlearned: his day was full to overflowing. He was a man of family!
The wife of his bosom was tranquillity itself. She was enjoying herself. When not amusing herself by watching Brock's misfortunes, she was napping or reading or sending out for cool drinks. With all the selfishness of a dutiful wife, she was content to shift responsibilities upon that ever convenient and useful creature—a detached sister.
Brock sent telegrams for her from cities along the way,—Ulm, Munich, Salzburg, and others,—all meant for the real Roxbury in London, but sent to a fictitious being in Great Russell Street, the same having been agreed upon by at least two of the conspirators. It mattered little that she repeated herself monotonously in regard to the state of health of herself and Tootles. Roxbury would doubtless enjoy the protracted happiness brought on by these despatches, even though they got him out of bed or missed him altogether until they reached him in a bunch the next day. He may also have been gratified to hear from Munich that Roxbury was perfectly lovely. She said, in the course of her longest despatch, that she was so glad that the baby was getting to like her father more and more as the day wore on.
At one station Brock narrowly escaped missing the train. He swung himself aboard as the cars were rolling out of the sheds. As he sank, hot and exhausted, into the seat opposite his wife and her sister, the former looked up from her book, yawning ever so faintly, and asked:
"Are you enjoying your honeymoon, Roxbury?"
"Immensely!" he exclaimed, but not until he had searched for and caught Connie's truant gaze. "Aren't we?" he asked of Miss Fowler, his eyes dancing. She smiled encouragingly.
"I think you are such a nice man to have about," commented Mrs. Medcroft, this time yawning freely and stretching her fine young arms in the luxury of home contentment.
Brock went to bed early, in Vienna that night—tired but happy, caring not what the morrow brought forth so long as it continued to provide him with a sister-in-law and a wife who was devoted—to another man.
THE DISTANT COUSINS
The end of the week found Brock quite thoroughly domesticated—to use an expression supplied by his new sister-in-law. True, he had gone through some trying ordeals and had lost not a little of his sense of locality, but he was rapidly recovering it as the pathway became easier and less obscure. At first he was irritatingly remiss in answering to the name of Medcroft; but, to justify the stupidity, it is only necessary to say that he had fallen into a condition which scarcely permitted him to know his own name, much less that of another. He was under the spell! Wherefore it did not matter at all what name he went by: he would have answered as readily to one as the other.
He blandly ignored telegrams and letters addressed to Roxbury Medcroft, and once he sat like a lump, with everyone staring at him, when the chairman of the architects' convention asked if Mr. Medcroft had anything to say on the subject under discussion. He was forced, in some confusion, to attribute his heedlessness to a life-long defect in hearing. Thereafter it was his punishment to have his name and fragments of conversation hurled about in tones so stentorian that he blushed for very shame. In the Bristol, in the Kaerntner-Ring, in the Lichtenstein Gallery, in the Gardens—no matter where he went—if he were to be accosted by any of the genial architects it was always in a voice that attracted attention; he could have heard them if they had been a block away. It became a habit with him to instinctively lift his hand to his ear when one of them hove in sight, having seen him first.
"That's what I get for being a liar," he lamented dolefully. Constance had just whispered her condolences. "Do you think they'll consider it odd that you don't shout at me too?"
"You might explain that you can tell what I am saying by looking at my lips," she said. He was immensely relieved.
Considerable difficulty had to be overcome at the Bristol in the matter of rooms. Without going into details, Brock resignedly took the only room left in the crowded hotel—a six by ten cubby-hole on the top floor overlooking the air-shaft. He had to go down one flight for his morning tub, and he never got it because he refused to stand in line and await his turn. Mrs. Medcroft had the choicest room in the hotel, looking down upon the beautiful Kaerntner-Ring. Constance proposed, in the goodness of her heart, to give up to Brock her own room, adjoining that of her sister, provided Edith would take her in to sleep with her. Edith was perfectly willing, but interposed the sage conclusion that gossiping menials might not appreciate a preference so unique.
Mr. Roxbury Medcroft's sky parlour adjoined the elevator shaft. The head of his bed was in close proximity to the upper mechanism of the lift, a thin wall intervening. A French architect, who had a room hard by, met Brock in the hall, hollow-eyed and haggard, on the morning after their first night. He shouted lugubrious congratulations in Brock's ear, just as if Brock's ear had not been harassed a whole night long by shrieking wheels and rasping cables.
"Monsieur is very fortunate in being so afflicted," he boomed. "A thousand times in the night have I wished that I might be deaf also. Ah, even an affliction such as yours, monsieur, has its benedictions!"
