TO THE REAL KATHLEEN With Apologies
The Scorpions were to meet at eight o'clock and before that hour Kenneth Forbes had to finish the first chapter of a serial story. The literary society, named in accordance with the grotesque whim of Oxford undergraduates, consisted of eight members, and it was proposed that each one should contribute a chapter. Forbes was of a fertile wit, and he had been nominated the first operator. He had been allowed the whole Christmas vacation to prepare his opening chapter; which was why on this first Sunday of term while the rest of Merton College was at dinner in hall, he sat at his desk desperately driving his pen across the paper.
Forbes's room in Fellows' Quad was one of those that had housed Queen Henrietta Maria in 1643, and though Forbes's own tastes were nondescript the chamber still had something of an air. The dark wood panelling might well have done honour to a royal lodger, and a motion-picture producer would have coveted it as a background for Mary Pickford. It was unspoiled by pictures: two or three political maps of Europe, sketchily drawn with coloured crayons, were pinned up here and there. The room was a typical Oxford apartment: dark, a little faded, but redeemed by the grate of glowing coals. Behind the chimney two recessed seats looked out over the college gardens; long red curtains were drawn to shut out the winter draughts. It was the true English January— driving squalls of rain, dampness, and devastating chill. The east wind brought the booming toll from Magdalen tower very distinctly to the ear, closely followed by the tinny chime in Fellows' Quad. It was half past seven.
Forbes laid down his pen, looked quizzically at the last illegible lines slanting up the paper, and realized that he was hungry. His untasted tea and anchovy toast still stood in the fender where the scout had put them three hours before.
He switched on the electric light over the dining table in the centre of the room, and, dropping on the sofa before the fire, prodded the huge lumps of soft coal into a blaze. The triangular slices of anchovy toast were cold but still very good, and he devoured them with appetite. He lit a cigarette with a sigh of content, and reflected that he had not crossed his name off hall. Therefore he must pay eighteen pence for dinner, even though he had not eaten it. Also there lay somewhat heavily on his mind the fact that at ten the next morning he must read to his tutor an essay on "Danton and Robespierre," an essay as yet unwritten. That would mean a very early rising and an uncomfortable chilly session in the college library, a dismal place in the forenoon. Never mind, first came a jolly evening with the Scorpions. The meetings were always fun, and this one, coming after the separation of a six-weeks' vacation, promised special sport. Carter was down for a paper on Rabelais; King would have some of his amusing ballades and rondeaus; and above all there would be the first chapter of the serial, from which the members promised themselves much diversion. It was too late now to attempt anything on Danton and Robespierre; he picked up a volume of Belloc and sat cosily by the fire.
A thumping tread sounded on the winding stairs, then the faint clink of a large metal tray laid on the serving table outside, and a muffled knock at the "oak," the thick outer door which Forbes had "sported" when he came in at six to write his stint. He unfastened the barrier and admitted Hinton, the scout, who bore in a tray of eatables, ordered by Forbes from the college store-room for the refreshment of his coming guests. Forbes, like most men of modest means, made it a point of honour to entertain lavishly when it was his turn as host, and the display set out by Hinton made an attractive still life under the droplight. A big bowl of apples and oranges stood in the centre; tin boxes from Huntley and Palmer, a couple of large iced cakes, raisins, nuts, and a dish of candied fruits ended the solids. There was also a tray of coffee cups and a huge silver coffee pot bearing the college arms, flanked by a porcelain jug of hot milk. De Reszke cigarettes, whiskey and soda, and a new tin of John Cotton smoking mixture completed the spread—which would be faithfully reflected in Forbes's "battels," or weekly bills, later on. Young men at Oxford do themselves well, and this was a typical lay-out for an undergraduate evening.
Hinton, a ruddy old man with iron-gray hair and a very red and bulby nose, was a garrulous servant, and after a tentative cough made an attempt at small talk.
"I didn't see you in 'all to-night, sir."
"No," said Forbes, "I had some writing to do, Hinton."
