"The Right Stuff"
Some Episodes in the Career of a North Briton
DR JOHNSON. Oatmeal, sir? The food of horses in England and of men in Scotland!
BOSWELL (roused at last). And where, sir, will you find such horses—or such men?
William Blackwood & Sons Edinburgh and London 1912
AN INDULGENT CRITIC
I. "OATMEAL AND THE SHORTER CATECHISM" II. INTRODUCES A PILLAR OF STATE AND THE APPURTENANCES THEREOF III. "ANENT" IV. A TRIAL TRIP V. ROBIN ON DUTY VI. ROBIN OFF DUTY VII. A DISSOLUTION OF PARTNERSHIP VIII. OF A PIT THAT WAS DIGGED, AND WHO FELL INTO IT IX. THE POLICY OF THE CLOSED DOOR X. ROBIN'S WAY OF DOING IT
THE FINISHED ARTICLE.
XI. A MISFIRE XII. THE COMPLEAT ANGLER XIII. A HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE XIV. "TO DIE—WILL BE AN AWFULLY BIG ADVENTURE" XV. TWO BATTLES XVI. "QUI PERD, GAGNE" XVII. IN WHICH ALL'S RIGHT WITH THE WORLD XVIII. A PROPHET IN HIS OWN COUNTRY
OATMEAL AND THE SHORTER CATECHISM.
The first and most-serious-but-one ordeal in the life of Robert Chalmers Fordyce—so Robert Chalmers himself informed me years afterwards—was the examination for the Bursary which he gained at Edinburgh University. A bursary is what an English undergraduate would call a "Schol." (Imagine a Scottish student talking about a "Burse"!)
Robert Chalmers Fordyce arrived in Edinburgh pretty evenly divided between helpless stupefaction at the sight of a great city and stern determination not to be imposed upon by the inhabitants thereof. His fears were not as deep-seated as those of Tom Pinch on a similar occasion,—he, it will be remembered, suffered severe qualms from his familiarity with certain rural traditions concerning the composition of London pies,—but he was far from happy. He had never slept away from his native hillside before; he had never seen a town possessing more than three thousand inhabitants; and he had only once travelled in a train.
Moreover, he was proceeding to an inquisition which would decide once and for all whether he was to go forth and conquer the world with a university education behind him, or go back to the plough and sup porridge for the rest of his life. To-morrow he was to have his opportunity, and the consideration of how that opportunity could best be gripped and brought to the ground blinded Robin even to the wonders of the Forth Bridge.
He sat in the corner of the railway carriage, passing in review the means of conquest at his disposal. His actual stock of scholarship, he knew, was well up to the required standard: he was as letter perfect in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and Literature as hard study and remorseless coaching could make him. Everything needful was in his head—but could he get it out again? That was the question. The roaring world in which he would find himself, the strange examination-room, the quizzing professors—would these combine with his native shyness to seal the lips and cramp the pen of Robert Chalmers Fordyce? No—a thousand times no! He would win through! Robert set his teeth, braced himself, and kicked the man opposite.
He apologised, attributing the discourtesy to the length of his legs—he stood about six feet three—and smiled so largely and benignantly, that the Man Opposite, who had intended to be thoroughly disagreeable, melted at once, and said it was the fault of the Company for providing such restricted accommodation, and gave Robert The Scotsman to read.
Robert thanked him, and, effacing himself behind The Scotsman,—though, for all the instruction or edification that his present frame of mind permitted him to extract from that coping-stone of Scottish journalism, he might as well have been reading the Koran,—returned to his thoughts. He collated in his mind the pieces of advice which had been bestowed upon him by his elders and betters before his departure. In brief, their collective wisdom came to this:—
His father had bidden him—
(a) To address all professors with whom he might come in contact as "Sir";
(b) To arrive at the Examination each morning at least five minutes before the advertised time;
(c) To refrain from lending money to, or otherwise countenancing the advances of, persons of insinuating address who would doubtless accost him in the streets of Edinburgh.
The Dominie had said—
"When in doubt, mind that practically everything in an examination governs the subjunctive.
"If there is a viva voce, be sure and speak up and give your answers as though you were sure of them. They may be wrong, but on the other hand they may be right. Anyway, the one thing the examiners will not thole is a body that dithers.
"Take a last keek at that Proposition—they may call them Theorems, though—about the Square on the Hypotenuse. It hasn't been set for four years.
"If you are given a piece of Greek Testament to translate, for mercy's sake do not be too glib. Dinna translate a thing until you are sure it is there. They have an unholy habit of leaving out a couple of verses some place in the middle, and you're just the one to tumble head-first into the lacuna. (I ken ye, Robbie!)
"And whatever ye do, just bear in mind it's your only chance, and grup on tae it! Post est occasio calva, laddie! And dinna disappoint an auld man that has taught ye all he kens himsel'!"
Much of his mother's advice was of a kind that could not be expressed so concisely, but two salient items remained fixed in Robert's mind:—
"If ye canna think o' the richt word, pit up a bit prayer.
"For ony sake see that your collar is speckless a' the time."
Robert's first impressions of Edinburgh were disappointing. Though extensive enough, the city was not so great or so imposing as he had expected. It was entirely roofed with glass,—a provision which, though doubtless advantageous in wet weather, militated against an adequate supply of sunlight and fresh air. The shops, of which Robin had heard so much, were few in number; and the goods displayed therein (mainly food and drink, newspapers and tobacco) compared unfavourably in point of variety with those in the window of Malcolm M'Whiston, the "merchant" at home. The inhabitants all appeared to be in a desperate hurry, and the noise of the trains, which blocked every thoroughfare, was deafening. Robert Chalmers was just beginning to feel thoroughly disappointed with the Scottish capital, when it occurred to him to mount a flight of stairs which presented itself to his view and gave promise of a second storey at least. When he reached the top he found he had judged Edinburgh too hastily. There was some more of it.
His horizon thus suddenly enlarged, Robert Chalmers Fordyce began to take in his surroundings. He now found himself in a great street, with imposing buildings on one side and a green valley on the other. On the far side of the valley the ground ran steeply upward to an eminence crowded thickly with houses and topped by a mighty castle.
The street was alive with all sorts of absorbingly interesting traffic; but for the present Robert was chiefly concerned with the Cable Cars. It was upon one of these majestic vehicles, which moved down the street unassisted by any apparent human or equine agency, that he had been bidden to ride to his destination. He was not to take the first that came along, nor yet the second—they went to various places, it seemed; and if you were taken to the wrong one you had to pay just the same—but was to scan them until he espied one marked "Gorgie." This would carry him down the Dalry Road, and would ultimately pass the residence of Elspeth M'Kerrow, a decent widow woman, whose late husband's brother had "married on" a connection of Robert's mother. Here he was to lodge.
At first sight the cars appeared to be labelled with nothing but Cocoa and Whisky and Empire Palaces of Varieties Open Every Evening; but a little perseverance discovered a narrow strip of valuable information painted along the side of each car. The first that caught our friend's eye was "Pilrig and Braid Hills Road." That would not do. Then came another—"Murrayfield, Haymarket, and Nether Liberton." Another blank! Then, "Marchmont Road and Churchill." Foiled again, Robert was beginning to feel a little sceptical as to the actual existence of the Dalry Road, when a car drew up opposite to him labelled "Pilrig and Gorgie." It was going in the right direction too, for his father had warned him that his destination lay to the west of the town; and you can trust a Scotsman to know the points of the compass with his eyes shut. (They even talk of a man sitting on the north or south side of his own fireplace.)
Robert clambered on to the top of this car, and presently found himself confronted by a gentleman—splendid in appearance but of homely speech—who waved bundles of tickets in his face, and inquired tersely—
"Penny or tippeny? or transfair?"
"I am seeking the Dalry Road," said Robert cautiously.
"Which end o't?"
"I couldna say."
"Ca' it a penny," said the conductor.
Robert, with the air of a man who has beaten down his opponent to the lowest possible figure, produced the coin from his pocket. (It was just as well that the man had not demanded a larger sum, for Robert's more precious currency was concealed in a place only accessible to partial disrobement.) The gorgeous man carelessly snapped a ticket out of one of the bundles, and having first punched a hole in it with an ingenious instrument that gave forth sounds of music, handed it to Robert in exchange for the penny. He was a saturnine man, but he smiled a little later when Robert, mindful of the fate of his railway-ticket at the last station but one, airily attempted to give up his car-ticket in similar fashion on alighting at the end of the journey.
The greater part of the next four days was spent by our friend in an examination-room, into which we, more fortunate, need not attempt to follow him. Robert diligently answered every question, writing at the foot of each sheet of his neat manuscript, "More on the next page," in case the examiner should be a careless fellow and imagine that Robert had finished when he had not. Robert was not the man to leave anything to chance, or to such unsafe abbreviations as P.T.O.
Outside the examination-room he devoted most of the time that he could spare from preparation for the next paper to a systematic exploration of Edinburgh. He did the thing as thoroughly as possible, for he knew well that he might never spend four days in a large town again.
He began by climbing the Calton Hill. He remained at the summit quite a long time, constructing a rough bird's-eye plan of the streets and buildings below him; and having descended to earth, proceeded on a series of voyages of discovery.
He regarded the exterior of Parliament House with intense interest, for he was a debater by instinct and upbringing. St Giles' he passed by without enthusiasm—he was a member of the Free Kirk—and St Mary's Cathedral struck him as being unduly magnificent to be the property of such a small and pernicious sect as the Episcopalians. The Post Office and other great buildings struck him dumb; and he hastened past the theatres with averted eyes, for he had it upon unimpeachable authority that the devil resided there.
