THE LITTLE WARRIOR
Freddie Rooke gazed coldly at the breakfast-table. Through a gleaming eye-glass he inspected the revolting object which Parker, his faithful man, had placed on a plate before him.
"Parker!" His voice had a ring of pain.
"Poached egg, sir."
Freddie averted his eyes with a silent shudder.
"It looks just like an old aunt of mine," he said. "Remove it!"
He got up, and, wrapping his dressing-gown about his long legs, took up a stand in front of the fireplace. From this position he surveyed the room, his shoulders against the mantelpiece, his calves pressing the club-fender. It was a cheerful oasis in a chill and foggy world, a typical London bachelor's breakfast-room. The walls were a restful gray, and the table, set for two, a comfortable arrangement in white and silver.
"Eggs, Parker," said Freddie solemnly, "are the acid test!"
"If, on the morning after, you can tackle a poached egg, you are all right. If not, not. And don't let anybody tell you otherwise."
Freddie pressed the palm of his hand to his brow, and sighed.
"It would seem, then, that I must have revelled a trifle whole-heartedly last night. I was possibly a little blotto. Not whiffled, perhaps, but indisputably blotto. Did I make much noise coming in?"
"No, sir. You were very quiet."
"Ah! A dashed bad sign!"
Freddie moved to the table, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"The cream-jug is to your right, sir," said the helpful Parker.
"Let it remain there. Cafe noir for me this morning. As noir as it can jolly well stick!" Freddie retired to the fireplace and sipped delicately. "As far as I can remember, it was Ronny Devereux' birthday or something . . ."
"Mr Martyn's, I think you said, sir."
"That's right. Algy Martyn's birthday, and Ronny and I were the guests. It all comes back to me. I wanted Derek to roll along and join the festivities—he's never met Ronny—but he gave it a miss. Quite right! A chap in his position has responsibilities. Member of Parliament and all that. Besides," said Freddie earnestly, driving home the point with a wave of his spoon, "he's engaged to be married. You must remember that, Parker!"
"I will endeavor to, sir."
"Sometimes," said Freddie dreamily, "I wish I were engaged to be married. Sometimes I wish I had some sweet girl to watch over me and . . . No, I don't, by Jove! It would give me the utter pip! Is Sir Derek up yet, Parker?"
"Getting up, sir."
"See that everything is all right, will you? I mean as regards the foodstuffs and what not. I want him to make a good breakfast. He's got to meet his mother this morning at Charing Cross. She's legging it back from the Riviera."
Freddie shook his head.
"You wouldn't speak in that light, careless tone if you knew her! Well, you'll see her tonight. She's coming here to dinner."
"Miss Mariner will be here, too. A foursome. Tell Mrs Parker to pull up her socks and give us something pretty ripe. Soup, fish, all that sort of thing. She knows. And let's have a stoup of malvoisie from the oldest bin. This is a special occasion!"
"Her ladyship will be meeting Miss Mariner for the first time, sir?"
"You've put your finger on it! Absolutely the first time on this or any stage! We must all rally round and make the thing a success."
"I am sure Mrs Parker will strain every nerve, sir." Parker moved to the door, carrying the rejected egg, and stepped aside to allow a tall, well-built man of about thirty to enter. "Good morning, Sir Derek."
Parker slid softly from the room. Derek Underhill sat down at the table. He was a strikingly handsome man, with a strong, forceful face, dark, lean and cleanly shaven. He was one of those men whom a stranger would instinctively pick out of a crowd as worthy of note. His only defect was that his heavy eyebrows gave him at times an expression which was a little forbidding. Women, however, had never been repelled by it. He was very popular with women, not quite so popular with men—always excepting Freddie Rooke, who worshipped him. They had been at school together, though Freddie was the younger by several years.
"Finished, Freddie?" asked Derek.
Freddie smiled wanly,
"We are not breakfasting this morning," he replied. "The spirit was willing, but the jolly old flesh would have none of it. To be perfectly frank, the Last of the Rookes has a bit of a head."
"Ass!" said Derek.
"A bit of sympathy," said Freddie, pained, "would not be out of place. We are far from well. Some person unknown has put a threshing-machine inside the old bean and substituted a piece of brown paper for our tongue. Things look dark and yellow and wobbly!"
"You shouldn't have overdone it last night."
"It was Algy Martyn's birthday," pleaded Freddie.
"If I were an ass like Algy Martyn," said Derek, "I wouldn't go about advertising the fact that I'd been born. I'd hush it up!"
He helped himself to a plentiful portion of kedgeree, Freddie watching him with repulsion mingled with envy. When he began to eat, the spectacle became too poignant for the sufferer, and he wandered to the window.
"What a beast of a day!"
It was an appalling day. January, that grim month, was treating London with its usual severity. Early in the morning a bank of fog had rolled up off the river, and was deepening from pearly white to a lurid brown. It pressed on the window-pane like a blanket, leaving dark, damp rivulets on the glass.
"Awful!" said Derek.
"Your mater's train will be late."
"Yes. Damned nuisance. It's bad enough meeting trains in any case, without having to hang about a draughty station for an hour."
"And it's sure, I should imagine," went on Freddie, pursuing his train of thought, "to make the dear old thing pretty tolerably ratty, if she has one of those slow journeys." He pottered back to the fireplace, and rubbed his shoulders reflectively against the mantelpiece. "I take it that you wrote to her about Jill?"
"Of course. That's why she's coming over, I suppose. By the way, you got those seats for that theatre tonight?"
"Yes. Three together and one somewhere on the outskirts. If it's all the same to you, old thing, I'll have the one on the outskirts."
Derek, who had finished his kedgeree and was now making himself a blot on Freddie's horizon with toast and marmalade, laughed.
"What a rabbit you are, Freddie! Why on earth are you so afraid of mother?"
Freddie looked at him as a timid young squire might have gazed upon St. George when the latter set out to do battle with the dragon. He was of the amiable type which makes heroes of its friends. In the old days when he had fagged for him at Winchester he had thought Derek the most wonderful person in the world, and this view he still retained. Indeed, subsequent events had strengthened it. Derek had done the most amazing things since leaving school. He had had a brilliant career at Oxford, and now, in the House of Commons, was already looked upon by the leaders of his party as one to be watched and encouraged. He played polo superlatively well, and was a fine shot. But of all his gifts and qualities the one that extorted Freddie's admiration in its intensest form was his lion-like courage as exemplified by his behavior in the present crisis. There he sat, placidly eating toast and marmalade, while the boat-train containing Lady Underhill already sped on its way from Dover to London. It was like Drake playing bowls with the Spanish Armada in sight.
"I wish I had your nerve!" he said, awed. "What I should be feeling, if I were in your place and had to meet your mater after telling her that I was engaged to marry a girl she had never seen, I don't know. I'd rather face a wounded tiger!"
"Idiot!" said Derek placidly.
"Not," pursued Freddie, "that I mean to say anything in the least derogatory and so forth to your jolly old mater, if you understand me, but the fact remains she scares me pallid! Always has, ever since the first time I went to stay at your place when I was a kid. I can still remember catching her eye the morning I happened by pure chance to bung an apple through her bedroom window, meaning to let a cat on the sill below have it in the short ribs. She was at least thirty feet away, but, by Jove, it stopped me like a bullet!"
"Push the bell, old man, will you? I want some more toast."
Freddie did as he was requested with growing admiration.
"The condemned man made an excellent breakfast," he murmured. "More toast, Parker," he added, as that admirable servitor opened the door. "Gallant! That's what I call it. Gallant!"
Derek tilted his chair back.
"Mother is sure to like Jill when she sees her," he said.
"When she sees her! Ah! But the trouble is, young feller-me-lad, that she hasn't seen her! That's the weak spot in your case, old companion! A month ago she didn't know of Jill's existence. Now, you know and I know that Jill is one of the best and brightest. As far as we are concerned, everything in the good old garden is lovely. Why, dash it, Jill and I were children together. Sported side by side on the green, and what not. I remember Jill, when she was twelve, turning the garden-hose on me and knocking about seventy-five per cent off the market value of my best Sunday suit. That sort of thing forms a bond, you know, and I've always felt that she was a corker. But your mater's got to discover it for herself. It's a dashed pity, by Jove, that Jill hasn't a father or a mother or something of that species to rally round just now. They would form a gang. There's nothing like a gang! But she's only got that old uncle of hers. A rummy bird! Met him?"
"Several times. I like him."
"Oh, he's a genial old buck all right. A very bonhomous lad. But you hear some pretty queer stories about him if you get among people who knew him in the old days. Even now I'm not so dashed sure I should care to play cards with him. Young Threepwood was telling me only the other day that the old boy took thirty quid off him at picquet as clean as a whistle. And Jimmy Monroe, who's on the Stock Exchange, says he's frightfully busy these times buying margins or whatever it is chappies do down in the City. Margins. That's the word. Jimmy made me buy some myself on a thing called Amalgamated Dyes. I don't understand the procedure exactly, but Jimmy says it's a sound egg and will do me a bit of good. What was I talking about? Oh, yes, old Selby. There's no doubt he's quite a sportsman. But till you've got Jill well established, you know, I shouldn't enlarge on him too much with the mater."
"On the contrary," said Derek. "I shall mention him at the first opportunity. He knew my father out in India."
"Did he, by Jove! Oh, well, that makes a difference."
Parker entered with the toast, and Derek resumed his breakfast.
"It may be a little bit awkward," he said, "at first, meeting mother. But everything will be all right after five minutes."
"Absolutely! But, oh, boy! that first five minutes!" Freddie gazed portentously through his eye-glass. Then he seemed to be undergoing some internal struggle, for he gulped once or twice. "That first five minutes!" he said, and paused again. A moment's silent self-communion, and he went on with a rush. "I say, listen. Shall I come along, too?"
"To the station. With you."
"What on earth for?"
"To see you through the opening stages. Break the ice and all that sort of thing. Nothing like collecting a gang, you know. Moments when a feller needs a friend and so forth. Say the word, and I'll buzz along and lend my moral support."