"Oh yes, sir," said Hinton, according to the invariable formula of college servants. A moment later, after another embarrassed cough, he began again.
"Very wet night, sir; they say the towpath will be under water in another day or so."
Forbes was not a rowing man, and the probable submerging of the towpath was not news that affected him one way or the other. His only reply was to ask the scout to refill the coal-scuttle. For this task Hinton donned an old pair of gloves and carried in several large lumps of coal in his hands from the bin outside. Then he disappeared into the adjoining bedroom to pour out a few gallons of very cold water into Forbes's hip bath, to turn down the sheets, lay out his pajamas, and remove a muddy pair of boots to be cleaned. Such are the customs that make sweet the lives of succeeding undergraduates at Oxford. It is pleasant to know that Palmerston, Pitt, Gladstone, Asquith—they have all gone through the old routine. Forbes's father had occupied the very same rooms, thirty years before, and very likely old Hinton, then a "scout's boy," had blacked his boots. Certainly Forbes senior had lain in the same bedroom and watched Magdalen Tower through the trees while delaying to get up on chilly mornings.
"Anything else to-night, sir?" said Hinton, as Forbes put down Belloc and began to clean a very crusty briar.
"Thank you, sir," said Hinton and took his departure, after poking up the fire and removing the dead tea things.
The eight o'clock chimes spoke as Hinton clumped downstairs, and a few moments later Forbes's guests began to straggle in. All were wet and ruddy from rain and wind, and, as they discarded raincoats and caps, disclosed a pleasant medley of types. The Scorpions was a rather recent and informal society, but it had gathered from various colleges a little band of temperamental congenials who found a unique pleasure in their Sunday evening meetings. None of them was of the acknowledged literary successes of the university: their names were not those seen every week in the undergraduate journals. And yet this obscure group, which had drawn together in a spirit of satire, had in it two or three men of real gift. Forbes himself was a man of uncommon vivacity. Small, stocky, with an unruly thatch of yellow hair and a quaintly wry and homely face, he hid his shyness and his brilliancy behind a brusque manner. Ostensibly cynical and a witty satirist of his more sentimental fellows, his desk was full of charming ballades and pieces d'amour, scratched off at white heat in odd moments. His infinite fund of full-flavoured jest had won him the nickname of Priapus. But beneath the uncouth exterior of the man, behind his careless dress and humorously assumed coarseness, lay the soul of a poet—sensitive as a girl, and devout before the whisperings of Beauty.
Stephen Carter and Randall King were first to arrive, and seized the ends of the fireside couch while Forbes poured their coffee.
"A Clark Russell of an evening!" said Carter, stretching his golfing brogues to the blaze. "Don't you love a good drenching, downpouring night? I do!" He was a burly full-blooded blond, extravagantly facetious in convivial moments, and a mournful brooder in solitude. King, better known as "The Goblin," was a dark, whimsical elf in thick spectacles, much loved in the 'varsity dramatic society for his brilliant impersonations. The Goblin said nothing as he sipped his coffee and gazed at the fire.
"There you go again, Falstaff!" exclaimed Forbes to Carter, as he unlocked a corner cupboard and drew out a bottle of port. "The universal enthusiast! I believe you'll be enthusiastic about the examiners that plough you!"
"What, Falstaff get ploughed?" said a vast and rather handsome newcomer, flinging open the door without knocking. "I think he's down for a ruddy First!" This was Douglas Whitney, of Balliol.
Carter's only answer to both these remarks was to drain a glass of the port which Forbes was decanting.
"I say, Priapus, what vile port!" he said. "Is this some of the vintage you crocked poor old Hinton with?"
"Any port in a storm, Falstaff," said the Goblin, mildly.
As Forbes was pouring out the coffee loud shouts of "Minters!" greeted the next arrival. This was Johnny Blair of Tennessee and Trinity, the only American among the Scorpions. Blair was a Rhodes Scholar whose dulcet Southern drawl and quaint modes of speech were a constant delight to his English comrades. His great popularity in his own college was begun by his introduction of mint julep, which had given him his nickname.
