THE MAN UPSTAIRS
AND OTHER STORIES
by P. G. Wodehouse
THE MAN UPSTAIRS
SOMETHING TO WORRY ABOUT
WHEN DOCTORS DISAGREE
BY ADVICE OF COUNSEL
ROUGH-HEW THEM HOW WE WILL
THE MAN WHO DISLIKED CATS
RUTH IN EXILE
THE MAN, THE MAID, AND THE MIASMA
THE GOOD ANGEL
POTS O' MONEY
OUT OF SCHOOL
THREE FROM DUNSTERVILLE
THE TUPPENNY MILLIONAIRE
AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
THE GOAL-KEEPER AND THE PLUTOCRAT
THE MAN UPSTAIRS
There were three distinct stages in the evolution of Annette Brougham's attitude towards the knocking in the room above. In the beginning it had been merely a vague discomfort. Absorbed in the composition of her waltz, she had heard it almost subconsciously. The second stage set in when it became a physical pain like red-hot pincers wrenching her mind from her music. Finally, with a thrill in indignation, she knew it for what it was—an insult. The unseen brute disliked her playing, and was intimating his views with a boot-heel.
Defiantly, with her foot on the loud pedal, she struck—almost slapped—the keys once more.
'Bang!' from the room above. 'Bang! Bang!'
Annette rose. Her face was pink, her chin tilted. Her eyes sparkled with the light of battle. She left the room and started to mount the stairs. No spectator, however just, could have helped feeling a pang of pity for the wretched man who stood unconscious of imminent doom, possibly even triumphant, behind the door at which she was on the point of tapping.
'Come in!' cried the voice, rather a pleasant voice; but what is a pleasant voice if the soul be vile?
Annette went in. The room was a typical Chelsea studio, scantily furnished and lacking a carpet. In the centre was an easel, behind which were visible a pair of trousered legs. A cloud of grey smoke was curling up over the top of the easel.
'I beg your pardon,' began Annette.
'I don't want any models at present,' said the Brute. 'Leave your card on the table.'
'I am not a model,' said Annette, coldly. 'I merely came—'
At this the Brute emerged from his fortifications and, removing his pipe from his mouth, jerked his chair out into the open.
'I beg your pardon,' he said. 'Won't you sit down?'
How reckless is Nature in the distribution of her gifts! Not only had this black-hearted knocker on floors a pleasant voice, but, in addition, a pleasing exterior. He was slightly dishevelled at the moment, and his hair stood up in a disordered mop; but in spite of these drawbacks, he was quite passably good-looking. Annette admitted this. Though wrathful, she was fair.
'I thought it was another model,' he explained. 'They've been coming in at the rate of ten an hour ever since I settled here. I didn't object at first, but after about the eightieth child of sunny Italy had shown up it began to get on my nerves.'
Annette waited coldly till he had finished.
'I am sorry,' she said, in a this-is-where-you-get-yours voice, 'if my playing disturbed you.'
One would have thought nobody but an Eskimo wearing his furs and winter under-clothing could have withstood the iciness of her manner; but the Brute did not freeze.
'I am sorry,' repeated Annette, well below zero, 'if my playing disturbed you. I live in the room below, and I heard you knocking.'
'No, no,' protested the young man, affably; 'I like it. Really I do.'
'Then why knock on the floor?' said Annette, turning to go. 'It is so bad for my ceiling,' she said over shoulder. 'I thought you would not mind my mentioning it. Good afternoon.'
'No; but one moment. Don't go.'
She stopped. He was surveying her with a friendly smile. She noticed most reluctantly that he had a nice smile. His composure began to enrage her more and more. Long ere this he should have been writhing at her feet in the dust, crushed and abject.
'You see,' he said, 'I'm awfully sorry, but it's like this. I love music, but what I mean is, you weren't playing a tune. It was just the same bit over and over again.'
'I was trying to get a phrase,' said Annette, with dignity, but less coldly. In spite of herself she was beginning to thaw. There was something singularly attractive about this shock-headed youth.
'Of music. For my waltz. I am composing a waltz.'
A look of such unqualified admiration overspread the young man's face that the last remnants of the ice-pack melted. For the first time since they had met Annette found herself positively liking this blackguardly floor-smiter.
'Can you compose music?' he said, impressed.
'I have written one or two songs.'
'It must be great to be able to do things—artistic things, I mean, like composing.'
'Well, you do, don't you? You paint.'
The young man shook his head with a cheerful grin.
'I fancy,' he said, 'I should make a pretty good house-painter. I want scope. Canvas seems to cramp me.'
It seemed to cause him no discomfort. He appeared rather amused than otherwise.
'Let me look.'
She crossed over to the easel.
'I shouldn't,' he warned her. 'You really want to? Is this not mere recklessness? Very well, then.'
To the eye of an experienced critic the picture would certainly have seemed crude. It was a study of a dark-eyed child holding a large black cat. Statisticians estimate that there is no moment during the day when one or more young artists somewhere on the face of the globe are not painting pictures of children holding cats.
'I call it "Child and Cat",' said the young man. 'Rather a neat title, don't you think? Gives you the main idea of the thing right away. That,' he explained, pointing obligingly with the stem of his pipe, 'is the cat.'
Annette belonged to that large section of the public which likes or dislikes a picture according to whether its subject happens to please or displease them. Probably there was not one of the million or so child-and-cat eyesores at present in existence which she would not have liked. Besides, he had been very nice about her music.
'I think it's splendid,' she announced.
The young man's face displayed almost more surprise than joy.
'Do you really?' he said. 'Then I can die happy—that is, if you'll let me come down and listen to those songs of yours first.'
'You would only knock on the floor,' objected Annette.
'I'll never knock on another floor as long as I live,' said the ex-brute, reassuringly. 'I hate knocking on floors. I don't see what people want to knock on floors for, anyway.'
Friendships ripen quickly in Chelsea. Within the space of an hour and a quarter Annette had learned that the young man's name was Alan Beverley (for which Family Heraldic affliction she pitied rather than despised him), that he did not depend entirely on his work for a living, having a little money of his own, and that he considered this a fortunate thing. From the very beginning of their talk he pleased her. She found him an absolutely new and original variety of the unsuccessful painter. Unlike Reginald Sellers, who had a studio in the same building, and sometimes dropped in to drink her coffee and pour out his troubles, he did not attribute his non-success to any malice or stupidity on the part of the public. She was so used to hearing Sellers lash the Philistine and hold forth on unappreciated merit that she could hardly believe the miracle when, in answer to a sympathetic bromide on the popular lack of taste in Art, Beverley replied that, as far as he was concerned, the public showed strong good sense. If he had been striving with every nerve to win her esteem, he could not have done it more surely than with that one remark. Though she invariably listened with a sweet patience which encouraged them to continue long after the point at which she had begun in spirit to throw things at them, Annette had no sympathy with men who whined. She herself was a fighter. She hated as much as anyone the sickening blows which Fate hands out to the struggling and ambitious; but she never made them the basis of a monologue act. Often, after a dreary trip round the offices of the music-publishers, she would howl bitterly in secret, and even gnaw her pillow in the watches of the night; but in public her pride kept her unvaryingly bright and cheerful.
Today, for the first time, she revealed something of her woes. There was that about the mop-headed young man which invited confidences. She told him of the stony-heartedness of music-publishers, of the difficulty of getting songs printed unless you paid for them, of their wretched sales.
'But those songs you've been playing,' said Beverley, 'they've been published?'
'Yes, those three. But they are the only ones.'
'And didn't they sell?'
'Hardly at all. You see, a song doesn't sell unless somebody well known sings it. And people promise to sing them, and then don't keep their word. You can't depend on what they say.'
'Give me their names,' said Beverley, 'and I'll go round tomorrow and shoot the whole lot. But can't you do anything?'
'Only keep on keeping on.'
'I wish,' he said, 'that any time you're feeling blue about things you would come up and pour out the poison on me. It's no good bottling it up. Come up and tell me about it, and you'll feel ever so much better. Or let me come down. Any time things aren't going right just knock on the ceiling.'
'Don't rub it in,' pleaded Beverley. 'It isn't fair. There's nobody so sensitive as a reformed floor-knocker. You will come up or let me come down, won't you? Whenever I have that sad, depressed feeling, I go out and kill a policeman. But you wouldn't care for that. So the only thing for you to do is to knock on the ceiling. Then I'll come charging down and see if there's anything I can do to help.'
'You'll be sorry you ever said this.'
'I won't,' he said stoutly.
'If you really mean it, it would be a relief,' she admitted. 'Sometimes I'd give all the money I'm ever likely to make for someone to shriek my grievances at. I always think it must have been so nice for the people in the old novels, when they used to say: "Sit down and I will tell you the story of my life." Mustn't it have been heavenly?'