Matters drifted along smoothly, even merrily, for several days. They were all young and full of the joy of living. They laughed in secret over the mishaps and perils; they whiffed and enjoyed the spice that filled the atmosphere in which they lived. They visited the gardens and the Hofs, the Chateau at Schoenbrunn, the Imperial stables, the gay "Venice in Vienna"; they attended the opera and the concerts, ever in a most circumspect "trinity," as Brock had come to classify their parties. Like a dutiful husband, he always included his wife in the expeditions.
"You are not only a most exemplary wife, Mrs. Medcroft," he declared, "but an unusually agreeable chaperon. I don't know how Constance and I could get on without you."
But the day of severest trial was now at hand. The Rodneys were arriving on the fifth day from Berlin. Despite the fact that the Seattle "connections" had never seen the illustrious Medcroft, husband to their distant cousin, there still remained the disturbing fear that they would recognise—or rather fail to recognise him!—from chance pictures that might have come to their notice. Besides, there was always the possibility that they had seen or even met Brock in New York. He lugubriously admitted that he had met unfortunate thousands whom he had promptly forgotten but who seldom failed to remember him. It is not surprising, then, that the Medcrofts, ex parte, were in a state of perturbation,—a condition which did not relax in the least as the time drew near for the arrival of the five o'clock train from the north. Constance strove faithfully, even valiantly, to inject confidence into the souls of the prime conspirators.
"You have done so beautifully up to this time," she protested to the dolorous Brock, "why should you be afraid? I once read of an Indian chief whose name was Young-Man-Afraid-of-his-Wife! He was a very brave fellow in spite of all that. You are afraid of Edith, but can't you be like the Indian? He—"
"That's all very nice," mourned Brock, "but he could cover his confusion with war paint. Don't forget that, my dear. Think of the difference in our disguises! War paint in daubs versus spats and an eyeglass. Besides, he didn't have to talk West End English. And, moreover, he lived in a wigwam, and didn't have to explain a sky bedroom to strangers who happened along."
"That is a bit awkward," she confessed thoughtfully. "But can't you say that you have insomnia, and can't sleep unless you are above the noise of the street?"
He looked at her with an expression that made a verbal reply to this suggestion altogether unnecessary.
"Nurse says that Tootles has forgotten the real Roxbury," she went on, after a moment. "See how cleverly you have played the part."
Still he stared moodily, unconvinced, at the roadway ahead. They were driving in the Haupt Allee.
"I hope I haven't got Roxbury into trouble by that interview I gave out concerning the new method of fire-proofing woodwork in office buildings and hotels. It occurred to me afterward that he is violently opposed to the system. I advocated it. He'll have a—I might say, a devil of a time explaining his change of front."
As a matter of fact, when Medcroft, hiding in London, saw the reproduced interview in the "Times," together with editorial comments upon the extraordinary attitude of a supposedly conservative Englishman of recognised ability, he was tried almost beyond endurance. For the next two or three days the newspapers printed caustic contributions from fellow architects and builders, in each of which the luckless Medcroft was taken to task for advocating an impractical and fatuous New York hobby in the way of construction,—something that staid old London would not even tolerate or discuss. The social chroniclings of the Medcrofts in Vienna, as despatched by the correspondents, offset this unhappy "bull" to some extent, in so far as Medcroft's peace of mind was concerned, but nothing could have drawn attention to the fact that he was not in London at that particular time so decisively as the Vienna interview and its undefended front. Even his shrewdest enemy could not have suspected Medcroft of a patience which would permit him to sit quiet in London while the attacks were going on. He found some small solace in the reflection that he could make the end justify the means.
On their return to the Bristol, Brock and Miss Fowler found the fair Edith in a pitiful state of collapse. She declared over and over again that she could not face the Rodneys; it was more than should be expected of her; she was sure that something would go wrong; why, oh, why was it necessary to deceive the Rodneys? Why should they be kept in the dark? Why wasn't Roxbury there to counsel wisely—and more, ad infinitum, until the distracted pair were on the point of deserting the cause. She finally dissolved into tears, and would not listen to reason, expostulation, or persuasion. It was then that Brock cruelly but effectively declared his intention to abdicate, as he also had a reputation to preserve. Whereupon, with a fine sense of distinction, she flared up and accused him of treachery to his best friend, Roxbury Medcroft, who was reposing the utmost confidence in his friendship and loyalty. How could she be expected to go on with the play if he, the man upon whom everything depended, was to turn tail in a critical hour like this?
"How can you have the heart to spoil everything?" she cried indignantly. He looked at her in fresh amazement. "Roxbury would never forgive you. We have both placed the utmost confidence in you, Mr. Brock, and—"
"'Sh! Say 'Roxbury, dear'!" interposed the practical Constance. "The walls may have ears, my dears."
