By P. G. Wodehouse
In a day in June, at the hour when London moves abroad in quest of lunch, a young man stood at the entrance of the Bandolero Restaurant looking earnestly up Shaftesbury Avenue—a large young man in excellent condition, with a pleasant, good-humoured, brown, clean-cut face. He paid no attention to the stream of humanity that flowed past him. His mouth was set and his eyes wore a serious, almost a wistful expression. He was frowning slightly. One would have said that here was a man with a secret sorrow.
William FitzWilliam Delamere Chalmers, Lord Dawlish, had no secret sorrow. All that he was thinking of at that moment was the best method of laying a golf ball dead in front of the Palace Theatre. It was his habit to pass the time in mental golf when Claire Fenwick was late in keeping her appointments with him. On one occasion she had kept him waiting so long that he had been able to do nine holes, starting at the Savoy Grill and finishing up near Hammersmith. His was a simple mind, able to amuse itself with simple things.
As he stood there, gazing into the middle distance, an individual of dishevelled aspect sidled up, a vagrant of almost the maximum seediness, from whose midriff there protruded a trayful of a strange welter of collar-studs, shoe-laces, rubber rings, buttonhooks, and dying roosters. For some minutes he had been eyeing his lordship appraisingly from the edge of the kerb, and now, secure in the fact that there seemed to be no policeman in the immediate vicinity, he anchored himself in front of him and observed that he had a wife and four children at home, all starving.
This sort of thing was always happening to Lord Dawlish. There was something about him, some atmosphere of unaffected kindliness, that invited it.
In these days when everything, from the shape of a man's hat to his method of dealing with asparagus, is supposed to be an index to character, it is possible to form some estimate of Lord Dawlish from the fact that his vigil in front of the Bandolero had been expensive even before the advent of the Benedict with the studs and laces. In London, as in New York, there are spots where it is unsafe for a man of yielding disposition to stand still, and the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus is one of them. Scrubby, impecunious men drift to and fro there, waiting for the gods to provide something easy; and the prudent man, conscious of the possession of loose change, whizzes through the danger zone at his best speed, 'like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round walks on, and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.' In the seven minutes he had been waiting two frightful fiends closed in on Lord Dawlish, requesting loans of five shillings till Wednesday week and Saturday week respectively, and he had parted with the money without a murmur.
A further clue to his character is supplied by the fact that both these needy persons seemed to know him intimately, and that each called him Bill. All Lord Dawlish's friends called him Bill, and he had a catholic list of them, ranging from men whose names were in 'Debrett' to men whose names were on the notice boards of obscure clubs in connexion with the non-payment of dues. He was the sort of man one instinctively calls Bill.
The anti-race-suicide enthusiast with the rubber rings did not call Lord Dawlish Bill, but otherwise his manner was intimate. His lordship's gaze being a little slow in returning from the middle distance—for it was not a matter to be decided carelessly and without thought, this problem of carrying the length of Shaftesbury Avenue with a single brassy shot—he repeated the gossip from the home. Lord Dawlish regarded him thoughtfully.
'It could be done,' he said, 'but you'd want a bit of pull on it. I'm sorry; I didn't catch what you said.'
The other obliged with his remark for the third time, with increased pathos, for constant repetition was making him almost believe it himself.
'Four starving children?'
'Four, guv'nor, so help me!'
'I suppose you don't get much time for golf then, what?' said Lord Dawlish, sympathetically.
It was precisely three days, said the man, mournfully inflating a dying rooster, since his offspring had tasted bread.
This did not touch Lord Dawlish deeply. He was not very fond of bread. But it seemed to be troubling the poor fellow with the studs a great deal, so, realizing that tastes differ and that there is no accounting for them, he looked at him commiseratingly.
'Of course, if they like bread, that makes it rather rotten, doesn't it? What are you going to do about it?'
'Buy a dying rooster, guv'nor,' he advised. 'Causes great fun and laughter.'
Lord Dawlish eyed the strange fowl without enthusiasm.
'No,' he said, with a slight shudder.
There was a pause. The situation had the appearance of being at a deadlock.
'I'll tell you what,' said Lord Dawlish, with the air of one who, having pondered, has been rewarded with a great idea: 'the fact is, I really don't want to buy anything. You seem by bad luck to be stocked up with just the sort of things I wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch with. I can't stand rubber rings, never could. I'm not really keen on buttonhooks. And I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I think that squeaking bird of yours is about the beastliest thing I ever met. So suppose I give you a shilling and call it square, what?'
'Gawd bless yer, guv'nor.'
'Not at all. You'll be able to get those children of yours some bread—I expect you can get a lot of bread for a shilling. Do they really like it? Rum kids!'
And having concluded this delicate financial deal Lord Dawlish turned, the movement bringing him face to face with a tall girl in white.
During the business talk which had just come to an end this girl had been making her way up the side street which forms a short cut between Coventry Street and the Bandolero, and several admirers of feminine beauty who happened to be using the same route had almost dislocated their necks looking after her. She was a strikingly handsome girl. She was tall and willowy. Her eyes, shaded by her hat, were large and grey. Her nose was small and straight, her mouth, though somewhat hard, admirably shaped, and she carried herself magnificently. One cannot blame the policeman on duty in Leicester Square for remarking to a cabman as she passed that he envied the bloke that that was going to meet.
Bill Dawlish was this fortunate bloke, but, from the look of him as he caught sight of her, one would have said that he did not appreciate his luck. The fact of the matter was that he had only just finished giving the father of the family his shilling, and he was afraid that Claire had seen him doing it. For Claire, dear girl, was apt to be unreasonable about these little generosities of his. He cast a furtive glance behind him in the hope that the disseminator of expiring roosters had vanished, but the man was still at his elbow. Worse, he faced them, and in a hoarse but carrying voice he was instructing Heaven to bless his benefactor.
'Halloa, Claire darling!' said Lord Dawlish, with a sort of sheepish breeziness. 'Here you are.'
Claire was looking after the stud merchant, as, grasping his wealth, he scuttled up the avenue.
'Only a bob,' his lordship hastened to say. 'Rather a sad case, don't you know. Squads of children at home demanding bread. Didn't want much else, apparently, but were frightfully keen on bread.'
'He has just gone into a public-house.'
'He may have gone to telephone or something, what?'
'I wish,' said Claire, fretfully, leading the way down the grillroom stairs, 'that you wouldn't let all London sponge on you like this. I keep telling you not to. I should have thought that if any one needed to keep what little money he has got it was you.'
Certainly Lord Dawlish would have been more prudent not to have parted with even eleven shillings, for he was not a rich man. Indeed, with the single exception of the Earl of Wetherby, whose finances were so irregular that he could not be said to possess an income at all, he was the poorest man of his rank in the British Isles.
It was in the days of the Regency that the Dawlish coffers first began to show signs of cracking under the strain, in the era of the then celebrated Beau Dawlish. Nor were his successors backward in the spending art. A breezy disregard for the preservation of the pence was a family trait. Bill was at Cambridge when his predecessor in the title, his Uncle Philip, was performing the concluding exercises of the dissipation of the Dawlish doubloons, a feat which he achieved so neatly that when he died there was just enough cash to pay the doctors, and no more. Bill found himself the possessor of that most ironical thing, a moneyless title. He was then twenty-three.
Until six months before, when he had become engaged to Claire Fenwick, he had found nothing to quarrel with in his lot. He was not the type to waste time in vain regrets. His tastes were simple. As long as he could afford to belong to one or two golf clubs and have something over for those small loans which, in certain of the numerous circles in which he moved, were the inevitable concomitant of popularity, he was satisfied. And this modest ambition had been realized for him by a group of what he was accustomed to refer to as decent old bucks, who had installed him as secretary of that aristocratic and exclusive club, Brown's in St James Street, at an annual salary of four hundred pounds. With that wealth, added to free lodging at one of the best clubs in London, perfect health, a steadily-diminishing golf handicap, and a host of friends in every walk of life, Bill had felt that it would be absurd not to be happy and contented.
But Claire had made a difference. There was no question of that. In the first place, she resolutely declined to marry him on four hundred pounds a year. She scoffed at four hundred pounds a year. To hear her talk, you would have supposed that she had been brought up from the cradle to look on four hundred pounds a year as small change to be disposed of in tips and cab fares. That in itself would have been enough to sow doubts in Bill's mind as to whether he had really got all the money that a reasonable man needed; and Claire saw to it that these doubts sprouted, by confining her conversation on the occasions of their meeting almost entirely to the great theme of money, with its minor sub-divisions of How to get it, Why don't you get it? and I'm sick and tired of not having it.
She developed this theme to-day, not only on the stairs leading to the grillroom, but even after they had seated themselves at their table. It was a relief to Bill when the arrival of the waiter with food caused a break in the conversation and enabled him adroitly to change the subject.
'What have you been doing this morning?' he asked.
'I went to see Maginnis at the theatre.'
'I had a wire from him asking me to call. They want me to call. They want me to take up Claudia Winslow's part in the number one company.'
'Well—er—what I mean—well, isn't it? What I mean is, leading part, and so forth.'
'In a touring company?'
'Yes, I see what you mean,' said Lord Dawlish, who didn't at all. He thought rather highly of the number one companies that hailed from the theatre of which Mr Maginnis was proprietor.
'And anyhow, I ought to have had the part in the first place instead of when the tour's half over. They are at Southampton this week. He wants me to join them there and go on to Portsmouth with them.'
'You'll like Portsmouth.'
'Well—er—good links quite near.'
'You know I don't play golf.'
'Nor do you. I was forgetting. Still, it's quite a jolly place.'
'It's a horrible place. I loathe it. I've half a mind not to go.'
'Oh, I don't know.'
'What do you mean?'
Lord Dawlish was feeling a little sorry for himself. Whatever he said seemed to be the wrong thing. This evidently was one of the days on which Claire was not so sweet-tempered as on some other days. It crossed his mind that of late these irritable moods of hers had grown more frequent. It was not her fault, poor girl! he told himself. She had rather a rotten time.