"Hello, Minters!" cried Forbes. "What cheer?"
"Large tabling and belly cheer," said Blair, quoting his favourite Elizabethan author.
By the time Forbes had poured out eight cups of coffee and as many glasses of wine, Keith, Graham, and Twiston had come in, making the full gathering. There was much laughing and banter as the men stood round the table or by the fire, lighting pipes and cigarettes, and helping themselves to fruit and cake. Finally, when everyone was settled in a semicircle round the fire, Forbes hammered his coffee cup with a spoon. According to the custom of the society the host of the evening always acted as chairman.
"The meeting will please come to order," said Forbes. "Brother Scorpions, what is your pleasure? Has the secretary anything to report?"
The gatherings of the Scorpions were pleasingly devoid of formality, and untrammeled by parliamentary conventions. There were no minutes, and the only officer was a secretary who sent out postal cards each week, reminding the members of the time and place of the next meeting.
King, puffing happily at a large pipe, declared that no official business required attention.
"Then I call upon Falstaff for his delightful paper on Rabelais," said Forbes.
A small electric reading lamp was propped behind Carter's head, and the Scorpions disposed themselves to listen. Carter pulled an untidy manuscript from his pocket, and after an embarrassed cough, began to read.
The general tenor of an undergraduate essay on Rabelais, intended for the intimacy of a fireside circle, may readily be guessed. The general thesis of the composition was of course to prove that Rabelais was by no means the low-minded old dog of Puritan conception; or, as Carter put it, that he was "not simply a George Moore"; but that his amazing writings bore witness throughout to a high and devoted ethical purpose. It is even conjecturable that Carter may have said puribus omnia pura; but if he did so, it was with so droll an accent that his audience laughed again. At all events his reading was punctuated with cheery applause, and at the conclusion the Scorpions renewed their acquaintance with those historic affinities whiskey and soda. Discussion was brisk.
The meditative Goblin then was called upon for his poems; and, after becoming hesitation, unfolded a sheaf of verses. His rhymes were always full of quaint and elvish humour which was very endearing. His ballade with the refrain "When Harry Baillie kept the Tabard Inn," was voted the best of the six he read.
But the event of the evening was to be the serial story, which Forbes had been appointed to begin. A new round of refreshments was distributed, and then the host took his place under the reading lamp.
"This needs a word of explanation," he said. "Having the whole vacation to work on this, naturally I did nothing until tea time this afternoon. I didn't even have an idea in my head until yesterday. About four o'clock yesterday afternoon I was strolling down the Broad in desperation. You know when there is some hateful task that has to be done, one will snatch at any pretext for postponing it. I stopped in at Blackwell's to look for a book I wanted. Up in one corner of the shop, lying on a row of books, I found this."
Impressively he drew from his pocket a double sheet of notepaper and held it up.
"It was a letter, evidently written by some girl to a man at the 'varsity. Finding it there, forgotten and defenseless, I could not resist reading it. It was a very charming letter, not too intimate, but full of a delicious virgin coyness and reserve. Then a great idea struck me. Why not take the people mentioned in the letter and use them as the characters of our story? We know that they are real people; we know their first names; that's all we know about them. The rest can be left to the invention of the Scorpions."
Generous laughter greeted the idea.
"Let's hear the letter!" cried someone.
"Yes," said Forbes, "before reading my chapter I'll read you the letter. And then remember that our story is to be built up solely upon this document. There are to be no characters in the story except those mentioned in the letter, and our task must be to delineate them in such a way that they are in keeping with the suggestions the letter gives us. Here it is."
X X X X These are from Fred.
318, BANCROFT ROAD, WOLVERHAMPTON October 30, 1912.
Thank you so much for the tie—it is pretty and I do wear ties sometimes, so I sha'n't let the boys have it.
You must think me rather ungrateful not writing before, but I have been out the last two evenings and have had no time for letters. Yesterday Mother and I went to Birmingham as I had my half-term holiday.