Then Mrs. Medcroft plaintively implored his forgiveness, and said that she was miserable and ashamed and very unappreciative. Brock, in deep humility, begged her pardon for his unnecessary harshness, and promised not to offend again.
"The first quarrel," cried Constance delightedly. "How nicely you've made it up. And you've been married less than a week!"
"Roxbury and I didn't have our first quarrel until we'd been married a year," said Edith reflectively.
"Oh, I say, Edith," exclaimed Brock, with a dark frown, "I'd rather you wouldn't be forever extolling the good qualities of my predecessor. It's very bad taste. Very much like the pies mother used to make."
"Silly!" cried Medcroft's wife, now in fine humour.
"Besides, Rox is an Englishman. It would take him a year to produce a quarrel. The American husband is not so confounded slow. I won't live up to Roxbury in everything."
It was decided that Constance should greet the Rodneys upon their arrival; the Medcrofts were not to appear until dinner time. Afterwards the entire party would attend the opera, which was then in the closing week. Brock, with splendid prodigality, had taken a box for the final performance of "Tristan and Isolde." It is not out of place to remark that Brock loathed the Wagnerian opera; he was of "The Mikado" cult. He took the seats with a definite purpose in mind to cast the burden of responsibility upon his wife, who would be forced to extend herself in the capacity of hostess, giving him the much-needed opportunity to secure safe footing in the dark area of uncertainty. He believed himself capable of diverting the youthful Miss Rodney and his discreet sister-in-law, but he was consumed by an unholy dread of Rodney pere; something told him that this shrewd American business man was not the kind who would have the wool pulled over his eyes by anyone. Brock felt that the support of Constance was of greater value than that of Edith at any stage or in any emergency.
Besides, he was now quite palpably in love with her! "I've got it bad!" he reflected in sober consideration of his plight. "But," came the ironic justification, "I'm able to confine it to the immediate family. That's more than most husbands can say."
The Rodneys descended upon the Bristol at five o'clock, rushing down from the Nord-Bahnhof as if there was not a minute to spare. Constance pursued Katherine to her room, where they revelled in the delights of a reunion, gradually coming out of its throes as the hour for dressing approached.
"We dine early, dear," said Constance, "with supper after the opera. I must be off to dress."
"I am so eager to meet Mr. Medcroft. Is he nice?"
"He's the dearest thing in the world," cried the other, her cheeks aglow.
"I'm so glad, on Edith's account. Most of these English matches turn out abominably," commented Miss Rodney, who was twenty, very pretty, and very worldly. "Oh, did I tell you that Freddie Ulstervelt is with us?"
"We came across him in Berlin, and dad asked him to join us, if he had nothing better to do, so he said he would. He was with us in Dresden and Prague and—don't you think he's awfully jolly?"
"Ripping!" said Constance with deplorable fervour.
"How awfully English! He said he'd seen you in Paris this spring."
"Yes," said Miss Fowler, her cheeks going red suddenly. "I told him you'd asked me to be with you in June." She could have cut out her tongue for saying this, but it was too late. Katherine laughed a trifle hardly after a stiff moment; then a queer light flitted into her eyes,—the light of awakened opposition. Constance was saying to herself, "She's in love with Freddie. I might have known it." Back in her brain lay the memory of Freddie's violent protestations of love, uttered during those recent days in Paris. He had threatened to throw himself into the Seine; she remembered that quite well—and also the fact that he did nothing of the sort, but had a very jolly time at Maxim's and sent her flowers by way of repentance. Knowing Freddie so well, it would not have surprised her in the least to find that he had become engaged to Katherine. His heart was a very flexible organ.
"Oh," said Katherine, "I believe he did say that you had mentioned us." Of herself she was asking: "I wonder if she is in love with him!"
And thus it transpired that Freddie Ulstervelt—addlepated, good-looking, inconstant Freddie, just out of college—was transformed into a bone of contention, whether he would or no.
He was of the kind who love or make love to every new girl they meet, seriously enough at the time, but easily passed over if need be. Rebuffs may have puzzled him, but they left no jagged scar. He belonged to that class which upsets the tranquillity of inexperienced maidens by whispering intensely, "God, it's grand!" And he means it at the moment.
Katherine Rodney was in love with him. He belonged to a fashionable New York family of wealth, and he had been a young lion at Pasadena during the winter just past. He owned automobiles and a yacht and—an extensive wardrobe. These notable assets had much to do with the conquest of Mrs. Rodney: she looked with favour upon the transitory Mr. Ulstervelt, and believed in her heart that he had something to do with the location of the shining sun. But of this affair more anon, as the novelists say.