It was always Lord Dawlish's habit on these occasions to make this excuse for Claire. It was such a satisfactory excuse. It covered everything. But, as a matter of fact, the rather rotten time which she was having was not such a very rotten one. Reducing it to its simplest terms, and forgetting for the moment that she was an extraordinarily beautiful girl—which his lordship found it impossible to do—all that it amounted to was that, her mother having but a small income, and existence in the West Kensington flat being consequently a trifle dull for one with a taste for the luxuries of life, Claire had gone on the stage. By birth she belonged to a class of which the female members are seldom called upon to earn money at all, and that was one count of her grievance against Fate. Another was that she had not done as well on the stage as she had expected to do. When she became engaged to Bill she had reached a point where she could obtain without difficulty good parts in the touring companies of London successes, but beyond that it seemed it was impossible for her to soar. It was not, perhaps, a very exhilarating life, but, except to the eyes of love, there was nothing tragic about it. It was the cumulative effect of having a mother in reduced circumstances and grumbling about it, of being compelled to work and grumbling about that, and of achieving in her work only a semi-success and grumbling about that also, that—backed by her looks—enabled Claire to give quite a number of people, and Bill Dawlish in particular, the impression that she was a modern martyr, only sustained by her indomitable courage.
So Bill, being requested in a peevish voice to explain what he meant by saying, 'Oh, I don't know,' condoned the peevishness. He then bent his mind to the task of trying to ascertain what he had meant.
'Well,' he said, 'what I mean is, if you don't show up won't it be rather a jar for old friend Maginnis? Won't he be apt to foam at the mouth a bit and stop giving you parts in his companies?'
'I'm sick of trying to please Maginnis. What's the good? He never gives me a chance in London. I'm sick of being always on tour. I'm sick of everything.'
'It's the heat,' said Lord Dawlish, most injudiciously.
'It isn't the heat. It's you!'
'Me? What have I done?'
'It's what you've not done. Why can't you exert yourself and make some money?'
Lord Dawlish groaned a silent groan. By a devious route, but with unfailing precision, they had come homing back to the same old subject.
'We have been engaged for six months, and there seems about as much chance of our ever getting married as of—I can't think of anything unlikely enough. We shall go on like this till we're dead.'
'But, my dear girl!'
'I wish you wouldn't talk to me as if you were my grandfather. What were you going to say?'
'Only that we can get married this afternoon if you'll say the word.'
'Oh, don't let us go into all that again! I'm not going to marry on four hundred a year and spend the rest of my life in a pokey little flat on the edge of London. Why can't you make more money?'
'I did have a dash at it, you know. I waylaid old Bodger—Colonel Bodger, on the committee of the club, you know—and suggested over a whisky-and-soda that the management of Brown's would be behaving like sportsmen if they bumped my salary up a bit, and the old boy nearly strangled himself trying to suck down Scotch and laugh at the same time. I give you my word, he nearly expired on the smoking-room floor. When he came to he said that he wished I wouldn't spring my good things on him so suddenly, as he had a weak heart. He said they were only paying me my present salary because they liked me so much. You know, it was decent of the old boy to say that.'
'What is the good of being liked by the men in your club if you won't make any use of it?'
'How do you mean?'
'There are endless things you could do. You could have got Mr Breitstein elected at Brown's if you had liked. They wouldn't have dreamed of blackballing any one proposed by a popular man like you, and Mr Breitstein asked you personally to use your influence—you told me so.'
'But, my dear girl—I mean my darling—Breitstein! He's the limit! He's the worst bounder in London.'
'He's also one of the richest men in London. He would have done anything for you. And you let him go! You insulted him!'
'Didn't you send him an admission ticket to the Zoo?'
'Oh, well, yes, I did do that. He thanked me and went the following Sunday. Amazing how these rich Johnnies love getting something for nothing. There was that old American I met down at Marvis Bay last year—'
'You threw away a wonderful chance of making all sorts of money. Why, a single tip from Mr Breitstein would have made your fortune.'
'But, Claire, you know, there are some things—what I mean is, if they like me at Brown's, it's awfully decent of them and all that, but I couldn't take advantage of it to plant a fellow like Breitstein on them. It wouldn't be playing the game.'
Lord Dawlish looked unhappy, but said nothing. This matter of Mr Breitstein had been touched upon by Claire in previous conversations, and it was a subject for which he had little liking. Experience had taught him that none of the arguments which seemed so conclusive to him—to wit, that the financier had on two occasions only just escaped imprisonment for fraud, and, what was worse, made a noise when he drank soup, like water running out of a bathtub—had the least effect upon her. The only thing to do when Mr Breitstein came up in the course of chitchat over the festive board was to stay quiet until he blew over.
'That old American you met at Marvis Bay,' said Claire, her memory flitting back to the remark which she had interrupted; 'well, there's another case. You could easily have got him to do something for you.'
'Claire, really!' said his goaded lordship, protestingly. 'How on earth? I only met the man on the links.'
'But you were very nice to him. You told me yourself that you spent hours helping him to get rid of his slice, whatever that is.'
'We happened to be the only two down there at the time, so I was as civil as I could manage. If you're marooned at a Cornish seaside resort out of the season with a man, you can't spend your time dodging him. And this man had a slice that fascinated me. I felt at the time that it was my mission in life to cure him, so I had a dash at it. But I don't see how on the strength of that I could expect the old boy to adopt me. He probably forgot my existence after I had left.'
'You said you met him in London a month or two afterwards, and he hadn't forgotten you.'
'Well, yes, that's true. He was walking up the Haymarket and I was walking down. I caught his eye, and he nodded and passed on. I don't see how I could construe that into an invitation to go and sit on his lap and help myself out of his pockets.'
'You couldn't expect him to go out of his way to help you; but probably if you had gone to him he would have done something.'
'You haven't the pleasure of Mr Ira Nutcombe's acquaintance, Claire, or you wouldn't talk like that. He wasn't the sort of man you could get things out of. He didn't even tip the caddie. Besides, can't you see what I mean? I couldn't trade on a chance acquaintance of the golf links to—'
'That is just what I complain of in you. You're too diffident.'
'It isn't diffidence exactly. Talking of old Nutcombe, I was speaking to Gates again the other night. He was telling me about America. There's a lot of money to be made over there, you know, and the committee owes me a holiday. They would give me a few weeks off any time I liked.
'What do you say? Shall I pop over and have a look round? I might happen to drop into something. Gates was telling me about fellows he knew who had dropped into things in New York.'
'What's the good of putting yourself to all the trouble and expense of going to America? You can easily make all you want in London if you will only try. It isn't as if you had no chances. You have more chances than almost any man in town. With your title you could get all the directorships in the City that you wanted.'
'Well, the fact is, this business of taking directorships has never quite appealed to me. I don't know anything about the game, and I should probably run up against some wildcat company. I can't say I like the directorship wheeze much. It's the idea of knowing that one's name would be being used as a bait. Every time I saw it on a prospectus I should feel like a trout fly.'
Claire bit her lip.
'It's so exasperating!' she broke out. 'When I first told my friends that I was engaged to Lord Dawlish they were tremendously impressed. They took it for granted that you must have lots of money. Now I have to keep explaining to them that the reason we don't get married is that we can't afford to. I'm almost as badly off as poor Polly Davis who was in the Heavenly Waltz Company with me when she married that man, Lord Wetherby. A man with a title has no right not to have money. It makes the whole thing farcical.
'If I were in your place I should have tried a hundred things by now, but you always have some silly objection. Why couldn't you, for instance, have taken on the agency of that what-d'you-call-it car?'
'What I called it would have been nothing to what the poor devils who bought it would have called it.'
'You could have sold hundreds of them, and the company would have given you any commission you asked. You know just the sort of people they wanted to get in touch with.'
'But, darling, how could I? Planting Breitstein on the club would have been nothing compared with sowing these horrors about London. I couldn't go about the place sticking my pals with a car which, I give you my honest word, was stuck together with chewing-gum and tied up with string.'
'Why not? It would be their fault if they bought a car that wasn't any good. Why should you have to worry once you had it sold?'
It was not Lord Dawlish's lucky afternoon. All through lunch he had been saying the wrong thing, and now he put the coping-stone on his misdeeds. Of all the ways in which he could have answered Claire's question he chose the worst.
'Er—well,' he said, 'noblesse oblige, don't you know, what?'
For a moment Claire did not speak. Then she looked at her watch and got up.
'I must be going,' she said, coldly.
'But you haven't had your coffee yet.'
'I don't want any coffee.'
'What's the matter, dear?'
'Nothing is the matter. I have to go home and pack. I'm going to Southampton this afternoon.'
She began to move towards the door. Lord Dawlish, anxious to follow, was detained by the fact that he had not yet paid the bill. The production and settling of this took time, and when finally he turned in search of Claire she was nowhere visible.
Bounding upstairs on the swift feet of love, he reached the street. She had gone.
A grey sadness surged over Bill Dawlish. The sun hid itself behind a cloud, the sky took on a leaden hue, and a chill wind blew through the world. He scanned Shaftesbury Avenue with a jaundiced eye, and thought that he had never seen a beastlier thoroughfare. Piccadilly, however, into which he shortly dragged himself, was even worse. It was full of men and women and other depressing things.
He pitied himself profoundly. It was a rotten world to live in, this, where a fellow couldn't say noblesse oblige without upsetting the universe. Why shouldn't a fellow say noblesse oblige? Why—? At this juncture Lord Dawlish walked into a lamp-post.
The shock changed his mood. Gloom still obsessed him, but blended now with remorse. He began to look at the matter from Claire's viewpoint, and his pity switched from himself to her. In the first place, the poor girl had rather a rotten time. Could she be blamed for wanting him to make money? No. Yet whenever she made suggestions as to how the thing was to be done, he snubbed her by saying noblesse oblige. Naturally a refined and sensitive young girl objected to having things like noblesse oblige said to her. Where was the sense in saying noblesse oblige? Such a confoundedly silly thing to say. Only a perfect ass would spend his time rushing about the place saying noblesse oblige to people.