'Well,' said Beverley, rising, 'you know where I am if I'm wanted. Right up there where the knocking came from.'
'Knocking?' said Annette. 'I remember no knocking.'
'Would you mind shaking hands?' said Beverley.
* * * * *
A particularly maddening hour with one of her pupils drove her up the very next day. Her pupils were at once her salvation and her despair. They gave her the means of supporting life, but they made life hardly worth supporting. Some of them were learning the piano. Others thought they sang. All had solid ivory skulls. There was about a teaspoonful of grey matter distributed among the entire squad, and the pupil Annette had been teaching that afternoon had come in at the tail-end of the division.
In the studio with Beverley she found Reginald Sellers, standing in a critical attitude before the easel. She was not very fond of him. He was a long, offensive, patronizing person, with a moustache that looked like a smear of charcoal, and a habit of addressing her as 'Ah, little one!'
Beverley looked up.
'Have you brought your hatchet, Miss Brougham? If you have, you're just in time to join in the massacre of the innocents. Sellers has been smiting my child and cat hip and thigh. Look at his eye. There! Did you see it flash then? He's on the warpath again.'
'My dear Beverley,' said Sellers, rather stiffly, 'I am merely endeavouring to give you my idea of the picture's defects. I am sorry if my criticism has to be a little harsh.'
'Go right on,' said Beverley, cordially. 'Don't mind me; it's all for my good.'
'Well, in a word, then, it is lifeless. Neither the child nor the cat lives.'
He stepped back a pace and made a frame of his hands.
'The cat now,' he said. 'It is—how shall I put it? It has no—no—er—'
'That kind of cat wouldn't,' said Beverley. 'It isn't that breed.'
'I think it's a dear cat,' said Annette. She felt her temper, always quick, getting the better of her. She knew just how incompetent Sellers was, and it irritated her beyond endurance to see Beverley's good-humoured acceptance of his patronage.
'At any rate,' said Beverley, with a grin, 'you both seem to recognize that it is a cat. You're solid on that point, and that's something, seeing I'm only a beginner.'
'I know, my dear fellow; I know,' said Sellers, graciously. 'You mustn't let my criticism discourage you. Don't think that your work lacks promise. Far from it. I am sure that in time you will do very well indeed. Quite well.'
A cold glitter might have been observed in Annette's eyes.
'Mr Sellers,' she said, smoothly, 'had to work very hard himself before he reached his present position. You know his work, of course?'
For the first time Beverley seemed somewhat confused.
'I—er—why—' he began.
'Oh, but of course you do,' she went on, sweetly. 'It's in all the magazines.'
Beverley looked at the great man with admiration, and saw that he had flushed uncomfortably. He put this down to the modesty of genius.
'In the advertisement pages,' said Annette. 'Mr Sellers drew that picture of the Waukeesy Shoe and the Restawhile Settee and the tin of sardines in the Little Gem Sardine advertisement. He is very good at still life.'
There was a tense silence. Beverley could almost hear the voice of the referee uttering the count.
'Miss Brougham,' said Sellers at last, spitting out the words, 'has confined herself to the purely commercial side of my work. There is another.'
'Why, of course there is. You sold a landscape for five pounds only eight months ago, didn't you? And another three months before that.'
It was enough. Sellers bowed stiffly and stalked from the room.
Beverley picked up a duster and began slowly to sweep the floor with it.
'What are you doing?' demanded Annette, in a choking voice.
'The fragments of the wretched man,' whispered Beverley. 'They must be swept up and decently interred. You certainly have got the punch, Miss Brougham.'
He dropped the duster with a startled exclamation, for Annette had suddenly burst into a flood of tears. With her face buried in her hands she sat in her chair and sobbed desperately.
'Good Lord!' said Beverley, blankly.
'I'm a cat! I'm a beast! I hate myself!'
'Good Lord!' said Beverley, blankly.
'I'm a pig! I'm a fiend!'
'Good Lord!' said Beverley, blankly.
'We're all struggling and trying to get on and having hard luck, and instead of doing what I can to help, I go and t-t-taunt him with not being able to sell his pictures! I'm not fit to live! Oh!'
'Good Lord!' said Beverley, blankly.
A series of gulping sobs followed, diminishing by degrees into silence. Presently she looked up and smiled, a moist and pathetic smile.
'I'm sorry,' she said, 'for being so stupid. But he was so horrid and patronizing to you, I couldn't help scratching. I believe I'm the worst cat in London.'
'No, this is,' said Beverley, pointing to the canvas. 'At least, according to the late Sellers. But, I say, tell me, isn't the deceased a great artist, then? He came curveting in here with his chest out and started to slate my masterpiece, so I naturally said, "What-ho! 'Tis a genius!" Isn't he?'
'He can't sell his pictures anywhere. He lives on the little he can get from illustrating advertisements. And I t-taunt—'
'Please!' said Beverley, apprehensively.
She recovered herself with a gulp.
'I can't help it,' she said, miserably. 'I rubbed it in. Oh, it was hateful of me! But I was all on edge from teaching one of my awful pupils, and when he started to patronize you—'
'Poor devil!' said Beverley. 'I never guessed. Good Lord!'
'I must go and tell him I'm sorry,' she said. 'He'll snub me horribly, but I must.'
She went out. Beverley lit a pipe and stood at the window looking thoughtfully down into the street.
* * * * *
It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them. Sellers belonged to the latter class. When Annette, meek, penitent, with all her claws sheathed, came to him and grovelled, he forgave her with a repulsive magnanimity which in a less subdued mood would have stung her to renewed pugnacity. As it was, she allowed herself to be forgiven, and retired with a dismal conviction that from now on he would be more insufferable than ever.
Her surmise proved absolutely correct. His visits to the newcomer's studio began again, and Beverley's picture, now nearing completion, came in for criticism enough to have filled a volume. The good humour with which he received it amazed Annette. She had no proprietary interest in the painting beyond what she acquired from a growing regard for its parent (which disturbed her a good deal when she had time to think of it); but there were moments when only the recollection of her remorse for her previous outbreak kept her from rending the critic. Beverley, however, appeared to have no artistic sensitiveness whatsoever. When Sellers savaged the cat in a manner which should have brought the S.P.C.A. down upon him, Beverley merely beamed. His long-sufferingness was beyond Annette's comprehension.
She began to admire him for it.
To make his position as critic still more impregnable, Sellers was now able to speak as one having authority. After years of floundering, his luck seemed at last to have turned. His pictures, which for months had lain at an agent's, careened like crippled battleships, had at length begun to find a market. Within the past two weeks three landscapes and an allegorical painting had sold for good prices; and under the influence of success he expanded like an opening floweret. When Epstein, the agent, wrote to say that the allegory had been purchased by a Glasgow plutocrat of the name of Bates for one hundred and sixty guineas, Sellers' views on Philistines and their crass materialism and lack of taste underwent a marked modification. He spoke with some friendliness of the man Bates.
'To me,' said Beverley, when informed of the event by Annette, 'the matter has a deeper significance. It proves that Glasgow has at last produced a sober man. No drinker would have dared face that allegory. The whole business is very gratifying.'
Beverley himself was progressing slowly in the field of Art. He had finished the 'Child and Cat', and had taken it to Epstein together with a letter of introduction from Sellers. Sellers' habitual attitude now was that of the kindly celebrity who has arrived and wishes to give the youngsters a chance.
Since its departure Beverley had not done much in the way of actual execution. Whenever Annette came to his studio he was either sitting in a chair with his feet on the window-sill, smoking, or in the same attitude listening to Sellers' views on art. Sellers being on the upgrade, a man with many pounds to his credit in the bank, had more leisure now. He had given up his advertisement work, and was planning a great canvas—another allegorical work. This left him free to devote a good deal of time to Beverley, and he did so. Beverley sat and smoked through his harangues. He may have been listening, or he may not. Annette listened once or twice, and the experience had the effect of sending her to Beverley, quivering with indignation.
'Why do you let him patronize you like that?' she demanded. 'If anybody came and talked to me like that about my music, I'd—I'd—I don't know what I'd do. Yes, even if he were really a great musician.'
'Don't you consider Sellers a great artist, then, even now?'
'He seems to be able to sell his pictures, so I suppose they must be good; but nothing could give him the right to patronize you as he does.'
'"My learned friend's manner would be intolerable in an emperor to a black-beetle,"' quoted Beverley. 'Well, what are we going to do about it?'
'If only you could sell a picture, too!'
'Ah! Well, I've done my part of the contract. I've delivered the goods. There the thing is at Epstein's. The public can't blame me if it doesn't sell. All they've got to do is to waltz in in their thousands and fight for it. And, by the way, talking of waltzes—'
'Oh, it's finished,' said Annette, dispiritedly. 'Published too, for that matter.'