Brock was presented to the Rodneys just before the party went in to dinner. He managed his eyeglass and his drawl bravely, and got on swimmingly with the elder Rodneys, until Constance appeared with Katherine and Freddie Ulstervelt. It was not until then that it occurred to Miss Fowler that Freddie, being from New York, was almost certain to know Brock either personally or by sight. She experienced a cold chill, the distinct approach of catastrophe. Brock had just been told that young Ulstervelt of New York was to be of the party. His blood ran cold. He had never seen the young man, but he knew his father well; he had even dined at the mansion in Madison Avenue. There was every reason, however, to suspect that Freddie knew him by sight. Even as he was planning a mode of defence in case of recognition, the young man was presented. Brock's drawl was something wonderful.
"I—aw—knew your family, I'm sure—aw, quite sure," he said. "You know, of course, that I lived in your—aw—delightful city for some years. Strange we never met, 'pon my soul."
"Oh, New York's a pretty big place, Mr. Medcroft," said Freddie good-naturedly. He was a slight young fellow with a fresh, inquisitive face. "It's bigger than London in some ways. It's bigger upwards. Say, do you know, you remind me of a fellow I knew in New York!"
"Haw, haw!" laughed Brock, without grace or reason. Miss Fowler caught her breath sharply.
"Fellow named Brock. Stupid sort of chap, my mother says. I—"
"Oh, dear me, Mr. Ulstervelt," cried Edith, breaking in, "you shan't say anything mean about Mr. Brock. He's my husband's best friend."
"I didn't say it, Mrs. Medcroft. It was my mother." Brock was hiding a smile behind his hand. "She knows him better than I. To tell the truth, I've never met him, but I've seen him on the Fifth Avenue stages. You do look like him, though, by Jove."
"It's extraordinary how many people think I look like dear old Brock," said the false Roxbury. "But, on the other hand, most people think that Brock looks like me, so what's the odds? Haw, haw! Ripping! Eh, Mr. Rodney?"
"Ripping? Ripping what? Good God, am I ripping anything?" gasped Mr. Rodney, who was fussy and fat and generally futile. He seemed to grow suddenly uncomfortable, as if ripping was a habit with him.
Dinner was a success. Brock shone with a refulgence that bedimmed all expectations. His wife was delighted; in all of the four years of married life, Roxbury had never been so brilliant, so deliciously English (to use her own expression). Constance tingled with pride. Of late, she had experienced unusual difficulty in diverting her gaze from the handsome impostor, and her thoughts were ever of him—in justification of a platonic interest, of course, no more than that. To-night her eyes and thoughts were for him alone,—a circumstance which, could he have felt sure, would have made him wildly happy, instead of inordinately furious in his complete misunderstanding of her manner toward Freddie Ulstervelt, who had no compunction about making love to two girls at the same time. She was never so beautiful, never so vivacious, never so resourceful. Brock was under the spell; he was fascinated; he had to look to himself carefully in order to keep his wits in the prescribed channel.
His self-esteem received a severe shock at the opera. Mrs. Medcroft, with malice aforethought, insisted that Ulstervelt should take her husband's seat. As the box held but six persons, the unfortunate Brock was compelled to shift more or less for himself. Inwardly raging, he suavely assured the party—Freddie in particular—that he would find a seat in the body of the house and would join them during the Entr'acte. Then he went out and sat in the foyer. It was fortunate that he hated Wagner. Before the end of the act he was joined by Mr. Rodney, horribly bored and eager for relief. In a near-by cafe they had a whiskey and soda apiece, and, feeling comfortably reinforced, returned to the opera house arm-in-arm, long and short, thin and fat, liberally discoursing upon the intellectuality of Herr Wagner.
"Say, you're not at all like an Englishman," exclaimed Mr. Rodney impulsively, even gratefully.
"Eh, what?" gasped Brock, replacing his eyeglass. "Oh, I say, now, 'pon my word, haw, haw!"
"You've got an American sense of humour, Medcroft, that's what you have. You recognise the joke that Wagner played on the world. Pardon me for saying it, sir, but I didn't think it was in an Englishman."
"Haw, haw! Ripping, by Jove! No, no! Not you. I mean the joke. But then, you see, it's been so long since Wagner played it that even an Englishman has had time to see the point. Besides, I've lived a bit of my life in America."
"That accounts for it," said the tactless but sincere Mr. Rodney.
Brock glared so venomously at the intrusive Mr. Ulstervelt upon the occasion of his next visit to his own box, that Mrs. Medcroft smiled softly to herself as she turned her face away. A few minutes later she seized the opportunity to whisper in his ear. Her eyes were sparkling, and something in her manner bespoke the bated breath.