'By Jove!' Lord Dawlish stopped in his stride. He disentangled himself from a pedestrian who had rammed him on the back. 'I'll do it!'
He hailed a passing taxi and directed the driver to make for the Pen and Ink Club.
The decision at which Bill had arrived with such dramatic suddenness in the middle of Piccadilly was the same at which some centuries earlier Columbus had arrived in the privacy of his home.
'Hang it!' said Bill to himself in the cab, 'I'll go to America!' The exact words probably which Columbus had used, talking the thing over with his wife.
Bill's knowledge of the great republic across the sea was at this period of his life a little sketchy. He knew that there had been unpleasantness between England and the United States in seventeen-something and again in eighteen-something, but that things had eventually been straightened out by Miss Edna May and her fellow missionaries of the Belle of New York Company, since which time there had been no more trouble. Of American cocktails he had a fair working knowledge, and he appreciated ragtime. But of the other great American institutions he was completely ignorant.
He was on his way now to see Gates. Gates was a comparatively recent addition to his list of friends, a New York newspaperman who had come to England a few months before to act as his paper's London correspondent. He was generally to be found at the Pen and Ink Club, an institution affiliated with the New York Players, of which he was a member.
Gates was in. He had just finished lunch.
'What's the trouble, Bill?' he inquired, when he had deposited his lordship in a corner of the reading-room, which he had selected because silence was compulsory there, thus rendering it possible for two men to hear each other speak. 'What brings you charging in here looking like the Soul's Awakening?'
'I've had an idea, old man.'
'Oh! Well, you remember what you were saying about America?'
'What was I saying about America?'
'The other day, don't you remember? What a lot of money there was to be made there and so forth.'
'I'm going there.'
'To make money?'
Gates nodded—sadly, it seemed to Bill. He was rather a melancholy young man, with a long face not unlike a pessimistic horse.
'Gosh!' he said.
Bill felt a little damped. By no mental juggling could he construe 'Gosh!' into an expression of enthusiastic approbation.
Gates looked at Bill curiously. 'What's the idea?' he said. 'I could have understood it if you had told me that you were going to New York for pleasure, instructing your man Willoughby to see that the trunks were jolly well packed and wiring to the skipper of your yacht to meet you at Liverpool. But you seem to have sordid motives. You talk about making money. What do you want with more money?'
'Why, I'm devilish hard up.'
'Tenantry a bit slack with the rent?' said Gates sympathetically.
'My dear chap, I don't know what on earth you're talking about. How much money do you think I've got? Four hundred pounds a year, and no prospect of ever making more unless I sweat for it.'
'What! I always thought you were rolling in money.'
'What gave you that idea?'
'You have a prosperous look. It's a funny thing about England. I've known you four months, and I know men who know you; but I've never heard a word about your finances. In New York we all wear labels, stating our incomes and prospects in clear lettering. Well, if it's like that it's different, of course. There certainly is more money to be made in America than here. I don't quite see what you think you're going to do when you get there, but that's up to you.
'There's no harm in giving the city a trial. Anyway, I can give you a letter or two that might help.'
'That's awfully good of you.'
'You won't mind my alluding to you as my friend William Smith?'
'You can't travel under your own name if you are really serious about getting a job. Mind you, if my letters lead to anything it will probably be a situation as an earnest bill-clerk or an effervescent office-boy, for Rockefeller and Carnegie and that lot have swiped all the soft jobs. But if you go over as Lord Dawlish you won't even get that. Lords are popular socially in America, but are not used to any great extent in the office. If you try to break in under your right name you'll get the glad hand and be asked to stay here and there and play a good deal of golf and dance quite a lot, but you won't get a job. A gentle smile will greet all your pleadings that you be allowed to come in and save the firm.'
'We may look on Smith as a necessity.'
'Do you know, I'm not frightfully keen on the name Smith. Wouldn't something else do?'
'Sure. We aim to please. How would Jones suit you?'
'The trouble is, you know, that if I took a name I wasn't used to I might forget it.'
'If you've the sort of mind that would forget Jones I doubt if ever you'll be a captain of industry.'
'Why not Chalmers?'
'You think it easier to memorize than Jones?'
'It used to be my name, you see, before I got the title.'
'I see. All right. Chalmers then. When do you think of starting?'
'You aren't losing much time. By the way, as you're going to New York you might as well use my flat.'
'It's awfully good of you.'
'Not a bit. You would be doing me a favour. I had to leave at a moment's notice, and I want to know what's been happening to the place. I left some Japanese prints there, and my favourite nightmare is that someone has broken in and sneaked them. Write down the address—Forty-blank East Twenty-seventh Street. I'll send you the key to Brown's to-night with those letters.'
Bill walked up the Strand, glowing with energy. He made his way to Cockspur Street to buy his ticket for New York. This done, he set out to Brown's to arrange with the committee the details of his departure.
He reached Brown's at twenty minutes past two and left it again at twenty-three minutes past; for, directly he entered, the hall porter had handed him a telephone message. The telephone attendants at London clubs are masters of suggestive brevity. The one in the basement of Brown's had written on Bill's slip of paper the words: '1 p.m. Will Lord Dawlish as soon as possible call upon Mr Gerald Nichols at his office?' To this was appended a message consisting of two words: 'Good news.'
It was stimulating. The probability was that all Jerry Nichols wanted to tell him was that he had received stable information about some horse or had been given a box for the Empire, but for all that it was stimulating.
Bill looked at his watch. He could spare half an hour. He set out at once for the offices of the eminent law firm of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols, of which aggregation of Nicholses his friend Jerry was the last and smallest.
On a west-bound omnibus Claire Fenwick sat and raged silently in the June sunshine. She was furious. What right had Lord Dawlish to look down his nose and murmur 'Noblesse oblige' when she asked him a question, as if she had suggested that he should commit some crime? It was the patronizing way he had said it that infuriated her, as if he were a superior being of some kind, governed by codes which she could not be expected to understand. Everybody nowadays did the sort of things she suggested, so what was the good of looking shocked and saying 'Noblesse oblige'?
The omnibus rolled on towards West Kensington. Claire hated the place with the bitter hate of one who had read society novels, and yearned for Grosvenor Square and butlers and a general atmosphere of soft cushions and pink-shaded lights and maids to do one's hair. She hated the cheap furniture of the little parlour, the penetrating contralto of the cook singing hymns in the kitchen, and the ubiquitousness of her small brother. He was only ten, and small for his age, yet he appeared to have the power of being in two rooms at the same time while making a nerve-racking noise in another.
It was Percy who greeted her to-day as she entered the flat.
'Halloa, Claire! I say, Claire, there's a letter for you. It came by the second post. I say, Claire, it's got an American stamp on it. Can I have it, Claire? I haven't got one in my collection.'
His sister regarded him broodingly. 'For goodness' sake don't bellow like that!' she said. 'Of course, you can have the stamp. I don't want it. Where is the letter?'
Claire took the envelope from him, extracted the letter, and handed back the envelope. Percy vanished into the dining-room with a shattering squeal of pleasure.
A voice spoke from behind a half-opened door—
'Is that you, Claire?'
'Yes, mother; I've come back to pack. They want me to go to Southampton to-night to take up Claudia Winslow's part.'
'What train are you catching?'
'You will have to hurry.'
'I'm going to hurry,' said Claire, clenching her fists as two simultaneous bursts of song, in different keys and varying tempos, proceeded from the dining-room and kitchen. A girl has to be in a sunnier mood than she was to bear up without wincing under the infliction of a duet consisting of the Rock of Ages and Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. Assuredly Claire proposed to hurry. She meant to get her packing done in record time and escape from this place. She went into her bedroom and began to throw things untidily into her trunk. She had put the letter in her pocket against a more favourable time for perusal. A glance had told her that it was from her friend Polly, Countess of Wetherby: that Polly Davis of whom she had spoken to Lord Dawlish. Polly Davis, now married for better or for worse to that curious invertebrate person, Algie Wetherby, was the only real friend Claire had made on the stage. A sort of shivering gentility had kept her aloof from the rest of her fellow-workers, but it took more than a shivering gentility to stave off Polly.
Claire had passed through the various stages of intimacy with her, until on the occasion of Polly's marriage she had acted as her bridesmaid.
It was a long letter, too long to be read until she was at leisure, and written in a straggling hand that made reading difficult. She was mildly surprised that Polly should have written her, for she had been back in America a year or more now, and this was her first letter. Polly had a warm heart and did not forget her friends, but she was not a good correspondent.
The need of getting her things ready at once drove the letter from Claire's mind. She was in the train on her way to Southampton before she remembered its existence.
It was dated from New York.
MY DEAR OLD CLAIRE,—Is this really my first letter to you? Isn't that awful! Gee! A lot's happened since I saw you last. I must tell you first about my hit. Some hit! Claire, old girl, I own New York. I daren't tell you what my salary is. You'd faint.
I'm doing barefoot dancing. You know the sort of stuff. I started it in vaudeville, and went so big that my agent shifted me to the restaurants, and they have to call out the police reserves to handle the crowd. You can't get a table at Reigelheimer's, which is my pitch, unless you tip the head waiter a small fortune and promise to mail him your clothes when you get home. I dance during supper with nothing on my feet and not much anywhere else, and it takes three vans to carry my salary to the bank.
Of course, it's the title that does it: 'Lady Pauline Wetherby!' Algie says it oughtn't to be that, because I'm not the daughter of a duke, but I don't worry about that. It looks good, and that's all that matters. You can't get away from the title. I was born in Carbondale, Illinois, but that doesn't matter—I'm an English countess, doing barefoot dancing to work off the mortgage on the ancestral castle, and they eat me. Take it from me, Claire, I'm a riot.
Well, that's that. What I am really writing about is to tell you that you have got to come over here. I've taken a house at Brookport, on Long Island, for the summer. You can stay with me till the fall, and then I can easily get you a good job in New York. I have some pull these days, believe me. Not that you'll need my help. The managers have only got to see you and they'll all want you. I showed one of them that photograph you gave me, and he went up in the air. They pay twice as big salaries over here, you know, as in England, so come by the next boat.