'Published! What's the matter, then? Why this drooping sadness? Why aren't you running around the square, singing like a bird?'
'Because,' said Annette, 'unfortunately, I had to pay the expenses of publication. It was only five pounds, but the sales haven't caught up with that yet. If they ever do, perhaps there'll be a new edition.'
'And will you have to pay for that?'
'No. The publishers would.'
'Who are they?'
'Grusczinsky and Buchterkirch.'
'Heavens, then what are you worrying about? The thing's a cert. A man with a name like Grusczinsky could sell a dozen editions by himself. Helped and inspired by Buchterkirch, he will make the waltz the talk of the country. Infants will croon it in their cots.'
'He didn't seem to think so when I saw him last.'
'Of course not. He doesn't know his own power. Grusczinsky's shrinking diffidence is a by-word in musical circles. He is the genuine Human Violet. You must give him time.'
'I'll give him anything if he'll only sell an edition or two,' said Annette.
The outstanding thing was that he did. There seemed no particular reason why the sale of that waltz should not have been as small and as slow as that of any other waltz by an unknown composer. But almost without warning it expanded from a trickle into a flood. Grusczinsky, beaming paternally whenever Annette entered the shop—which was often—announced two new editions in a week. Beverley, his artistic growth still under a watchful eye of Sellers, said he had never had any doubts as to the success of the thing from the moment when a single phrase in it had so carried him away that he had been compelled to stamp his applause enthusiastically on the floor. Even Sellers forgot his own triumphs long enough to allow him to offer affable congratulations. And money came rolling in, smoothing the path of life.
Those were great days. There was a hat ...
Life, in short, was very full and splendid. There was, indeed, but one thing which kept it from being perfect. The usual drawback to success is that it annoys one's friends so; but in Annette's case this drawback was absent. Sellers' demeanour towards her was that of an old-established inmate welcoming a novice into the Hall of Fame. Her pupils—worthy souls, though bone-headed—fawned upon her. Beverley seemed more pleased than anyone. Yet it was Beverley who prevented her paradise from being complete. Successful herself, she wanted all her friends to be successful; but Beverley, to her discomfort, remained a cheery failure, and worse, absolutely refused to snub Sellers. It was not as if Sellers' advice and comments were disinterested. Beverley was simply the instrument on which he played his songs of triumph. It distressed Annette to such an extent that now, if she went upstairs and heard Sellers' voice in the studio, she came down again without knocking.
* * * * *
One afternoon, sitting in her room, she heard the telephone-bell ring.
The telephone was on the stairs, just outside her door. She went out and took up the receiver.
'Halloa!' said a querulous voice. 'Is Mr Beverley there?'
Annette remembered having heard him go out. She could always tell his footstep.
'He is out,' she said. 'Is there any message?'
'Yes,' said the voice, emphatically. 'Tell him that Rupert Morrison rang up to ask what he was to do with all this great stack of music that's arrived. Does he want it forwarded on to him, or what?' The voice was growing high and excited. Evidently Mr Morrison was in a state of nervous tension when a man does not care particularly who hears his troubles so long as he unburdens himself of them to someone.
'Music?' said Annette.
'Music!' shrilled Mr Morrison. 'Stacks and stacks and stacks of it. Is he playing a practical joke on me, or what?' he demanded, hysterically. Plainly he had now come to regard Annette as a legitimate confidante. She was listening. That was the main point. He wanted someone—he did not care whom—who would listen. 'He lends me his rooms,' wailed Mr Morrison, 'so that I can be perfectly quiet and undisturbed while I write my novel, and, first thing I know, this music starts to arrive. How can I be quiet and undisturbed when the floor's littered two yards high with great parcels of music, and more coming every day?'
Annette clung weakly to the telephone box. Her mind was in a whirl, but she was beginning to see many things.
'Are you there?' called Mr Morrison.
'Yes. What—what firm does the music come from?'
'Who are the publishers who send the music?'
'I can't remember. Some long name. Yes, I've got it. Grusczinsky and someone.'
'I'll tell Mr Beverley,' said Annette, quietly. A great weight seemed to have settled on her head.
'Halloa! Halloa! Are you there?' came Mr Morrison's voice.
'And tell him there are some pictures, too.'
'Four great beastly pictures. The size of elephants. I tell you, there isn't room to move. And—'
Annette hung up the receiver.
* * * * *
Mr Beverley, returned from his walk, was racing up the stairs three at a time in his energetic way, when, as he arrived at Annette's door, it opened.
'Have you a minute to spare?' said Annette.
'Of course. What's the trouble? Have they sold another edition of the waltz?'
'I have not heard, Mr—Bates.'
For once she looked to see the cheerful composure of the man upstairs become ruffled; but he received the blow without agitation.
'You know my name?' he said.
'I know a good deal more than your name. You are a Glasgow millionaire.'
'It's true,' he admitted, 'but it's hereditary. My father was one before me.'
'And you use your money,' said Annette, bitterly, 'creating fools' paradises for your friends, which last, I suppose, until you grow tired of the amusement and destroy them. Doesn't it ever strike you, Mr Bates, that it's a little cruel? Do you think Mr Sellers will settle down again cheerfully to hack-work when you stop buying his pictures, and he finds out that—that—'
'I shan't stop,' said the young man. 'If a Glasgow millionaire mayn't buy Sellers' allegorical pictures, whose allegorical pictures may he buy? Sellers will never find out. He'll go on painting and I'll go on buying, and all will be joy and peace.'
'Indeed! And what future have you arranged for me?'
'You?' he said, reflectively. 'I want to marry you.'
Annette stiffened from head to foot. He met her blazing eyes with a look of quiet devotion.
'I know what you are thinking,' he said. 'Your mind is dwelling on the prospect of living in a house decorated throughout with Sellers' allegorical pictures. But it won't be. We'll store them in the attic.'
She began to speak, but he interrupted her.
'Listen!' he said. 'Sit down and I will tell you the story of my life. We'll skip the first twenty-eight years and three months, merely mentioning that for the greater part of that time I was looking for somebody just like you. A month and nine days ago I found you. You were crossing the Embankment. I was also on the Embankment. In a taxi. I stopped the taxi, got out, and observed you just stepping into the Charing Cross Underground. I sprang—'
'This does not interest me,' said Annette.
'The plot thickens,' he assured her. 'We left our hero springing, I think. Just so. Well, you took the West End train and got off at Sloane Square. So did I. You crossed Sloane Square, turned up King's Road, and finally arrived here. I followed. I saw a notice up, "Studio to Let". I reflected that, having done a little painting in an amateur way, I could pose as an artist all right; so I took the studio. Also the name of Alan Beverley. My own is Bill Bates. I had often wondered what it would feel like to be called by some name like Alan Beverley or Cyril Trevelyan. It was simply the spin of the coin which decided me in favour of the former. Once in, the problem was how to get to know you. When I heard you playing I knew it was all right. I had only to keep knocking on the floor long enough—'
'Do—you—mean—to—tell—me'—Annette's voice trembled 'do you mean to tell me that you knocked that time simply to make me come up?'
'That was it. Rather a scheme, don't you think? And now, would you mind telling me how you found out that I had been buying your waltz? Those remarks of yours about fools' paradises were not inspired solely by the affairs of Sellers. But it beats me how you did it. I swore Rozinsky, or whatever his name is, to secrecy.'
'A Mr Morrison,' sad Annette, indifferently, 'rang up on the telephone and asked me to tell you that he was greatly worried by the piles of music which were littering the rooms you lent him.'
The young man burst into a roar of laughter.
'Poor old Morrison! I forgot all about him. I lent him my rooms at the Albany. He's writing a novel, and he can't work if the slightest thing goes wrong. It just shows—'
'Perhaps you didn't intend to hurt me. I dare say you meant only to be kind. But—but—oh, can't you see how you have humiliated me? You have treated me like a child, giving me a make-believe success just to—just to keep me quiet, I suppose. You—'
He was fumbling in his pocket.
'May I read you a letter?' he said.
'Quite a short one. It is from Epstein, the picture-dealer. This is what he says. "Sir," meaning me, not "Dear Bill," mind you—just "Sir." "I am glad to be able to inform you that I have this morning received an offer of ten guineas for your picture, 'Child and Cat'. Kindly let me know if I am to dispose of it at this price."'
'Well?' said Annette, in a small voice.
'I have just been to Epstein's. It seems that the purchaser is a Miss Brown. She gave an address in Bayswater. I called at the address. No Miss Brown lives there, but one of your pupils does. I asked her if she was expecting a parcel for Miss Brown, and she said that she had had your letter and quite understood and would take it in when it arrived.'
Annette was hiding her face in her hands.
'Go away!' she said, faintly.
Mr Bates moved a step nearer.