Derek's heavy eyebrows closed together in an offended frown, and seemed to darken his whole face. This unsolicited offer of assistance hurt his dignity. He showed a touch of the petulance which came now and then when he was annoyed, to suggest that he might not possess so strong a character as his exterior indicated.
"It's very kind of you," he began stiffly.
Freddie nodded. He was acutely conscious of this himself.
"Some fellows," he observed, "would say 'Not at all!' I suppose. But not the Last of the Rookes! For, honestly, old man, between ourselves, I don't mind admitting that this is the bravest deed of the year, and I'm dashed if I would do it for anyone else."
"It's very good of you, Freddie . . ."
"That's all right. I'm a Boy Scout, and this is my act of kindness for today."
Derek got up from the table.
"Of course you mustn't come," he said. "We can't form a sort of debating society to discuss Jill on the platform at Charing Cross."
"Oh, I would just hang around in the offing, shoving in an occasional tactful word."
"The wheeze would simply be to . . ."
"Oh, very well," said Freddie, damped. "Just as you say, of course. But there's nothing like a gang, old man, nothing like a gang!"
Derek Underhill threw down the stump of his cigar, and grunted irritably. Inside Charing Cross Station business was proceeding as usual. Porters wheeling baggage-trucks moved to and fro like Juggernauts. Belated trains clanked in, glad to get home, while others, less fortunate, crept reluctantly out through the blackness and disappeared into an inferno of detonating fog-signals. For outside the fog still held. The air was cold and raw and tasted coppery. In the street traffic moved at a funeral pace, to the accompaniment of hoarse cries and occasional crashes. Once the sun had worked its way through the murk and had hung in the sky like a great red orange, but now all was darkness and discomfort again, blended with that odd suggestion of mystery and romance which is a London fog's only redeeming quality.
It seemed to Derek that he had been patrolling the platform for a life-time, but he resumed his sentinel duty. The fact that the boat-train, being already forty-five minutes overdue, might arrive at any moment made it imperative that he remain where he was instead of sitting, as he would much have preferred to sit, in one of the waiting-rooms. It would be a disaster if his mother should get out of the train and not find him there to meet her. That was just the sort of thing which would infuriate her; and her mood, after a Channel crossing and a dreary journey by rail, would be sufficiently dangerous as it was.
The fog and the waiting had had their effect upon Derek. The resolute front he had exhibited to Freddie at the breakfast-table had melted since his arrival at the station, and he was feeling nervous at the prospect of the meeting that lay before him. Calm as he had appeared to the eye of Freddie and bravely as he had spoken, Derek, in the recesses of his heart, was afraid of his mother. There are men—and Derek Underhill was one of them—who never wholly emerge from the nursery. They may put away childish things and rise in the world to affluence and success, but the hand that rocked their cradle still rules their lives. As a boy, Derek had always been firmly controlled by his mother, and the sway of her aggressive personality had endured through manhood. Lady Underhill was a born ruler, dominating most of the people with whom life brought her in contact. Distant cousins quaked at her name, while among the male portion of her nearer relatives she was generally alluded to as The Family Curse.
Now that his meeting with her might occur at any moment, Derek shrank from it. It was not likely to be a pleasant one. The mere fact that Lady Underhill was coming to London at all made that improbable. When a man writes to inform his mother, who is wintering on the Riviera, that he has become engaged to be married, the natural course for her to pursue, if she approves of the step, is to wire her congratulations and good wishes. When for these she substitutes a curt announcement that she is returning immediately, a certain lack of complaisance seems to be indicated.
Would his mother approve of Jill? That was the question which he had been asking himself over and over again as he paced the platform in the disheartening fog. Nothing had been said, nothing had even been hinted, but he was perfectly aware that his marriage was a matter regarding which Lady Underhill had always assumed that she was to be consulted, even if she did not, as he suspected, claim the right to dictate. And he had become engaged quite suddenly, without a word to her until it was all over and settled.
That, as Freddie had pointed out, was the confoundedly awkward part of it. His engagement had been so sudden. Jill had swept into his life like a comet. His mother knew nothing of her. A month ago he had known nothing of her himself. It would, he perceived, as far as the benevolent approval of Lady Underhill was concerned, have been an altogether different matter had his choice fallen upon one of those damsels whose characters, personality, and ancestry she knew. Daughters of solid and useful men; sisters of rising young politicians like himself; nieces of Burke's peerage; he could have introduced without embarrassment one of these in the role of bride-elect. But Jill . . . Oh, well, when once his mother had met Jill, everything was sure to be all right. Nobody could resist Jill. It would be like resisting the sunshine.
Somewhat comforted by this reflection, Derek turned to begin one more walk along the platform, and stopped in mid-stride, raging. Beaming over the collar of a plaid greatcoat, all helpfulness and devotion, Freddie Rooke was advancing towards him, the friend that sticketh closer than a brother. Like some loving dog, who, ordered home, sneaks softly on through alleys and by-ways, peeping round corners and crouching behind lamp-posts, the faithful Freddie had followed him after all. And with him, to add the last touch to Derek's discomfiture, were those two inseparable allies of his, Ronny Devereux and Algy Martyn.
"Well, old thing," said Freddie, patting Derek encouragingly on the shoulder, "here we are after all! I know you told me not to roil round and so forth, but I knew you didn't mean it. I thought it over after you had left, and decided it would be a rotten trick not to cluster about you in your hour of need. I hope you don't mind Ronny and Algy breezing along, too. The fact is, I was in the deuce of a funk—your jolly old mater always rather paralyzes my nerve-centers, you know—so I roped them in. Met 'em in Piccadilly, groping about for the club, and conscripted 'em both, they very decently consenting. We all toddled off and had a pick-me-up at that chemist chappie's at the top of the Hay-market, and now we're feeling full of beans and buck, ready for anything. I've explained the whole thing to them, and they're with you to the death! Collect a gang, dear boy, collect a gang! That's the motto. There's nothing like it!"
"Nothing!" said Ronny.
"Absolutely nothing!" said Algy.
"We'll just see you through the opening stages," said Freddie, "and then leg it. We'll keep the conversation general, you know."
"Stop it getting into painful channels," said Ronny.
"Steer it clear," said Algy, "of the touchy topic."
"That's the wheeze," said Freddie. "We'll . . . Oh, golly! There's the train coming in now!" His voice quavered, for not even the comforting presence of his two allies could altogether sustain him in this ordeal. But he pulled himself together with a manful effort. "Stick it, old beans!" he said doughtily. "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party!"
"We're here!" said Ronny Devereux.
"On the spot!" said Algy Martyn.
The boat-train slid into the station. Bells rang, engines blew off steam, porters shouted, baggage-trucks rattled over the platform. The train began to give up its contents, now in ones and twos, now in a steady stream. Most of the travellers seemed limp and exhausted, and were pale with the pallor that comes of a choppy Channel crossing. Almost the only exception to the general condition of collapse was the eagle-faced lady in the brown ulster, who had taken up her stand in the middle of the platform and was haranguing a subdued little maid in a voice that cut the gloomy air like a steel knife. Like the other travellers, she was pale, but she bore up resolutely. No one could have told from Lady Underhill's demeanor that the solid platform seemed to heave beneath her feet like a deck.
"Have you got a porter, Ferris? Where is he, then? Ah! Have you got all the bags? My jewel-case? The suit-case? The small brown bag? The rugs? Where are the rugs?
"Yes, I can see them, my good girl. There is no need to brandish them in my face. Keep the jewel-case and give the rest of the things to the porter, and take him to look after the trunks. You remember which they are? The steamer trunk, the other trunk, the black box . . . Very well. Then make haste. And, when you've got them all together, tell the porter to find you a four-wheeler. The small things will go inside. Drive to the Savoy and ask for my suite. If they make any difficulty, tell them that I engaged the rooms yesterday by telegraph from Mentone. Do you understand?"
"Then go along. Oh, and give the porter sixpence. Sixpence is ample."
The little maid, grasping the jewel-case, trotted off beside the now pessimistic porter, who had started on this job under the impression that there was at least a bob's-worth in it. The remark about the sixpence had jarred the porter's faith in his species.
Derek approached, acutely conscious of Freddie, Ronny, and Algy, who were skirmishing about his flank. He had enough to worry him without them. He had listened with growing apprehension to the catalogue of his mother's possessions. Plainly this was no flying visit. You do not pop over to London for a day or two with a steamer trunk, another trunk, a black box, a suit-case, and a small brown bag. Lady Underhill had evidently come prepared to stay; and the fact seemed to presage trouble.
"Well, mother! So there you are at last!"
Derek kissed his mother. Freddie, Ronny, and Algy shuffled closer, like leopards. Freddie, with the expression of one who leads a forlorn hope, moved his Adam's apple briskly up and down several times, and spoke.
"How do you do, Lady Underhill?"
"How do you do, Mr Rooke?"
Lady Underhill bowed stiffly and without pleasure. She was not fond of the Last of the Rookes. She supposed the Almighty had had some wise purpose in creating Freddie, but it had always been inscrutable to her.
"Like you," mumbled Freddie, "to meet my friends. Lady Underhill. Mr Devereux."
"Charmed," said Ronny affably.
"Delighted," said Algy with old-world courtesy.
Lady Underhill regarded this mob-scene with an eye of ice.
"How do you do?" she said. "Have you come to meet somebody?"
"I-er-we-er-why-er—" This woman always made Freddie feel as if he were being disembowelled by some clumsy amateur. He wished that he had defied the dictates of his better nature and remained in his snug rooms at the Albany, allowing Derek to go through this business by himself. "I-er-we-er-came to meet you, don't you know!"
"Indeed! That was very kind of you!"
"Oh, not at all."
"Thought we'd welcome you back to the old homestead," said Ronny, beaming.
"What could be sweeter?" said Algy. He produced a cigar-case, and extracted a formidable torpedo-shaped Havana. He was feeling delightfully at his ease, and couldn't understand why Freddie had made such a fuss about meeting this nice old lady. "Don't mind if I smoke, do you? Air's a bit raw today. Gets into the lungs."