He knew no one in Edinburgh save Elspeth M'Kerrow. However, he made another friend—to wit, one Hector MacPherson, a gigantic Highland policeman, who controlled the traffic with incredible skill at a place where several ways met. The said Hector stood beneath the shadow of a great lamp-post, and whenever a vehicle drove past one side of him, Hector relentlessly called it back and made it go on the other. Their acquaintance began with the entire effacement of Robert's features by the palm of Hector's hand, which was suddenly extended across the thoroughfare for traffic-regulating purposes, with the result that Robert, who was plunged in thought at the time, ran his nose right into the centre of it. The ejaculation to which each gave vent at the moment of impact revealed to both that they were from the same part of the country, and thereafter Hector MacPherson became Robert's adviser-in-chief throughout his stay in Edinburgh. Indeed, Robert used Hector as the starting-point for all his excursions, and whenever he became hopelessly lost in the wilds of the Grassmarket or the purlieus of Morningside, he used to ask his way back to his mentor's pitch and make a fresh start. We shall hear of Hector again.
The foolhardy feat of entering a shop Robert did not attempt until his very last day in Edinburgh, and then only because he was absolutely compelled to do so by the necessity of executing a commission for his sister Margaret—the purchase of half a yard of ribbon.
It is true that the same ribbon could have been obtained at home from Malcolm M'Whiston or a travelling packman, but Margaret was determined to have it from Edinburgh; and she was particularly emphatic in her injunctions to Robert to see that the folk in the shop stuck a label on the parcel, "with their name printed on, and a picture of the shop and a'."
On Saturday morning, then, Robert approached the establishment which he had chosen for the purpose. After a careful reconnaissance he discovered that it possessed several doors. Here was a poser. Which would be the ribbon door? Supposing he entered the wrong one and found himself compelled to purchase a roll of muslin or a wash-hand-stand? With natural acumen he finally selected a door flanked by windows containing lace and ribbon; and waiting for a moment when the surging crowd was thickest, attempted to slip in with them. He got safely past a hero in a medal-sown uniform, but immediately after this encountered an imposing gentleman in a frock-coat, who asked his pleasure. Robert inquired respectfully if the gentleman kept ribbon. The gentleman said "Surely, surely!" and Robert's modest requirements were thereupon sent ringing from a throat of brass into the uttermost recesses of the establishment, and he himself was passed, hot-faced, along the fairway until he reached the right department. Here his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and the siren behind the counter, with difficulty stifling her amusement, was reduced to discovering his needs by a process of elimination.
"What will I show you?"
A shake of the head.
Another shake, accompanied by a deepening of complexion.
"Aye, that's it," replied Robert, suddenly finding his voice (which, by the way, rather resembled the Last Trump). "Hauf a yaird—one inch wide—satin—cream!" he roared mechanically.
He received the small parcel, and furtively fingering the money in his pocket, asked the price.
"Two-three, please," replied the damsel briskly.
How Robert thanked his stars that he had some cash in hand! But what a price! All that for a scrap of ribbon! It seemed sinful; but he laid two shillings and threepence on the counter. Greatly to his alarm, the young woman behind it, who up to this point had kept her feelings under commendable control, suddenly collapsed like a punctured balloon on to the shoulder of her nearest neighbour—there being no shop-walkers about—and expressed a wish that she might be taken home and buried. Finally she recovered sufficiently to push Robert's two shillings back across the counter and to place his threepence in a mysterious receptacle which she thrust into a hole in the wall, from which it was ejected with much clatter a minute later; and on being opened proved to contain what the dazed Robert at first took for a half-sovereign, but which he ultimately discovered, when he had abandoned the still giggling maiden and groped his way out into the street, to be a bright new farthing.
The same day he returned to his home; but he did not reach it without one more adventure, a slight one, it is true, but not without its effect upon his future.
The train was over-full, and Robert ultimately found himself travelling in company with nine other passengers, seven of whom were suffering from that infirmity once poetically described by an expert in such diagnoses as "a wee bit drappie in their een." The exception was a gentleman in the far corner, accompanied by a most lovely young lady, upon whom Robert gazed continuously with an admiration so absorbing and profound that it took him some little time to realise, shortly after the commencement of the journey, that the rest of the company were indulging in a free fight all over the compartment, and that the lady was clinging in terror to her escort. Robert was of considerable service in restoring order, and found his reward in the eyes of the lady, who thanked him very prettily. Her husband had the sense not to offer Robert money, but gave him his card, and said in a curious, stiff, English way that he hoped he might be of service to him some day. They got out at Perth, and Robert travelled on alone.
Hours later he was met by his brother David at a little wayside station, and driven over fifteen miles of hilly road to the farm where he had been born and brought up.
Next morning he was up at daybreak, and set to work at his usual tasks about the yard, well knowing that such would be his lot to the end of his life if the examination list did not show his name at the top.
* * * * *
Some days had to elapse before the result could be known; but Robert Chalmers Fordyce—by the way, I think we know him well enough now to call him Robin, which was the name his mother had given him on his third birthday—and his household, being Scottish and undemonstrative, made little or no reference to the subject.
Robin was the scholar of his family. He was the second son, David being four years older. But in accordance with that simple, grand, and patriarchal law of Scottish peasant life, which decrees that every lad of parts shall be given his chance to bring credit on the family, even though his parents have to pinch and save and his brothers bide at the plough-tail all their lives in consequence—a law whose chief merit lies in the splendid sacrifices which its faithful fulfilment involves, and whose vital principle well-meaning but misguided philanthropy is now endeavouring to dole out of existence—he had been sent to Edinburgh to make the most of this, his one chance in life.
Still, though the credit of the family hung upon the result of the examination,—if he won the Bursary, the money, together with the precious hoard which his father and mother had been accumulating for him for ten years, would just suffice to keep him at the University,—no one discussed the matter. It was in the hands of God, and prognostication could only be vain and unprofitable. His mother and sister, indeed, questioned him covertly when his father and brother were out of hearing; but that was chiefly about Edinburgh, and the shops, and the splendours of the Dalry Road. The Bursary was never mentioned.
On the day on which the result was to be announced their father took Robin and David away to a distant hillside to assist at the sheep-dipping. The news would come by letter, which might or might not get as far as Strathmyrtle Post Office, seven miles away, that very afternoon. In the morning it would be delivered by the postman.
But there are limits to human endurance, none the less definite because that endurance appears illimitable. When father and sons tramped back to the farm that evening, just in time for supper, it was discovered that Margaret was absent. John Fordyce, grim old martinet that he was, looked round the table inquiringly; but a glance at his wife's face caused him to go on with his meal.
At nine o'clock precisely the table was cleared. The herdman and two farm lasses came into the kitchen from their final tasks in the yard, and the great Bible was put down on the table for evening "worship."
John Fordyce, having looked up the "portion" which he proposed to read, then turned to the Metrical Psalms. These were sung night by night in unswerving rotation throughout the year, a custom which, while it offered the pleasing prospect of variety, occasionally left something to be desired on the score of appropriateness.
All being seated, the old man, after a final fleeting glance at his daughter's empty chair, gave out the Psalm.
"Let us worship God," he said, "by singing to His praise in the Hundred and Twenty-first Psalm. Psalm a Hundred and Twenty-one—
'I to the hills will lift mine eyes, From whence doth come——'"
The door opened, and Margaret entered. She was dusty and tired, for she had walked fourteen miles since milking-time; but in her hand she held a letter.
She glanced timidly at the clock, and was for slipping quietly into her seat; but her father said—
"You had best give it to him now. A man cannot worship God while his mind is distracted with other things."
Robin took the letter, and after a glance in the direction of his father and the waiting Bible, opened and read it amidst a tense silence. Finally he looked up.
"Well?" said the old man.
"They have given me the First Bursary, father," said Robin.
No one spoke, but Robin saw tears running down his mother's face. John Fordyce deliberately turned back several pages of the Bible.
"We will sing," he said in a clear voice, "in the Twenty-third Psalm—the whole of it!—
'The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want——'"
* * * * *
The Psalms of David, as rendered into English verse by Nahum Tate and others, are not remarkable for poetic merit; neither does the old Scottish fashion of singing the same, seated and without accompaniment, conduce to a concord of sweet sounds. But there are no tunes like old tunes, and there are no hearts like full hearts. If ever a song went straight up to heaven, the Twenty-third Psalm, borne up on the wings of "Martyrdom," did so that night.
INTRODUCES A PILLAR OF STATE AND THE APPURTENANCES THEREOF.
The time had undoubtedly arrived when I must have a Private Secretary.
Kitty, for one, insisted on it. She said that I was ruining my health in the service of an ungrateful country, and added that she, personally, declined to be left a widow at twenty-eight-and-a-half to oblige anybody.
"It is exactly the wrong age," she said. "If it had happened four or five years ago, I could have done pretty well for myself. Now, I should be out of the running among the debutantes, and a little too young and flighty to suit a middle-aged bachelor."
I may add that my wife does not often talk in this unfeeling manner. But she suffers at times from a desire to live up to a sort of honorary reputation for sprightly humour, conferred upon her by undiscriminating admirers in the days before she became engaged to me. As a matter of fact, her solicitude on my behalf was largely due to an ambition to see a little paragraph in the newspapers, announcing that "Mr Adrian Inglethwaite, M.P., Director of the Sub-Tropical and Arctic Department at the Foreign Office, has appointed Mr Blankley Dash to be his Private Secretary."