'Do you remember that story of the people on the island who eked out a precarious livelihood by taking in one another's washing?' he asked, casually.
'Go away!' cried Annette.
'I've always thought,' he said, 'that it must have drawn them very close together—made them feel rather attached to each other. Don't you?'
'I don't want to go away. I want to stay and hear you say you'll marry me.'
'Please go away! I want to think.'
She heard him moving towards the door. He stopped, then went on again. The door closed quietly. Presently from the room above came the sound of footsteps—footsteps pacing monotonously to and fro like those of an animal in a cage.
Annette sat listening. There was no break in the footsteps.
Suddenly she got up. In one corner of the room was a long pole used for raising and lowering the window-sash. She took it, and for a moment stood irresolute. Then with a quick movement, she lifted it and stabbed three times at the ceiling.
SOMETHING TO WORRY ABOUT
A girl stood on the shingle that fringes Millbourne Bay, gazing at the red roofs of the little village across the water. She was a pretty girl, small and trim. Just now some secret sorrow seemed to be troubling her, for on her forehead were wrinkles and in her eyes a look of wistfulness. She had, in fact, all the distinguishing marks of one who is thinking of her sailor lover.
But she was not. She had no sailor lover. What she was thinking of was that at about this time they would be lighting up the shop-windows in London, and that of all the deadly, depressing spots she had ever visited this village of Millbourne was the deadliest.
The evening shadows deepened. The incoming tide glistened oilily as it rolled over the mud flats. She rose and shivered.
'Goo! What a hole!' she said, eyeing the unconscious village morosely. 'What a hole!'
* * * * *
This was Sally Preston's first evening in Millbourne. She had arrived by the afternoon train from London—not of her own free will. Left to herself, she would not have come within sixty miles of the place. London supplied all that she demanded from life. She had been born in London; she had lived there ever since—she hoped to die there. She liked fogs, motor-buses, noise, policemen, paper-boys, shops, taxi-cabs, artificial light, stone pavements, houses in long, grey rows, mud, banana-skins, and moving-picture exhibitions. Especially moving-picture exhibitions. It was, indeed, her taste for these that had caused her banishment to Millbourne.
The great public is not yet unanimous on the subject of moving-picture exhibitions. Sally, as I have said, approved of them. Her father, on the other hand, did not. An austere ex-butler, who let lodgings in Ebury Street and preached on Sundays in Hyde Park, he looked askance at the 'movies'. It was his boast that he had never been inside a theatre in his life, and he classed cinema palaces with theatres as wiles of the devil. Sally, suddenly unmasked as an habitual frequenter of these abandoned places, sprang with one bound into prominence as the Bad Girl of the Family. Instant removal from the range of temptation being the only possible plan, it seemed to Mr Preston that a trip to the country was indicated.
He selected Millbourne because he had been butler at the Hall there, and because his sister Jane, who had been a parlour-maid at the Rectory, was now married and living in the village.
Certainly he could not have chosen a more promising reformatory for Sally. Here, if anywhere, might she forget the heady joys of the cinema. Tucked away in the corner of its little bay, which an accommodating island converts into a still lagoon, Millbourne lies dozing. In all sleepy Hampshire there is no sleepier spot. It is a place of calm-eyed men and drowsy dogs. Things crumble away and are not replaced. Tradesmen book orders, and then lose interest and forget to deliver the goods. Only centenarians die, and nobody worries about anything—or did not until Sally came and gave them something to worry about.
* * * * *
Next door to Sally's Aunt Jane, in a cosy little cottage with a wonderful little garden, lived Thomas Kitchener, a large, grave, self-sufficing young man, who, by sheer application to work, had become already, though only twenty-five, second gardener at the Hall. Gardening absorbed him. When he was not working at the Hall he was working at home. On the morning following Sally's arrival, it being a Thursday and his day off, he was crouching in a constrained attitude in his garden, every fibre of his being concentrated on the interment of a plump young bulb. Consequently, when a chunk of mud came sailing over the fence, he did not notice it.
A second, however, compelled attention by bursting like a shell on the back of his neck. He looked up, startled. Nobody was in sight. He was puzzled. It could hardly be raining mud. Yet the alternative theory, that someone in the next garden was throwing it, was hardly less bizarre. The nature of his friendship with Sally's Aunt Jane and old Mr Williams, her husband, was comfortable rather than rollicking. It was inconceivable that they should be flinging clods at him.
As he stood wondering whether he should go to the fence and look over, or simply accept the phenomenon as one of those things which no fellow can understand, there popped up before him the head and shoulders of a girl. Poised in her right hand was a third clod, which, seeing that there was now no need for its services, she allowed to fall to the ground.
'Halloa!' she said. 'Good morning.'
She was a pretty girl, small and trim. Tom was by way of being the strong, silent man with a career to think of and no time for bothering about girls, but he saw that. There was, moreover, a certain alertness in her expression rarely found in the feminine population of Millbourne, who were apt to be slightly bovine.
'What do you think you're messing about at?' she said, affably.
Tom was a slow-minded young man, who liked to have his thoughts well under control before he spoke. He was not one of your gay rattlers. Besides, there was something about this girl which confused him to an extraordinary extent. He was conscious of new and strange emotions. He stood staring silently.
'What's your name, anyway?'
He could answer that. He did so.
'Oh! Mine's Sally Preston. Mrs Williams is my aunt. I've come from London.'
Tom had no remarks to make about London.
'Have you lived here all your life?'
'Yes,' said Tom.
'My goodness! Don't you ever feel fed up? Don't you want a change?'
Tom considered the point.
'No,' he said.
'Well, I do. I want one now.'
'It's a nice place,' hazarded Tom.
'It's nothing of the sort. It's the beastliest hole in existence. It's absolutely chronic. Perhaps you wonder why I'm here. Don't think I wanted to come here. Not me! I was sent. It was like this.' She gave him a rapid summary of her troubles. 'There! Don't you call it a bit thick?' she concluded.
Tom considered this point, too.
'You must make the best of it,' he said, at length.
'I won't! I'll make father take me back.'
Tom considered this point also. Rarely, if ever, had he been given so many things to think about in one morning.
'How?' he inquired, at length.
'I don't know. I'll find some way. You see if I don't. I'll get away from here jolly quick, I give you my word.'
Tom bent low over a rose-bush. His face was hidden, but the brown of his neck seemed to take on a richer hue, and his ears were undeniably crimson. His feet moved restlessly, and from his unseen mouth there proceeded the first gallant speech his lips had ever framed. Merely considered as a speech, it was, perhaps, nothing wonderful; but from Tom it was a miracle of chivalry and polish.
What he said was: 'I hope not.'
And instinct telling him that he had made his supreme effort, and that anything further must be bathos, he turned abruptly and stalked into his cottage, where he drank tea and ate bacon and thought chaotic thoughts. And when his appetite declined to carry him more than half-way through the third rasher, he understood. He was in love.
These strong, silent men who mean to be head-gardeners before they are thirty, and eliminate woman from their lives as a dangerous obstacle to the successful career, pay a heavy penalty when they do fall in love. The average irresponsible young man who has hung about North Street on Saturday nights, walked through the meadows and round by the mill and back home past the creek on Sunday afternoons, taken his seat in the brake for the annual outing, shuffled his way through the polka at the tradesmen's ball, and generally seized all legitimate opportunities for sporting with Amaryllis in the shade, has a hundred advantages which your successful careerer lacks. There was hardly a moment during the days which followed when Tom did not regret his neglected education.
For he was not Sally's only victim in Millbourne. That was the trouble. Her beauty was not of that elusive type which steals imperceptibly into the vision of the rare connoisseur. It was sudden and compelling. It hit you. Bright brown eyes beneath a mass of fair hair, a determined little chin, a slim figure—these are disturbing things; and the youths of peaceful Millbourne sat up and took notice as one youth. Throw your mind back to the last musical comedy you saw. Recall the leading lady's song with chorus of young men, all proffering devotion simultaneously in a neat row. Well, that was how the lads of the village comported themselves towards Sally.
Mr and Mrs Williams, till then a highly-esteemed but little-frequented couple, were astonished at the sudden influx of visitors. The cottage became practically a salon. There was not an evening when the little sitting-room looking out on the garden was not packed. It is true that the conversation lacked some of the sparkle generally found in the better class of salon. To be absolutely accurate, there was hardly any conversation. The youths of Melbourne were sturdy and honest. They were the backbone of England. England, in her hour of need, could have called upon them with the comfortable certainty that, unless they happened to be otherwise engaged, they would leap to her aid.