Derek chafed impotently. These unsought allies were making a difficult situation a thousand times worse. A more acute observer than young Mr Martyn, he noted the tight lines about his mother's mouth and knew them for the danger-signal they were. Endeavoring to distract her with light conversation, he selected a subject which was a little unfortunate.
"What sort of crossing did you have, mother?"
Lady Underhill winced. A current of air had sent the perfume of Algy's cigar playing about her nostrils. She closed her eyes, and her face turned a shade paler. Freddie, observing this, felt quite sorry for the poor old thing. She was a pest and a pot of poison, of course, but all the same, he reflected charitably, it was a shame that she should look so green about the gills. He came to the conclusion that she must be hungry. The thing to do was to take her mind off it till she could be conducted to a restaurant and dumped down in front of a bowl of soup.
"Bit choppy, I suppose, what?" he bellowed, in a voice that ran up and down Lady Underhill's nervous system like an electric needle. "I was afraid you were going to have a pretty rough time of it when I read the forecast in the paper. The good old boat wobbled a bit, eh?"
Lady Underhill uttered a faint moan. Freddie noticed that she was looking deucedly chippy, even chippier than a moment ago.
"It's an extraordinary thing about that Channel crossing," said Algy Martyn meditatively, as he puffed a refreshing cloud. "I've known fellows who could travel quite happily everywhere else in the world—round the Horn in sailing-ships and all that sort of thing—yield up their immortal soul crossing the Channel! Absolutely yield up their immortal soul! Don't know why. Rummy, but there it is!"
"I'm like that myself," assented Ronny Devereux. "That dashed trip from Calais gets me every time. Bowls me right over. I go aboard, stoked to the eyebrows with seasick remedies, swearing that this time I'll fool 'em, but down I go ten minutes after we've started and the next thing I know is somebody saying, 'Well, well! So this is Dover!'"
"It's exactly the same with me," said Freddie, delighted with the smooth, easy way the conversation was flowing. "Whether it's the hot, greasy smell of the engines . . ."
"It's not the engines," contended Ronny Devereux.
"Stands to reason it can't be. I rather like the smell of engines. This station is reeking with the smell of engine-grease, and I can drink it in and enjoy it." He sniffed luxuriantly. "It's something else."
"Ronny's right," said Algy cordially. "It isn't the engines. It's the way the boat heaves up and down and up and down and up and down . . ." He shifted his cigar to his left hand in order to give with his right a spirited illustration of a Channel steamer going up and down and up and down and up and down. Lady Underhill, who had opened her eyes, had an excellent view of the performance, and closed her eyes again quickly.
"Be quiet!" she snapped.
"I was only saying . . ."
Lady Underhill wrestled with herself. She was a woman of great will-power and accustomed to triumph over the weaknesses of the flesh. After awhile her eyes opened. She had forced herself, against the evidence of her senses, to recognize that this was a platform on which she stood and not a deck.
There was a pause. Algy, damped, was temporarily out of action, and his friends had for the moment nothing to remark.
"I'm afraid you had a trying journey, mother," said Derek. "The train was very late."
"Now, train-sickness," said Algy, coming to the surface again, "is a thing lots of people suffer from. Never could understand it myself."
"I've never had a touch of train-sickness," said Ronny.
"Oh, I have," said Freddie. "I've often felt rotten on a train. I get floating spots in front of my eyes and a sort of heaving sensation, and everything kind of goes black . . ."
"I should be greatly obliged if you would keep these confidences for the ear of your medical adviser."
"Freddie," intervened Derek hastily, "my mother's rather tired. Do you think you could be going ahead and getting a taxi?"
"My dear old chap, of course! Get you one in a second. Come along, Algy. Pick up the old waukeesis, Ronny."
And Freddie, accompanied by his henchmen, ambled off, well pleased with himself. He had, he felt, helped to break the ice for Derek and had seen him safely through those awkward opening stages. Now he could totter off with a light heart and get a bite of lunch.
Lady Underhill's eyes glittered. They were small, keen, black eyes, unlike Derek's, which were large and brown. In their other features the two were obviously mother and son. Each had the same long upper lip, the same thin, firm mouth, the prominent chin which was a family characteristic of the Underhills, and the jutting Underhill nose. Most of the Underhills came into the world looking as though they meant to drive their way through life like a wedge.
"A little more," she said tensely, "and I should have struck those unspeakable young men with my umbrella. One of the things I have never been able to understand, Derek, is why you should have selected that imbecile Rooke as your closest friend."
Derek smiled tolerantly.
"It was more a case of him selecting me. But Freddie is quite a good fellow really. He's a man you've got to know."
"I have not got to know him, and I thank heaven for it!"
"He's a very good-natured fellow. It was decent of him to put me up at the Albany while our house was let. By the way, he has some seats for the first night of a new piece this evening. He suggested that we might all dine at the Albany and go on to the theatre." He hesitated a moment. "Jill will be there," he said, and felt easier now that her name had at last come into the talk. "She's longing to meet you."
"Then why didn't she meet me?"
"Here, do you mean? At the station? Well, I—I wanted you to see her for the first time in pleasanter surroundings."
"Oh!" said Lady Underhill shortly.
It is a disturbing thought that we suffer in this world just as much by being prudent and taking precautions as we do by being rash and impulsive and acting as the spirit moves us. If Jill had been permitted by her wary fianc to come with him to the station to meet his mother, it is certain that much trouble would have been avoided. True, Lady Underhill would probably have been rude to her in the opening stages of the interview, but she would not have been alarmed and suspicious; or, rather, the vague suspicion which she had been feeling would not have solidified, as, it did now, into definite certainty of the worst. All that Derek had effected by his careful diplomacy had been to convince his mother that he considered his bride-elect something to be broken gently to her.
She stopped and faced him.
"Who is she?" she demanded. "Who is this girl?"
"I thought I made everything clear in my letter."
"You made nothing clear at all."
"By your leave!" chanted a porter behind them, and a baggage-truck clove them apart.
"We can't talk in a crowded station," said Derek irritably. "Let me get you to the taxi and take you to the hotel. . . . What do you want to know about Jill?"
"Everything. Where does she come from? Who are her people? I don't know any Mariners."
"I haven't cross-examined her," said Derek stiffly. "But I do know that her parents are dead. Her father was an American."
"Americans frequently have daughters, I believe."
"There is nothing to be gained by losing your temper," said Lady Underhill with steely calm.
"There is nothing to be gained, as far as I can see, by all this talk," retorted Derek. He wondered vexedly why his mother always had this power of making him lose control of himself. He hated to lose control of himself. It upset him, and blurred that vision which he liked to have of himself as a calm, important man superior to ordinary weaknesses. "Jill and I are engaged, and there is an end of it."
"Don't be a fool," said Lady Underhill, and was driven away by another baggage-truck. "You know perfectly well," she resumed, returning to the attack, "that your marriage is a matter of the greatest concern to me and to the whole of the family."
"Listen, mother!" Derek's long wait on the draughty platform had generated an irritability which overcame the deep-seated awe of his mother which was the result of years of defeat in battles of the will. "Let me tell you in a few words all that I know of Jill, and then we'll drop the subject. In the first place, she is a lady. Secondly, she has plenty of money . . ."
"The Underhills do not need to marry for money."
"I am not marrying for money!"
"Well, go on."
"I have already described to you in my letter—very inadequately, but I did my best—what she looks like. Her sweetness, her loveableness, all the subtle things about her which go to make her what she is, you will have to judge for yourself."
"I intend to!"
"Well, that's all, then. She lives with her uncle, a Major Selby . . ."
"Major Selby? What regiment?"
"I didn't ask him," snapped the goaded Derek. "And, in the name of heaven, what does it matter?"
"Not the Guards?"
"I tell you I don't know."
"Probably a line regiment," said Lady Underhill with an indescribable sniff.
"Possibly. What then?" He paused, to play his trump card. "If you are worrying about Major Selby's social standing, I may as well tell you that he used to know father."
"What! When? Where?"
"Years ago. In India, when father was at Simla."
"Selby? Selby? Not Christopher Selby?"
"Oh, you remember him?"
"I certainly remember him! Not that he and I ever met, but your father often spoke of him."
Derek was relieved. It was abominable that this sort of thing should matter, but one had to face facts, and, as far as his mother was concerned, it did. The fact that Jill's uncle had known his dead father would make all the difference to Lady Underhill.
"Christopher Selby!" said Lady Underhill reflectively. "Yes! I have often heard your father speak of him. He was the man who gave your father an I.O.U. to pay a card debt, and redeemed it with a check which was returned by the bank!"
"Didn't you hear what I said? I will repeat it, if you wish."
"There must have been some mistake."
"Only the one your father made when he trusted the man."
"It must have been some other fellow."
"Of course!" said Lady Underhill satirically. "No doubt your father knew hundreds of Christopher Selbys!"
Derek bit his lip.
"Well, after all," he said doggedly, "whether it's true or not . . ."
"I see no reason why your father should not have spoken the truth."
"All right. We'll say it is true, then. But what does it matter? I am marrying Jill, not her uncle."
"Nevertheless, it would be pleasanter if her only living relative were not a swindler! . . . Tell me, where and how did you meet this girl?"
"I should be glad if you would not refer to her as 'this girl.' The name, if you have forgotten it, is Mariner."
"Well, where did you meet Miss Mariner?"
"Skating-rink," said Derek impatiently. "Just after you left for Mentone. Freddie Rooke introduced me."
"Oh, your intellectual friend Mr Rooke knows her?"
"They were children together. Her people lived next to the Rookes in Worcestershire."
"I thought you said she was an American."
"I said her father was. He settled in England. Jill hasn't been in America since she was eight or nine."
"The fact," said Lady Underhill, "that the girl is a friend of Mr Rooke is no great recommendation."
Derek kicked angrily at a box of matches which someone had thrown down on the platform.
"I wonder if you could possibly get it into your head, mother, that I want to marry Jill, not engage her as an under-housemaid. I don't consider that she requires recommendations, as you call them. However, don't you think the most sensible thing is for you to wait till you meet her at dinner tonight, and then you can form your own opinion? I'm beginning to get a little bored with this futile discussion."