Dolly and Dilly seconded the motion. They had not the effrontery to wrap up their motives in specious expressions of concern for my health, but stated their point of view with brutal frankness, as is their wont. I was an old dear, they conceded, and of course Kitty was Kitty; but a sister and brother-in-law were, to put it quite plainly, a hopelessly dull couple to live with: and the visits of Mesdames Dolly and Dilly to our roof-tree would, it was hinted, be more frequent and enduring if the establishment was strengthened by the addition of a presentable young man.
I consented. It was three to one. To any one acquainted with the trio of sisters arrayed against me, it will at once be apparent that "these odds" (as the halfpenny papers say) "but faintly represent the superiority of the winning side."
Having thus dragged the reader without apology into the most intimate regions of my family circle, I had perhaps better introduce myself and my entourage a little more formally.
My name is Samuel Adrian Inglethwaite. Why I was called Samuel I do not know. Possibly my parents did. Samuel may have been a baptismal sprat set to catch a testamentary whale, but if this was so no legacy ever came my way. Personally, I am rather attached to the name, as I was called nothing else until I encountered the lady who ultimately consented to become Mrs Inglethwaite. Since that epoch in my career I have been S. Adrian Inglethwaite.
I am thirty-six years of age, and hold an appointment under Government, which, while it does not carry with it Cabinet rank—though Kitty cannot see why—is sufficiently important to make the daily papers keep my obituary notice handily pigeon-holed, in case I fall over the Thames Embankment, get run over by a motor-bus, or otherwise contravene the by-laws of the London County Council.
As no man can possibly give an unbiassed opinion of his own wife, I shall not attempt to describe mine at this juncture, except to mention that she is a woman with no fault that I can for the moment recall, beyond a predilection for belonging to societies which are better known for their aims than for their achievements, are perennially short of funds, and seem to possess no place of meeting except my drawing-room.
Dolly and Dilly are Kitty's sisters. They are twins, and there present age is, I think, nineteen. Though I say it who should not, they are both astonishingly attractive young persons, and the more I see of them the more the fact is borne in upon me. Indeed, a casual remark of mine to that effect, uttered to my wife, by an unfortunate coincidence, on the very morning upon which one of the numerous Deceased Wife's Sister's Bills passed its Second Reading in the House, gave rise to a coldness of demeanour on her part which was only dispelled by an abject apology and a dinner for two at the Savoy on mine.
To return to Dolly and Dilly. I never know them apart, and I do not think Kitty does either. Both are divinely tall and divinely fair; they are exactly like each other in form, voice, and feature; and they possess the irritating habit, not uncommon with twins, of endeavouring to exaggerate their natural resemblance by various puzzling and, I consider, unsportsmanlike devices. They wear each other's clothes indiscriminately, and are not above taking turn and turn about with the affections of unsuspecting young men, of whom they possess a considerable following. They attract admiration without effort, and, I honestly believe, without intention. Of the meaning of love they know nothing,—they are female Peter Pans, and resolutely refuse to grow up, except outwardly,—and the intrusion of that passion into their dealings with persons of the male gender is regarded by them at present as a contingency to be discouraged at all costs. The conditions under which they admit their admirers to their friendship are commendably simple and perfectly definite. If a man is adjudged by them to have attained all the complicated and inexplicable standards by which women judge the opposite sex, he is admitted into the ranks of the Good Sorts; and as such, provided that he keeps his head, has an extremely pleasant time of it. If, however, any obtuse and amorous youth persists in mistaking what Nanki-Poo once described as "customary expressions of affability" for an indication that his infatuation is reciprocated, the Twins act promptly. They have "no use" for such creatures, they once explained to me; and they proceed to rid themselves of the incubus in a fashion entirely their own.
As soon as the pressure of the affaire rises to danger-point—i.e., when the youth begins to pay markedly more attention to one Twin than the other—he is asked, say, to lunch. Here he is made much of by the object of his affections, who looks radiant in, let us say, white batiste; while the unemployed Twin, in (possibly) blue poplin, holds discreetly aloof. After lunch the Twins, leaving their victim to smoke a cigar, retire swiftly to their room, where they exchange costumes, and descend again to the drawing-room. There Dolly, now arrayed in white batiste, enters upon the path of dalliance where Dilly left off; and Dilly, relieved from duty, crochets in a window-recess, and silently enjoys her sister's impersonation.
One of two things happens. Romeo either does not notice the difference, or else he does. If he does not, he continues to flounder heavily along in pursuit of the well-beloved, oblivious of the fact that he is wasting his efforts on an understudy. After an appropriate interval the cold truth is revealed to him in a hysterical duet, and he goes home, glaring defiantly, but feeling an entire and unmitigated ass.
Or he may actually recognise that Dilly has been replaced by Dolly,—this is what happens when the case is a really serious one,—and if this occurs he is more sorrowful than angry, poor fellow, for he sees that he is being trifled with; and your true lover is the most desperately earnest person in the world. In either case the affaire terminates then and there. And that is how my sisters-in-law, with adroitness and despatch, return immature and undesirable suitors to their native element. The whole proceeding reminds me irresistibly of the Undersized Fish Bill, a measure whose progress I once assisted in its course through a Committee of the House.
However, having been bidden to procure a Private Secretary, I meekly set about looking for one. One night at dinner we held a symposium on the subject, and endeavoured to evolve an outline of the kind of gentleman who was likely to suit us. The following is a precis of the result. I leave the intelligent reader to trace each item to its author; also the various parenthetical comments on the same:—
(a) He must be a 'Varsity man.
(b) He must be able to keep accounts, and transact business generally.
(c) He must be content with a salary of two hundred a-year, with board and residence in the house. ("He can have that little room off the library for a sitting-room, dear, and sleep in the old night-nursery.")
(d) He must not wear celluloid collars or made-up ties. ("But he'll have to, poor dear, if the Infant Samuel only gives him two hundred a-year.")
(e) He must be prepared to run through my speeches before I deliver them. ("I suppose that means write them!"), look up my subject-matter, verify my references, and so on. ("That will be an improvement. But what will the halfpenny papers do then, poor things?")
(f) He must be the sort of man that one can have in to a dinner-party without any fear of accidents. ("Yes. He must be all right about peas, asparagus, and liqueurs. And finger-bowls, dearest. You remember the man who drank out of his at that queer political dinner to the constituents?")
(g) He must be nice to my Philly.
(h) He must be dark. ("Pshaw!")
(i) He must be fair. ("Ugh!")
(j) He must be able to waltz and play bridge.
At this point I suggested that a prepaid telegram to the Celestial Regions would alone procure the article we required. However, we ultimately descended to an advertisement in the Morning Post, and in due course I obtained a secretary. In fact, I obtained several. We had them seriatim, and none stayed longer than a month. I do not propose to write a detailed history of the dynasty which I now found it my privilege to support. A brief resume of each will suffice.
Number One.—Cambridge Football Blue. Big and breezy. Spelling entirely phonetic. Spent most of his time smoking in the drawing-room, and laboured under the delusion that, as my amanuensis, he was at liberty to forge my signature to all documents, including cheques. He used my official note-paper to back horses on, and was finally requested to leave, after an unseemly brawl with a book-maker's tout on my doorstep.
Number Two.—Oxford: a First in Greats. A heavy manner, usually beginning his observations with "Wherewithal" or "Peradventure." The Twins suffered severely from suppressed giggles in his presence. Regarded my superficial ideas of statesmanship with profound contempt, but left after a fortnight, having allowed a highly confidential and extremely personal pencil note, written in the margin of a despatch by the Premier himself, to blossom forth in large type in the text of a Blue Book.
Number Three.—Rather elderly for the post—nearer forty than thirty—but highly recommended. Reduced my chaotic papers to order in twenty-four hours, charmed my wife and her sisters, drafted a speech which won me quite a little ovation in the House, suggested several notable improvements in the "Importation of Mad Dogs Bill," with which I was to be entrusted next session—and was found lying dead drunk in his bedroom, at eleven o'clock in the morning, on the second Sunday after his arrival. Half a dozen empty brandy bottles were afterwards discovered on the top of his wardrobe. Poor devil!
Number Four.—(Subsequently handed down to posterity as "The Limit"). Small, spectacled, and nervous. Came from a Welsh University, and was strong on "the methodical filing of State and other documents." He stayed two days. On the first night (after inquiring whether we were expecting guests that evening, and receiving an answer in the negative) he came down to dinner in a sort of alpaca smoking-jacket and a tartan tie. On the second, having evidently decided to treat us to all the resources of his wardrobe as soon as possible, he appeared in more or less ordinary evening attire. He wore a small white satin bow-tie, attached to his collar-stud by a brass clip. The tie fell off the stud into his soup almost immediately, and its owner, after furtively chasing it round the plate with his forefinger, finally fished it out with the aid of a fork; and, having squeezed as much soup as possible back into the plate, put the bow into his waistcoat pocket and resumed his meal with every appearance of enjoyment.
He left next morning. As the Twins pathetically observed: "It had to be him or us!" I was sorry, for he was a tidy little creature away from table.
After that I did a rash thing. I engaged a Private Secretary on the spur of the moment and without consulting my household.