"You are in love with my sister," was what she said to him. He blushed convincingly.
"Nonsense!" he managed to reply, but without much persuasiveness.
"But you are. I'm not blind. Anyone can see it. She sees it. Haven't you sense enough to hide it from her? How do you expect to win?"
"My dear Mrs.—my dear Edith, you amaze me. I'm confusion itself. But," he went on eagerly, illogically, "do you think I could win her?"
"That is not for one's wife to say," she said demurely.
"I'd be tremendously proud of you as a sister-in-law. And I'd be much obliged if you'd help me. But look at that confounded Ulstervelt! He's making love to her with the whole house looking on."
"I think it might be polite if you were to ask him out for a drink," she suggested.
"But I've had one and I never take two."
"Model husband! Then take the girls into the foyer for a stroll and a chat after the act. Don't mind me. I'm your friend."
"Do you think I've got a chance with her?" he asked with a brave effort.
"You've had one wife thrust upon you; why should you expect another without a struggle? I'm afraid you'll have to work for Constance."
"But I have your—I can count on your approval?" he whispered eagerly.
"Don't, Roxbury! People will think you are making love to me!" she protested, wilfully ignoring his question.
He returned to the box after the second act and proposed a turn in the foyer. To his disgust, Ulstervelt appropriated Constance and left him to follow with Mrs. Rodney and Katherine. He almost hated Edith for the tantalising smile she shot after him as he moved away, defeated.
If he was glaring luridly at the irrepressible Freddie, he was not alone in his gloom. Katherine Rodney, green with jealousy, was sending spiteful glances after her dearest friend, while Mrs. Rodney was sniffing the air as if it was laden with frost.
"Don't you think Connie is a perfect dear? I'm so fond of her," said Miss Rodney, so sweetly that he should have detected the nether-flow.
He started and pulled himself together. "Aw, yes,—ripping!" He consciously adjusted his eyeglass for a hasty glance about in search of the easily disturbed Mr. Rodney. Then, to Mrs. Rodney, his mind a blank after a passing glimpse of Constance and her escort: "Aw—er—a perfectly jolly opera, isn't it?"
THE WOULD-BE BROTHER-IN-LAW
The next morning, bright and early, Mr. Alfred Rodney, a telegram in his hand, charged down the hall to Mrs. Medcroft's door. With characteristic Far West impulsiveness he banged on the door. A sleepy voice asked who was there.
"It's me—Rodney. Get up. I want to see Medcroft. Say, Roxbury, wake up!"
"Roxbury?" came in shrill tones from within. "He—Isn't he upstairs? Good heaven, Mr. Rodney, what has happened? What has happened?"
"Upstairs? What the deuce is he doing upstairs?"'
"He's—he's sleeping! Do tell me what's the matter?"
"Isn't this Mr. Medcroft's room?"
"Ye-es—but he isn't in. He objects to the noise. Oh, has anything happened to Roxbury?" She was standing just inside the door, and her voice betrayed agitation.
"My dear Edith, don't get excited. I have a telegram from—"
She uttered a shriek.
"He's been assassinated! Oh, Roxbury!"
"What the dev—Are you crazy? It's a telegram from ——"
"Oh, heavens! I knew they'd kill him—I knew something dreadful would happen if I left—" Here she stopped suddenly. He distinctly heard her catch her breath. After a moment she went on warily: "Is it from a man named Hobart?"
"No! It's from Odell-Carney. Hobart? I don't know anybody named Hobart." (How was he to know that Hobart was the name that Medcroft had chosen for correspondence purposes?) "We're to meet the Odell-Carneys to-day in Munich. No time to be lost. We've got to catch the nine o'clock train."
"Oh!" came in great relief from the other side of the door. Then, in sudden dismay: "But I can't do it! The idea of getting up at an hour like this!"
"What room is Roxbury in?"
"I—don't KNOW!!" in very decided tones. "Inquire at the office!"
Alfred Rodney was a persevering man. It is barely possible that he occupied a lower social plane than that attained by his wife, but he was a man of accomplishment, if not accomplishments. He always did what he set out to do. Be it said in defence of this assertion, he not only routed out his entire protesting flock, but had them at the West-Bahnhof in time to catch the Orient Express—luggage, accessories, and all. Be it also said that he was the only one in the party, save Constance and Tootles, who took to the situation amiably.
"Damn the Odell-Carneys," was what Freddie Ulstervelt said as the train drew out of the station. Brock looked up approvingly.