"As you seem quite unable to talk on the subject of this girl without becoming rude," said Lady Underhill, "I agree with you. Let us hope that my first impression will be a favorable one. Experience has taught me that first impressions are everything."
"I'm glad you think so," said Derek, "for I fell in love with Jill the very first moment I saw her!"
Parker stepped back, and surveyed with modest pride the dinner-table to which he had been putting the finishing touches. It was an artistic job and a credit to him.
"That's that!" said Parker, satisfied.
He went to the window and looked out. The fog which had lasted well into the evening, had vanished now, and the clear night was bright with stars. A distant murmur of traffic came from the direction of Piccadilly.
As he stood there, the front-door bell rang, and continued to ring in little spurts of sound. If character can be deduced from bell-ringing, as nowadays it apparently can be from every other form of human activity, one might have hazarded the guess that whoever was on the other side of the door was determined, impetuous, and energetic.
Freddie Rooke pushed a tousled head, which had yet to be brushed into the smooth sleekness that made it a delight to the public eye, out of a room down the passage.
"I heard, sir. I was about to answer the bell."
"If it's Lady Underhill, tell her I'll be in in a minute."
"I fancy it is Miss Mariner, sir. I think I recognise her touch."
He made his way down the passage to the front-door, and opened it. A girl was standing outside. She wore a long gray fur coat, and a filmy gray hood covered her hair. As Parker opened the door, she scampered in like a gray kitten.
"Brrh! It's cold!" she exclaimed. "Hullo, Parker!"
"Good evening, miss."
"Am I the last or the first or what?"
Parker moved to help her with her cloak.
"Sir Derek and her ladyship have not yet arrived, miss. Sir Derek went to bring her ladyship from the Savoy Hotel. Mr Rooke is dressing in his bedroom and will be ready very shortly."
The girl had slipped out of the fur coat, and Parker cast a swift glance of approval at her. He had the valet's unerring eye for a thoroughbred, and Jill Mariner was manifestly that. It showed in her walk, in every move of her small, active body, in the way she looked at you, in the way she talked to you, in the little tilt of her resolute chin. Her hair was pale gold, and had the brightness of coloring of a child's. Her face glowed, and her gray eyes sparkled. She looked very much alive.
It was this aliveness of hers that was her chief charm. Her eyes were good and her mouth, with its small, even, teeth, attractive, but she would have laughed if anybody had called her beautiful. She sometimes doubted if she were even pretty. Yet few men had met her and remained entirely undisturbed. She had a magnetism. One hapless youth, who had laid his heart at her feet and had been commanded to pick it up again, had endeavored subsequently to explain her attraction (to a bosom friend over a mournful bottle of the best in the club smoking-room) in these words: "I don't know what it is about her, old man, but she somehow makes a feller feel she's so damned interested in a chap, if you know what I mean." And, though not generally credited in his circle with any great acuteness, there is no doubt that the speaker had achieved something approaching a true analysis of Jill's fascination for his sex. She was interested in everything Life presented to her notice, from a Coronation to a stray cat. She was vivid. She had sympathy. She listened to you as though you really mattered. It takes a man of tough fibre to resist these qualities. Women, on the other hand, especially of the Lady Underhill type, can resist them without an effort.
"Go and stir him up," said Jill, alluding to the absent Mr Rooke. "Tell him to come and talk to me. Where's the nearest fire? I want to get right over it and huddle."
"The fire's burning nicely in the sitting-room, miss."
Jill hurried into the sitting-room, and increased her hold on Parker's esteem by exclaiming rapturously at the sight that greeted her. Parker had expended time and trouble over the sitting-room. There was no dust, no untidiness. The pictures all hung straight; the cushions were smooth and unrumpled; and a fire of exactly the right dimensions burned cheerfully in the grate, flickering cosily on the small piano by the couch, on the deep leather arm-chairs which Freddie had brought with him from Oxford, that home of comfortable chairs, and on the photographs that studded the walls. In the center of the mantelpiece, the place of honor, was the photograph of herself which she had given Derek a week ago.
"You're simply wonderful, Parker! I don't see how you manage to make a room so cosy!" Jill sat down on the club-fender that guarded the fireplace, and held her hands over the blaze. "I can't understand why men ever marry. Fancy having to give up all this!"
"I am gratified that you appreciate it, miss. I did my best to make it comfortable for you. I fancy I hear Mr Rooke coming now."
"I hope the others won't be long. I'm starving. Has Mrs Parker got something very good for dinner?"
"She has strained every nerve, miss."
"Then I'm sure it's worth waiting for. Hullo, Freddie."
Freddie Rooke, resplendent in evening dress, bustled in, patting his tie with solicitous fingers. It had been right when he had looked in the glass in his bedroom, but you never know about ties. Sometimes they stay right, sometimes they wiggle up sideways. Life is full of these anxieties.
"I shouldn't touch it," said Jill. "It looks beautiful, and, if I may say so in confidence, is having a most disturbing effect on my emotional nature. I'm not at all sure I shall be able to resist it right through the evening. It isn't fair of you to try to alienate the affections of an engaged young person like this."
Freddie squinted down, and became calmer.
"Hullo, Jill, old thing. Nobody here yet?"
"Well, I'm here,—the petite figure seated on the fender. But perhaps I don't count."
"Oh, I didn't mean that, you know."
"I should hope not, when I've bought a special new dress just to fascinate you. A creation I mean. When they cost as much as this one did, you have to call them names. What do you think of it?"
Freddie seated himself on another section of the fender, and regarded her with the eye of an expert. A snappy dresser, as the technical term is, himself, he appreciated snap in the outer covering of the other sex.
"Topping!" he said spaciously. "No other word for it! All wool and a yard wide! Precisely as mother makes it! You look like a thingummy."
"How splendid! All my life I've wanted to look like a thingummy, but somehow I've never been able to manage it."
"A wood-nymph!" exclaimed Freddie, in a burst of unwonted imagery.
"Wood-nymphs didn't wear creations."
"Well, you know what I mean!" He looked at her with honest admiration. "Dash it, Jill, you know, there's something about you! You're—what's the word?—you've got such small bones!"
"Ugh! I suppose it's a compliment, but how horrible it sounds! It makes me feel like a skeleton."
"I mean to say, you're—you're dainty!"
"That's much better."
"You look as if you weighed about an ounce and a half! You look like a bit of thistledown! You're a little fairy princess, dash it!"
"Freddie! This is eloquence!" Jill raised her left hand, and twiddled a ringed finger ostentatiously. "Er—you do realize that I'm bespoke, don't you, and that my heart, alas, is another's? Because you sound as if you were going to propose."
Freddie produced a snowy handkerchief, and polished his eye-glass. Solemnity descended on him like a cloud. He looked at Jill with an earnest, paternal gaze.
"That reminds me," he said. "I wanted to have, a bit of a talk with you about that—being engaged and all that sort of thing. I'm glad I got you alone before the Curse arrived."
"Curse? Do you mean Derek's mother? That sounds cheerful and encouraging."
"Well, she is, you know," said Freddie earnestly. "She's a bird! It would be idle to deny it. She always puts the fear of God into me. I never know what to say to her."
"Why don't you try asking her riddles?"
"It's no joking matter," persisted Freddie, his amiable face overcast. "Wait till you meet her! You should have seen her at the station this morning. You don't know what you're up against!"
"You make my flesh creep, Freddie. What am I up against?"
Freddie poked the fire scientifically, and assisted it with coal.
"It's this way," he said. "Of course, dear old Derek's the finest chap in the world."
"I know that," said Jill softly. She patted Freddie's hand with a little gesture of gratitude. Freddie's devotion to Derek was a thing that always touched her. She looked thoughtfully into the fire, and her eyes seemed to glow in sympathy with the glowing coals. "There's nobody like him!"
"But," continued Freddie, "he always has been frightfully under his mother's thumb, you know."
Jill was conscious of a little flicker of irritation.
"Don't be absurd, Freddie. How could a man like Derek be under anybody's thumb?"
"Well, you know what I mean!"
"I don't in the least know what you mean."
"I mean, it would be rather rotten if his mother set him against you."
Jill clenched her teeth. The quick temper which always lurked so very little beneath the surface of her cheerfulness was stirred. She felt suddenly chilled and miserable. She tried to tell herself that Freddie was just an amiable blunderer who spoke without sense or reason, but it was no use. She could not rid herself of a feeling of foreboding and discomfort. It had been the one jarring note in the sweet melody of her love-story, this apprehension of Derek's regarding his mother. The Derek she loved was a strong man, with a strong man's contempt for other people's criticism; and there had been something ignoble and fussy in his attitude regarding Lady Underhill. She had tried to feel that the flaw in her idol did not exist. And here was Freddie Rooke, a man who admired Derek with all his hero-worshipping nature, pointing it out independently. She was annoyed, and she expended her annoyance, as women will do, upon the innocent bystander.
"Do you remember the time I turned the hose on you, Freddie," she said, rising from the fender, "years ago, when we were children, when you and that awful Mason boy—what was his name? Wally Mason—teased me?" She looked at the unhappy Freddie with a hostile eye. It was his blundering words that had spoiled everything. "I've forgotten what it was all about, but I know that you and Wally infuriated me and I turned the garden hose on you and soaked you both to the skin. Well, all I want to point out is that, if you go on talking nonsense about Derek and his mother and me, I shall ask Parker to bring me a jug of water, and I shall empty it over you! Set him against me! You talk as if love were a thing any third party could come along and turn off with a tap! Do you suppose that, when two people love each other as Derek and I do, that it can possibly matter in the least what anybody else thinks or says, even if it is his mother? I haven't got a mother, but suppose Uncle Chris came and warned me against Derek . . ."
Her anger suddenly left her as quickly as it had come. That was always the way with Jill. One moment later she would be raging; the next, something would tickle her sense of humor and restore her instantly to cheerfulness. And the thought of dear, lazy old Uncle Chris taking the trouble to warn anybody against anything except the wrong brand of wine or an inferior make of cigar conjured up a picture before which wrath melted away. She chuckled, and Freddie, who had been wilting on the fender, perked up.