But they did not shine at small-talk. Conversationally they were a spent force after they had asked Mr Williams how his rheumatism was. Thereafter they contented themselves with sitting massively about in corners, glowering at each other. Still, it was all very jolly and sociable, and helped to pass the long evenings. And, as Mrs Williams pointed out, in reply to some rather strong remarks from Mr Williams on the subject of packs of young fools who made it impossible for a man to get a quiet smoke in his own home, it kept them out of the public-houses.
Tom Kitchener, meanwhile, observed the invasion with growing dismay. Shyness barred him from the evening gatherings, and what was going on in that house, with young bloods like Ted Pringle, Albert Parsons, Arthur Brown, and Joe Blossom (to name four of the most assiduous) exercising their fascinations at close range, he did not like to think. Again and again he strove to brace himself up to join the feasts of reason and flows of soul which he knew were taking place nightly around the object of his devotions, but every time he failed. Habit is a terrible thing; it shackles the strongest, and Tom had fallen into the habit of inquiring after Mr Williams' rheumatism over the garden fence first thing in the morning.
It was a civil, neighbourly thing to do, but it annihilated the only excuse he could think of for looking in at night. He could not help himself. It was like some frightful scourge—the morphine habit, or something of that sort. Every morning he swore to himself that nothing would induce him to mention the subject of rheumatism, but no sooner had the stricken old gentleman's head appeared above the fence than out it came.
'Morning, Mr Williams.'
Pause, indicative of a strong man struggling with himself; then:
'How's the rheumatism, Mr Williams?'
'Better, thank'ee, Tom.'
And there he was, with his guns spiked.
However, he did not give up. He brought to his wooing the same determination which had made him second gardener at the Hall at twenty-five. He was a novice at the game, but instinct told him that a good line of action was to shower gifts. He did so. All he had to shower was vegetables, and he showered them in a way that would have caused the goddess Ceres to be talked about. His garden became a perfect crater, erupting vegetables. Why vegetables? I think I hear some heckler cry. Why not flowers—fresh, fair, fragrant flowers? You can do a lot with flowers. Girls love them. There is poetry in them. And, what is more, there is a recognized language of flowers. Shoot in a rose, or a calceolaria, or an herbaceous border, or something, I gather, and you have made a formal proposal of marriage without any of the trouble of rehearsing a long speech and practising appropriate gestures in front of your bedroom looking-glass. Why, then, did not Thomas Kitchener give Sally Preston flowers? Well, you see, unfortunately, it was now late autumn, and there were no flowers. Nature had temporarily exhausted her floral blessings, and was jogging along with potatoes and artichokes and things. Love is like that. It invariably comes just at the wrong time. A few months before there had been enough roses in Tom Kitchener's garden to win the hearts of a dozen girls. Now there were only vegetables, 'Twas ever thus.
It was not to be expected that a devotion so practically displayed should escape comment. This was supplied by that shrewd observer, old Mr Williams. He spoke seriously to Tom across the fence on the subject of his passion.
'Young Tom,' he said, 'drop it.'
Tom muttered unintelligibly. Mr Williams adjusted the top-hat without which he never stirred abroad, even into his garden. He blinked benevolently at Tom.
'You're making up to that young gal of Jane's,' he proceeded. 'You can't deceive me. All these p'taties, and what not. I seen your game fast enough. Just you drop it, young Tom.'
'Why?' muttered Tom, rebelliously. A sudden distaste for old Mr Williams blazed within him.
'Why? 'Cos you'll only burn your fingers if you don't, that's why. I been watching this young gal of Jane's, and I seen what sort of a young gal she be. She's a flipperty piece, that's what she be. You marry that young gal, Tom, and you'll never have no more quiet and happiness. She'd just take and turn the place upsy-down on you. The man as marries that young gal has got to be master in his own home. He's got to show her what's what. Now, you ain't got the devil in you to do that, Tom. You're what I might call a sort of a sheep. I admires it in you, Tom. I like to see a young man steady and quiet, same as what you be. So that's how it is, you see. Just you drop this foolishness, young Tom, and leave that young gal be, else you'll burn your fingers, same as what I say.'
And, giving his top-hat a rakish tilt, the old gentleman ambled indoors, satisfied that he had dropped a guarded hint in a pleasant and tactful manner.
It is to be supposed that this interview stung Tom to swift action. Otherwise, one cannot explain why he should not have been just as reticent on the subject nearest his heart when bestowing on Sally the twenty-seventh cabbage as he had been when administering the hundred and sixtieth potato. At any rate, the fact remains that, as that fateful vegetable changed hands across the fence, something resembling a proposal of marriage did actually proceed from him. As a sustained piece of emotional prose it fell short of the highest standard. Most of it was lost at the back of his throat, and what did emerge was mainly inaudible. However, as she distinctly caught the word 'love' twice, and as Tom was shuffling his feet and streaming with perspiration, and looking everywhere at once except at her, Sally grasped the situation. Whereupon, without any visible emotion, she accepted him.
Tom had to ask her to repeat her remark. He could not believe his luck. It is singular how diffident a normally self-confident man can become, once he is in love. When Colonel Milvery, of the Hall, had informed him of his promotion to the post of second gardener, Tom had demanded no encore. He knew his worth. He was perfectly aware that he was a good gardener, and official recognition of the fact left him gratified, but unperturbed. But this affair of Sally was quite another matter. It had revolutionized his standards of value—forced him to consider himself as a man, entirely apart from his skill as a gardener. And until this moment he had had grave doubt as to whether, apart from his skill as a gardener, he amounted to much.
He was overwhelmed. He kissed Sally across the fence humbly. Sally, for her part, seemed very unconcerned about it all. A more critical man than Thomas Kitchener might have said that, to all appearances, the thing rather bored Sally.
'Don't tell anybody just yet,' she stipulated.
Tom would have given much to be allowed to announce his triumph defiantly to old Mr Williams, to say nothing of making a considerable noise about it in the village; but her wish was law, and he reluctantly agreed.
* * * * *
There are moments in a man's life when, however enthusiastic a gardener he may be, his soul soars above vegetables. Tom's shot with a jerk into the animal kingdom. The first present he gave Sally in his capacity of fiance was a dog.
It was a half-grown puppy with long legs and a long tail, belonging to no one species, but generously distributing itself among about six. Sally loved it, and took it with her wherever she went. And on one of these rambles down swooped Constable Cobb, the village policeman, pointing out that, contrary to regulations, the puppy had no collar.
It is possible that a judicious meekness on Sally's part might have averted disaster. Mr Cobb was human, and Sally was looking particularly attractive that morning. Meekness, however, did not come easily to Sally. In a speech which began as argument and ended (Mr Cobb proving solid and unyielding) as pure cheek, she utterly routed the constable. But her victory was only a moral one, for as she turned to go Mr Cobb, dull red and puffing slightly, was already entering particulars of the affair in his note-book, and Sally knew that the last word was with him.
On her way back she met Tom Kitchener. He was looking very tough and strong, and at the sight of him a half-formed idea, which she had regretfully dismissed as impracticable, of assaulting Constable Cobb, returned to her in an amended form. Tom did not know it, but the reason why she smiled so radiantly upon him at that moment was that she had just elected him to the post of hired assassin. While she did not want Constable Cobb actually assassinated, she earnestly desired him to have his helmet smashed down over his eyes; and it seemed to her that Tom was the man to do it.
She poured out her grievance to him and suggested her scheme. She even elaborated it.
'Why shouldn't you wait for him one night and throw him into the creek? It isn't deep, and it's jolly muddy.'
'Um!' said Tom, doubtfully.
'It would just teach him,' she pointed out.
But the prospect of undertaking the higher education of the police did not seem to appeal to Tom. In his heart he rather sympathized with Constable Cobb. He saw the policeman's point of view. It is all very well to talk, but when you are stationed in a sleepy village where no one ever murders, or robs, or commits arson, or even gets drunk and disorderly in the street, a puppy without a collar is simply a godsend. A man must look out for himself.
He tried to make this side of the question clear to Sally, but failed signally. She took a deplorable view of his attitude.
'I might have known you'd have been afraid,' she said, with a contemptuous jerk of her chin. 'Good morning.'
Tom flushed. He knew he had never been afraid of anything in his life, except her; but nevertheless the accusation stung. And as he was still afraid of her he stammered as he began to deny the charge.
'Oh, leave off!' said Sally, irritably. 'Suck a lozenge.'
'I'm not afraid,' said Tom, condensing his remarks to their minimum as his only chance of being intelligible.
'I'm not. It's just that I—'
A nasty gleam came into Sally's eyes. Her manner was haughty.
'It doesn't matter.' She paused. 'I've no doubt Ted Pringle will do what I want.'
For all her contempt, she could not keep a touch of uneasiness from her eyes as she prepared to make her next remark. There was a look about Tom's set jaw which made her hesitate. But her temper had run away with her, and she went on.
'I am sure he will,' she said. 'When we became engaged he said that he would do anything for me.'