I hope you managed to get some tea after writing to me, otherwise I shall feel so grieved to think I was the cause of your starvation. By the way, I read your latest poem and I don't like it—not that that will trouble you much I'm sure. The idea isn't at all bad, but that's all I like about it.
I haven't a bit of news, and I have just found out it is too late to catch the post to-night, so you will have to wait a little longer for this precious letter—it will be precious, won't it?
Charlie has just come home from his class, so I must bring his food for him. Daddy's lumbago is better, I'm glad to say.
Good-night, and with many thanks
I remain Yours, KATHLEEN.
Excuse this scrawl, but the pen's groggy.
A moment of silence followed the reading of the letter.
"Joe's a lucky boy," said Whitney. "She's a darling."
"The letter doesn't tell us much," said Forbes, as he handed it round for examination; "but more than you might think. Before writing my chapter I summarized the data. Here they are:
"1. Joe. He's a member of the 'varsity who writes poetry. Either it's published in some magazine or he sends it privately to her. The blighter has sent Kathleen a tie of some kind— probably a scarf with his college or club colours. He's got as far as the plaintive stage: he tells her that he is going without his tea just to write to her. (Probably half a dozen crumpets and four cups of tea were simmering inside of him as he wrote). So much for Joe. I'll wager he's a Rhodes Scholar!
"2. Kathleen. I put her at seventeen, and (as Whitney says) she's a darling. She's at school still. She's adorably sane. She doesn't care for Joe's yowling poetry (probably he writes Verlaine kind of stuff, or free verse, or some blither of that sort). She has younger brothers ('the boys') and she helps her mother run the house. I think she likes Joe better than she cares to admit—see the touch of coquettishness where she says 'It will be precious, won't it?' And how adorably she teases him in those four crosses marked 'These are from Fred.' Gad, I'm jealous of Joe already!
"3. Fred. I think he's the older brother; probably recently left the 'varsity; a friend of Joe's, perhaps.
"4. Charlie is one of the younger brothers. He goes to some kind of night school or gymnasium. Probably an ugly little beggar. Why doesn't he get his food for himself?
"5. The Mother. Don't know anything about her except that she went to Birmingham with Kathleen.
"6. The Father. Has lumbago."
"One thing you don't mention," said Graham. "It's an easy run from here to Wolverhampton on a motor bike!"
"Rather a sell if Joe should turn out a boxing blue, and mash us all into pulp for bagging his letter!" said Whitney. There was a general laugh at this. Whitney was over six feet, rowed number 5 in the Balliol boat, and was nicknamed the Iron Duke for his muscular strength.
"Go on with your chapter, Priapus," said the Goblin.
When Forbes had finished there was general laughter and applause. The whimsical idea of building a tale around the persons of the letter was one which his playful mind was competent to develop, and he had written a deft and amusing introduction. Taking "Joe" as his subject he had sketched that gentleman's character with a touch of irony. He had made him a Rhodes Scholar from Indiana (evoking good-natured protest from Minters) and had carried him on a vacation to Guilford House, a small hotel in London much frequented by Rhodes Scholars. There he had made him meet Kathleen who, with her mother, was staying in London for a few days. Forbes had a taste for brunettes, and in his description of the imagined Kathleen he had indulged himself heartily. He found her to be seventeen, slender, with that strong slimness that only an English girl achieves; with a straight brown gaze and abundant dark chestnut hair. She was captain of her school hockey team, it seemed; she was good at tennis and swimming and geometry; she had small patience with poetry and sentiment. But within the athletic and straightforward flapper Forbes thought he saw the fluttering of deeper womanhood; the maiden soul erecting a barrier of abrupt common sense about itself to conceal the shy and sensitive feelings that were beginning to blossom. Such at any rate was Kenneth Forbes's psycho-analysis, and he developed his chapter toward a climax where Kathleen and Joe were left walking in Regent's Park, and the next author would find some difficulty in knowing how to proceed with the second instalment.