"You're an extraordinary girl, Jill! One never knows when you're going to get the wind up."
"Isn't it enough to make me get the wind up, as you call it, when you say absurd things like that?"
"I meant well, old girl!"
"That's the trouble with you. You always do mean well. You go about the world meaning well till people fly to put themselves under police protection. Besides, what on earth could Lady Underhill find to object to in me? I've plenty of money, and I'm one of the most charming and attractive of Society belles. You needn't take my word for that, and I don't suppose you've noticed it, but that's what Mr Gossip in the Morning Mirror called me when he was writing about my getting engaged to Derek. My maid showed me the clipping. There was quite a long paragraph, with a picture of me that looked like a Zulu chieftainess taken in a coal-cellar during a bad fog. Well, after that, what could anyone say against me? I'm a perfect prize! I expect Lady Underhill screamed with joy when she heard the news and went singing all over her Riviera villa."
"Yes," said Freddie dubiously. "Yes, yes, oh, quite so, rather!"
Jill looked at him sternly.
"Freddie, you're concealing something from me! You don't think I'm a charming and attractive Society belle! Tell me why not and I'll show you where you are wrong. Is it my face you object to, or my manners, or my figure? There was a young bride of Antigua, who said to her mate, 'What a pig you are!' Said he, 'Oh, my queen, is it manners you mean, or do you allude to my fig-u-ar?' Isn't my figuar all right, Freddie?"
"Oh, I think you're topping."
"But for some reason you're afraid that Derek's mother won't think so. Why won't Lady Underhill agree with Mr Gossip?"
"Well, it's like this. Remember I've known the old devil . . ."
"Freddie Rooke! Where do you pick up such expressions? Not from me!"
"Well, that's how I always think of her! I say I've known her ever since I used to go and stop at their place when I was at school, and I know exactly the sort of things that put her back up. She's a what-d'you-call-it."
"I see no harm in that. Why shouldn't the dear old lady be a what-d'you-call-it? She must do something in her spare time."
"I mean to say, one of the old school, don't you know. And you're so dashed impulsive, old girl. You know you are! You are always saying things that come into your head."
"You can't say a thing unless it comes into your head."
"You know what I mean," Freddie went on earnestly, not to be diverted from his theme. "You say rummy things and you do rummy things. What I mean to say is, you're impulsive."
"What have I ever done that the sternest critic could call rummy?"
"Well, I've seen you with my own eyes stop in the middle of Bond Street and help a lot of fellows shove along a cart that had got stuck. Mind you, I'm not blaming you for it . . ."
"I should hope not. The poor old horse was trying all he knew to get going, and he couldn't quite make it. Naturally, I helped."
"Oh, I know. Very decent and all that, but I doubt if Lady Underhill would have thought a lot of it. And you're so dashed chummy with the lower orders."
"Don't be a snob, Freddie."
"I'm not a snob," protested Freddie, wounded. "When I'm alone with Parker—for instance—I'm as chatty as dammit. But I don't ask waiters in public restaurants how their lumbago is."
"Have you ever had lumbago?"
"Well, it's a very painful thing, and waiters get it just as badly as dukes. Worse, I should think, because they're always bending and stooping and carrying things. Naturally one feels sorry for them."
"But how do you ever find out that a waiter has got lumbago?"
"I ask him; of course."
"Well, for goodness sake," said Freddie, "if you feel the impulse to do that sort of thing tonight, try and restrain it. I mean to say, if you're curious to know anything about Parker's chilblains, for instance, don't enquire after them while he's handing Lady Underhill the potatoes! She wouldn't like it."
Jill uttered an exclamation.
"I knew there was something! Being so cold and wanting to rush in and crouch over a fire put it clean out of my head. He must be thinking me a perfect beast!" She ran to the door. "Parker! Parker!"
Parker appeared from nowhere.
"I'm so sorry I forgot to ask before. How are your chilblains?"
"A good deal better, miss, thank you."
"Did you try the stuff I recommended?"
"Yes, miss. It did them a world of good."
Jill went back into the sitting-room.
"It's all right," she said reassuringly. "They're better."
She wandered restlessly about the room, looking at the photographs.
"What a lot of girls you seem to know, Freddie. Are these all the ones you've loved and lost?" She sat down at the piano and touched the keys. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the half hour. "I wish to goodness they would arrive," she said.
"They'll be here pretty soon, I expect."
"It's rather awful," said Jill, "to think of Lady Underhill racing all the way from Mentone to Paris and from Paris to Calais and from Calais to Dover and from Dover to London simply to inspect me. You can't wonder I'm nervous, Freddie."
The eye-glass dropped from Freddie's eye.
"Are you nervous?" he asked, astonished.
"Of course I'm nervous. Wouldn't you be in my place?"
"Well, I should never have thought it."
"Why do you suppose I've been talking such a lot? Why do you imagine I snapped your poor, innocent head off just now? I'm terrified inside, terrified!"
"You don't look it, by Jove!"
"No, I'm trying to be a little warrior. That's what Uncle Chris always used to call me. It started the day when he took me to have a tooth out, when I was ten. 'Be a little warrior, Jill!' he kept saying—'Be a little warrior!' And I was." She looked at the clock. "But I shan't be if they don't get here soon. The suspense is awful." She strummed the keys. "Suppose she doesn't like me, Freddie! You see how you've scared me."
"I didn't say she wouldn't. I only said you'd got to watch out a bit."
"Something tells me she won't. My nerve is oozing out of me." Jill shook her head impatiently. "It's all so vulgar! I thought this sort of thing only happened in the comic papers and in music-hall songs. Why, it's just like that song somebody used to sing." She laughed. "Do you remember? I don't know how the verse went, but . . .
John took me round to see his mother, his mother, his mother! And when he'd introduced us to each other, She sized up everything that I had on. She put me through a cross-examination: I fairly boiled with aggravation: Then she shook her head, Looked at me and said: 'Poor John! Poor John!'
"Chorus, Freddie! Let's cheer ourselves up! We need it!"
'John took me round to see his mother . . . !
"His mo-o-o-other!" croaked Freddie. Curiously enough, this ballad was one of Freddie's favorites. He had rendered it with a good deal of success on three separate occasions at village entertainments down in Worcestershire, and he rather flattered himself that he could get about as much out of it as the next man. He proceeded to abet Jill heartily with gruff sounds which he was under the impression constituted what is known in musical circles as "singing seconds."
"His mo-o-o-other!" he growled with frightful scorn.
"And when she'd introduced us to each other . . ."
"She sized up everything that I had on!"
"She put me through a cross-examination . . ."
Jill had thrown her head back, and was singing jubilantly at the top of her voice. The appositeness of the song had cheered her up. It seemed somehow to make her forebodings rather ridiculous, to reduce them to absurdity, to turn into farce the gathering tragedy which had been weighing upon her nerves.
"Then she shook her head, Looked at me and said: 'Poor John!' . . ."
"Jill," said a voice at the door. "I want you to meet my mother!"
"Poo-oo-oor John!" bleated the hapless Freddie, unable to check himself.
"Dinner," said Parker the valet, appearing at the door and breaking a silence that seemed to fill the room like a tangible presence, "is served!"
The front-door closed softly behind the theatre-party. Dinner was over, and Parker had just been assisting the expedition out of the place. Sensitive to atmosphere, he had found his share in the dinner a little trying. It had been a strained meal, and what he liked was a clatter of conversation and everybody having a good time and enjoying themselves.
"Ellen!" called Parker, as he proceeded down the passage to the empty dining-room. "Ellen!"
Mrs Parker appeared out of the kitchen, wiping her hands. Her work for the evening, like her husband's, was over. Presently what is technically called a "useful girl" would come in to wash the dishes, leaving the evening free for social intercourse. Mrs Parker had done well by her patrons that night, and now she wanted a quiet chat with Parker over a glass of Freddie Rooke's port.
"Have they gone, Horace?" she asked, following him into the dining-room.
Parker selected a cigar from Freddie's humidor, crackled it against his ear, smelt it, clipped off the end, and lit it. He took the decanter and filled his wife's glass, then mixed himself a whisky-and-soda.
"Happy days!" said Parker. "Yes, they've gone!"
"I didn't see her ladyship."
"You didn't miss much! A nasty, dangerous specimen, she is! 'Always merry and bright', I don't think. I wish you'd have had my job of waiting on 'em, Ellen, and me been the one to stay in the kitchen safe out of it all. That's all I say! It's no treat to me to 'and the dishes when the atmosphere's what you might call electric. I didn't envy them that vol-au-vent of yours, Ellen, good as it smelt. Better a dinner of 'erbs where love is than a stalled ox and 'atred therewith," said Parker, helping himself to a walnut.
"Did they have words?"
Parker shook his head impatiently.
"That sort don't have words, Ellen. They just sit and goggle."
"How did her ladyship seem to hit it off with Miss Mariner, Horace?"
Parker uttered a dry laugh.
"Ever seen a couple of strange dogs watching each other sort of wary? That was them! Not that Miss Mariner wasn't all that was pleasant and nice-spoken. She's all right, Miss Mariner is. She's a little queen! It wasn't her fault the dinner you'd took so much trouble over was more like an evening in the Morgue than a Christian dinner-party. She tried to help things along best she could. But what with Sir Derek chewing his lip 'alf the time and his mother acting about as matey as a pennorth of ice-cream, she didn't have a chance. As for the guv'nor,-well, I wish you could have seen him, that's all. You know, Ellen, sometimes I'm not altogether easy in my mind about the guv'nor's mental balance. He knows how to buy cigars, and you tell me his port is good—I never touch it myself—but sometimes he seems to me to go right off his onion. Just sat there, he did, all through dinner, looking as if he expected the good food to rise up and bite him in the face, and jumping nervous when I spoke to him. It's not my fault," said Parker, aggrieved. "I can't give gentlemen warning before I ask 'em if they'll have sherry or hock. I can't ring a bell or toot a horn to show 'em I'm coming. It's my place to bend over and whisper in their ear, and they've no right to leap about in their seats and make me spill good wine. (You'll see the spot close by where you're sitting, Ellen. Jogged my wrist, he did!) I'd like to know why people in the spear of life which these people are in can't behave themselves rational, same as we do. When we were walking out and I took you to have tea with my mother, it was one of the pleasantest meals I ever ate. Talk about 'armony! It was a love-feast!"