There are some speeches that are such conversational knockout blows that one can hardly believe that life will ever pick itself up and go on again after them. Yet it does. The dramatist brings down the curtain on such speeches. The novelist blocks his reader's path with a zareba of stars. But in life there are no curtains, no stars, nothing final and definite—only ragged pauses and discomfort. There was such a pause now.
'What do you mean?' said Tom at last. 'You promised to marry me.'
'I know I did—and I promised to marry Ted Pringle!'
That touch of panic which she could not wholly repress, the panic that comes to everyone when a situation has run away with them like a strange, unmanageable machine, infused a shade too much of the defiant into Sally's manner. She had wished to be cool, even casual, but she was beginning to be afraid. Why, she could not have said. Certainly she did not anticipate violence on Tom's part. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps it was just because he was so quiet that she was afraid. She had always looked on him contemptuously as an amiable, transparent lout, and now he was puzzling her. She got an impression of something formidable behind his stolidity, something that made her feel mean and insignificant.
She fought against the feeling, but it gripped her; and, in spite of herself, she found her voice growing shrill and out of control.
'I promised to marry Ted Pringle, and I promised to marry Joe Blossom, and I promised to marry Albert Parsons. And I was going to promise to marry Arthur Brown and anybody else who asked me. So now you know! I told you I'd make father take me back to London. Well, when he hears that I've promised to marry four different men, I bet he'll have me home by the first train.'
She stopped. She had more to say, but she could not say it. She stood looking at him. And he looked at her. His face was grey and his mouth oddly twisted. Silence seemed to fall on the whole universe.
Sally was really afraid now, and she knew it. She was feeling very small and defenceless in an extremely alarming world. She could not have said what it was that had happened to her. She only knew that life had become of a sudden very vivid, and that her ideas as to what was amusing had undergone a striking change. A man's development is a slow and steady process of the years—a woman's a thing of an instant. In the silence which followed her words Sally had grown up.
Tom broke the silence.
'Is that true?' he said.
His voice made her start. He had spoken quietly, but there was a new note in it, strange to her. Just as she could not have said what it was that had happened to her, so now she could not have said what had happened to Tom. He, too, had changed, but how she did not know. Yet the explanation was simple. He also had, in a sense, grown up. He was no longer afraid of her.
He stood thinking. Hours seemed to pass.
'Come along!' he said, at last, and he began to move off down the road.
Sally followed. The possibility of refusing did not enter her mind.
'Where are you going?' she asked. It was unbearable, this silence.
He did not answer.
In this fashion, he leading, she following, they went down the road into a lane, and through a gate into a field. They passed into a second field, and as they did so Sally's heart gave a leap. Ted Pringle was there.
Ted Pringle was a big young man, bigger even than Tom Kitchener, and, like Tom, he was of silent habit. He eyed the little procession inquiringly, but spoke no word. There was a pause.
'Ted,' said Tom, 'there's been a mistake.'
He stepped quickly to Sally's side, and the next moment he had swung her off her feet and kissed her.
To the type of mind that Millbourne breeds, actions speak louder than words, and Ted Pringle, who had gaped, gaped no more. He sprang forward, and Tom, pushing Sally aside, turned to meet him.
I cannot help feeling a little sorry for Ted Pringle. In the light of what happened, I could wish that it were possible to portray him as a hulking brute of evil appearance and worse morals—the sort of person concerning whom one could reflect comfortably that he deserved all he got. I should like to make him an unsympathetic character, over whose downfall the reader would gloat. But honesty compels me to own that Ted was a thoroughly decent young man in every way. He was a good citizen, a dutiful son, and would certainly have made an excellent husband. Furthermore, in the dispute on hand he had right on his side fully as much as Tom. The whole affair was one of those elemental clashings of man and man where the historian cannot sympathize with either side at the expense of the other, but must confine himself to a mere statement of what occurred. And, briefly, what occurred was that Tom, bringing to the fray a pent-up fury which his adversary had had no time to generate, fought Ted to a complete standstill in the space of two minutes and a half.
Sally had watched the proceedings, sick and horrified. She had never seen men fight before, and the terror of it overwhelmed her. Her vanity received no pleasant stimulation from the thought that it was for her sake that this storm had been let loose. For the moment her vanity was dead, stunned by collision with the realities. She found herself watching in a dream. She saw Ted fall, rise, fall again, and lie where he had fallen; and then she was aware that Tom was speaking.
She hung back. Ted was lying very still. Gruesome ideas presented themselves. She had just accepted them as truth when Ted wriggled. He wriggled again. Then he sat up suddenly, looked at her with unseeing eyes, and said something in a thick voice. She gave a little sob of relief. It was ghastly, but not so ghastly as what she had been imagining.
Somebody touched her arm. Tom was by her side, grim and formidable. He was wiping blood from his face.
She followed him without a word. And presently, behold, in another field, whistling meditatively and regardless of impending ill, Albert Parsons.
In everything that he did Tom was a man of method. He did not depart from his chosen formula.
'Albert,' he said, 'there's been a mistake.'
And Albert gaped, as Ted had gaped.
Tom kissed Sally with the gravity of one performing a ritual.
The uglinesses of life, as we grow accustomed to them, lose their power to shock, and there is no doubt that Sally looked with a different eye upon this second struggle. She was conscious of a thrill of excitement, very different from the shrinking horror which had seized her before. Her stunned vanity began to tingle into life again. The fight was raging furiously over the trampled turf, and quite suddenly, as she watched, she was aware that her heart was with Tom.
It was no longer two strange brutes fighting in a field. It was her man battling for her sake.
She desired overwhelmingly that he should win, that he should not be hurt, that he should sweep triumphantly over Albert Parsons as he had swept over Ted Pringle.
Unfortunately, it was evident, even to her, that he was being hurt, and that he was very far from sweeping triumphantly over Albert Parsons. He had not allowed himself time to recover from his first battle, and his blows were slow and weary. Albert, moreover, was made of sterner stuff than Ted. Though now a peaceful tender of cows, there had been a time in his hot youth when, travelling with a circus, he had fought, week in, week out, relays of just such rustic warriors as Tom. He knew their methods—their headlong rushes, their swinging blows. They were the merest commonplaces of life to him. He slipped Tom, he side-stepped Tom, he jabbed Tom; he did everything to Tom that a trained boxer can do to a reckless novice, except knock the fight out of him, until presently, through the sheer labour of hitting, he, too, grew weary.
Now, in the days when Albert Parsons had fought whole families of Toms in an evening, he had fought in rounds, with the boss holding the watch, and half-minute rests, and water to refresh him, and all orderly and proper. Today there were no rounds, no rests, no water, and the peaceful tending of cows had caused flesh to grow where there had been only muscle. Tom's headlong rushes became less easy to side-step, his swinging blows more difficult than the scientific counter that shot out to check them. As he tired Tom seemed to regain strength. The tide of the battle began to ebb. He clinched, and Tom threw him off. He feinted, and while he was feinting Tom was on him. It was the climax of the battle—the last rally. Down went Albert, and stayed down. Physically, he was not finished; but in his mind a question had framed itself—the question. 'Was it worth it?'—and he was answering, 'No.' There were other girls in the world. No girl was worth all this trouble.
He did not rise.
'Come along!' said Tom.
He spoke thickly. His breath was coming in gasps. He was a terrible spectacle, but Sally was past the weaker emotions. She was back in the Stone Age, and her only feeling was one of passionate pride. She tried to speak. She struggled to put all she felt into words, but something kept her dumb, and she followed him in silence.
In the lane outside his cottage, down by the creek, Joe Blossom was clipping a hedge. The sound of footsteps made him turn.
He did not recognize Tom till he spoke.
'Joe, there's been a mistake,' said Tom.
'Been a gunpowder explosion, more like,' said Joe, a simple, practical man. 'What you been doin' to your face?'
'She's going to marry me, Joe.'
Joe eyed Sally inquiringly.
'Eh? You promised to marry me.'
'She promised to marry all of us. You, me, Ted Pringle, and Albert Parsons.'
'That's where the mistake was. She's only going to marry me. I—I've arranged it with Ted and Albert, and now I've come to explain to you, Joe.'
'You promised to marry—!'
The colossal nature of Sally's deceit was plainly troubling Joe Blossom. He expelled his breath in a long note of amazement. Then he summed up.
'Why you're nothing more nor less than a Joshua!'
The years that had passed since Joe had attended the village Sunday-school had weakened his once easy familiarity with the characters of the Old Testament. It is possible that he had somebody else in his mind.
Tom stuck doggedly to his point.
'You can't marry her, Joe.'
Joe Blossom raised his shears and clipped a protruding branch. The point under discussion seemed to have ceased to interest him.
'Who wants to?' he said. 'Good riddance!'