"Well done indeed!" cried Blair, as Forbes laid down his manuscript and reached for his pipe. There was a general murmur of assent as the men got up to stretch and talk. Someone punched the coals into flame, and the bowl of fruit was passed round.
"Who's to write the next chapter?" asked Graham.
"Let Falstaff do it!" cried Blair. "He's the sentimentalist! But go easy on poor Joe. You know all Rhodes Scholars don't come from Indiana! Have a heart!"
"Do whatever you like to Joe!" cried Forbes; "But be careful with Kathleen! She's adorable! I'm going to write a ballade to her and mail it to her anonymously."
"I wish there was some way of getting hold of her picture," said Keith.
"Her picture?" said Graham. "Nonsense! Why not see the flapper herself? I'm going to bike over there on my Rudge, erb round till I find the street, and then skid like hell right on to her doorstep. I shall lie there in mute agony until I'm carried indoors."
"I say, now, that's no fair!" cried Forbes. "I discovered her! Just because you've got a motor bike you mustn't take an advantage!"
"Look here," said the Goblin, mildly, speaking from a blue cloud of Murray's Mixture, "we must all sign a protocol, or a mandamus or a lagniappe or whatever you law men call it, not to steal a march. I think we'd all like to meet the real Kathleen. But we must give a bond to start fair and square, and nobody do anything that isn't authorized by the whole club."
"Right-O!" cried several voices.
"All right, then," said the Goblin, "fill glasses everyone, and we'll solemnize the oath. Brother Scorpions, I do you to wit that we all, jointly and severally, promise not to take any steps toward making the acquaintance of said Kathleen until so authorized by the whole society. So help me God!"
They all drank to this, with some chuckles.
"What a lark if we could get Kathleen down for Eights Week!" said someone.
"Very likely Joe will have her here," said Whitney. "You seem to forget that he's been rowing this course for some time."
They all scowled.
"I wonder how many members of the 'varsity are called Joe?" Keith asked.
"About three hundred, I dare say," said Falstaff.
"I tell you what we might do," said Forbes. "When the yarn's finished we can send it to her, explain just how the whole thing happened, and ask permission to call. She's got a sense of humour, I'll swear!"
"Balmy!" retorted Falstaff. "She'd probably be frightfully fed because you bagged her letter! 'S a hell of a thing to do, crib a lady's letter!"
"It's a hell of a thing to do to leave it lying around!" cried Forbes, impenitent. "No quarter for Joebags! Let the punishment fit the crime."
"Well, you chaps, I've got to sheer off," said Whitney. "It's nearly eleven and I've got an essay on the stocks. Cheer-o Priapus, I've had a ripping time."
"'Arf a mo,'" cried Forbes. "Who's to do the next chapter, and where do we meet next week?"
"Falstaff!" cried several voices.
"Why not do two chapters a week," said Carter. "I'll do one, and Goblin can do another. Let's meet in my rooms."
This was agreed to, and after much scuffling with greatcoats and scarves the guests tramped off down the stairs and out into the rainy quad. Forbes could hear them, a minute later, thundering with their heels on the huge iron-studded college gate as they waited for the porter to let them out. The room was foul with smoke, and he opened a window over the gardens letting in a gush of chill sweet air and rain. Through the darkness he could hear many chimes, counting eleven. He looked wearily at the scribbled notes for his essay on Danton and Robespierre: then shrugged his shoulders and went to bed.