"That's the first sensible thing I've heard him say," he muttered loud enough to be heard by Miss Fowler. "I say, who are the Odell-Carneys? First I've heard of 'em."
"The Odell-Carneys? Oh, dear, have you never heard of them?" she cried in surprise. He felt properly rebuked. "They are very swell Londoners. It is said—"
"Then, good heavens, they'll know I'm not Medcroft," he whispered in alarm.
"Not at all, my dear Roxbury. That's just where you're wrong. They don't know Roxbury the first. I've gone over it all with Edith. She's just crazy to get into the Odell-Carney set. I regret to say that they have failed to notice the Medcrofts up to this time. Secretly, Edith has ambitions. She has gone to the Lord Mayor's dinners and to the Royal Antiquarians and to Sir John Rodney's and a lot of other functions on the outer rim, but she's never been able to break through the crust and taste the real sweets of London society. My dear Roxbury, the Odell-Carneys entertain the nobility without compunction, and they've been known to hobnob with royalty. Mrs. Odell-Carney was a Lady Somebody-or-other before she married the second time. She's terribly smart, Roxbury."
"How, in the name of heaven, do they happen to be hobnobbing, as you call it, with the Rodneys, may I ask?"
"Well, it seems that Odell-Carney is promoting a new South African mining venture. I have it from Freddie Ulstervelt that he's trying to sell something like a million shares to Mr. Rodney, who has loads of money that came from real mines in the Far West. He'd never be such a fool as to sink a million in South Africa, you know, but he's just clever enough to see the advantage of keeping Odell-Carney in tow, as it were. It means a great deal to Mrs. Rodney, don't you know, Roxbury, to be able to say that she toured with the Odell-Carneys. Freddie says that Cousin Alfred is talking in a very diplomatic manner of going on to London in August to look fully into the master. It is understood that the Rodneys are to be the guests of the Odell-Carneys while in London. It won't be the season, of course, so there won't be much of a commotion in the smart set. It is our dear Edith's desire to slip into the charmed circle through the rift that the Rodneys make. Do you comprehend?"
They were seated side by side in the corner of the compartment, his broad back screening her as much as possible from the persistent glances of Freddie Ulstervelt, who was nobly striving to confine his attentions to Katherine. Brock's eyes were devouring her exquisite face with a greediness that might have caused her some uneasiness if there had not been something pleasantly agreeable in his way of doing it.
"Yes—faintly," he replied, after an almost imperceptible conflict between the senses of sight and hearing. "But how does she intend to explain me away? I'll be a dreadful skeleton in her closet if it comes to that. When she is obliged to produce the real Roxbury, what then?"
"She's thought it all out, Roxbury," said Constance severely but almost inaudibly. "I'm sure Freddie heard part of what you said. Do be careful. She's going to reveal the whole plot to Mrs. Odell-Carney just as soon as Roxbury gives the word—treating it as a very clever and necessary ruse, don't you see. Mrs. Odell-Carney will be implored to aid in the deception for a few days, and she'll consent, because she's really quite a bit of a sport. At the psychological moment the Rodneys will be told. That places Mrs. Odell-Carney in the position of being an abettor or accomplice: she's had the distinction of being a sharer in a most glorious piece of strategy. Don't you see how charmingly it will all work in the end?"
"What are you two whispering about?" demanded Freddie Ulstervelt noisily, patience coming to an end.
"Wha—what the devil is that to—" began Brock furiously. Constance brought him up sharp with a warning kick on the ankle. He vowed afterward that he would carry the mark to his grave.
"He's telling me what a nice chap you are, Freddie," said she sweetly. Brock glared out of the window. Freddie sniffed scornfully.
"I'm getting sick of this job," growled Brock under his breath. "I didn't calculate on—"
"Now, Roxbury dear, don't be a bear," she pleaded so gently, her eyes so full of appeal, that he flushed with sudden shame and contrition.
"Forgive me," he said, the old light coming back into his eyes so strongly that she quivered for an instant before lowering her own. "I hate that confounded puppy," he explained lamely, guarding his voice with a new care. "If you felt as I do, you would too."
She laughed in the old way, but she was not soon to forget that moment when panic was so imminent.
"I—I don't see how anyone can help liking Freddie," she said, without actually knowing why. He stared hard at the Danube below. After a long silence he said,—
"It's all tommy-rot about it being blue, isn't it?"
She was also looking at the dark brown, swollen river that has been immortalised in song.
"It's never blue. It's always a yellow-ochre, it seems to me."
He waited a long time before venturing to express the thought that of late had been troubling him seriously.
"I wonder if you truly realise the difficulty Edith will have in satisfying an incredulous world with her absolutely truthful story. She'll have to explain, you know. There's bound to be a sceptic or two, my dear Constance."