Claire, darling, you must come. I'm wretched. Algie has got my goat the worst way. If you don't know what that means it means that he's behaving like a perfect pig. I hardly know where to begin. Well, it was this way: directly I made my hit my press agent, a real bright man named Sherriff, got busy, of course. Interviews, you know, and Advice to Young Girls in the evening papers, and How I preserve my beauty, and all that sort of thing. Well, one thing he made me do was to buy a snake and a monkey. Roscoe Sherriff is crazy about animals as aids to advertisement. He says an animal story is the thing he does best. So I bought them.
Algie kicked from the first. I ought to tell you that since we left England he has taken up painting footling little pictures, and has got the artistic temperament badly. All his life he's been starting some new fool thing. When I first met him he prided himself on having the finest collection of photographs of race-horses in England. Then he got a craze for model engines. After that he used to work the piano player till I nearly went crazy. And now it's pictures.
I don't mind his painting. It gives him something to do and keeps him out of mischief. He has a studio down in Washington Square, and is perfectly happy messing about there all day.
Everything would be fine if he didn't think it necessary to tack on the artistic temperament to his painting. He's developed the idea that he has nerves and everything upsets them.
Things came to a head this morning at breakfast. Clarence, my snake, has the cutest way of climbing up the leg of the table and looking at you pleadingly in the hope that you will give him soft-boiled egg, which he adores. He did it this morning, and no sooner had his head appeared above the table than Algie, with a kind of sharp wail, struck him a violent blow on the nose with a teaspoon. Then he turned to me, very pale, and said: 'Pauline, this must end! The time has come to speak up. A nervous, highly-strung man like myself should not, and must not, be called upon to live in a house where he is constantly meeting snakes and monkeys without warning. Choose between me and—'
We had got as far as this when Eustace, the monkey, who I didn't know was in the room at all, suddenly sprang on to his back. He is very fond of Algie.
Would you believe it? Algie walked straight out of the house, still holding the teaspoon, and has not returned. Later in the day he called me up on the phone and said that, though he realized that a man's place was the home, he declined to cross the threshold again until I had got rid of Eustace and Clarence. I tried to reason with him. I told him that he ought to think himself lucky it wasn't anything worse than a monkey and a snake, for the last person Roscoe Sherriff handled, an emotional actress named Devenish, had to keep a young puma. But he wouldn't listen, and the end of it was that he rang off and I have not seen or heard of him since.
I am broken-hearted. I won't give in, but I am having an awful time. So, dearest Claire, do come over and help me. If you could possibly sail by the Atlantic, leaving Southampton on the twenty-fourth of this month, you would meet a friend of mine whom I think you would like. His name is Dudley Pickering, and he made a fortune in automobiles. I expect you have heard of the Pickering automobiles?
Darling Claire, do come, or I know I shall weaken and yield to Algie's outrageous demands, for, though I would like to hit him with a brick, I love him dearly.
Your affectionate POLLY WETHERBY
Claire sank back against the cushioned seat and her eyes filled with tears of disappointment. Of all the things which would have chimed in with her discontented mood at that moment a sudden flight to America was the most alluring. Only one consideration held her back—she had not the money for her fare.
Polly might have thought of that, she reflected, bitterly. She took the letter up again and saw that on the last page there was a postscript—
PS.—I don't know how you are fixed for money, old girl, but if things are the same with you as in the old days you can't be rolling. So I have paid for a passage for you with the liner people this side, and they have cabled their English office, so you can sail whenever you want to. Come right over.
An hour later the manager of the Southampton branch of the White Star Line was dazzled by an apparition, a beautiful girl who burst in upon him with flushed face and shining eyes, demanding a berth on the steamship Atlantic and talking about a Lady Wetherby. Ten minutes later, her passage secured, Claire was walking to the local theatre to inform those in charge of the destinies of The Girl and the Artist number one company that they must look elsewhere for a substitute for Miss Claudia Winslow. Then she went back to her hotel to write a letter home, notifying her mother of her plans.
She looked at her watch. It was six o'clock. Back in West Kensington a rich smell of dinner would be floating through the flat; the cook, watching the boiling cabbage, would be singing A Few More Years Shall Roll; her mother would be sighing; and her little brother Percy would be employed upon some juvenile deviltry, the exact nature of which it was not possible to conjecture, though one could be certain that it would be something involving a deafening noise.
Claire smiled a happy smile.
The offices of Messrs Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols were in Lincoln's Inn Fields. The first Nichols had been dead since the reign of King William the Fourth, the second since the jubilee year of Queen Victoria. The remaining brace were Lord Dawlish's friend Jerry and his father, a formidable old man who knew all the shady secrets of all the noble families in England.
Bill walked up the stairs and was shown into the room where Jerry, when his father's eye was upon him, gave his daily imitation of a young man labouring with diligence and enthusiasm at the law. His father being at the moment out at lunch, the junior partner was practising putts with an umbrella and a ball of paper.
Jerry Nichols was not the typical lawyer. At Cambridge, where Bill had first made his acquaintance, he had been notable for an exuberance of which Lincoln's Inn Fields had not yet cured him. There was an airy disregard for legal formalities about him which exasperated his father, an attorney of the old school. He came to the point, directly Bill entered the room, with a speed and levity that would have appalled Nichols Senior, and must have caused the other two Nicholses to revolve in their graves.
'Halloa, Bill, old man,' he said, prodding him amiably in the waistcoat with the ferrule of the umbrella. 'How's the boy? Fine! So'm I. So you got my message? Wonderful invention, the telephone.'
'I've just come from the club.'
'Take a chair.'
'What's the matter?'
Jerry Nichols thrust Bill into a chair and seated himself on the table.
'Now look here, Bill,' he said, 'this isn't the way we usually do this sort of thing, and if the governor were here he would spend an hour and a half rambling on about testators and beneficiary legatees, and parties of the first part, and all that sort of rot. But as he isn't here I want to know, as one pal to another, what you've been doing to an old buster of the name of Nutcombe.'
'Not Ira Nutcombe?'
'Ira J. Nutcombe, formerly of Chicago, later of London, now a disembodied spirit.'
'Is he dead?'
'Yes. And he's left you something like a million pounds.'
Lord Dawlish looked at his watch.
'Joking apart, Jerry, old man,' he said, 'what did you ask me to come here for? The committee expects me to spend some of my time at the club, and if I hang about here all the afternoon I shall lose my job. Besides, I've got to get back to ask them for—'
Jerry Nichols clutched his forehead with both hands, raised both hands to heaven, and then, as if despairing of calming himself by these means, picked up a paper-weight from the desk and hurled it at a portrait of the founder of the firm, which hung over the mantelpiece. He got down from the table and crossed the room to inspect the ruins.
Then, having taken a pair of scissors and cut the cord, he allowed the portrait to fall to the floor.
He rang the bell. The prematurely-aged office-boy, who was undoubtedly destined to become a member of the firm some day, answered the ring.
'Inspect yonder soufflee.'
'You have observed it?'
'You are wondering how it got there?'
'I will tell you. You and I were in here, discussing certain legal minutiae in the interests of the firm, when it suddenly fell. We both saw it and were very much surprised and startled. I soothed your nervous system by giving you this half-crown. The whole incident was very painful. Can you remember all this to tell my father when he comes in? I shall be out lunching then.'
'An admirable lad that,' said Jerry Nichols as the door closed. 'He has been here two years, and I have never heard him say anything except "Yes, sir." He will go far. Well, now that I am calmer let us return to your little matter. Honestly, Bill, you make me sick. When I contemplate you the iron enters my soul. You stand there talking about your tuppenny-ha'penny job as if it mattered a cent whether you kept it or not. Can't you understand plain English? Can't you realize that you can buy Brown's and turn it into a moving-picture house if you like? You're a millionaire!'
Bill's face expressed no emotion whatsoever. Outwardly he appeared unmoved. Inwardly he was a riot of bewilderment, incapable of speech. He stared at Jerry dumbly.
'We've got the will in the old oak chest,' went on Jerry Nichols. 'I won't show it to you, partly because the governor has got the key and he would have a fit if he knew that I was giving you early information like this, and partly because you wouldn't understand it. It is full of "whereases" and "peradventures" and "heretofores" and similar swank, and there aren't any stops in it. It takes the legal mind, like mine, to tackle wills. What it says, when you've peeled off a few of the long words which they put in to make it more interesting, is that old Nutcombe leaves you the money because you are the only man who ever did him a disinterested kindness—and what I want to get out of you is, what was the disinterested kindness? Because I'm going straight out to do it to every elderly, rich-looking man I can find till I pick a winner.'
Lord Dawlish found speech.
'Jerry, is this really true?'
'You aren't pulling my leg?'
'Pulling your leg? Of course I'm not pulling your leg. What do you take me for? I'm a dry, hard-headed lawyer. The firm of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols doesn't go about pulling people's legs!'
'It appears from the will that you worked this disinterested gag, whatever it was, at Marvis Bay no longer ago than last year. Wherein you showed a lot of sense, for Ira J., having altered his will in your favour, apparently had no time before he died to alter it again in somebody else's, which he would most certainly have done if he had lived long enough, for his chief recreation seems to have been making his will. To my certain knowledge he has made three in the last two years. I've seen them. He was one of those confirmed will-makers. He got the habit at an early age, and was never able to shake it off. Do you remember anything about the man?'
'It isn't possible!'
'Anything's possible with a man cracked enough to make freak wills and not cracked enough to have them disputed on the ground of insanity. What did you do to him at Marvis Bay? Save him from drowning?'
'I cured him of slicing.'
'You did what?'
'He used to slice his approach shots. I cured him.'
'The thing begins to hang together. A certain plausibility creeps into it. The late Nutcombe was crazy about golf. The governor used to play with him now and then at Walton Heath. It was the only thing Nutcombe seemed to live for. That being so, if you got rid of his slice for him it seems to me, that you earned your money. The only point that occurs to me is, how does it affect your amateur status? It looks to me as if you were now a pro.'