"Your ma and I took to each other right from the start, Horace," said Mrs Parker softly—"That's the difference."
"Well, any woman with any sense would take to Miss Mariner. If I told you how near I came to spilling the sauce-boat accidentally over that old fossil's head, you'd be surprised, Ellen. She just sat there brooding like an old eagle. If you ask my opinion, Miss Mariner's a long sight too good for her precious son!"
"Oh, but Horace! Sir Derek's a baronet!"
"What of it? Kind 'earts are more than coronets and simple faith than Norman blood, aren't they?"
"You're talking Socialism, Horace."
"No, I'm not. I'm talking sense. I don't know who Miss Mariner's parents may have been—I never enquired—but anyone can see she's a lady born and bred. But do you suppose the path of true love is going to run smooth, for all that? Not it! She's got a 'ard time ahead of her, that poor girl."
"Horace!" Mrs Parker's gentle heart was wrung. The situation hinted at by her husband was no new one—indeed, it formed the basis of at least fifty per cent of the stories in the True Heart Novelette Series, of which she was a determined reader—but it had never failed to touch her. "Do you think her ladyship means to come between them and wreck their romance?"
"I think she means to have a jolly good try."
"But Sir Derek has his own money, hasn't he? I mean, it's not like when Sir Courtenay Travers fell in love with the milk-maid and was dependent on his mother, the Countess, for everything. Sir Derek can afford to do what he pleases, can't he?"
Parker shook his head tolerantly. The excellence of the cigar and the soothing qualities of the whisky-and-soda had worked upon him, and he was feeling less ruffled.
"You don't understand these things," he said. "Women like her ladyship can talk a man into anything and out of anything. I wouldn't care, only you can see the poor girl is mad over the feller. What she finds attractive in him, I can't say, but that's her own affair."
"He's very handsome, Horace, with those flashing eyes and that stern mouth," argued Mrs Parker.
"Have it your own way," he said. "It's no treat to me to see his eyes flash, and if he'd put that stern mouth of his to some better use than advising the guv'nor to lock up the cigars and trouser the key, I'd be better pleased. If there's one thing I can't stand," said Parker, "it's not to be trusted!" He lifted his cigar and looked at it censoriously. "I thought so! Burning all down one side. They will do that if you light 'em careless. Oh, well," he continued, rising and going to the humidor, "there's plenty more where that came from. Out of evil cometh good," said Parker philosophically. "If the guv'nor hadn't been in such a overwrought state tonight, he'd have remembered not to leave the key in the key-hole. Help yourself to another glass of port, Ellen, and let's enjoy ourselves!"
When one considers how full of his own troubles, how weighed down with the problems of his own existence the average playgoer generally is when he enters a theatre, it is remarkable that dramatists ever find it possible to divert and entertain whole audiences for a space of several hours. As regards at least three of those who had assembled to witness its opening performance, the author of "Tried by Fire," at the Leicester Theater, undoubtedly had his work cut out for him.
It has perhaps been sufficiently indicated by the remarks of Parker, the valet, that the little dinner at Freddie Rooke's had not been an unqualified success. Searching the records for an adequately gloomy parallel to the taxi-cab journey to the theatre which followed it, one can only think of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. And yet even that was probably not conducted in dead silence. There must have been moments when Murat got off a good thing or Ney said something worth hearing about the weather.
The only member of the party who was even remotely happy was, curiously enough, Freddie Rooke. Originally Freddie had obtained three tickets for "Tried by Fire." The unexpected arrival of Lady Underhill had obliged him to buy a fourth, separated by several rows from the other three. This, as he had told Derek at breakfast, was the seat he proposed to occupy himself.
It consoles the philosopher in this hard world to reflect that, even if man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upwards, it is still possible for small things to make him happy. The thought of being several rows away from Lady Underhill had restored Freddie's equanimity like a tonic. It thrilled him like the strains of some grand, sweet anthem all the way to the theatre. If Freddie Rooke had been asked at that moment to define happiness in a few words, he would have replied that it consisted in being several rows away from Lady Underhill.
The theatre was nearly full when Freddie's party arrived. The Leicester Theatre had been rented for the season by the newest theatrical knight, Sir Chester Portwood, who had a large following; and, whatever might be the fate of the play in the final issue, it would do at least one night's business. The stalls were ablaze with jewelry and crackling with starched shirt-fronts; and expensive scents pervaded the air, putting up a stiff battle with the plebeian peppermint that emanated from the pit. The boxes were filled, and up in the gallery grim-faced patrons of the drama, who had paid their shillings at the door and intended to get a shilling's-worth of entertainment in return, sat and waited stolidly for the curtain to rise.
First nights at the theatre always excited Jill. The depression induced by absorbing nourishment and endeavouring to make conversation in the presence of Lady Underhill left her. The worst, she told herself, had happened. She had met Derek's mother, and Derek's mother plainly disliked her. Well, that, as Parker would have said, was that. Now she just wanted to enjoy herself. She loved the theatre. The stir, the buzz of conversation, the warmth and life of it, all touched a chord in her which made depression impossible.
The lights shot up beyond the curtain. The house-lights dimmed. Conversation ceased. The curtain rose. Jill wriggled herself comfortably into her seat, and slipped her hand into Derek's. She felt a glow of happiness as it closed over hers. All, she told herself, was right with the world.
All, that is to say, except the drama which was unfolding on the stage. It was one of those plays which start wrong and never recover. By the end of the first ten minutes there had spread through the theatre that uneasy feeling which comes over the audience at an opening performance when it realises that it is going to be bored. A sort of lethargy had gripped the stalls. The dress-circle was coughing. Up in the gallery there was grim silence.
Sir Chester Portwood was an actor-manager who had made his reputation in light comedy of the tea-cup school. His numerous admirers attended a first night at his theatre in a mood of comfortable anticipation, assured of something pleasant and frothy with a good deal of bright dialogue and not too much plot. Tonight he seemed to have fallen a victim to that spirit of ambition which intermittently attacks actor-managers of his class, expressing itself in an attempt to prove that, having established themselves securely as light comedians, they can, like the lady reciter, turn right around and be serious. The one thing which the London public felt that it was safe from in a Portwood play was heaviness, and "Tried by Fire" was grievously heavy. It was a poetic drama, and the audience, though loth to do anybody an injustice, was beginning to suspect that it was written in blank verse.
The acting did nothing to dispel the growing uneasiness. Sir Chester himself, apparently oppressed by the weightiness of the occasion and the responsibility of offering an unfamiliar brand of goods to his public, had dropped his customary debonair method of delivering lines and was mouthing his speeches. It was good gargling, but bad elocution. And, for some reason best known to himself, he had entrusted the role of the heroine to a doll-like damsel with a lisp, of whom the audience disapproved sternly from her initial entrance.
It was about half-way through the first act that Jill, whose attention had begun to wander, heard a soft groan at her side. The seats which Freddie Rooke had bought were at the extreme end of the seventh row. There was only one other seat in the row, and, as Derek had placed his mother on his left and was sitting between her and Jill, the latter had this seat on her right. It had been empty at the rise of the curtain, but in the past few minutes a man had slipped silently into it. The darkness prevented Jill from seeing his face, but it was plain that he was suffering, and her sympathy went out to him. His opinion of the play so obviously coincided with her own.
Presently the first act ended, and the lights went up. There was a spatter of insincere applause from the stalls, echoed in the dress-circle. It grew fainter in the upper circle, and did not reach the gallery at all.
"Well?" said Jill to Derek. "What do you think of it?"
"Too awful for words," said Derek sternly.
He leaned forward to join in the conversation which had started between Lady Underhill and some friends she had discovered in the seats in front; and Jill, turning, became aware that the man on her right was looking at her intently. He was a big man with rough, wiry hair and a humorous mouth. His age appeared to be somewhere in the middle twenties. Jill, in the brief moment in which their eyes met, decided that he was ugly, but with an ugliness that was rather attractive. He reminded her of one of those large, loose, shaggy dogs that break things in drawing-rooms but make admirable companions for the open road. She had a feeling that he would look better in tweeds in a field than in evening dress in a theatre. He had nice eyes. She could not distinguish their color, but they were frank and friendly.
All this Jill noted with her customary quickness, and then she looked away. For an instant she had had an odd feeling that somewhere she had met this man or somebody very like him before, but the impression vanished. She also had the impression that he was still looking at her, but she gazed demurely in front of her and did not attempt to verify the suspicion.
Between them, as they sat side by side, there inserted itself suddenly the pinkly remorseful face of Freddie Rooke. Freddie, having skirmished warily in the aisle until it was clear that Lady Underhill's attention was engaged elsewhere, had occupied a seat in the row behind which had been left vacant temporarily by an owner who liked refreshment between the acts. Freddie was feeling deeply ashamed of himself. He felt that he had perpetrated a bloomer of no slight magnitude.
"I'm awfully sorry about this," he said penitently. "I mean, roping you in to listen to this frightful tosh! When I think I might have got seats just as well for any one of half a dozen topping musical comedies, I feel like kicking myself with some vim. But, honestly, how was I to know? I never dreamed we were going to be let in for anything of this sort. Portwood's plays are usually so dashed bright and snappy and all that. Can't think what he was doing, putting on a thing like this. Why, it's blue round the edges!"
The man on Jill's right laughed sharply.
"Perhaps," he said, "the chump who wrote the piece got away from the asylum long enough to put up the money to produce it."
If there is one thing that startles the well-bred Londoner and throws him off his balance, it is to be addressed unexpectedly by a stranger. Freddie's sense of decency was revolted. A voice from the tomb could hardly have shaken him more. All the traditions to which he had been brought up had gone to solidify his belief that this was one of things which didn't happen. Absolutely it wasn't done. During an earthquake or a shipwreck and possibly on the Day of Judgment, yes. But only then. At other times, unless they wanted a match or the time or something, chappies did not speak to fellows to whom they had not been introduced. He was far too amiable to snub the man, but to go on with this degrading scene was out of the question. There was nothing for it but flight.