They went down the lane. Silence still brooded over them. The words she wanted continued to evade her.
They came to a grassy bank. Tom sat down. He was feeling unutterably tired.
He looked up. His mind was working dizzily.
'You're going to marry me,' he muttered.
She sat down beside him.
'I know,' she said. 'Tom, dear, lay your head on my lap and go to sleep.'
If this story proves anything (beyond the advantage of being in good training when you fight), it proves that you cannot get away from the moving pictures even in a place like Millbourne; for as Sally sat there, nursing Tom, it suddenly struck her that this was the very situation with which that 'Romance of the Middle Ages' film ended. You know the one I mean. Sir Percival Ye Something (which has slipped my memory for the moment) goes out after the Holy Grail; meets damsel in distress; overcomes her persecutors; rescues her; gets wounded, and is nursed back to life in her arms. Sally had seen it a dozen times. And every time she had reflected that the days of romance are dead, and that that sort of thing can't happen nowadays.
Historians of the social life of the later Roman Empire speak of a certain young man of Ariminum, who would jump into rivers and swim in 'em. When his friends said, 'You fish!' he would answer, 'Oh, pish! Fish can't swim like me, they've no vim in 'em.'
Just such another was George Barnert Callender.
On land, in his land clothes, George was a young man who excited little remark. He looked very much like other young men. He was much about the ordinary height. His carriage suggested the possession of an ordinary amount of physical strength. Such was George—on shore. But remove his clothes, drape him in a bathing-suit, and insert him in the water, and instantly, like the gentleman in The Tempest, he 'suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange.' Other men puffed, snorted, and splashed. George passed through the ocean with the silent dignity of a torpedo. Other men swallowed water, here a mouthful, there a pint, anon, maybe, a quart or so, and returned to the shore like foundering derelicts. George's mouth had all the exclusiveness of a fashionable club. His breast-stroke was a thing to see and wonder at. When he did the crawl, strong men gasped. When he swam on his back, you felt that that was the only possible method of progression.
George came to Marvis Bay at about five o'clock one evening in July. Marvis Bay has a well-established reputation as a summer resort, and, while not perhaps in every respect the paradise which the excitable writer of the local guide-book asserts it to be, on the whole it earns its reputation. Its sands are smooth and firm, sloping almost imperceptibly into the ocean. There is surf for those who like it, and smoother water beyond for those whose ideals in bathing are not confined to jumping up and down on a given jelly-fish. At the northern end of the beach there is a long pier. It was to this that George made his way on his arrival.
It was pleasant on the pier. Once you had passed the initial zareba of fruit stands, souvenir stands, ice-cream stands, and the lair of the enthusiast whose aim in life it was to sell you picture post-cards, and had won through to the long walk where the seats were, you were practically alone with Nature. At this hour of the day the place was deserted; George had it to himself. He strolled slowly along. The water glittered under the sun-rays, breaking into a flurry of white foam as it reached the beach. A cool breeze blew. The whole scenic arrangements were a great improvement on the stuffy city he had left. Not that George had come to Marvis Bay with the single aim of finding an antidote to metropolitan stuffiness. There was a more important reason. In three days Marvis Bay was to be the scene of the production of Fate's Footballs, a comedy in four acts by G. Barnert Callender. For George, though you would not have suspected it from his exterior, was one of those in whose cerebra the grey matter splashes restlessly about, producing strong curtains and crisp dialogue. The company was due at Marvis Bay on the following evening for the last spasm of rehearsals.
George's mind, as he paced the pier, was divided between the beauties of Nature and the forthcoming crisis in his affairs in the ratio of one-eighth to the former and seven-eighths to the latter. At the moment when he had left London, thoroughly disgusted with the entire theatrical world in general and the company which was rehearsing Fate's Footballs in particular, rehearsals had just reached that stage of brisk delirium when the author toys with his bottle of poison and the stage-manager becomes icily polite. The Footpills—as Arthur Mifflin, the leading juvenile in the great play, insisted upon calling it, much to George's disapproval—was his first piece. Never before had he been in one of those kitchens where many cooks prepare, and sometimes spoil, the theatrical broth. Consequently the chaos seemed to him unique. Had he been a more experienced dramatist, he would have said to himself, 'Twas ever thus.' As it was, what he said to himself—and others—was more forcible.
He was trying to dismiss the whole thing from his mind—a feat which had hitherto proved beyond his powers—when Fate, in an unusually kindly mood, enabled him to do so in a flash by presenting to his jaundiced gaze what, on consideration, he decided was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. 'When a man's afraid,' shrewdly sings the bard, 'a beautiful maid is a cheering sight to see'. In the present instance the sight acted on George like a tonic. He forgot that the lady to whom an injudicious management had assigned the role of heroine in Fate's Footballs invariably—no doubt from the best motives—omitted to give the cynical roue his cue for the big speech in Act III His mind no longer dwelt on the fact that Arthur Mifflin, an estimable person in private life, and one who had been a friend of his at Cambridge, preferred to deliver the impassioned lines of the great renunciation scene in a manner suggesting a small boy (and a sufferer from nasal catarrh at that) speaking a piece at a Sunday-school treat. The recollection of the hideous depression and gloom which the leading comedian had radiated in great clouds fled from him like some grisly nightmare before the goddess of day. Every cell in his brain was occupied, to the exclusion of all other thoughts, by the girl swimming in the water below.
She swam well. His practised eye saw that. Her strong, easy strokes carried her swiftly over the swell of the waves. He stared, transfixed. He was a well-brought-up young man, and he knew how ill-bred it was to stare; but this was a special occasion. Ordinary rules of conventional etiquette could not apply to a case like this. He stared. More, he gaped. As the girl passed on into the shadow of the pier he leaned farther over the rail, and his neck extended in joints like a telescope.
At this point the girl turned to swim on her back. Her eyes met his. Hers were deep and clear; his, bulging. For what seemed an eternity to George, she continued to look at him. Then, turning over again, she shot past under the pier.
George's neck was now at its full stretch. No power of will or muscle could add another yard to it. Realizing this, he leaned farther over the rail, and farther still. His hat slid from his hand. He grabbed at it, and, overbalancing, fell with a splash into the water.
Now, in ordinary circumstances, to fall twelve feet into the ocean with all his clothes on would have incommoded George little. He would hardly have noticed it. He would have swum to shore with merely a feeling of amused self-reproach akin to that of the man who absent-mindedly walks into a lamp-post in the street. When, therefore, he came to the surface he prepared without agitation to strike out in his usual bold fashion. At this moment, however, two hands, grasping him beneath the arms, lifted his head still farther from the waves, and a voice in his ear said, 'Keep still; don't struggle. There's no danger.'
George did not struggle. His brain, working with the cool rapidity of a buzz-saw in an ice-box, had planned a line of action. Few things are more difficult in this world for a young man than the securing of an introduction to the right girl under just the right conditions. When he is looking his best he is presented to her in the midst of a crowd, and is swept away after a rapid hand-shake. When there is no crowd he has toothache, or the sun has just begun to make his nose peel. Thousands of young lives have been saddened in this manner.
How different was George's case! By this simple accident, he reflected, as, helping the good work along with an occasional surreptitious leg-stroke, he was towed shorewards, there had been formed an acquaintanceship, if nothing more, which could not lightly be broken. A girl who has saved a man from drowning cannot pass him by next day with a formal bow. And what a girl, too! There had been a time, in extreme youth, when his feminine ideal was the sort of girl who has fuzzy, golden hair, and drops things. Indeed in his first year at the University he had said—and written—as much to one of the type, the episode concluding with a strong little drama, in which a wrathful, cheque-signing father had starred, supported by a subdued, misogynistic son. Which things, aided by the march of time, had turned George's tastes towards the healthy, open-air girl, who did things instead of dropping them.
The pleasantest functions must come to an end sooner or later; and in due season George felt his heels grate on the sand. His preserver loosed her hold. They stood up and faced each other. George began to express his gratitude as best he could—it was not easy to find neat, convincing sentences on the spur of the moment—but she cut him short.
'Of course, it was nothing. Nothing at all,' she said, brushing the sea-water from her eyes. 'It was just lucky I happened to be there.'
'It was splendid,' said the infatuated dramatist. 'It was magnificent. It—'
He saw that she was smiling.
'You're very wet,' she said.
George glanced down at his soaked clothes. It had been a nice suit once.
'Hadn't you better hurry back and change into something dry?'
Looking round about him, George perceived that sundry of the inquisitive were swooping down, with speculation in their eyes. It was time to depart.
'Have you far to go?'
'Not far. I'm staying at the Beach View Hotel.'
'Why, so am I. I hope we shall meet again.'
'We shall,' said George confidently.
'How did you happen to fall in?'
'I was—er—I was looking at something in the water.'