By the time that Carter and King had written their chapters and read them aloud, the Scorpions were all frankly adorers of Kathleen; by midterm she had become an obsession. Eric Twiston and Bob Graham, "doing a Cornstalk" (as walking on Cornmarket Street is elegantly termed) were wont to dub any really delightful girl they saw as "a Kathleen sort of person." At the annual dinner of the club, which took place in a private dining room at the "Clarry" (the Clarendon Hotel) in February, Forbes was called upon to respond to the toast "The Real Kathleen." His voice, tremulous with emotion and absinthe frappe, nearly failed him; but he managed to stammer a few phrases which, thought at the time to be extemporaneous, called forth loud applause; but it was found later that he had jotted them down on the tablecloth during the soup and fish courses. "Fellow Scorpers," he said, "I mean you chaps, look here, I'm not much at this dispatch-box business, but—hem—I want to say that I regard Kathleen with feelings of iridescent emotion. I feel sure that she is a pronounced brunette and that the Blue Flapper we all used to see at the East Ocker is nowhere. I've been playing lackers (lacrosse) this term and I give you my word that when I've been bloody well done in and had an absolute needle of funk I had only to think of Kathleen to buck me up. Hem. Now gentlemen, you may think I'm drunk (loud cries of No!) but I want to say in truth and soberness that any man who thinks he's got Kathleen for bondwoman—hem—has me to reckon with!"
The applause at this speech was so immoderate that a party of Boston ladies dining with a Chautauqua lecturer in the Clarendon's main dining room, shuddered and began looking up time-tables to Stratford.
By this time the serial story had grown to the length of seven or eight chapters, and the Scorpions became so engrossed in the fortunes of the Kenyons (so, for convenience, they had dubbed Kathleen's family) that at the dinner a separate health was drunk to each character in the story, and one of the members was called upon to reply. Falstaff Carter responded to the toast to "Joe," and recounted his secret investigations into the number of members of the university who bore that name. He claimed to have tabulated from the university almanac 256 men so christened, and offered to go into the life history of any or all of them. He said that he was happy to say that the only Joseph who seemed at all likely to be a poet was a scrubby little man at Teddy Hall, who wore spectacles and a ragged exhibitioner's gown and did not seem to threaten a serious rivalry to any Scorpion bent on supplanting him. "I also find," he added, "that the master of the New College and Magdalen beagles is called Joe. He is a member of the Bullingdon, and if he is the cheese it's distinctly mooters whether any of the Scorpers have a ghostly show; but I vote, gentlemen, that we don't crock at this stage of the game."
It was decided at the dinner that during the ensuing Easter vacation the Scorpions should make a trip to Wolverhampton, en masse, for the purpose of picketing Bancroft Road and finding out what Kathleen was really like. And then, after singing "langers and godders" (Auld Lang Syne and God Save the King) the meeting broke up and the members dispersed darkly in various directions to avoid the proctors.
Friday the fifteenth of March was the last day of term. The Scorpions, busy in their various ways with the hundred details that have to be attended to before "going down," were all pleasantly excited by the anticipation of their quest, which was to begin on the morrow. Carter, shaking hands with the warden of New College in the college hall (a pleasant little formality performed at the end of each term) absent-mindedly replied "Wolverhampton" when the warden asked him where he was going to spend the vacation. He was then hard put to it to avoid a letter of introduction to the vicar of St. Philip's in that city, an old pupil of the warden. King, bicycling rapidly down the greasy Turl with an armful of books, collided vigorously with another cyclist at the corner of the High. They both sprawled on the curb, bikes interlocked. "My god, sir!" cried the Goblin; "Why not watch where you're going?" Then he saw it was Johnny Blair. "Sorry, Goblin," said the latter; "I—I was thinking about Kathleen." "So was I," said King, picking up his books. And in defiance of the University statute of 1636 (still unrepealed) which warns students against "frequenting dicing houses, taverns, or booths where the nicotian herb is sold," they went into Hedderly's together to buy tobacco.
After breakfast the next morning they were all in cabs on their way to the Great Western Station. It was a mild and sunny day, with puffs of spring in the air. Who can ever forget the Saturday morning at the end of term when the men "go down"? Long lines of hansoms spinning briskly toward the station, with bulging portmanteaus on the roof; the wide sunny sweep of the Broad with the 'bus trundling past Trinity gates; a knot of tall youths in the 'varsity uniform of gray "bags" and brown tweed norfolk, smoking and talking at the Balliol lodge—and over it all the clang of a hundred chimes, the gray fingers of a thousand spires and pinnacles, the moist blue sky of England.... Ah, it is the palace of youth, or it was once.