One morning I had occasion to visit the British Museum. That mausoleum of learning is not an habitual resort of mine, but on this occasion I had found it necessary to refresh my memory on the subject of a small principality situated somewhere in the Pacific, and reported to be in a state of considerable unrest, concerning which the member for Upper Gumbtree, an unpleasantly omniscient young man with a truculent manner, had been asking questions in the House. It seemed that British interests in that quarter were not being adequately protected by our Department, and this extremely pushing gentleman was now gaining much cheap applause in the columns of those low-priced organs which make a living by deriding his Majesty's Ministers, by bombarding us with fatuous inquiries on the subject. My Chief had only the most hazy notion about the place—as a matter of fact I do not believe that either he or any of the permanent officials had ever heard of it—and I was in a precisely similar condition. I was accordingly bidden to get up the subject, and accumulate a mass of information thereon which would not only satiate the appetite of the honourable member, but choke him off for all time.
Finding myself in want of a particular Gazetteer which was not to be found in the office, and being in no mood to take a clerk, however uncritical, into my confidence, I called a hansom and drove straight to the Museum; where, having ensconced myself in the reading-room with the work in question, I prepared to devote a dusty and laborious morning to the service of State.
Immediately opposite me sat a gigantic young man of a slightly threadbare appearance, who was copying some screed out of a bulky tome before him. I regarded him in a reminiscent sort of way for a few minutes, and presently found that my scrutiny was being returned fourfold. Next came an enormous hand that was suddenly thrust across the table towards me, and I remembered him.
We had met six years ago in a railway train, under circumstances which made me extremely glad to make his acquaintance at any price. Kitty and I were on our honeymoon, and happened to be travelling on a Saturday afternoon from Edinburgh to Perth in a train packed to suffocation with the supporters of a football team of the baser sort. We were bound for Inchellan, the Scottish residence of my Chief, who was sending to meet us at Perth.
As the first-class carriages were all occupied by gentlemen with third-class tickets, we travelled third with a company who did not seem to possess any tickets at all. Just before the train started the door was thrown open and two inebriated Scots, several degrees further gone than the rest of the company—which is saying a good deal—were hurled in. If the assemblage had all been of one way of thinking we might have reached Perth with nothing worse than bad headaches, but unfortunately some supporters of the other team were present, and in the midst of a heated and alcoholic debate on the rights and wrongs of the last free kick, two rival orators suddenly arose, clinched, and continued their argument at close grips on the floor. In a moment the party divided itself into two camps, and the conflict became general. As there were ten people in the compartment, of whom seven were engaged in a life-and-death struggle, the movements of the non-combatants—Kitty, myself, and a gigantic youth of gawky appearance—were, to put it mildly, somewhat restricted. Kitty became thoroughly frightened, and hampered my preparations for battle by clinging to my arm. The gigantic youth, seeing this, suddenly took command of the situation.
"Watch you the young leddy!" he bellowed in my ear, "and I'll sort them."
With that he hurled himself into the tumult. The exact details of his performance I could not see, the scientific dusting of railway cushions not having penetrated any further north of the Forth than it has south of the Thames; but the net result was that each combatant was pulled off, picked up, shaken until his teeth rattled, and banged down on to his seat with a brief admonition to mind his manners, until seven bewildered, partially sobered, and thoroughly demoralised patrons of sport sat round about in various attitudes of limp dejection, leaning against one another like dissipated marionettes; while our rustic Hector, bestriding the compartment like a Colossus, dared them to move a finger under penalty of being "skelped."
He bundled them all out at the next stopping-place, without inquiring whether they desired to alight there or no, and I am bound to say that they all seemed as anxious to leave the carriage as he was to expel them. He then shut the door, pulled up the window, and turned to my wife with a reassuring smile.
"Yon was just a storrm in a teapot," he remarked affably.
He accepted my thanks with indifference, but blushed in a gratified manner when Kitty addressed him. He was her bond-slave by the time that we bade him farewell at Perth. I presented him with my card, which he carefully placed inside the lining of his hat; but he forbore, either from native caution or excessive shyness, to furnish us with any information as to his own identity.
Well, here he was, sitting opposite to me in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and seemingly none too prosperous. Six years ago he had looked like a young and healthy farm lad. Now, fourth-rate journalism was stamped all over him.
We conversed awhile in whispers to avoid disturbing the other worshippers—I always feel like that in the British Museum—and finally abandoned our respective tasks and issued forth together. With a little persuasion I prevailed upon my companion to come and lunch with me, and we repaired to a rather old-fashioned and thoroughly British establishment close by, where the fare is solid and the "portions" generous.
My guest, after a brief effort at self-repression, fell upon the food in a fashion that told me a far more vivid tale of his present circumstances than the most lengthy explanation could have done. When he was full I gave him a cigar, and he leaned back in his padded arm-chair and surveyed me with the nearest approach to emotion that I have ever observed in the countenance of a Scot.
"I was wanting that," he remarked frankly, and he smiled largely upon me. He was looking less gaunt now, and the rugged lines of his face were tinged with a more healthy colour. He was a handsome youth, I noticed, with shrewd grey eyes and a chin that stood out like the ram of a battle-ship.
He told me all about himself, some of which has been set down here already. He had done well at Edinburgh University, and, having obtained his Arts degree, was on the point of settling down to study for the ministry—the be-all and end-all of the hope of a humble Scottish household—when disaster came tumbling upon his family. His brother David fell sick in his lungs, and the doctor prescribed a sojourn in a drier climate for at least a year.
The next part of the narrative was rather elliptical; but from the fact that money was immediately forthcoming to send David abroad, and that Robin had simultaneously given up his work in Edinburgh and returned home to help his father about the farm, I gathered that a life's ambition had been voluntarily sacrificed on the altar of family duty. Anyhow, when David returned, marvellously and mercifully restored to health, setting his younger brother free once more, two precious years had flown; so that Robin now found himself, at the age of twenty-three, faced with the alternative of making a fresh start in life or remaining on the farm at home, that most pathetic and forlorn of failures, a "stickit minister." The family exchequer had been depleted by David's illness, and Robin, rather than draw any further on the vanishing little store of pound-notes in the cupboard behind the kitchen chimney, determined to go to London and turn his education to some account.
He had arrived three years ago, with a barrel of salt herrings and a bag of meal; and from that time he had earned his own living—if it could be called a living.
"Once or twice," he said, "I have had an article taken by one of the big reviews; sometimes I get some odd reporting to do; and whiles I just have to write chatty paragraphs about celebrities for the snippety papers."
"Uphill work that, I should think."
"Uphill? Downhill! Man, it's degrading. Do you know what I was doing in that Museum this morning?"
"Have you heard tell of a man they call Dean Ramsay?"
"Let me see—yes. He was a sort of Scottish Sidney Smith, wasn't he?"
"That is the man. Well, he collected most of the good stories in Scotland and put them in a book. I was copying a few of them out; and I shall father them on to folk that the public wants to hear about. I get a guinea a column for that."
"I know the sort of thing," I said. "'A good story is at present going the round of the clubs, concerning——'"
"I beg your pardon—'anent a certain well-known but absent-minded Peer of the Realm.'"
"That's the stuff. You have the trick of it. Then sometimes I do bits of general information—computations as to the height of a column of the picture postcards sold in London in a year, and all that. Nobody can check figures of that kind, so the work is easy—and correspondingly ill-paid!" (I cannot reproduce the number of contemptuous r's that Robin threw into the adverb.)
"It's a fine useful place the Museum," he continued reflectively. "You were busy there this morning yourself. You would be collecting data anent—I mean about—the Island of Caerulea."
I sat up in surprise at this.
"How on earth——?" I began.
"Oh, I just jal—guessed it. You being the only member of his Majesty's Government in whom I have any personal interest, I have always followed your career closely. (You gave me your card, you'll mind.) Well, I saw you were having trouble with yon havering body Wuddiford—I once reported at one of his meetings: he's just a sweetie-wife in pince-nez—and when I saw you busy with an atlas and gazetteer I said to myself:—'He'll be getting up a few salient facts about the place, in order to appease the honourable member's insatiable thirst for knowledge—Toots, there I go again! Man, the journalese fairly soaks into the system. I doubt now if I could write out twenty lines of 'Paradise Lost' without cross-heading them!"
We finished our cigar over talk like this, and finally rose to go. Robin lingered upon the steps of the restaurant. I realised that he, being a Scotsman, was endeavouring to pump up the emotional gratitude which he felt sure that I, as an Englishman, would expect from a starving pauper who had lunched at my expense.
"I must thank you," he said at last, rather awkwardly, "for a most pleasant luncheon. And I should like fine," he added suddenly and impetuously, "to make out a precis for you on the subject of Caerulea. Never heed it yourself! Away home, and I'll send it to you to-morrow!"
An idea which had been maturing in my slow-moving brain for some time suddenly took a definite shape.
"It is extremely kind of you," I said. "I shall be delighted to leave the matter in your hands. But when you have made the precis, I wonder if you would be so good as to bring it to my house instead of sending it?"
I gave him my address, and we parted.
Robert Chalmers Fordyce arrived at my house next morning. He brought with him a budget of condensed but exhaustive information on the subject of Caerulea, the assimilation and ultimate discharge of which enabled me to score a signal victory over Mr Wuddiford of Upper Gumbtree, relegating that champion exploiter of mare's nests to a sphere of comparative inoffensiveness for quite a considerable time.