'But, Jerry, it's absurd. All I did was to give him a tip or two. We were the only men down there, as it was out of the season, and that drew us together. And when I spotted this slice of his I just gave him a bit of advice. I give you my word that was all. He can't have left me a fortune on the strength of that!'
'You don't tell the story right, Bill. I can guess what really happened—to wit, that you gave up all your time to helping the old fellow improve his game, regardless of the fact that it completely ruined your holiday.'
'It's no use sitting there saying "Oh, no!" I can see you at it. The fact is, you're such an infernally good chap that something of this sort was bound to happen to you sooner or later. I think making you his heir was the only sensible thing old Nutcombe ever did. In his place I'd have done the same.'
'But he didn't even seem decently grateful at the time.'
'Probably not. He was a queer old bird. He had a most almighty row with the governor in this office only a month or two ago about absolutely nothing. They disagreed about something trivial, and old Nutcombe stalked out and never came in again. That's the sort of old bird he was.'
'Was he sane, do you think?'
'Absolutely, for legal purposes. We have three opinions from leading doctors—collected by him in case of accidents, I suppose—each of which declares him perfectly sound from the collar upward. But a man can be pretty far gone, you know, without being legally insane, and old Nutcombe—well, suppose we call him whimsical. He seems to have zigzagged between the normal and the eccentric.
'His only surviving relatives appear to be a nephew and a niece. The nephew dropped out of the running two years ago when his aunt, old Nutcombe's wife, who had divorced old Nutcombe, left him her money. This seems to have soured the old boy on the nephew, for in the first of his wills that I've seen—you remember I told you I had seen three—he leaves the niece the pile and the nephew only gets twenty pounds. Well, so far there's nothing very eccentric about old Nutcombe's proceedings. But wait!
'Six months after he had made that will he came in here and made another. This left twenty pounds to the nephew as before, but nothing at all to the niece. Why, I don't know. There was nothing in the will about her having done anything to offend him during those six months, none of those nasty slams you see in wills about "I bequeath to my only son John one shilling and sixpence. Now perhaps he's sorry he married the cook." As far as I can make out he changed his will just as he did when he left the money to you, purely through some passing whim. Anyway, he did change it. He left the pile to support the movement those people are running for getting the Jews back to Palestine.
'He didn't seem, on second thoughts, to feel that this was quite such a brainy scheme as he had at first, and it wasn't long before he came trotting back to tear up this second will and switch back to the first one—the one leaving the money to the niece. That restoration to sanity lasted till about a month ago, when he broke loose once more and paid his final visit here to will you the contents of his stocking. This morning I see he's dead after a short illness, so you collect. Congratulations!'
Lord Dawlish had listened to this speech in perfect silence. He now rose and began to pace the room. He looked warm and uncomfortable. His demeanour, in fact, was by no means the accepted demeanour of the lucky heir.
'This is awful!' he said. 'Good Lord, Jerry, it's frightful!'
'Awful!—being left a million pounds?'
'Yes, like this. I feel like a bally thief.'
'Why on earth?'
'If it hadn't been for me this girl—what's her name?'
'Her name is Boyd—Elizabeth Boyd.'
'She would have had the whole million if it hadn't been for me. Have you told her yet?'
'She's in America. I was writing her a letter just before you came in—informal, you know, to put her out of her misery. If I had waited for the governor to let her know in the usual course of red tape we should never have got anywhere. Also one to the nephew, telling him about his twenty pounds. I believe in humane treatment on these occasions. The governor would write them a legal letter with so many "hereinbefores" in it that they would get the idea that they had been left the whole pile. I just send a cheery line saying "It's no good, old top. Abandon hope," and they know just where they are. Simple and considerate.'
A glance at Bill's face moved him to further speech.
'I don't see why you should worry, Bill. How, by any stretch of the imagination, can you make out that you are to blame for this Boyd girl's misfortune? It looks to me as if these eccentric wills of old Nutcombe's came in cycles, as it were. Just as he was due for another outbreak he happened to meet you. It's a moral certainty that if he hadn't met you he would have left all his money to a Home for Superannuated Caddies or a Fund for Supplying the Deserving Poor with Niblicks. Why should you blame yourself?'
'I don't blame myself. It isn't exactly that. But—but, well, what would you feel like in my place?'
'Wouldn't you do anything?'
'I certainly would. By my halidom, I would! I would spend that money with a vim and speed that would make your respected ancestor, the Beau, look like a village miser.'
'You wouldn't—er—pop over to America and see whether something couldn't be arranged?'
'I mean—suppose you were popping in any case. Suppose you had happened to buy a ticket for New York on to-morrow's boat, wouldn't you try to get in touch with this girl when you got to America, and see if you couldn't—er—fix up something?'
Jerry Nichols looked at him in honest consternation. He had always known that old Bill was a dear old ass, but he had never dreamed that he was such an infernal old ass as this.
'You aren't thinking of doing that?' he gasped.
'Well, you see, it's a funny coincidence, but I was going to America, anyhow, to-morrow. I don't see why I shouldn't try to fix up something with this girl.'
'What do you mean—fix up something? You don't suggest that you should give the money up, do you?'
'I don't know. Not exactly that, perhaps. How would it be if I gave her half, what? Anyway, I should like to find out about her, see if she's hard up, and so on. I should like to nose round, you know, and—er—and so forth, don't you know. Where did you say the girl lived?'
'I didn't say, and I'm not sure that I shall. Honestly, Bill, you mustn't be so quixotic.'
'There's no harm in my nosing round, is there? Be a good chap and give me the address.'
'Well'—with misgivings—'Brookport, Long Island.'
'Bill, are you really going to make a fool of yourself?'
'Not a bit of it, old chap. I'm just going to—er—'
'To nose round?'
'To nose round,' said Bill.
Jerry Nichols accompanied his friend to the door, and once more peace reigned in the offices of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols.
The time of a man who has at a moment's notice decided to leave his native land for a sojourn on foreign soil is necessarily taken up with a variety of occupations; and it was not till the following afternoon, on the boat at Liverpool, that Bill had leisure to write to Claire, giving her the news of what had befallen him. He had booked his ticket by a Liverpool boat in preference to one that sailed from Southampton because he had not been sure how Claire would take the news of his sudden decision to leave for America. There was the chance that she might ridicule or condemn the scheme, and he preferred to get away without seeing her. Now that he had received this astounding piece of news from Jerry Nichols he was relieved that he had acted in this way. Whatever Claire might have thought of the original scheme, there was no doubt at all what she would think of his plan of seeking out Elizabeth Boyd with a view to dividing the legacy with her.
He was guarded in his letter. He mentioned no definite figures. He wrote that Ira Nutcombe of whom they had spoken so often had most surprisingly left him in his will a large sum of money, and eased his conscience by telling himself that half of a million pounds undeniably was a large sum of money.
The addressing of the letter called for thought. She would have left Southampton with the rest of the company before it could arrive. Where was it that she said they were going next week? Portsmouth, that was it. He addressed the letter Care of The Girl and the Artist Company, to the King's Theatre, Portsmouth.
The village of Brookport, Long Island, is a summer place. It lives, like the mosquitoes that infest it, entirely on its summer visitors. At the time of the death of Mr Ira Nutcombe, the only all-the-year-round inhabitants were the butcher, the grocer, the chemist, the other customary fauna of villages, and Miss Elizabeth Boyd, who rented the ramshackle farm known locally as Flack's and eked out a precarious livelihood by keeping bees.
If you take down your Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume III, AUS to BIS, you will find that bees are a 'large and natural family of the zoological order Hymenoptera, characterized by the plumose form of many of their hairs, by the large size of the basal segment of the foot ... and by the development of a "tongue" for sucking liquid food,' the last of which peculiarities, it is interesting to note, they shared with Claude Nutcombe Boyd, Elizabeth's brother, who for quite a long time—till his money ran out—had made liquid food almost his sole means of sustenance. These things, however, are by the way. We are not such snobs as to think better or worse of a bee because it can claim kinship with the Hymenoptera family, nor so ill-bred as to chaff it for having large feet. The really interesting passage in the article occurs later, where it says: 'The bee industry prospers greatly in America.'
This is one of those broad statements that invite challenge. Elizabeth Boyd would have challenged it. She had not prospered greatly. With considerable trouble she contrived to pay her way, and that was all.
Again referring to the 'Encyclopaedia,' we find the words: 'Before undertaking the management of a modern apiary, the beekeeper should possess a certain amount of aptitude for the pursuit.' This was possibly the trouble with Elizabeth's venture, considered from a commercial point of view. She loved bees, but she was not an expert on them. She had started her apiary with a small capital, a book of practical hints, and a second-hand queen, principally because she was in need of some occupation that would enable her to live in the country. It was the unfortunate condition of Claude Nutcombe which made life in the country a necessity. At that time he was spending the remains of the money left him by his aunt, and Elizabeth had hardly settled down at Brookport and got her venture under way when she found herself obliged to provide for Nutty a combination of home and sanatorium. It had been the poor lad's mistaken view that he could drink up all the alcoholic liquor in America.
It is a curious law of Nature that the most undeserving brothers always have the best sisters. Thrifty, plodding young men, who get up early, and do it now, and catch the employer's eye, and save half their salaries, have sisters who never speak civilly to them except when they want to borrow money. To the Claude Nutcombes of the world are vouchsafed the Elizabeths.
The great aim of Elizabeth's life was to make a new man of Nutty. It was her hope that the quiet life and soothing air of Brookport, with—unless you counted the money-in-the-slot musical box at the store—its absence of the fiercer excitements, might in time pull him together and unscramble his disordered nervous system. She liked to listen of a morning to the sound of Nutty busy in the next room with a broom and a dustpan, for in the simple lexicon of Flack's there was no such word as 'help'. The privy purse would not run to a maid. Elizabeth did the cooking and Claude Nutcombe the housework.