The Scorpions met on the dingy north-bound platform. Graham, Keith, and Twiston had been obliged to scratch owing to other more imperative plans; but five members boarded the 10 o'clock train in high spirits. Forbes, Carter, King, Blair, and Whitney— they filled a third-class smoker with tobacco and jest.
"Now, Goblin," cried Falstaff, as the train ran past the Port Meadow, and the Radcliffe dome dropped from view; "Open those sealed orders! You promised to draw up the rules of the game."
King pulled a paper from his pocket.
"I jotted down some points," he said. "This is the time to discuss them."
"Rules to be Observed by the Scorpions on the Great Kathleen Excursion
"1. The headquarters of the expedition will be the Blue Boar Inn at Wolverhampton. (I've written to them to engage rooms.)
"2. The Kriegspiel will begin to-day at 2 P.M., and manoeuvres will continue without intermission until someone is declared the winner, or until time is called.
"3. The object of the contest is to make the acquaintance of Kathleen; to engage her in friendly conversation; to win her confidence, and to induce her to accept an invitation to Commem, or Eights Week.
"4. Any deception, strategy, or tactics which are not calculated to give intolerable distress or embarrassment to Kathleen and her family, are allowable.
"5. If by noon on Tuesday no one shall have succeeded in making friends with Kathleen, the game shall be declared off."
"Suppose she's not at home?" said Whitney.
"We'll have to chance that."
"What time do we get there?"
"I've ordered lunch at the Blue Boar at one o'clock. This train gets to Wolvers at 12:30."
It was a merry ride. The story of Kathleen as they had written it was discussed pro and con.; the usual protests were launched at Carter for having in his chapter lowered the theme to the level of burlesque; praise was accorded to the Goblin for the dexterity with which he had rescued the plot. Blair's chapter had been full of American slang which had to be explained to the others. "Joe," the Rhodes Scholar hero, had shown a vein of fine gold under Blair's hands: he bade fair to win the charming Kathleen, although the story had not been finished owing to the examinations which had fallen upon the brotherhood toward the end of term. The game, begun in pure jest, had taken on something of romantic earnest: there was not one of these young men who did not see in Kathleen his own ideal of slender, bright-cheeked girlhood. And when the train pulled into Wolverhampton, they tumbled out of their smoking carriage with keen expectation.
Perhaps the best way to pursue the next episodes in the quest is in the words of Johnny Blair, the Rhodes Scholar, who jotted down some notes in a journal he kept:
We got to Wolverhampton 12:25, Ingersoll time. Had a jolly trip on the train, all the Scorps laying bets as to who would be first to meet Kathleen. I lay low, but did some planning. Didn't want to let these English blighters get ahead of me, especially after all the ragging Indiana Joe got in the story.
Train stopped at Birmingham at noon. My tobacco pouch had run empty, and I hopped out to buy some Murray's at the newsstand. Saw the prettiest flapper of my life on the platform—the real English type; tweed suit, dark hair, gray eyes, and cheeks like almond blossoms. She had on a blue tam-o' shanter. Loveliest figure I ever saw, perfect ankle, but the usual heavy brogues on her feet. Why do English girls always wear woollen stockings? Was so taken with her I almost missed the train. She got into a third-class compartment farther up the train. The others were all bickering in the smoking carriage, so they didn't see her.
I scored over the rest of the crowd when we got to Wolvers. They had all brought heavy portmanteaus, containing all their vacation baggage. My idea was, go light when chasing the Grail. Had only my rucksack, left rest of my stuff at coll., to be forwarded later. While the other chaps were getting their stuff out of the goods van I spotted Miss Flapper getting off the train. She got into a hansom. Just by dumb luck I was standing near. I heard her say to cabby: "318, Bancroft Road!" Lord, was I tickled? I kept mum.
Most of the fellows took cabs, on account of their luggage, but Goblin and I hoofed it. Wolverhampton seems a dingy place for Kathleen to live! Fine old church, though, and lovely market place. We kept our eyes open for Bancroft Road, but saw no sign.