"Oh, ah, yes," he mumbled. "Well," he added to Jill, "I suppose I may as well be toddling back. See you later and so forth."
And with a faint 'Good-bye-ee!' Freddie removed himself, thoroughly unnerved.
Jill looked out of the corner of her eye at Derek. He was still occupied with the people in front. She turned to the man on her right. She was not the slave to etiquette that Freddie was. She was much too interested in life to refrain from speaking to strangers.
"You shocked him!" she said, dimpling.
"Yes. It broke Freddie all up, didn't it!"
It was Jill's turn to be startled. She looked at him in astonishment.
"That was Freddie Rooke, wasn't it? Surely I wasn't mistaken?"
"But—do you know him? He didn't seem to know you."
"These are life's tragedies. He has forgotten me. My boyhood friend!"
"Oh, you were at school with him?"
"No. Freddie went to Winchester, if I remember. I was at Haileybury. Our acquaintance was confined to the holidays. My people lived near his people in Worcestershire."
"Worcestershire!" Jill leaned forward excitedly. "But I used to live near Freddie in Worcestershire myself when I was small. I knew him there when he was a boy. We must have met!"
"We met all right."
Jill wrinkled her forehead. That odd familiar look was in his eyes again. But memory failed to respond. She shook her head.
"I don't remember you," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Never mind. Perhaps the recollection would have been painful."
"How do you mean, painful?"
"Well, looking back, I can see that I must have been a very unpleasant child. I have always thought it greatly to the credit of my parents that they let me grow up. It would have been so easy to have dropped something heavy on me out of a window. They must have been tempted a hundred times, but they refrained. Yes, I was a great pest around the home. My only redeeming point was the way I worshipped you!"
"Oh, yes. You probably didn't notice it at the time, for I had a curious way of expressing my adoration. But you remain the brightest memory of a checkered youth."
Jill searched his face with grave eyes, then shook her head again. "Nothing stirs?" asked the man sympathetically.
"It's too maddening! Why does one forget things?" She reflected. "You aren't Bobby Morrison?"
"I am not. What is more, I never was!"
Jill dived into the past once more and emerged with another possibility.
"Or Charlie—Charlie what was it?—Charlie Field?"
"You wound me! Have you forgotten that Charlie Field wore velvet Lord Fauntleroy suits and long golden curls? My past is not smirched with anything like that."
"Would I remember your name if you told me?"
"I don't know. I've forgotten yours. Your surname, that is. Of course I remember that your Christian name was Jill. It has always seemed to me the prettiest monosyllable in the language." He looked at her thoughtfully. "It's odd how little you've altered in looks. Freddie's just the same, too, only larger. And he didn't wear an eye-glass in those days, though I can see he was bound to later on. And yet I've changed so much that you can't place me. It shows what a wearing life I must have led. I feel like Rip van Winkle. Old and withered. But that may be just the result of watching this play."
"It is pretty terrible, isn't it?"
"Worse than that. Looking at it dispassionately, I find it the extreme, ragged, outermost edge of the limit. Freddie had the correct description of it. He's a great critic."
"I really do think it's the worst thing I have ever seen."
"I don't know what plays you have seen, but I feel you're right."
"Perhaps the second act's better," said Jill optimistically.
"It's worse. I know that sounds like boasting, but it's true. I feel like getting up and making a public apology."
"But . . . Oh!"
Jill turned scarlet. A monstrous suspicion had swept over her.
"The only trouble is," went on her companion, "that the audience would undoubtedly lynch me. And, though it seems improbable just at the present moment, it may be that life holds some happiness for me that's worth waiting for. Anyway I'd rather not be torn limb from limb. A messy finish! I can just see them rending me asunder in a spasm of perfectly justifiable fury. 'She loves me!' Off comes a leg. 'She loves me not!' Off comes an arm. No, I think on the whole I'll lie low. Besides, why should I care? Let 'em suffer. It's their own fault. They would come!"
Jill had been trying to interrupt the harangue. She was greatly concerned.
"Did you write the play?"
The man nodded.
"You are quite right to speak in that horrified tone. But, between ourselves and on the understanding that you don't get up and denounce me, I did."
"Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"Not half so sorry as I am, believe me!"
"I mean, I wouldn't have said . . ."
"Never mind. You didn't tell me anything I didn't know." The lights began to go down. He rose. "Well, they're off again. Perhaps you will excuse me? I don't feel quite equal to assisting any longer at the wake. If you want something to occupy your mind during the next act, try to remember my name."
He slid from his seat and disappeared. Jill clutched at Derek.
"Oh, Derek, it's too awful. I've just been talking to the man who wrote this play, and I told him it was the worst thing I had ever seen!"
"Did you?" Derek snorted. "Well, it's about time somebody told him!" A thought seemed to strike him. "Why, who is he? I didn't know you knew him."
"I don't. I don't even know his name."
"His name, according to the programme, is John Grant. Never heard of him before. Jill, I wish you would not talk to people you don't know," said Derek with a note of annoyance in his voice. "You can never tell who they are."
"But . . ."
"Especially with my mother here. You must be more careful."
The curtain rose. Jill saw the stage mistily. From childhood up, she had never been able to cure herself of an unfortunate sensitiveness when sharply spoken to by those she loved. A rebuking world she could face with a stout heart, but there had always been just one or two people whose lightest word of censure could crush her. Her father had always had that effect upon her, and now Derek had taken his place.
But if there had only been time to explain . . . Derek could not object to her chatting with a friend of her childhood, even if she had completely forgotten him and did not remember his name even now. John Grant? Memory failed to produce any juvenile John Grant for her inspection.
Puzzling over this problem, Jill missed much of the beginning of the second act. Hers was a detachment which the rest of the audience would gladly have shared. For the poetic drama, after a bad start, was now plunging into worse depths of dulness. The coughing had become almost continuous. The stalls, supported by the presence of large droves of Sir Chester's personal friends, were struggling gallantly to maintain a semblance of interest, but the pit and gallery had plainly given up hope. The critic of a weekly paper of small circulation, who had been shoved up in the upper circle, grimly jotted down the phrase "apathetically received" on his programme. He had come to the theatre that night in an aggrieved mood, for managers usually put him in the dress-circle. He got out his pencil again. Another phrase had occurred to him, admirable for the opening of his article. "At the Leicester Theatre," he wrote, "where Sir Chester Portwood presented 'Tried by Fire,' dulness reigned supreme. . . ."
But you never know. Call no evening dull till it is over. However uninteresting its early stages may have been, that night was to be as animated and exciting as any audience could desire,—a night to be looked back to and talked about. For just as the critic of London Gossip wrote those damning words on his programme, guiding his pencil uncertainly in the dark, a curious yet familiar odor stole over the house.
The stalls got it first, and sniffed. It rose to the dress-circle, and the dress-circle sniffed. Floating up, it smote the silent gallery. And, suddenly, coming to life with a single-minded abruptness, the gallery ceased to be silent.
Sir Chester Portwood, ploughing his way through a long speech, stopped and looked apprehensively over his shoulder. The girl with the lisp, who had been listening in a perfunctory manner to the long speech, screamed loudly. The voice of an unseen stage-hand called thunderously to an invisible "Bill" to cummere quick. And from the scenery on the prompt side there curled lazily across the stage a black wisp of smoke.
"Fire! Fire! Fire!"
"Just," said a voice at Jill's elbow, "what the play needed!" The mysterious author was back in his seat again.
In these days when the authorities who watch over the welfare of the community have taken the trouble to reiterate encouragingly in printed notices that a full house can be emptied in three minutes and that all an audience has to do in an emergency is to walk, not run, to the nearest exit, fire in the theatre has lost a good deal of its old-time terror. Yet it would be paltering with the truth to say that the audience which had assembled to witness the opening performance of the new play at the Leicester was entirely at its ease. The asbestos curtain was already on its way down, which should have been reassuring: but then asbestos curtains never look the part. To the lay eye they seem just the sort of thing that will blaze quickest. Moreover, it had not yet occurred to the man at the switchboard to turn up the house-lights, and the darkness was disconcerting.
Portions of the house were taking the thing better than other portions. Up in the gallery a vast activity was going on. The clatter of feet almost drowned the shouting. A moment before it would have seemed incredible that anything could have made the occupants of the gallery animated, but the instinct of self-preservation had put new life into them.
The stalls had not yet entirely lost their self-control. Alarm was in the air, but for the moment they hung on the razor-edge between panic and dignity. Panic urged them to do something sudden and energetic: dignity counselled them to wait. They, like the occupants of the gallery, greatly desired to be outside, but it was bad form to rush and jostle. The men were assisting the women into their cloaks, assuring them the while that it was "all right" and that they must not be frightened. But another curl of smoke had crept out just before the asbestos curtain completed its descent, and their words lacked the ring of conviction. The movement towards the exits had not yet become a stampede, but already those with seats nearest the stage had begun to feel that the more fortunate individuals near the doors were infernally slow in removing themselves.
Suddenly, as if by mutual inspiration, the composure of the stalls began to slip. Looking from above, one could have seen a sort of shudder run through the crowd. It was the effect of every member of that crowd starting to move a little more quickly.
A hand grasped Jill's arm. It was a comforting hand, the hand of a man who had not lost his head. A pleasant voice backed up its message of reassurance.
"It's no good getting into that mob. You might get hurt. There's no danger: the play isn't going on."
Jill was shaken: but she had the fighting spirit and hated to show that she was shaken. Panic was knocking at the door of her soul, but dignity refused to be dislodged.
"All the same," she said, smiling a difficult smile, "it would be nice to get out, wouldn't it?"
"I was just going to suggest something of that very sort," said the man beside her. "The same thought occurred to me. We can stroll out quite comfortably by our own private route. Come along."
Jill looked over her shoulder. Derek and Lady Underhill were merged into the mass of refugees. She could not see them. For an instant a little spasm of pique stung her at the thought that Derek had deserted her. She groped her way after her companion, and presently they came by way of a lower box to the iron pass-door leading to the stage.