Several days after Claire Fenwick and Lord Dawlish, by different routes, had sailed from England, Elizabeth Boyd sat up in bed and shook her mane of hair from her eyes, yawning. Outside her window the birds were singing, and a shaft of sunlight intruded itself beneath the blind. But what definitely convinced her that it was time to get up was the plaintive note of James, the cat, patrolling the roof of the porch. An animal of regular habits, James always called for breakfast at eight-thirty sharp.
Elizabeth got out of bed, wrapped her small body in a pink kimono, thrust her small feet into a pair of blue slippers, yawned again, and went downstairs. Having taken last night's milk from the ice-box, she went to the back door, and, having filled James's saucer, stood on the grass beside it, sniffing the morning air.
Elizabeth Boyd was twenty-one, but standing there with her hair tumbling about her shoulders she might have been taken by a not-too-close observer for a child. It was only when you saw her eyes and the resolute tilt of the chin that you realized that she was a young woman very well able to take care of herself in a difficult world. Her hair was very fair, her eyes brown and very bright, and the contrast was extraordinarily piquant. They were valiant eyes, full of spirit; eyes, also, that saw the humour of things. And her mouth was the mouth of one who laughs easily. Her chin, small like the rest of her, was strong; and in the way she held herself there was a boyish jauntiness. She looked—and was—a capable little person.
She stood besides James like a sentinel, watching over him as he breakfasted. There was a puppy belonging to one of the neighbours who sometimes lumbered over and stole James's milk, disposing of it in greedy gulps while its rightful proprietor looked on with piteous helplessness. Elizabeth was fond of the puppy, but her sense of justice was keen and she was there to check this brigandage.
It was a perfect day, cloudless and still. There was peace in the air. James, having finished his milk, began to wash himself. A squirrel climbed cautiously down from a linden tree. From the orchard came the murmur of many bees.
Aesthetically Elizabeth was fond of still, cloudless days, but experience had taught her to suspect them. As was the custom in that locality, the water supply depended on a rickety windwheel. It was with a dark foreboding that she returned to the kitchen and turned on one of the taps. For perhaps three seconds a stream of the dimension of a darning-needle emerged, then with a sad gurgle the tap relapsed into a stolid inaction. There is no stolidity so utter as that of a waterless tap.
'Confound it!' said Elizabeth.
She passed through the dining-room to the foot of the stairs.
There was no reply.
'Nutty, my precious lamb!'
Upstairs in the room next to her own a long, spare form began to uncurl itself in bed; a face with a receding chin and a small forehead raised itself reluctantly from the pillow, and Claude Nutcombe Boyd signalized the fact that he was awake by scowling at the morning sun and uttering an aggrieved groan.
Alas, poor Nutty! This was he whom but yesterday Broadway had known as the Speed Kid, on whom head-waiters had smiled and lesser waiters fawned; whose snake-like form had nestled in so many a front-row orchestra stall.
Where were his lobster Newburgs now, his cold quarts that were wont to set the table in a roar?
Nutty Boyd conformed as nearly as a human being may to Euclid's definition of a straight line. He was length without breadth. From boyhood's early day he had sprouted like a weed, till now in the middle twenties he gave startled strangers the conviction that it only required a sharp gust of wind to snap him in half. Lying in bed, he looked more like a length of hose-pipe than anything else. While he was unwinding himself the door opened and Elizabeth came into the room.
'Good morning, Nutty!'
'What's the time?' asked her brother, hollowly.
'Getting on towards nine. It's a lovely day. The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, summer's in the air. It's one of those beautiful, shiny, heavenly, gorgeous days.'
A look of suspicion came into Nutty's eyes. Elizabeth was not often as lyrical as this.
'There's a catch somewhere,' he said.
'Well, as a matter of fact,' said Elizabeth, carelessly, 'the water's off again.'
'I said that. I'm afraid we aren't a very original family.'
'What a ghastly place this is! Why can't you see old Flack and make him mend that infernal wheel?'
'I'm going to pounce on him and have another try directly I see him. Meanwhile, darling Nutty, will you get some clothes on and go round to the Smiths and ask them to lend us a pailful?'
'Oh, gosh, it's over a mile!'
'No, no, not more than three-quarters.'
'Lugging a pail that weighs a ton! The last time I went there their dog bit me.'
'I expect that was because you slunk in all doubled up, and he got suspicious. You should hold your head up and throw your chest out and stride up as if you were a military friend of the family.'
Self-pity lent Nutty eloquence.
'For Heaven's sake! You drag me out of bed at some awful hour of the morning when a rational person would just be turning in; you send me across country to fetch pailfuls of water when I'm feeling like a corpse; and on top of that you expect me to behave like a drum-major!'
'Dearest, you can wriggle on your tummy, if you like, so long as you get the fluid. We must have water. I can't fetch it. I'm a delicately-nurtured female.'
'We ought to have a man to do these ghastly jobs.'
'But we can't afford one. Just at present all I ask is to be able to pay expenses. And, as a matter of fact, you ought to be very thankful that you have got—'
'A roof over my head? I know. You needn't keep rubbing it in.'
'I wasn't going to say that at all. What a pig you are sometimes, Nutty. As if I wasn't only too glad to have you here. What I was going to say was that you ought to be very thankful that you have got to draw water and hew wood—'
A look of absolute alarm came into Nutty's pallid face.
'You don't mean to say that you want some wood chopped?'
'I was speaking figuratively. I meant hustle about and work in the open air. The sort of life you are leading now is what millionaires pay hundreds of dollars for at these physical-culture places. It has been the making of you.'
'I don't feel made.'
'Your nerves are ever so much better.'
Elizabeth looked at him in alarm.
'Oh, Nutty, you haven't been—seeing anything again, have you?'
'Not seeing, dreaming. I've been dreaming about monkeys. Why should I dream about monkeys if my nerves were all right?'
'I often dream about all sorts of queer things.'
'Have you ever dreamed that you were being chased up Broadway by a chimpanzee in evening dress?'
'Never mind, dear, you'll be quite all right again when you have been living this life down here a little longer.'
Nutty glared balefully at the ceiling.
'What's that darned thing up there on the ceiling? It looks like a hornet. How on earth do these things get into the house?'
'We ought to have nettings. I am going to pounce on Mr Flack about that too.'
'Thank goodness this isn't going to last much longer. It's nearly two weeks since Uncle Ira died. We ought to be hearing from the lawyers any day now. There might be a letter this morning.'
'Do you think he has left us his money?'
'Do I? Why, what else could he do with it? We are his only surviving relatives, aren't we? I've had to go through life with a ghastly name like Nutcombe as a compliment to him, haven't I? I wrote to him regularly at Christmas and on his birthday, didn't I? Well, then! I have a feeling there will be a letter from the lawyers to-day. I wish you would get dressed and go down to the post-office while I'm fetching that infernal water. I can't think why the fools haven't cabled. You would have supposed they would have thought of that.'
Elizabeth returned to her room to dress. She was conscious of a feeling that nothing was quite perfect in this world. It would be nice to have a great deal of money, for she had a scheme in her mind which called for a large capital; but she was sorry that it could come to her only through the death of her uncle, of whom, despite his somewhat forbidding personality, she had always been fond. She was also sorry that a large sum of money was coming to Nutty at that particular point in his career, just when there seemed the hope that the simple life might pull him together. She knew Nutty too well not to be able to forecast his probable behaviour under the influence of a sudden restoration of wealth.
While these thoughts were passing through her mind she happened to glance out of the window. Nutty was shambling through the garden with his pail, a bowed, shuffling pillar of gloom. As Elizabeth watched, he dropped the pail and lashed the air violently for a while. From her knowledge of bees ('It is needful to remember that bees resent outside interference and will resolutely defend themselves,' Encyc. Brit., Vol. III, AUS to BIS) Elizabeth deduced that one of her little pets was annoying him. This episode concluded, Nutty resumed his pail and the journey, and at this moment there appeared over the hedge the face of Mr John Prescott, a neighbour. Mr Prescott, who had dismounted from a bicycle, called to Nutty and waved something in the air. To a stranger the performance would have been obscure, but Elizabeth understood it. Mr Prescott was intimating that he had been down to the post-office for his own letters and, as was his neighbourly custom on these occasions, had brought back also letters for Flack's.
Nutty foregathered with Mr Prescott and took the letters from him. Mr Prescott disappeared. Nutty selected one of the letters and opened it. Then, having stood perfectly still for some moments, he suddenly turned and began to run towards the house.
The mere fact that her brother, whose usual mode of progression was a languid saunter, should be actually running, was enough to tell Elizabeth that the letter which Nutty had read was from the London lawyers. No other communication could have galvanized him into such energy. Whether the contents of the letter were good or bad it was impossible at that distance to say. But when she reached the open air, just as Nutty charged up, she saw by his face that it was anguish not joy that had spurred him on. He was gasping and he bubbled unintelligible words. His little eyes gleamed wildly.
'Nutty, darling, what is it?' cried Elizabeth, every maternal instinct in her aroused.
He was thrusting a sheet of paper at her, a sheet of paper that bore the superscription of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols, with a London address.
'Uncle Ira—' Nutty choked. 'Twenty pounds! He's left me twenty pounds, and all the rest to a—to a man named Dawlish!'
In silence Elizabeth took the letter. It was even as he had said. A few moments before Elizabeth had been regretting the imminent descent of wealth upon her brother. Now she was inconsistent enough to boil with rage at the shattering blow which had befallen him. That she, too, had lost her inheritance hardly occurred to her. Her thoughts were all for Nutty. It did not need the sight of him, gasping and gurgling before her, to tell her how overwhelming was his disappointment.
It was useless to be angry with the deceased Mr Nutcombe. He was too shadowy a mark. Besides, he was dead. The whole current of her wrath turned upon the supplanter, this Lord Dawlish. She pictured him as a crafty adventurer, a wretched fortune-hunter. For some reason or other she imagined him a sinister person with a black moustache, a face thin and hawk-like, and unpleasant eyes. That was the sort of man who would be likely to fasten his talons into poor Uncle Ira.