'I thought you were,' said the girl, quietly.
'I know,' he said, 'it was abominably rude of me to stare like that; but—'
'You should learn to swim,' interrupted the girl. 'I can't understand why every boy in the country isn't made to learn to swim before he's ten years old. And it isn't a bit difficult, really. I could teach you in a week.'
The struggle between George and George's conscience was brief. The conscience, weak by nature and flabby from long want of exercise, had no sort of chance from the start.
'I wish you would,' said George. And with those words he realized that he had definitely committed himself to his hypocritical role. Till that moment explanation would have been difficult, but possible. Now it was impossible.
'I will,' said the girl. 'I'll start tomorrow if you like.' She waded into the water.
'We'll talk it over at the hotel,' she said, hastily. 'Here comes a crowd of horrid people. I'm going to swim out again.'
She hurried into deeper water, while George, turning, made his way through a growing throng of goggling spectators. Of the fifteen who got within speaking distance of him, six told him that he was wet. The other nine asked him if he had fallen.
* * * * *
Her name was Vaughan, and she was visiting Marvis Bay in company with an aunt. So much George ascertained from the management of the hotel. Later, after dinner, meeting both ladies on the esplanade, he gleaned further information—to wit, that her first name was Mary, that her aunt was glad to make his acquaintance, liked Marvis Bay but preferred Trouville, and thought it was getting a little chilly and would go indoors.
The elimination of the third factor had a restorative effect upon George's conversation, which had begun to languish. In feminine society as a rule he was apt to be constrained, but with Mary Vaughan it was different. Within a couple of minutes he was pouring out his troubles. The cue-withholding leading lady, the stick-like Mifflin, the funereal comedian—up they all came, and she, gently sympathetic, was endeavouring, not without success, to prove to him that things were not so bad as they seemed.
'It's sure to be all right on the night,' she said.
How rare is the combination of beauty and intelligence! George thought he had never heard such a clear-headed, well-expressed remark.
'I suppose it will,' he said, 'but they were very bad when I left. Mifflin, for instance. He seems to think Nature intended him for a Napoleon of Advertising. He has a bee in his bonnet about booming the piece. Sits up at nights, when he ought to be sleeping or studying his part, thinking out new schemes for advertising the show. And the comedian. His speciality is drawing me aside and asking me to write in new scenes for him. I couldn't stand it any longer. I just came away and left them to fight it out among themselves.'
'I'm sure you have no need to worry. A play with such a good story is certain to succeed.'
George had previously obliged with a brief description of the plot of The Footpills.
'Did you like the story?' he said, tenderly.
'I thought it was fine.'
'How sympathetic you are!' cooed George, glutinously, edging a little closer. 'Do you know—'
'Shall we be going back to the hotel?' said the girl.
* * * * *
Those noisome creatures, the hired murderers of Fate's Footpills, descended upon Marvis Bay early next afternoon, and George, meeting them at the station, in reluctant pursuance of a promise given to Arthur Mifflin, felt moodily that, if only they could make their acting one-half as full of colour as their clothes, the play would be one of the most pronounced successes of modern times. In the forefront gleamed, like the white plumes of Navarre, the light flannel suit of Arthur Mifflin, the woodenest juvenile in captivity.
His woodenness was, however, confined to stage rehearsals. It may be mentioned that, once the run of a piece had begun, he was sufficiently volatile, and in private life he was almost excessively so—a fact which had been noted at an early date by the keen-eyed authorities of his University, the discovery leading to his tearing himself away from Alma Mater by request with some suddenness. He was a long, slender youth, with green eyes, jet-black hair, and a passionate fondness for the sound of his own voice.
'Well, here we are,' he said, kicking breezily at George's leg with his cane.
'I saw you,' said George, coldly, side-stepping.
'The whole team,' continued Mr Mifflin; 'all bright, bonny, and trained to the minute.'
'What happened after I left?' George asked. 'Has anybody begun to act yet? Or are they waiting till the dress-rehearsal?'
'The rehearsals,' admitted Mr Mifflin, handsomely, 'weren't perfect; but you wait. It'll be all right on the night.'
George thought he had never heard such a futile, vapid remark.
'Besides,' said Mr Mifflin, 'I have an idea which will make the show. Lend me your ear—both ears. You shall have them back. Tell me: what pulls people into a theatre? A good play? Sometimes. But failing that, as in the present case, what? Fine acting by the leading juvenile? We have that, but it is not enough. No, my boy; advertisement is the thing. Look at all these men on the beach. Are they going to roll in of their own free wills to see a play like The Footpills? Not on your life. About the time the curtain rises every man of them will be sitting in his own private corner of the beach—'
'How many corners do you think the beach has?'
'Gazing into a girl's eyes, singing, "Shine on, thou harvest moon", and telling her how his boss is practically dependent on his advice. You know.'
'I don't,' said George, coldly.
'Unless,' proceeded Mr Mifflin, 'we advertise. And by advertise, I mean advertise in the right way. We have a Press-agent, but for all the good he does he might be back on the old farm, gathering in the hay. Luckily for us, I am among those present. I have brains, I have resource. What's that?'
'I said nothing.'
'I thought you did. Well, I have an idea which will drag these people like a magnet. I thought it out coming down in the train.'
'What is it?'
'I'll tell you later. There are a few details to be worked upon first. Meanwhile, let us trickle to the sea-front and take a sail in one of those boats. I am at my best in a boat. I rather fancy Nature intended me for a Viking.'
Matters having been arranged with the financier to whom the boat belonged, they set forth. Mr Mifflin, having remarked, 'Yo-ho!' in a meditative voice, seated himself at the helm, somewhat saddened by his failure to borrow a quid of tobacco from the Ocean Beauty's proprietor. For, as he justly observed, without properties and make-up, where were you? George, being skilled in the ways of boats, was in charge of the sheet. The summer day had lost its oppressive heat. The sun no longer beat down on the face of the waters. A fresh breeze had sprung up. George, manipulating the sheet automatically, fell into a reverie. A moment comes in the life of every man when an inward voice whispers to him, 'This is The One!' In George's case the voice had not whispered; it had shouted. From now onward there could be but one woman in the world for him. From now onwards—The Ocean Beauty gave a sudden plunge. George woke up.
'What the deuce are you doing with that tiller?' he inquired.
'My gentle somnambulist,' said Mr Mifflin, aggrieved, 'I was doing nothing with this tiller. We will now form a commission to inquire into what you were doing with that sheet. Were you asleep?'
'My fault,' said George; 'I was thinking.'
'If you must break the habit of a lifetime,' said Mr Mifflin, complainingly, 'I wish you would wait till we get ashore. You nearly upset us.'
'It shan't happen again. They are tricky, these sailing boats—turn over in a second. Whatever you do, don't get her broadside on. There's more breeze out here than I thought there was.'
Mr Mifflin uttered a startled exclamation.
'What's the matter?' asked George.
'Just like a flash,' said Mr Mifflin, complacently. 'It's always the way with me. Give me time, and the artistic idea is bound to come. Just some little thought, some little, apparently obvious, idea which stamps the man of genius. It beats me why I didn't think of it before. Why, of course, a costume piece with a male star is a hundred times more effective.'
'What are you talking about?'
'I see now,' continued Mr Mifflin, 'that there was a flaw in my original plan. My idea was this. We were talking in the train about the bathing down here, and Jane happened to say she could swim some, and it suddenly came to me.'
Jane was the leading woman, she who omitted to give cues.
'I said to myself, "George is a sportsman. He will be delighted to do a little thing like that".'
'Like to do what?'
'Why, rescue Jane.'
'She and you,' said Mr Mifflin, 'were to go in swimming together, while I waited on the sands, holding our bone-headed Press-agent on a leash. About a hundred yards from the shore up go her arms. Piercing scream. Agitated crowds on the beach. What is the matter? What has happened? A touch of cramp. Will she be drowned? No! G. Barnert Callender, author of Fate's Footballs, which opens at the Beach Theatre on Monday evening next, at eight-fifteen sharp, will save her. See! He has her. He is bringing her in. She is safe. How pleased her mother will be! And the public, what a bit of luck for them! They will be able to see her act at eight-fifteen sharp on Monday after all. Back you come to the shore. Cheering crowds. Weeping women. Strong situation. I unleash the Press-agent, and off he shoots, in time to get the story into the evening paper. It was a great idea, but I see now there were one or two flaws in it.'
'You do, do you?' said George.
'It occurs to me on reflection that after all you wouldn't have agreed to it. A something, I don't know what, which is lacking in your nature, would have made you reject the scheme.'
'I'm glad that occurred to you.'
'And a far greater flaw was that it was too altruistic. It boomed you and it boomed Jane, but I didn't get a thing out of it. My revised scheme is a thousand times better in every way.'