After reading the precis, I offered Robin the position of my Private Secretary, which he accepted politely but without servility or effusiveness. I handed him a quarter's salary in advance, gave him two days' holiday wherein to "make his arrangements"—Anglice, to replenish his wardrobe—and we sealed the bargain with a glass of sherry and a biscuit apiece.
As he rose to go, Robin took from his pocket a folded manuscript.
"I see you have a good fire there," he said.
He stepped across to the hearth-rug and pitched the document into the heart of the flames, which began to lick it caressingly.
Presently the heat caused the crackling paper to unfold itself, and some of the writing became visible. Robert pointed, and I read—
"Pars about Personalities. A capital story is at present going the round of the clubs, anent——"
Here the flimsy manuscript burst into flame, and shot with a roar up the chimney.
I looked at Robert Chalmers Fordyce, and his face was the face of a man who has gone through deep waters, but feels the good solid rock beneath his feet at last.
He turned dumbly to me, and held out his hand.
The worst of these inarticulate and undemonstrative people is that they hurt you so.
A TRIAL TRIP.
Three days later I introduced Robert Chalmers Fordyce into the bosom of my family. I had declined to give them any previous information about him, beyond a brief warning that they would find him "rather Scotch."
I have always found it utterly impossible to foretell from a man's behaviour towards his own sex how he will comport himself in the presence of females. I have known a raw youth, hitherto regarded as the hobbledehoy of the shooting-party and the pariah of the smoking-room, lord it among the ladies like a very lion; and I have seen the hero of a hundred fights, the master of men, the essence of intrepid resolution, stand quaking outside a drawing-room door. The debut of Robin, then, I awaited with considerable interest. I expected on the whole to see him tongue-tied, especially before Dolly and Dilly. On the other hand he might be aggressively assertive.
He was neither. He proved to be that rarest of types—the man who has no fear of his fellow-creatures, male or female, singly or in battalions. Our sex is so accustomed to squaring its shoulders, pulling down its waistcoat, and assuming an engaging expression as a preliminary to an encounter with the fair, that the spectacle of a man who enters a strange drawing-room and shakes hands quietly and naturally all round, without twisting his features into an agreeable smile and mumbling entirely inarticulate words of rapture, always arouses in me feelings of envy and respect.
We found Kitty and the Twins picturesquely grouped upon the drawing-room hearth-rug, waiting for the luncheon gong.
I introduced Robin to my wife, in the indistinct and throaty tones which always obtrude themselves into an Englishman's utterance when he is called upon to say something formal but graceful. Kitty greeted the guest with a smile with which I am well acquainted (and which I can guarantee from personal experience to be absolutely irresistible on one's first experience of it), and welcomed him to the house very prettily.
"You are very kind, Mrs Inglethwaite," said Robin, shaking hands. "But I am not quite a stranger to you. Do you mind my face?"
Kitty turned scarlet.
"Mind your——? Not in the—I mean—I am sure we are de——" She floundered hopelessly.
Robin laughed pleasantly.
"There is my Scots tongue running away with me already," he said. "I should have asked rather if you remembered my face."
This time Kitty ceased to look confused, but still retained a puzzled frown.
"No," she said slowly; "I don't think——"
"No wonder!" said Robin. "We met once, in a railway carriage, six years ago. Between Edinburgh and Perth—on a Saturday afternoon," he added expressively.
Light broke in upon Kitty. "Of course!" she said. "Now I remember. That dreadful journey! You were the gentleman who was so kind and helpful. How nice and romantic meeting again! Adrian, you silly old creature, why didn't you tell me? Now, Mr Fordyce, let me introduce you to my sisters."
She wheeled him round and presented him to the Twins.
That pair of beauties, I saw at a glance, were out after scalps. They stood up side by side on the hearth-rug, absolutely and weirdly alike, and arrayed on this occasion in garments of identical hue and cut. This was a favourite device of theirs when about to meet a new young man; it usually startled him considerably. If he was not a person of sound nerve and abstemious habits, it not infrequently evoked from him some enjoyably regrettable expression of surprise and alarm. I knew all the tricks in their repertoire, and waited interestedly to see the effect of this series.
On being presented, both smiled shyly and modestly, and each simultaneously proffered a timid hand. The average young man, already a little rattled by the duplicate vision of loveliness before him, could never make up his mind which hand to shake first; and by the time he had collected his faculties sufficiently to make an uncertain grab at one, both would be swiftly and simultaneously withdrawn.
Robin, however, immediately shook hands with Dilly, who stood nearest to Kitty, and then with Dolly. After that he stepped back a pace and surveyed the pair with unconcealed interest.
Then he turned to my wife.
"A truly remarkable resemblance!" he observed benignantly. ("Just as if we had been two babies in a bassinette!" as Dolly afterwards remarked.)
Then he resumed his inspection. The Twins, who were entirely unused to this sort of thing, were too taken aback to proceed to their second move—the utterance of some trivial and artless remark, delivered by both simultaneously, and thereby calculated to throw the victim into a state of uncertainty as to which he should answer first. Instead, they stood wide-eyed and tongue-tied before him.
"I must certainly discover some point of difference between these ladies," continued Robin with an air of determination, "or I shall always be in difficulties. Do not tell me the secret, Mrs Inglethwaite. Perhaps I can find out for myself."
He concluded a minute inspection of the indignant Dilly, and turned his unruffled gaze on Dolly.
"Yes," he said, "I have it! You" (triumphantly to Dolly) "have a tiny brown spot in the blue of your left eye, while your sister has none."
It was quite true: she had. But it was a fact which most young men only discovered after many furtive and sidelong glances. This imperturbable creature had taken it all in in one resolute scrutiny; and Dolly, blushing like Aurora—an infirmity to which I may say neither she nor her sister are particularly subject—dropped her long lashes over the orbs in question and looked uncommonly foolish.
The tension of the situation was relieved by the announcement of luncheon, and Robin was called upon to accompany Kitty downstairs; while I, putting a consoling arm round the waist of each of my fermenting sisters-in-law, marched them down to further experiences in the dining-room.
The Twins rapidly recovered their equanimity at lunch. They sat, as they always did, together on one side of the table, opposite to Robin. The latter conversed easily and pleasantly, though his discourse was dotted with homely phrases and curious little biblical turns of speech.
"Have you been in London long, Mr Fordyce?" inquired Kitty as we settled down.
"Three years," said Robin.
"I suppose you have lots of friends by this time."
"I have a good many acquaintances, but my friends in London are just three, all told," said Robin, in what Dilly afterwards described as "a disgustingly pawky manner."
"You must be very exclusive, Mr Fordyce," chirrupped Dolly.
"Far from it," said Robin; "as you will admit when I say that my three friends are a policeman, a surgeon, and a minister."
"How quaint of you!" said Dilly.
But Robin did not seem to think it quaint. He told us about the policeman first—a Highlander. Robin had made his acquaintance in Edinburgh, apparently about the same time that he made ours, and had renewed it some years later outside the House of Commons, when a rapturous mutual recognition had taken place. The policeman's name was Hector MacPherson.
"And the surgeon?" inquired Kitty, with a certain friendly assumption of interest which announces (to me) that she is getting a little bored.
"He is just my uncle. I go and see him, whi—now and then. He is a busy man."
"He is Dr Strang. He has the Presbyterian Church in Howard Street. I have sat under him every Sabbath since I came to London."
"Wh—what for?" asked Kitty involuntarily, and in a rather awestruck voice. Her acquaintance with the ritual of the Church of Scotland was hazy, and she was evidently determined to-day to be surprised at nothing; but evidently this mysterious reference could not be allowed to pass without some explanation. The Twins convulsively gripped each other's hands under the table. (They are of course perfectly bred girls—indeed, their self-possession at trying moments has often surprised me—but, like all the young of the human species, there are times when their feelings become too much for them. Then, if the occasion is too formal for unrestrained shrieks, they silently interdigitate.)
"That is a Scottish expression," said Robin, smiling upon us. "You must pardon me, Mrs Inglethwaite. I should perhaps have said that I was an adherent of Dr Strang's church—or rather," he added with a curious little touch of pride, "I am a communicant now. I was just an adherent at first."
We assented to this, politely but dizzily.
Scratch a Scot and you will find a theologian. Robin was fairly started now; and he proceeded to enlarge upon various points of interest in the parallel histories (given in full) of some three or four Scottish denominations, interwoven with extracts from his own family archives. His grand-uncle, it appeared, had been a minister himself, and had performed the feat—to which I have occasionally heard other perfervid Scots refer, and never without a kindling eye—known as "coming out in the Forty-three."
"That," added Robin in parenthesis, "is why my second name is Chalmers—after the great Doctor. You will have heard of him?"
(Polite but insincere chorus of pleased recognition.)
We were then treated to a brief resume of the events leading up to a religious controversy of colossal dimensions which was at that moment threatening to engulf Scotland. Robin was deeply interested in the matter, and gave us his reasons for being so. He passed some scathing comments on the contumacy and narrow-mindedness of the sect who had the misfortune to be his opponents; and after that he proceeded to say a few words about Free Will and Predestination.
By this time lunch was over, but we sat on. I nodded gravely over my coffee, saying "Quite so" when occasion seemed to demand it. Kitty was completely out of her depth, but still maintained a brave appearance of interest. It was the Twins who brought the seance to a close. Placing their hands before their mouths, they with difficulty stifled a pair of cavernous yawns.