"But there's Roxbury," she protested, her face clouding nevertheless. "He will set everything right."
"The world will say he is a gullible fool," said he gently. "And the world always laughs at, not with, a fool. Alas, my dear sister, it's a very deep pool we're in." He leaned closer and allowed a quaint, half-bantering, wholly diffident smile to cross his face. "I—I'm afraid that you are the only being on earth who can make the story thoroughly plausible."
"I?" she demanded quickly. Their eyes met, and the wonder suddenly left hers. She blushed furiously. "Nonsense!" she said, and abruptly left him to take a seat beside Katherine Rodney. He found small comfort in the whisperings and titterings that came, willy-nilly, to his burning ears from the corner of the compartment. He had a disquieting impression that they were discussing him; it was forced in upon him that being a brother-in-law is not an enviable occupation.
"Wot?" he asked, almost fiercely, after the insistent Freddie had thrice repeated a question.
"I say, will you have a cigaret?" half shouted Freddie, exasperated.
"Oh! No, thanks. The train makes such a beastly racket, don't you know."
"They told me at the Bristol you were deaf, but—Oh, I say, old man, I'm sorry. Which ear is it?"
"The one next to you," replied Brock, recovering from his confusion. "I hear perfectly well with the other one."
"Yes," drawled Freddie, with a wink, "so I've observed." After a reflective silence the young man ventured the interesting conclusion, "She's a stunning girl, all right." Brock looked polite askance. "By Jove, I'm glad she isn't my sister-in-law."
"I suppose I'm expected to ask why," frigidly.
"Certainly. Because, if she was, I couldn't. Do you get the point?" He crossed his legs and looked insupportably sure of himself.
They reached Munich late in the afternoon and went at once to the Hotel Vier Jahretzeiten, where they were to find the Odell-Carneys.
Mr. Odell-Carney was a middle-aged Englishman of the extremely uninitiative type. He was tall and narrow and distant, far beyond what is commonly accepted as blase; indeed, he was especially slow of speech, even for an Englishman, quite as if it were an everlasting question with him whether it was worth while to speak at all. One had the feeling when listening to Mr. Odell-Carney that he was being favoured beyond words; it took him so long to say anything, that, if one were but moderately bright, he could finish the sentence mentally some little time in advance of the speaker, and thus be prepared to properly appreciate that which otherwise might have puzzled him considerably. It could not be said, however, that Mr. Odell-Carney was ponderous; he was merely the effectual result of delay. Perhaps it is safe to agree with those who knew him best; they maintained that Odell-Carney was a pose, nothing more.
His wife was quite the opposite in nearly every particular, except height and angularity. She was bony and red-faced and opinionated. A few sallow years with a rapid, profligate nobleman had brought her, in widowhood, to a fine sense of appreciation of the slow-going though tiresomely unpractical men of the Odell-Carney type. It mattered little that he made poor investment of the money she had sequestered from his lordship; he had kept her in the foreground by associating himself with every big venture that interested the financial smart set. Notwithstanding the fact that he never was known to have any money, he was looked upon as a financier of the highest order. Which is saying a great deal in these unfeeling days of pounds and shillings.
Of course Mrs. Odell-Carney was dressed as all rangy, long-limbed Englishwomen are prone to dress,—after a model peculiarly not her own. She looked ridiculously ungraceful alongside the smart, chic American women, and yet not one of them but would have given her boots to be able to array herself as one of these. There was no denying the fact that Mrs. Odell-Carney was a "regular tip-topper," as Mr. Rodney was only too eager to say. She had the air of a born leader; that is to say, she could be gracious when occasion demanded, without being patronising.
In due course of time the Medcrofts and Miss Fowler were presented to the distinguished couple. This function was necessarily delayed until Odell-Carney had time to go into the details of a particularly annoying episode of the afternoon. He was telling the story to his friend Rodney, and of course everything was at a standstill until he got through.
It seems that Mr. Odell-Carney felt the need of a nap at three o'clock. He gave strict injunctions that there was to be no noise in the halls while he slept, and then went into his room and stretched out. Anyone who has stopped at the Hotel Four Seasons will have no difficulty in recalling the electric hall-bells which serve to attract the chambermaids to given spots. If one needs the chambermaid, he presses the button in his room and a little bell in the hall tinkles furiously until she responds and shuts it off. In that way one is sure that she has heard and is coming, a most admirable bit of German ingenuity. If she happens to be taking her lunch at the time, the bell goes on ringing until she returns; it is a faithful bell. Coming back to Odell-Carney: the maid on his floor was making up a room in close proximity when a most annoying thing happened to her. A porter who had reason to dislike her came along and turned her key from the outside, locking her in the room. She couldn't get out, and she had been warned against making a sound that might disturb the English guest. With rare intelligence, she did not scream or make an outcry, but wisely proceeded to press the button for a chambermaid. Then she evidently sat down to wait. To make the story short, she rang her own call-bell for two hours, no other maid condescending to notice the call, which speaks volumes for the almost martial system of the hotel. The bell was opposite the narrator's door. Is it, therefore, surprising that he required a great deal of time to tell all that he felt? It was not so much of what he did that he spoke at such great length, but of what he felt.