As it opened, smoke blew through, and the smell of burning was formidable. Jill recoiled involuntarily.
"It's all right," said her companion. "It smells worse than it really is. And, anyway, this is the quickest way out."
They passed through onto the stage, and found themselves in a world of noise and confusion compared with which the auditorium which they had left had been a peaceful place. Smoke was everywhere. A stage-hand, carrying a bucket, lurched past them, bellowing. From somewhere out of sight on the other side of the stage there came a sound of chopping. Jill's companion moved quickly to the switchboard, groped, found a handle, and turned it. In the narrow space between the corner of the proscenium and the edge of the asbestos curtain lights flashed up: and simultaneously there came a sudden diminution of the noise from the body of the house. The stalls, snatched from the intimidating spell of the darkness and able to see each other's faces, discovered that they had been behaving indecorously and checked their struggling, a little ashamed of themselves. The relief would be only momentary, but, while it lasted, it postponed panic.
"Go straight across the stage," Jill heard her companion say, "out along the passage and turn to the right, and you'll be at the stage-door. I think, as there seems no one else around to do it, I'd better go out and say a few soothing words to the customers. Otherwise they'll be biting holes in each other."
He squeezed through the narrow opening in front of the curtain.
"Ladies and gentlemen!"
Jill remained where she was, leaning with one hand against the switchboard. She made no attempt to follow the directions he had given her. She was aware of a sense of comradeship, of being with this man in this adventure. If he stayed, she must stay. To go now through the safety of the stage-door would be abominable desertion. She listened, and found that she could hear plainly in spite of the noise. The smoke was worse than ever, and hurt her eyes, so that the figures of the theatre-firemen, hurrying to and fro, seemed like Brocken specters. She slipped a corner of her cloak across her mouth, and was able to breathe more easily.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that there is absolutely no danger. I am a stranger to you, so there is no reason why you should take my word, but fortunately I can give you solid proof. If there were any danger, I wouldn't be here. All that has happened is that the warmth of your reception of the play has set a piece of scenery alight. . . ."
A crimson-faced stage-hand, carrying an axe in blackened hands, roared in Jill's ear.
Jill looked at him, puzzled.
"'Op it!" shouted the stage-hand. He cast his axe down with a clatter. "Can't you see the place is afire?"
"But—but I'm waiting for . . ." Jill pointed to where her ally was still addressing an audience that seemed reluctant to stop and listen to him.
The stage-hand squinted out round the edge of the curtain.
"If he's a friend of yours, miss, kindly get 'im to cheese it and get a move on. We're clearing out. There's nothing we can do. It's got too much of an 'old. In about another two ticks the roof's going to drop on us."
Jill's friend came squeezing back through the opening.
"Hullo! Still here?" He blinked approvingly at her through the smoke. "You're a little soldier! Well, Augustus, what's on your mind?" The simple question seemed to take the stage-hand aback.
"Wot's on my mind? I'll tell you wot's on my blinking mind . . ."
"Don't tell me. Let me guess. I've got it! The place is on fire!"
The stage-hand expectorated disgustedly. Flippancy at such a moment offended his sensibilities.
"We're 'opping it," he said.
"Great minds think alike! We are hopping it, too."
"You'd better! And damn quick!"
"And, as you suggest, damn quick! You think of everything!"
Jill followed him across the stage. Her heart was beating violently. There was not only smoke now, but heat. Across the stage little scarlet flames were shooting, and something large and hard, unseen through the smoke, fell with a crash. The air was heavy with the smell of burning paint.
"Where's Sir Portwood Chester?" enquired her companion of the stage-hand, who hurried beside them.
"'Opped it!" replied the other briefly, and coughed raspingly as he swallowed smoke.
"Strange," said the man in Jill's ear, as he pulled her along. "This way. Stick to me. Strange how the drama anticipates life! At the end of act two there was a scene where Sir Chester had to creep sombrely out into the night, and now he's gone and done it! Ah!"
They had stumbled through a doorway and were out in a narrow passage, where the air, though tainted, was comparatively fresh. Jill drew a deep breath. Her companion turned to the stage-hand and felt in his pocket.
"Here, Rollo!" A coin changed hands. "Go and get a drink. You need it after all this."
"Thank you, sir."
"Don't mention it. You've saved our lives. Suppose you hadn't come up and told us, and we had never noticed there was a fire! Charred bones, believed to be those of a man and a woman, were found in the ruined edifice!"
He turned to Jill. "Here's the stage-door. Shall we creep sombrely out into the night?"
The guardian of the stage-door was standing in the entrance of his little hutch, plainly perplexed. He was a slow thinker and a man whose life was ruled by routine: and the events of the evening had left him uncertain how to act.
"Wot's all this about a fire?" he demanded.
Jill's friend stopped.
"A fire?" He looked at Jill. "Did you hear anything about a fire?"
"They all come bustin' past 'ere yelling there's a fire," persisted the door-man.
"By George! Now I come to think of it, you're perfectly right! There is a fire! If you wait here a little longer, you'll get it in the small of the back. Take the advice of an old friend who means you well and vanish. In the inspired words of the lad we've just parted from, 'op it!"
The stage-door man turned this over in his mind for a space.
"But I'm supposed to stay 'ere till eleven-thirty and lock up!" he said. "That's what I'm supposed to do. Stay 'ere till eleven-thirty and lock up! And it ain't but ten-forty-five now."
"I see the difficulty," said Jill's companion thoughtfully. "It's what you might call an impasse. French! Well, Casabianca, I'm afraid I don't see how to help you. It's a matter for your own conscience. I don't want to lure you from the burning deck: on the other hand, if you stick on here, you'll most certainly be fried on both sides . . . But, tell me. You spoke about locking up something at eleven-thirty. What are you supposed to lock up?"
"Why, the theatre."
"Then that's all right. By eleven-thirty there won't be a theatre. If I were you, I should leave quietly and unostentatiously now. Tomorrow, if you wish it, and if they've cooled off sufficiently, you can come and sit on the ruins. Good night!"
Outside, the air was cold and crisp. Jill drew her warm cloak closer. Round the corner there was noise and shouting. Fire-engines had arrived. Jill's companion lit a cigarette.
"Do you wish to stop and see the conflagration?" he asked.
Jill shivered. She was more shaken than she had realized.
"I've seen all the conflagration I want."
"Same here. Well, it's been an exciting evening. Started slow, I admit, but warmed up later! What I seem to need at the moment is a restorative stroll along the Embankment. Do you know, Sir Portwood Chester didn't like the title of my play. He said 'Tried by Fire' was too melodramatic. Well, he can't say now it wasn't appropriate."
They made their way towards the river, avoiding the street which was blocked by the crowds and the fire-engines. As they crossed the Strand, the man looked back. A red glow was in the sky.
"A great blaze!" he said. "What you might call—in fact what the papers will call—a holocaust. Quite a treat for the populace."
"Do you think they will be able to put it out?"
"Not a chance. It's got too much of a hold. It's a pity you hadn't that garden-hose of yours with you, isn't it!"
Jill stopped, wide-eyed.
"Don't you remember the garden-hose? I do! I can feel that clammy feeling of the water trickling down my back now!"
Memory, always a laggard by the wayside that redeems itself by an eleventh-hour rush, raced back to Jill. The Embankment turned to a sunlit garden, and the January night to a July day. She stared at him. He was looking at her with a whimsical smile. It was a smile which, pleasant today, had seemed mocking and hostile on that afternoon years ago. She had always felt then that he was laughing at her, and at the age of twelve she had resented laughter at her expense.
"You surely can't be Wally Mason!"
"I was wondering when you would remember."
"But the programme called you something else,—John something."
"That was a cunning disguise. Wally Mason is the only genuine and official name. And, by Jove! I've just remembered yours. It was Mariner. By the way,"—he paused for an almost imperceptible instant—"is it still?"
Jill was hardly aware that he had asked her a question. She was suffering that momentary sense of unreality which comes to us when the years roll away and we are thrown abruptly hack into the days of our childhood. The logical side of her mind was quite aware that there was nothing remarkable in the fact that Wally Mason, who had been to her all these years a boy in an Eton suit, should now present himself as a grown man. But for all that the transformation had something of the effect of a conjuring-trick. It was not only the alteration in his appearance that startled her: it was the amazing change in his personality. Wally Mason had been the bete noire of her childhood. She had never failed to look back at the episode of the garden-hose with the feeling that she had acted well, that—however she might have strayed in those early days from the straight and narrow path—in that one particular crisis she had done the right thing. And now she had taken an instant liking for him. Easily as she made friends, she had seldom before felt so immediately drawn to a strange man. Gone was the ancient hostility, and in its place a soothing sense of comradeship. The direct effect of this was to make Jill feel suddenly old. It was as if some link that joined her to her childhood had been snapped.
She glanced down the Embankment. Close by, to the left, Waterloo Bridge loomed up, dark and massive against the steel-gray sky, A tram-car, full of home-bound travellers, clattered past over rails that shone with the peculiarly frostbitten gleam that seems to herald snow. Across the river, everything was dark and mysterious, except for an occasional lamp-post and the dim illumination of the wharves. It was a depressing prospect, and the thought crossed her mind that to the derelicts whose nightly resting-place was a seat on the Embankment the view must seem even bleaker than it did to herself. She gave a little shiver. Somehow this sudden severance from the old days had brought with it a forlornness. She seemed to be standing alone in a changed world.
"Cold?" said Wally Mason.
They moved westwards. Cleopatra's Needle shot up beside them, a pointing finger. Down on the silent river below, coffin-like row-boats lay moored to the wall. Through a break in the trees the clock over the Houses of Parliament shone for an instant as if suspended in the sky, then vanished as the trees closed in. A distant barge in the direction of Battersea wailed and was still. It had a mournful and foreboding sound. Jill shivered again. It annoyed her that she could not shake off this quite uncalled-for melancholy, but it withstood every effort. Why she should have felt that a chapter, a pleasant chapter, in the book of her life had been closed, she could not have said, but the feeling lingered.