Next moment they were sorry. Robin stopped dead, flushed up, and said—
"Mrs Inglethwaite, I am sorry. I have been most inconsiderate and rude. I have wearied you all. The truth is," he continued quite simply, "it is so long since I sat at meat with friends, that I have lost the art of conversation. I just run on, like—like a leading article. I have not conversed with a woman, except once or twice across a counter, for nearly three years."
There was a rather tense pause. Then Dolly said—
"We're awfully sorry, Mr Fordyce. It was very rude of us. We quite understand now, don't we, Dilly?"
"Rather," said Dilly. "It was horrible of us, Mr Fordyce. But we thought you were just an ordinary bore."
"Children!" said Kitty.
"But what you have told us makes things quite different, doesn't it, Dolly?" continued Dilly.
"Quite—absolutely," said Dolly.
And they smiled upon him, quite maternally. And so the incident passed.
"How queer, not talking to a woman for three years!" continued Dolly reflectively.
"How awful it would be not to talk to a man for three years!" said Dilly, with obvious sincerity.
"There is little opportunity for social intercourse," said Robin, "to a man who comes to London to sink or swim."
The conversation was again taking a slightly sombre turn, and I struck in—
"Well, I hope, Mr Fordyce, that a few weeks' experience of my establishment won't have the effect of making you regret your previous celibate existence."
Dolly and Dilly looked at each other.
"Dolly," said Dilly, "is that an insult?"
"I think so."
"Insulting enough to be punishable?"
"All right. Come on!"
They fell upon me, and the next few minutes were devoted to what I believe is known in pantomime circles as a Grand Rally, which necessitated my going upstairs afterwards and changing my collar.
Robin was not present at tea, and my household took advantage of his absence to run over his points.
Considering that a woman—especially a young woman—judges a man almost entirely by his manner and appearance, and dislikes him exceedingly if he proceeds to dominate the situation to her exclusion—unless, by the way, he has her permission and authority so to do, in which case he cannot do so too much—the verdict delivered upon my absent secretary was not by any means unfavourable, though, of course, there was much to criticise.
"He'll do," said Dilly; "but you must get his hair cut, Adrian."
"And tell him about not wearing that sort of tie, dear," said Dolly.
"I suppose he can't help his accent," sighs Kitty.
But their criticisms were limited to such trifles as these, and I felt that Robin had done me credit.
Dilly summed up the situation.
"I think on the whole that he is rather a pet," she said.
A more thoroughly unsuitable description could not have been imagined, but Dolly agreed.
"He has nice eyes, too," she added.
"He was perfectly sweet with Phillis after lunch," said Kitty. "Took her on his knee at once, and talked to her just as if we weren't there. That's a good test of a man, if you like!"
"True for you," I agreed. "I could not do it with other people's children to save my life."
"Oh, you are hopeless," said Dilly. "Far too self-conscious and dignified to climb down to the level of children, isn't he, Dolly?" She crinkled her nose.
Dolly for once was not listening.
"What was that weird stuff the Secretary Bird spouted when you showed Phillis to him, Kit? About her being forward, or coy, or something. It sounded rather cheek, to me."
"Yes, I remember," said Dilly. "Can you do the way he said it? 'Sometimes forrrwarrrd, sometimes coy, she neverrr fails to pullllease!' Like that! Gracious, how it hurts to talk Scotch!"
"I don't know, dear," said my wife thoughtfully. "It sounded rather quaint. But I daresay all Scotch people are like that," she added charitably.
"Perhaps it was a quotation," I observed mildly.
"Of course, that would be it. What is it out of?"
"A song called 'Phillis is my only Joy,' I think."
"Ah, then you may depend upon it," said Kitty, with the air of one solving a mystery, "that is what the man was doing—quoting! Burns, probably, or Scott, perhaps. How clever of him to think of it! And do you know," she continued, "he said such a nice thing to me. While you were bear-fighting with the Twins after lunch, Adrian, I said to him: 'Pity me, Mr Fordyce! My husband never ceases to express to me his regret that he did not marry one of my sisters.' And he answered at once, quite seriously, without stopping to think it out or anything:—'I am sure, Mrs Inglethwaite, that his regret must be shared by countless old admirers of yours!' Wasn't it rather sweet of him?"
Further conversation was prevented by the opening of the drawing-room door, where the butler appeared and announced "Mr Dubberley."
Dubberley is a pillar of our party. I can best describe him by saying that although I hold office under a Conservative Government, ten minutes' conversation with Dubberley leaves me a confirmed Radical, and anything like a protracted interview with him converts me into a Socialist for the next twenty-four hours. A week-end in his society, and I should probably buy a red shirt and send out for bombs. He is a good fellow at bottom, and of immense service to the party; but he is the most blatant ass I have ever met. There are Dubberleys on both sides of the House, however, which is a comfort.
Robin joined us almost directly after Dubberley's entrance, just in time to hear that great man conclude the preamble of his discourse for the afternoon.
There had been a good deal of talk in the papers of late about improving the means of transport throughout the country; and the nationalisation of railways and other semi-socialistic schemes had filled the air. Dubberley, it appeared, had out of his own gigantic intellect evolved a panacea for congestion of traffic, highness of rates, and railway mortality.
He was well launched in his subject when Robin entered and was introduced.
"As I was saying," he continued, waving an emphatic teaspoon in the direction of the sofa where the ladies sat, smiling but limp,—even the Twins knew it was useless to stem this tide,—"as I was saying, the solution of the problem lies in the revival of our far-reaching but sadly neglected system of canals. Yes! If we go to the very root of the matter"—Dubberley is one of those fortunate persons who never has to dig far in his researches—"we find that our whole hope of regeneration lies in the single, simple, homely word—Canals! Revive your canals, send your goods by canal, travel yourself by——"
"How long, Mr Dubberley," interpolated Robin, leaning forward—"how long do you consider one would take to travel, say, a hundred miles by canal?"
"Under our present antiquated system, sir,"—Dubberley rather prides himself on preserving the courtly fashions of address of a bygone age,—"an impossibly long time. The average speed of a canal-boat at the present day under the ministrations of that overburdened and inadequate quadruped, the—er—horse, is three miles per hour. Indeed—one moment!"
Dubberley fished a sheaf of documents out of his pocket—he is the sort of man who habitually secrets statistics and blue-books about his person—and after stertorously perusing them closed his eyes for a moment, as if to work out a sum upon an internal blackboard, and said—
"I see no reason why swift canal-boats should not be constructed to run fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five miles per hour. Indeed, in these days of turbines——"
Robin put down his cup rather emphatically, and said—
(It is quite impossible to reproduce this extraordinary Caledonian expletive in writing, but that is as near to it as I can get.) Then he continued urbanely—
"Then you would organise a service of fast turbine steamers running all over the canal systems of the country?"
"Exactly. Or let us say—er—launches," said Dubberley. "I must not overstate my case."
"Travelling twenty miles an hour?"
"Say fifteen, sir," said Dubberley magnanimously.
"Mr Dubberley," said Robin, in a voice which made us all jump, "have you a bathroom in your house?"
Even the Twins, who were growing a trifle lethargic under the technicalities of the subject, roused themselves at this fresh turn of the conversation.
"Ah—eh—I beg your pardon?" said Dubberley, a trifle disconcerted.
"A bathroom," repeated Robin—"with a good long bath in it?"
"Well, Mr Dubberley, when you go home this afternoon, go upstairs and fill the bath with water. Then take a large bath-sponge—something nearly as broad as the bath—and sweep it along from end to end, about a foot below the surface, at a speed of fifteen miles per hour—that will be twenty-two feet per second—and see what happens!"
Robin had unconsciously dropped into what I may call his debating-society manner. His chin stuck out, and his large chest heaved, and he scooped the air, as if it had been the water of Dubberley's bath, with one of Kitty's priceless Worcester teacups.
Dubberley sat completely demoralised, palpitating like a stranded frog.
"Then," continued Robin, "you would observe the result of placing a partly submerged and rapidly moving body in a shallow and restricted waterway. You would kick half the water right out of the canal to begin with, and the other half would pile itself up into a wave under your bow big enough to offer an almost immovable resistance to the progress of your vessel."
He leaned back and surveyed the bemused Dubberley with complete and obvious satisfaction. We all sat round breathless, feeling much as Sidney Smith must have felt when some one spoke disrespectfully of the Equator. Great was the fall of Dubberley. He moved, perhaps instinctively, in a society where he was seldom contradicted and never argued with. One does not argue with a gramophone. And here this raw Scottish youth, with the awful thoroughness and relentless common-sense of his race, had taken the very words out of his mouth, torn them to shreds, and thrust them down his throat.
I am afraid I chuckled. The Twins sat hand in hand, with dreamy eyes staring straight before them. They were conjuring up a joyous vision of Dubberley, in his shirt-sleeves, meekly refuting one of his own theories by means of a childish and sloppy experiment in practical hydrodynamics in his own bathroom.
I give this incident as a fair example of Robin's point of view and methods of action on questions which I for one would never dream of debating. He was entirely lacking in an art which I am told I possess to perfection—that of suffering fools gladly. Its possession has raised me to an Under-Secretaryship. People who should know tell me that it will also prevent my ever rising to anything higher.
"We had a taste of our friend's quality this afternoon," I remarked to my household when we met for dinner that evening. "He is a thorough-going warrior. Fancy any man taking all that trouble to lay out old Dubberley!"
"Poor Mr Dubberley!" said tender-hearted Kitty.
"Do him good!" said Dilly, in whose recollection Dubberley's past enormities loomed large. "I shall be nice to the Secretary Bird now."