"'Pon me soul," he exploded in the end, twisting his mustache with nervous energy, "it was the demdest nap I ever had. I didn't close my eyes, c'nfend me if I did."
While Odell-Carney was studiously adjusting his eyeglass for a final glare at an unoffending 'bus boy who almost dropped his tray of plates in consequence, Mr. Rodney fussily intervened and introduced the Medcrofts. Mrs. Odell-Carney was delightfully gracious; she was sure that no nicer party could have been "got together." Her husband may have been excessively slow in most things, but he was quick to recognise and appreciate feminine beauty of face and figure. He unbent at once in the presence of the unmistakably handsome Fowler sisters; his expressive "chawmed" was in direct contrast to his ordinary manner of acknowledging an introduction.
"Mr. Medcroft is the famous architect, you know," explained the anxious Mrs. Rodney.
"Oh, yes, I know," drawled Mr. Odell-Carney. "You American architects are doing great things, 'pon my soul," he added luminously. Brock stuck his eyeglass in tighter and hemmed with raucous precision. Mrs. Medcroft stiffened perceptibly.
"Oh, but he's Mr. Roxbury Medcroft, the great English architect," cried Mrs. Rodney, in some little confusion. Odell-Carney suddenly remembered. He glared hard at Brock; the Rodneys saw signs of disaster.
"Oh, by Jove, are you the fellow who put those new windows in the Chaucer Memorial Hall? 'Pon me soul! Are you the man who did that?" There was no mistaking his manner; he was distinctly annoyed.
Brock faced the storm coolly, for his friend Medcroft's sake. "I am Roxbury Medcroft, if that's what you mean, Mr. Odell-Carney."
"I know you're Medcroft, but, hang it all, wot I asked was, did you design those windows? 'Gad, sir, they're the laughing sensation of the age. Where the devil did you get such ideas—eh, wot?" His wife had calmly, diplomatically intervened.
"I hate that man," said Mrs. Medcroft to her supposed husband a few minutes later. There was a dangerous red in her cheeks, and she was breathing quickly. Brock gave an embarrassed laugh and mentioned something audibly about a "stupid ass."
The entire party left on the following day for Innsbruck, where Mr. Rodney already had reserved the better part of a whole floor for himself and guests. Mr. Odell-Carney, before they left Munich, brought himself to the point of apologising to Brock for his peppery remarks. He was sorry and all that, and he hoped they'd be friends; but the windows were atrocious, there was no getting around that. His wife smoothed it over with Edith by confiding to her the lamentable truth that poor Odell-Carney hadn't the remotest idea what he was talking about half of the time. After carefully looking Edith over and finding her valuably bright and attractive, she cordially expressed the hope that she would come to see her in London.
"We must know each other better, my dear Mrs. Medcroft," she had said amiably. Edith thought of the famous drawing-rooms in Mayfair and exulted vastly. "And Mr. Medcroft, too. I am so interested in men who have a craft. They always are worth while, really, don't you know. How like an American Mr. Medcroft is. I daresay he gets that from having lived so long with an American wife. And what a darling baby! She's wonderfully like Mr. Medcroft, don't you think? No one could mistake that child's father—never! And, my dear," leaning close with a whimsical air of confidence, "that's more than can be said of certain children I know of in very good families."
Edith may have gasped and looked wildly about in quest of help, but her agitation went unnoticed by the new friend. From that momentous hour Mrs. Medcroft encouraged an inordinate regard for the circumspect. She decided that it was best never to be alone with her husband; the future was now too precious to go unguarded for a single moment that might be unexplainable when the triumphal hour of revelation came to hand. She impressed this fact upon her sister, with the result that while Brock was never alone with his prudent wife, he was seldom far from the side of the adorable lieutenant. As if precociously providing for an ultimate alibi, the fickle Tootles began to show unmistakable signs of aversion for her temporary parent. Mrs. Rodney, being an old-fashioned mother, could not reconcile herself to this unfilial attitude, and gravely confided to her husband that she feared Medcroft was mistreating his child behind their backs.