She had never hated any one in her life before, but as she stood there at that moment she felt that she loathed and detested William Lord Dawlish—unhappy, well-meaning Bill, who only a few hours back had set foot on American soil in his desire to nose round and see if something couldn't be arranged.
Nutty fetched the water. Life is like that. There is nothing clean-cut about it, no sense of form. Instead of being permitted to concentrate his attention on his tragedy Nutty had to trudge three-quarters of a mile, conciliate a bull-terrier, and trudge back again carrying a heavy pail. It was as if one of the heroes of Greek drama, in the middle of his big scene, had been asked to run round the corner to a provision store.
The exercise did not act as a restorative. The blow had been too sudden, too overwhelming. Nutty's reason—such as it was—tottered on its throne. Who was Lord Dawlish? What had he done to ingratiate himself with Uncle Ira? By what insidious means, with what devilish cunning, had he wormed his way into the old man's favour? These were the questions that vexed Nutty's mind when he was able to think at all coherently.
Back at the farm Elizabeth cooked breakfast and awaited her brother's return with a sinking heart. She was a soft-hearted girl, easily distressed by the sight of suffering; and she was aware that Nutty was scarcely of the type that masks its woes behind a brave and cheerful smile. Her heart bled for Nutty.
There was a weary step outside. Nutty entered, slopping water. One glance at his face was enough to tell Elizabeth that she had formed a too conservative estimate of his probable gloom. Without a word he coiled his long form in a chair. There was silence in the stricken house.
'What's the time?'
Elizabeth glanced at her watch.
'About now,' said Nutty, sepulchrally, 'the blighter is ringing for his man to prepare his bally bath and lay out his gold-leaf underwear. After that he will drive down to the bank and draw some of our money.'
The day passed wearily for Elizabeth. Nutty having the air of one who is still engaged in picking up the pieces, she had not the heart to ask him to play his customary part in the household duties, so she washed the dishes and made the beds herself. After that she attended to the bees. After that she cooked lunch.
Nutty was not chatty at lunch. Having observed 'About now the blighter is cursing the waiter for bringing the wrong brand of champagne,' he relapsed into a silence which he did not again break.
Elizabeth was busy again in the afternoon. At four o'clock, feeling tired out, she went to her room to lie down until the next of her cycle of domestic duties should come round.
It was late when she came downstairs, for she had fallen asleep. The sun had gone down. Bees were winging their way heavily back to the hives with their honey. She went out into the grounds to try to find Nutty. There had been no signs of him in the house. There were no signs of him about the grounds. It was not like him to have taken a walk, but it seemed the only possibility. She went back to the house to wait. Eight o'clock came, and nine, and it was then the truth dawned upon her—Nutty had escaped. He had slipped away and gone up to New York.
Lord Dawlish sat in the New York flat which had been lent him by his friend Gates. The hour was half-past ten in the evening; the day, the second day after the exodus of Nutty Boyd from the farm. Before him on the table lay a letter. He was smoking pensively.
Lord Dawlish had found New York enjoyable, but a trifle fatiguing. There was much to be seen in the city, and he had made the mistake of trying to see it all at once. It had been his intention, when he came home after dinner that night, to try to restore the balance of things by going to bed early. He had sat up longer than he had intended, because he had been thinking about this letter.
Immediately upon his arrival in America, Bill had sought out a lawyer and instructed him to write to Elizabeth Boyd, offering her one-half of the late Ira Nutcombe's money. He had had time during the voyage to think the whole matter over, and this seemed to him the only possible course. He could not keep it all. He would feel like the despoiler of the widow and the orphan. Nor would it be fair to Claire to give it all up. If he halved the legacy everybody would be satisfied.
That at least had been his view until Elizabeth's reply had arrived. It was this reply that lay on the table—a brief, formal note, setting forth Miss Boyd's absolute refusal to accept any portion of the money. This was a development which Bill had not foreseen, and he was feeling baffled. What was the next step? He had smoked many pipes in the endeavour to find an answer to this problem, and was lighting another when the door-bell rang.
He opened the door and found himself confronting an extraordinarily tall and thin young man in evening-dress.
Lord Dawlish was a little startled. He had taken it for granted, when the bell rang, that his visitor was Tom, the liftman from downstairs, a friendly soul who hailed from London and had been dropping in at intervals during the past two days to acquire the latest news from his native land. He stared at this changeling inquiringly. The solution of the mystery came with the stranger's first words—
'Is Gates in?'
He spoke eagerly, as if Gates were extremely necessary to his well-being. It distressed Lord Dawlish to disappoint him, but there was nothing else to be done.
'Gates is in London,' he said.
'What! When did he go there?'
'About four months ago.'
'May I come in a minute?'
'Yes, rather, do.'
He led the way into the sitting-room. The stranger gave abruptly in the middle, as if he were being folded up by some invisible agency, and in this attitude sank into a chair, where he lay back looking at Bill over his knees, like a sorrowful sheep peering over a sharp-pointed fence.
'You're from England, aren't you?'
'Been in New York long?'
'Only a couple of days.'
The stranger folded himself up another foot or so until his knees were higher than his head, and lit a cigarette.
'The curse of New York,' he said, mournfully, 'is the way everything changes in it. You can't take your eyes off it for a minute. The population's always shifting. It's like a railway station. You go away for a bit and come back and try to find your old pals, and they're all gone: Ike's in Arizona, Mike's in a sanatorium, Spike's in jail, and nobody seems to know where the rest of them have got to. I came up from the country two days ago, expecting to find the old gang along Broadway the same as ever, and I'm dashed if I've been able to put my hands on one of them! Not a single, solitary one of them! And it's only six months since I was here last.'
Lord Dawlish made sympathetic noises.
'Of course,' proceeded the other, 'the time of year may have something to do with it. Living down in the country you lose count of time, and I forgot that it was July, when people go out of the city. I guess that must be what happened. I used to know all sorts of fellows, actors and fellows like that, and they're all away somewhere. I tell you,' he said, with pathos, 'I never knew I could be so infernally lonesome as I have been these last two days. If I had known what a rotten time I was going to have I would never have left Brookport.'
'It's a place down on Long Island.'
Bill was not by nature a plotter, but the mere fact of travelling under an assumed name had developed a streak of wariness in him. He checked himself just as he was about to ask his companion if he happened to know a Miss Elizabeth Boyd, who also lived at Brookport. It occurred to him that the question would invite a counter-question as to his own knowledge of Miss Boyd, and he knew that he would not be able to invent a satisfactory answer to that offhand.
'This evening,' said the thin young man, resuming his dirge, 'I was sweating my brain to try to think of somebody I could hunt up in this ghastly, deserted city. It isn't so easy, you know, to think of fellows' names and addresses. I can get the names all right, but unless the fellow's in the telephone-book, I'm done. Well, I was trying to think of some of my pals who might still be around the place, and I remembered Gates. Remembered his address, too, by a miracle. You're a pal of his, of course?'
'Yes, I knew him in London.'
'Oh, I see. And when you came over here he lent you his flat? By the way, I didn't get your name?'
'My name's Chalmers.'
'Well, as I say, I remembered Gates and came down here to look him up. We used to have a lot of good times together a year ago. And now he's gone too!'
'Did you want to see him about anything important?'
'Well, it's important to me. I wanted him to come out to supper. You see, it's this way: I'm giving supper to-night to a girl who's in that show at the Forty-ninth Street Theatre, a Miss Leonard, and she insists on bringing a pal. She says the pal is a good sport, which sounds all right—' Bill admitted that it sounded all right. 'But it makes the party three. And of all the infernal things a party of three is the ghastliest.'
Having delivered himself of this undeniable truth the stranger slid a little farther into his chair and paused. 'Look here, what are you doing to-night?' he said.
'I was thinking of going to bed.'
'Going to bed!' The stranger's voice was shocked, as if he had heard blasphemy. 'Going to bed at half-past ten in New York! My dear chap, what you want is a bit of supper. Why don't you come along?'
Amiability was, perhaps, the leading quality of Lord Dawlish's character. He did not want to have to dress and go out to supper, but there was something almost pleading in the eyes that looked at him between the sharply-pointed knees.
'It's awfully good of you—' He hesitated.
'Not a bit; I wish you would. You would be a life-saver.'
Bill felt that he was in for it. He got up.
'You will?' said the other. 'Good boy! You go and get into some clothes and come along. I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?'
'Mine's Boyd—Nutcombe Boyd.'
'Boyd!' cried Bill.
Nutty took his astonishment, which was too great to be concealed, as a compliment. He chuckled.
'I thought you would know the name if you were a pal of Gates's. I expect he's always talking about me. You see, I was pretty well known in this old place before I had to leave it.'
Bill walked down the long passage to his bedroom with no trace of the sleepiness which had been weighing on him five minutes before. He was galvanized by a superstitious thrill. It was fate, Elizabeth Boyd's brother turning up like this and making friendly overtures right on top of that letter from her. This astonishing thing could not have been better arranged if he had planned it himself. From what little he had seen of Nutty he gathered that the latter was not hard to make friends with. It would be a simple task to cultivate his acquaintance. And having done so, he could renew negotiations with Elizabeth. The desire to rid himself of half the legacy had become a fixed idea with Bill. He had the impression that he could not really feel clean again until he had made matters square with his conscience in this respect. He felt that he was probably a fool to take that view of the thing, but that was the way he was built and there was no getting away from it.
This irruption of Nutty Boyd into his life was an omen. It meant that all was not yet over. He was conscious of a mild surprise that he had ever intended to go to bed. He felt now as if he never wanted to go to bed again. He felt exhilarated.
In these days one cannot say that a supper-party is actually given in any one place. Supping in New York has become a peripatetic pastime. The supper-party arranged by Nutty Boyd was scheduled to start at Reigelheimer's on Forty-second Street, and it was there that the revellers assembled.
Nutty and Bill had been there a few minutes when Miss Daisy Leonard arrived with her friend. And from that moment Bill was never himself again.