Dolly said nothing, which was unusual. Perhaps the brown spot still rankled.
ROBIN ON DUTY.
Beyond the fact that they are all desperately in earnest, all know each other, and occupy all the most responsible and lucrative posts on the face of the earth, Scotsmen are a class with whose characteristics I am not well acquainted. But I learned a great deal from my new secretary.
Robin soon settled down to work. He not only performed his duties with zeal and discretion, but he kept me up to mine. He hounded me through the routine work of my Department; he verified my references; he managed my correspondence; and he frequently drafted my speeches. He even prepared some of my impromptus. Indeed, my—or rather his—description of a certain member of the other side, a lesser light of the last Government, a worthy man, always put up to explain matters when his leader had decided that honesty on this occasion was the best policy, as "a political niblick, always employed to get his party out of bad lies," won me more applause and popularity in a House of enthusiastic golfers than endless weeks of honest toil behind the scenes had ever done.
But I learned more from Robin than that. I suppose I am a typical specimen of Conservative officialdom. Until Robin came into my house it had never occurred to me to ask myself why I was a Conservative: I had been born one, and it was difficult for me to understand how any man of ordinary intelligence could be anything else.
My father and grandfather were Conservative members before me, and I come of a line which has always feared God, honoured the King, paid its tithes, and tried to do something for the poor; and which regards Radicals, Socialists, Nonconformists, and criminal lunatics as much the same class of person. The only difference between myself and my forebears is that I am much too pacific (or lazy) to cherish any animosity against people whose views differ from my own. This fact, coupled with certain family traditions, has brought me to my present position in life; and, as I have already indicated, it will probably keep me there. At least, so Kitty says.
"You must assert yourself, dear," she declares. "Be rude to people, and go on being rude! Then they will take notice of you and give you nice big posts to keep you quiet. Do you know what the Premier said about you the other night at dinner, to Lady Bindle? (She told Dicky Lever, and he told the Twins.) 'Inglethwaite? A dear fellow, a sound party man, and runs his Department admirably. But—he strikes only on the box!' Pig!"
It was about this time that Robin became a member of our establishment. I had no idea what his political views were—it was just like me not to have asked him, Kitty said—but felt confident that whatever side he supported he would do so hot and strong.
But at first he gave no indication of his leanings. It was not until we sat one night over our wine, in company with John Champion (member for a big northern constituency, and regarded by many, notwithstanding various eccentricities, as the coming man of the party) that he first gave definite utterance to his views.
The cigars had gone round, and we had just performed that mysterious national rite which, whether it owes its existence to economy or politeness, invariably ends in several people burning their fingers with the same match.
"I suppose, Mr Fordyce," said Champion, who had not met Robin before, but obviously liked him, "that in common with all Scotsmen you are at heart a Radical."
"Am I?" said Robin, with native caution.
"Most of your countrymen are," said Champion, with a sigh. "'They think too much'—you know the rest of the quotation, I expect."
I was a little scandalised at this flagrant tribute to the enemy, and said so.
"You are a whole-hearted old war-horse, Adrian. I envy you. Sometimes, I wish that I——"
"For mercy's sake don't go and say that you are a Radical at heart too," I cried.
"N-n-o. But isn't it rot, the whole business?"
"What whole business?"
"Ask Mr Fordyce there. He will tell you. I see it in his eye."
"What is rot, Robin?" I asked. "Party government?"
"Yes," said Robin, quite explosively for him. "It is such a scandalous waste of power and material." He laid down his cigar. "Man, it's just pitiful. Consider! A party is returned to office. With great care and discrimination a Cabinet is chosen. It is composed of men who are mainly honest and patriotic. They are not necessarily men of genius, but they are all men of undoubted ability, and they are genuinely anxious to do their duty by the country. Now observe." (As a matter of fact he said "obsairrve.") "How is this energy and ability expended? About half of it—fifty per cent—goes in devising means to baffle the assaults of the Opposition and so retain a precarious hold on office. Sir, it's just ludicrous! Instead of concentrating their efforts upon—upon—I want a metaphor, Mr Champion."
"Upon steering the ship of State," said Champion, with a twinkle in his eye.
"That'll do, fine.—Upon steering the ship of State, they have to devote half their time and energy to dodging the missiles of their shipmates. That is what I mean when I say the thing is pitiful. What should we think of the sanity of an ordinary ship's company, if the man at the wheel had to spend half his time up in the rigging because a minority of his messmates wanted to throw him overboard?"
"I think you are putting the case too strongly," I said. "The criticism of a healthy public opinion is no bad thing. Besides, your Cabinet still have fifty per cent of their energy left. What do they do with that?"
"Of that," said Champion, joining in, "about forty per cent is wasted on mere parade—dummy legislation—bills that never will be passed, and which no sensible man has any desire should be passed, except in a mutilated and useless condition; bills merely brought forward by the Government as a sop to the extreme wing of their own party. It doesn't matter which side is in power. If they are Liberals, they have to propose a few socialistic and iconoclastic measures, secretly thanking God for the House of Lords all the while. If they are Conservatives, they propitiate the Landlords and the Church by putting forward some outrageously retrograde proposal or other, secure in the knowledge that it will be knocked on the head by the halfpenny papers. Of the remaining ten per cent——"
"About nine," resumed Robin, "is appropriated automatically to absolutely essential routine business, like the Budget and Supply——"
"And the remaining one per cent," struck in Champion, "is devoted to real live Legislation."
Then they both looked at me, this pair of carping pessimists, rather furtively, like two fags who have allowed their tongues to wag over freely in the presence of a monitor. It was a curious tribute to the power of officialdom, for they were both far bigger men, in every sense, than I. Finally Champion laughed.
"Don't look so horrified, Adrian," he said. "Mr Fordyce and I croak too much. Still, you will find a grain or two of sense among the chaff, as Jack Point says."
But I was not to be smoothed down so easily.
"According to you fellows," I grumbled, as I passed the port, "there is practically no difference between one political party and another."
"None whatever," said Champion cheerfully—"not between the backbones of the parties, that is. Of course excrescences don't count. Tell me, Adrian, what bill, barring one or two contentious semi-religious measures, has ultimately reached the Statute Book during the last twenty years that might not have been put there by either party without any violent departure from its principles? Not one! Foreign policy, again. Does it make any difference to our position in the world which party is in office nowadays? Not a scrap. The difference between the two sides is immaterial. There is often a far deeper line of cleavage between two sections of the same party than between party and party. We make faces at each other, it is true; and one side plumes itself on the moral support of Royalty and the aristocracy, while the other always bawls out that it has the inviolable will of the people at its back,—I daresay one assertion is about as true as the other—but I don't think there is a pennyworth of difference, really. There used to be a lot, mind you, when the Plebs were really struggling for a footing in the scheme of things; but bless you! we are all more or less in the same crowd now. Just a difference of label, that's all."
"There was a story my dominie used to tell," said Robin, who had been listening to this diatribe with rapt attention, "about a visitor to a seaside hotel, who ordered a bottle of wine. The boy brought up the wrong kind, so the visitor sent for the landlord and pointed out the mistake, adducing the label on the bottle as evidence. 'I'm very sorry, sir, I'm sure,' said the landlord, 'but I'll soon put it right. Boy, bring another label!' An old story, I am afraid, but it seems to me to put Party goverment into a nutshell."
I rose, and began to replace the stoppers in the decanters. I was feeling rather cross. I hate having my settled convictions tampered with. They are not elastic, and this makes them brittle, and I always feel nervous about their stability when the intellectual pressure of an argument grows intense.
"When you two have abolished the British Constitution," I remarked tartly, "what do you propose to substitute for the present regime?"
"'There,'" said Champion, "as the charwoman replied when asked for a character, 'you 'ave me.' Let us join the ladies."
But I was still angry.
"It always seems best to me," I persisted doggedly, "to take up a good sound line of action and stick to it, and to choose a good sound party and stick to that. Half a glass of sherry before we go upstairs?"
"No, thanks. That is why I envy you, Adrian," said Champion. "It's a wearing business for us, being so—so—what shall we call it, Mr Fordyce?"
"Detached?" suggested Robin.
"Two-faced would be a better word," I growled.
Champion clapped me on the shoulder.
"Adrian," said he, "in time of peace there is always a large, critical, neutral, and infernally irritating party, for ever philandering betwixt and between two extremes of opinion. But when war is declared and it comes to a fight, the ranks close up. There is no room for detachment, and there are no neutrals. When occasion calls, you'll find all your friends—your half-hearted, carping, Erastian friends—ranged up tight beside you. Shall we be trapesing about in Tom Tiddler's ground when the pinch comes, Mr Fordyce—eh?"
"Never fear!" said Robin.
And I am bound to say that we all of us lived to see John Champion's assertion made good.
ROBIN OFF DUTY.
I have yet to introduce to the indulgent reader two more members of the family into which I have married.
The first of these is my daughter Phillis, of whom I have already made passing mention. She is six years old, and appears to be compounded of about equal parts of angelic innocence and original sin. In her dealings with her fellow-creatures she exhibits all the sangfroid and self-possession that mark the modern child. She will be a "handful" some day, the Twins tell me, and they ought to know. However, pending the arrival of the time when she will begin to rend the hearts of young men, she contents herself for the present with practising that accomplishment with complete and lamentable success upon her own garments.