The Good Sport was, so to speak, an outsize in Good Sports. She loomed up behind the small and demure Miss Leonard like a liner towed by a tug. She was big, blonde, skittish, and exuberant; she wore a dress like the sunset of a fine summer evening, and she effervesced with spacious good will to all men. She was one of those girls who splash into public places like stones into quiet pools. Her form was large, her eyes were large, her teeth were large, and her voice was large. She overwhelmed Bill. She hit his astounded consciousness like a shell. She gave him a buzzing in the ears. She was not so much a Good Sport as some kind of an explosion.
He was still reeling from the spiritual impact with this female tidal wave when he became aware, as one who, coming out of a swoon, hears voices faintly, that he was being addressed by Miss Leonard. To turn from Miss Leonard's friend to Miss Leonard herself was like hearing the falling of gentle rain after a thunderstorm. For a moment he revelled in the sense of being soothed; then, as he realized what she was saying, he started violently. Miss Leonard was looking at him curiously.
'I beg your pardon?' said Bill.
'I'm sure I've met you before, Mr Chalmers.'
'But I can't think where.'
'I'm sure,' said the Good Sport, languishingly, like a sentimental siege-gun, 'that if I had ever met Mr Chalmers before I shouldn't have forgotten him.'
'You're English, aren't you?' asked Miss Leonard.
The Good Sport said she was crazy about Englishmen.
'I thought so from your voice.'
The Good Sport said that she was crazy about the English accent.
'It must have been in London that I met you. I was in the revue at the Alhambra last year.'
'By George, I wish I had seen you!' interjected the infatuated Nutty.
The Good Sport said that she was crazy about London.
'I seem to remember,' went on Miss Leonard, 'meeting you out at supper. Do you know a man named Delaney in the Coldstream Guards?'
Bill would have liked to deny all knowledge of Delaney, though the latter was one of his best friends, but his natural honesty prevented him.
'I'm sure I met you at a supper he gave at Oddy's one Friday night. We all went on to Covent Garden. Don't you remember?'
'Talking of supper,' broke in Nutty, earning Bill's hearty gratitude thereby, 'where's the dashed head-waiter? I want to find my table.'
He surveyed the restaurant with a melancholy eye.
'Everything changed!' He spoke sadly, as Ulysses might have done when his boat put in at Ithaca. 'Every darned thing different since I was here last. New waiter, head-waiter I never saw before in my life, different-coloured carpet—'
'Cheer up, Nutty, old thing!' said Miss Leonard. 'You'll feel better when you've had something to eat. I hope you had the sense to tip the head-waiter, or there won't be any table. Funny how these places go up and down in New York. A year ago the whole management would turn out and kiss you if you looked like spending a couple of dollars here. Now it costs the earth to get in at all.'
'Why's that?' asked Nutty.
'Lady Pauline Wetherby, of course. Didn't you know this was where she danced?'
'Never heard of her,' said Nutty, in a sort of ecstasy of wistful gloom. 'That will show you how long I've been away. Who is she?'
Miss Leonard invoked the name of Mike.
'Don't you ever get the papers in your village, Nutty?'
'I never read the papers. I don't suppose I've read a paper for years. I can't stand 'em. Who is Lady Pauline Wetherby?'
'She does Greek dances—at least, I suppose they're Greek. They all are nowadays, unless they're Russian. She's an English peeress.'
Miss Leonard's friend said she was crazy about these picturesque old English families; and they went in to supper.
* * * * *
Looking back on the evening later and reviewing its leading features, Lord Dawlish came to the conclusion that he never completely recovered from the first shock of the Good Sport. He was conscious all the time of a dream-like feeling, as if he were watching himself from somewhere outside himself. From some conning-tower in this fourth dimension he perceived himself eating broiled lobster and drinking champagne and heard himself bearing an adequate part in the conversation; but his movements were largely automatic.
Time passed. It seemed to Lord Dawlish, watching from without, that things were livening up. He seemed to perceive a quickening of the tempo of the revels, an added abandon. Nutty was getting quite bright. He had the air of one who recalls the good old days, of one who in familiar scenes re-enacts the joys of his vanished youth. The chastened melancholy induced by many months of fetching of pails of water, of scrubbing floors with a mop, and of jumping like a firecracker to avoid excited bees had been purged from him by the lights and the music and the wine. He was telling a long anecdote, laughing at it, throwing a crust of bread at an adjacent waiter, and refilling his glass at the same time. It is not easy to do all these things simultaneously, and the fact that Nutty did them with notable success was proof that he was picking up.
Miss Daisy Leonard was still demure, but as she had just slipped a piece of ice down the back of Nutty's neck one may assume that she was feeling at her ease and had overcome any diffidence or shyness which might have interfered with her complete enjoyment of the festivities. As for the Good Sport, she was larger, blonder, and more exuberant than ever and she was addressing someone as 'Bill'.
Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the evening, as it advanced, was the change it wrought in Lord Dawlish's attitude toward this same Good Sport. He was not conscious of the beginning of the change; he awoke to the realization of it suddenly. At the beginning of supper his views on her had been definite and clear. When they had first been introduced to each other he had had a stunned feeling that this sort of thing ought not to be allowed at large, and his battered brain had instinctively recalled that line of Tennyson: 'The curse is come upon me.' But now, warmed with food and drink and smoking an excellent cigar, he found that a gentler, more charitable mood had descended upon him.
He argued with himself in extenuation of the girl's peculiar idiosyncrasies. Was it, he asked himself, altogether her fault that she was so massive and spoke as if she were addressing an open-air meeting in a strong gale? Perhaps it was hereditary. Perhaps her father had been a circus giant and her mother the strong woman of the troupe. And for the unrestraint of her manner defective training in early girlhood would account. He began to regard her with a quiet, kindly commiseration, which in its turn changed into a sort of brotherly affection. He discovered that he liked her. He liked her very much. She was so big and jolly and robust, and spoke in such a clear, full voice. He was glad that she was patting his hand. He was glad that he had asked her to call him Bill.
People were dancing now. It has been claimed by patriots that American dyspeptics lead the world. This supremacy, though partly due, no doubt, to vast supplies of pie absorbed in youth, may be attributed to a certain extent also to the national habit of dancing during meals. Lord Dawlish had that sturdy reverence for his interior organism which is the birthright of every Briton. And at the beginning of supper he had resolved that nothing should induce him to court disaster in this fashion. But as the time went on he began to waver.
The situation was awkward. Nutty and Miss Leonard were repeatedly leaving the table to tread the measure, and on these occasions the Good Sport's wistfulness was a haunting reproach. Nor was the spectacle of Nutty in action without its effect on Bill's resolution. Nutty dancing was a sight to stir the most stolid.
Bill wavered. The music had started again now, one of those twentieth-century eruptions of sound that begin like a train going through a tunnel and continue like audible electric shocks, that set the feet tapping beneath the table and the spine thrilling with an unaccustomed exhilaration. Every drop of blood in his body cried to him 'Dance!' He could resist no longer.
'Shall we?' he said.
Bill should not have danced. He was an estimable young man, honest, amiable, with high ideals. He had played an excellent game of football at the university; his golf handicap was plus two; and he was no mean performer with the gloves. But we all of us have our limitations, and Bill had his. He was not a good dancer. He was energetic, but he required more elbow room than the ordinary dancing floor provides. As a dancer, in fact, he closely resembled a Newfoundland puppy trying to run across a field.
It takes a good deal to daunt the New York dancing man, but the invasion of the floor by Bill and the Good Sport undoubtedly caused a profound and even painful sensation. Linked together they formed a living projectile which might well have intimidated the bravest. Nutty was their first victim. They caught him in mid-step—one of those fancy steps which he was just beginning to exhume from the cobwebbed recesses of his memory—and swept him away. After which they descended resistlessly upon a stout gentleman of middle age, chiefly conspicuous for the glittering diamonds which he wore and the stoical manner in which he danced to and fro on one spot of not more than a few inches in size in the exact centre of the room. He had apparently staked out a claim to this small spot, a claim which the other dancers had decided to respect; but Bill and the Good Sport, coming up from behind, had him two yards away from it at the first impact. Then, scattering apologies broadcast like a medieval monarch distributing largesse, Bill whirled his partner round by sheer muscular force and began what he intended to be a movement toward the farther corner, skirting the edge of the floor. It was his simple belief that there was more safety there than in the middle.
He had not reckoned with Heinrich Joerg. Indeed, he was not aware of Heinrich Joerg's existence. Yet fate was shortly to bring them together, with far-reaching results. Heinrich Joerg had left the Fatherland a good many years before with the prudent purpose of escaping military service. After various vicissitudes in the land of his adoption—which it would be extremely interesting to relate, but which must wait for a more favourable opportunity—he had secured a useful and not ill-recompensed situation as one of the staff of Reigelheimer's Restaurant. He was, in point of fact, a waiter, and he comes into the story at this point bearing a tray full of glasses, knives, forks, and pats of butter on little plates. He was setting a table for some new arrivals, and in order to obtain more scope for that task he had left the crowded aisle beyond the table and come round to the edge of the dancing-floor.
He should not have come out on to the dancing-floor. In another moment he was admitting that himself. For just as he was lowering his tray and bending over the table in the pursuance of his professional duties, along came Bill at his customary high rate of speed, propelling his partner before him, and for the first time since he left home Heinrich was conscious of a regret that he had done so. There are worse things than military service!
It was the table that saved Bill. He clutched at it and it supported him. He was thus enabled to keep the Good Sport from falling and to assist Heinrich to rise from the morass of glasses, knives, and pats of butter in which he was wallowing. Then, the dance having been abandoned by mutual consent, he helped his now somewhat hysterical partner back to their table.
Remorse came upon Bill. He was sorry that he had danced; sorry that he had upset Heinrich; sorry that he had subjected the Good Sport's nervous system to such a strain; sorry that so much glass had been broken and so many pats of butter bruised beyond repair. But of one thing, even in that moment of bleak regrets, he was distinctly glad, and that was that all these things had taken place three thousand miles away from Claire Fenwick. He had not been appearing at his best, and he was glad that Claire had not seen him.