She is the possessor of a vivid imagination, which she certainly does not inherit from me, and is fond of impersonating other people, either characters of her own creation or interesting figures from story-books. Consequently it is never safe to address her too suddenly. She may be a fairy, or a bear, or a locomotive at the moment, and will resent having to return to her proper self, even for a brief space, merely to listen to some stupid and irrelevant remark—usually something about bed-time or an open door—from an unintelligent adult.
Kitty says that I spoil her, but that is only because Kitty is quicker at saying a thing than I am. She is our only child; and I sometimes wonder, at moments of acute mental introspection (say, in the night watches after an indigestible supper), what we should do without her.
The other character waiting for introduction is my brother-in-law, Master Gerald Rubislaw. He is the solitary male member of the family of which my wife and the Twins form the female side. He is, I think, fourteen years of age, and he is at present a member of what he considers—very rightly, I think; and I should know, for I was there myself—the finest public school in the world. Having no parents, he resides at my house during his holidays, and refreshes me exceedingly.
He is a sturdy but rather diminutive youth, with a loud voice. (He always addresses me as if I were standing on a distant hill-top.) He bears a resemblance to his sisters of which he is heartily and frankly ashamed, and which he endeavours at times to nullify as far as possible by a degree of personal uncleanliness which would be alarming to me, were it not that the traditions of my own extreme youth have not yet been entirely obliterated from my memory.
His health is excellent, and his intellect is in that condition euphemistically described in house-master's reports as "unformed." He is always noisy, constitutionally lazy, and hopelessly casual. But he possesses the supreme merit of being absolutely and transparently honest. I have never known him tell a lie or do a mean thing. To such much is forgiven.
At present he appears to possess only two ambitions in life; one, to gain a place in his Junior House Fifteen, and the other, to score some signal and lasting victory over his form-master, a Mr Sydney Mellar, with whom he appears to wage a sort of perpetual guerilla warfare. Every vacation brings him home with a fresh tale of base subterfuges, petty tyrannies, and childish exhibitions of spite on the part of the infamous Mellar, all duly frustrated, crushed, and made ridiculous by the ingenuity, resource, and audacity of the intrepid Rubislaw. I have never met Mr Mellar in the flesh, but I am conscious, as time goes on and my young relative's reminiscences on the subject accumulate, of an increasing feeling of admiration and respect for him.
"He's a rotten brute," observed Gerald one day. "Do you know what he had the cheek to do last term?"
"Well, there was a clinking new desk put into our form-room, at the back. I sit there," he added rather naively. "As soon as I saw it, of course I got out my knife and started to carve my name. I made good big letters, as I wanted to do the thing properly on a fine new desk like that."
"Was this during school hours?" I ventured to inquire.
"Of course it was. Do you think a chap would be such a silly ass as to want to come in specially to carve his name during play-hours, when he's got the whole of his school-time to do it in?"
"I had not thought of that," I said apologetically.
"And don't go putting on side of that sort, Adrian, old man," roared Gerald, in what a stranger would have regarded as a most threatening voice, though I knew it was merely the one he keeps for moments of playful badinage. "I saw your name carved in letters about four inches high in the Fifth Form room only the other day. I don't see how you can jaw a man for doing a thing you used to do yourself thirty or forty years ago."
I allowed this reflection on my appearance to pass without protest, and Gerald resumed his story.
"Well, I did a first-class G to begin with, and was well on with the Rubislaw—all in capitals: I thought it would look best that way—when suddenly a great hand reached over my shoulder and grabbed my knife. It was Stinker, of course."
"Oh, I forgot to tell you that. We call him 'Stinker' now. You see, his name is S. Mellar, and if you say it quickly it sounds like 'Smeller.' So we call him 'Stinker.' It was a kid called Lane thought of it. Pretty smart—eh? Oh, he's a clever chap, I can tell you," yelled Gerald, with sincere enthusiasm.
"He must be a youth of gigantic intellect," I said.
"Oh, come off the roof! Well, Stinker grabbed my knife, and said, 'Hallo, young man, what's all this? Handing down your name to posterity—eh?' with a silly grin on his face.
"I said I was just carving my name.
"'I see you have just finished it,' he said.
"I didn't quite tumble to his meaning at first, because I had only got as far as G. RUB,—and then I saw that the whole thing as it stood spelled 'GRUB.' Lord, how the swine laughed! He told the form all about it, and of course they all laughed too, the sniggering, grovelling sweeps!
"Then Stinker said: 'A happy thought has just occurred to me. I shall not have your name obliterated in the usual manner'—they cut it out and put in a fresh bit of wood, and charge you a bob—' this time. I have thought of a more excellent way.' (He always talks like that, in a sort of slow drawl.) 'We will leave your name exactly as you have carved it. But remember, young man, not another letter do you add to that name so long as you are a member of this school. A Grub you are,—a nasty little destructive Grub,—and a Grub you shall remain, so far as that desk is concerned, for all time. And if ever in future years you come down here as a distinguished Old Boy—say a K.C.B. or an Alderman,—remember to bring your numerous progeny'—oh, he's a sarcastic devil!—'to this room, and show them what their papa once was!'
"Of course all the chaps roared again, at the idea of me with a lot of kids. But that wasn't all. He switched off that tap quite suddenly, and said—
"'Seriously, though, I am not pleased about this. Carving your name on a desk is not one of the seven deadly sins, but doing so when I have told you not to is. This silly street-boy business has been getting too prevalent lately: we shall have you chalking things up on the walls next. I particularly gave out last week, when this new desk was put in, that no one was to touch it. Come to me at twelve, and I will cane you.' And he did," concluded Gerald, with feeling.
"What a shame!" said Dilly, who was sitting by. "All for carving a silly old desk."
"He was perfectly right," said Gerald, his innate sense of justice rising to the surface at once. "I wasn't lammed for cutting the desk at all: it was for doing it after I had been told not to."
"It's the same thing," said Dilly, with feminine disregard for legal niceties.
"Same thing? Rot! Fat lot you know about it, Dilly. It's a rum thing," he added to me in a reflective bawl, "but women never can understand the rules of any game. Stinker is a bargee, but he was quite right to lam me. It was for disobedience; and disobedience is cheek; and no master worth his salt will stand cheek. So Stinker says, and he is right for once."
Gerald is the possessor of a bosom friend, an excessively silent and rather saturnine youth of about his own age. His name is Donkin, and he regards Gerald, so far as I can see, with a grim mixture of amusement and compassion. He pays frequent visits to my house, as his father is a soldier in India; and he is much employed by the Twins for corroborating or refuting the more improbable of their brother's reminiscences.
Robin soon made friends with the boys. Like most of their kind, their tests of human probity were few and simple: and having discovered that Robin not only played Rugby football, but had on several occasions represented Edinburgh University thereat, they straightway wrote him down a "decent chap" and took the rest of his virtues for granted.
It came upon them—and me too, as a matter of fact—as rather a shock one evening, when Robin, during the course of a desultory conversation on education in general, suddenly launched forth more suo into a diatribe against the English Public School system.
English boys, he pointed out, were passed through a great machine, which ground up the individual at one end and disgorged a mere type at the other—("Pretty good type too, Robin," from me),—they were taught to worship bodily strength—("Quite right too!" said my herculean brother-in-law),—they were herded together under a monastic system; they were removed from the refining influence of female society—(even the imperturable Donkin snorted at this),—and worst of all, little or nothing was done to eradicate from their minds the youthful idea that it is unmanly to read seriously or think deeply.
I might have said a good deal in reply. I might have dwelt upon the fact that the English Public School system is not so hard upon the stupid boy—which means the average boy—as that of more strenuous forcing-houses of intellect abroad. I might have spoken of one or two moral agents which prevent our schools from being altogether despicable: unquestioning obedience to authority, for instance, or loyalty to tradition. I might have told of characters moulded and fibres stiffened by responsibility—our race bears more responsibility on its shoulders than all the rest of the world put together—or of minds trained to interpret laws and balance justice in the small but exacting world of the prefects' meeting and the games' committee. But it was Gerald, who is no moralist, but a youth of sound common-sense, who closed the argument.
"Mr Fordyce," he said, "it's no use my jawing to you, because you can knock me flat at that game; and of course old Moke there"—this was Master Donkin's unhappy but inevitable designation among his friends—"is too thick to argue with a stuffed rabbit; but you had better come down some time and see the place—that's all."
Robin promised to suspend judgment pending a personal investigation, and the incident closed.
Gerald's verdict on Robin's views, communicated to me privately afterwards, was characteristic but not unfavourable.
"He seems to have perfectly putrid notions about some things, but he's a pretty sound chap on the whole—the best secretary you have had, anyhow, old man. Have you seen him do a straight-arm balance on the billiard-table?"
But I did not fully realise how completely Robin had settled down as an accepted member of my household until one afternoon towards the end of the Christmas holidays.
There is a small but snug apartment opening out of my library, through an arched and curtained doorway. The library is regarded as my workroom—impregnable, inviolable; not to be rudely attempted by devastating housemaids. There is a sort of tacit agreement between Kitty and myself as regards this apartment. Fatima-like, she may do what she pleases with the rest of the house. She may indulge her passion for drawing-room meetings to its fullest extent. She may intertain missionaries in the attics and hold meetings of the Dorcas Society in the basement. She may give reformed burglars the run of the silver-closet, and allow curates and chorus-girls to mingle in sweet companionship on the staircase. But she must leave the library alone, and neither she nor her following must overflow through its double doors during what I call business hours.