When we got to the Blue Boar, lunch was all ready for us in the coffee room. Landlord tickled to death at our arrival. Wonderful cheddar cheese, and archdeacon ale. We made quite a ceremony of it—all drank Kathleen's health, and on the stroke of two we got up from the table.
All the others beat it off immediately in different directions— looking for Bancroft Road, I expect. I had an idea that more finesse would be needed. I started off with the others, then pretended I had left my pipe, and came back to the Boar. I was going to look up the town directory, to find Kathleen's name— knowing the address, that would be easy. But there was Goblin doing the same thing! We both laughed and looked it up together. The name at 318, Bancroft Road was Kent, Philip Kent, F.S.A., Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I suppose: the book put him down as an "antiquarian." Kathleen's father, evidently.
Goblin disappeared in that noiseless way of his, and I lit a pipe and pondered.
The fellows had been full of wild suggestions as to what they would do when they got to 318, Bancroft Road. One was going to be a book agent and get into the house that way. Another said he would be the grocer's man and make friends with the cook. Someone else suggested dressing up as a plumber or gas-man, and going there to fix some imaginary leak. Knowing that the Kents were not fools, I imagined it wouldn't be long before they'd get wise to the fact that that bunch of dreadnoughts was picketing the house. Probably they'd put the police on them. Also, there's nobody harder to disguise than an English 'varsity man. He gives himself away at every turn. If "Fred" was around he'd be sure to smell a rat. One of those chaps would be likely to fake himself up as a plumber, and get in the house on some pretext or other—still wearing his wrist-watch!
I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to stay away from Bancroft Road for a while and try to pull wires from a distance:
The Blue Boar Inn—a very nice old house, by the way—looks out over the old Wolverhampton market place. In one corner of the square I had noticed a little post office. You can send a telegram from any post office in England, and I thought that would be my best entering wedge. The word "antiquarian" in the directory had given me a notion. On a blank I composed the following message, after some revisions:
MISS KATHLEEN KENT, 318, Bancroft Road, WOLVERHAMPTON.
My friend John Blair of Trinity now in Wolverhampton for historical study staying at Blue Boar nice chap American may he call on you if so send him a line sorry can't write hurt hand playing soccer love to all.
This was taking a long chance, but was the best move I could think of. I asked the lady behind the counter to mark the telegram as though it came from Oxford. She said she could not do so, but I happened to have a five-bob piece in my pocket and that persuaded her. I convinced her that it was a harmless joke.
I didn't see that there was anything further to be done immediately. If the telegram brought no word I should have to think up something else. In the meantime, if I was to pose as an antiquarian investigator I had better get up some dope on the history of Wolverhampton. I poked about until I found a bookshop, where I bought a little pamphlet about the town, and studied a map. Bancroft Road was out toward the northern suburbs. A little talk with the bookseller brought me the information that Mr. Kent was one of his best customers, a pleasant and simple-minded gentleman of sixty whose only hobby was the history of the region. He had written a book called "Memorials of Old Staffordshire," but unfortunately I couldn't get a copy. The bookseller said it was out of print.
Then I went to have a look at St. Philip's Church, a fine old Norman pile with some lovely brasses and crusaders' tombs. Here I had a piece of luck—fell in with the vicar. One of the jolly old port-wine and knicker-bocker sort: an old Oxford man, as it happened. I pumped him a little about the history of the church, and in his delight at finding an American who cared for such matters he talked freely. "Why," he kept on saying, with a kind of pathetic enthusiasm, "I thought all you Americans were interested in was Standard Oil and tinned beef." Finally he invited me over to the vicarage for tea. As I sat by his fire and ate toasted muffins I couldn't help chuckling to think how different this was from the other Scorpions' plan of attack. They were probably all biting their nails up and down Bancroft Road trying to carry the fort by direct assault. It's amazing how things turn out: just as I was wondering how to give the conversation a twist in the right direction, the vicar said:
"If you're really interested in the history of this region you should certainly have a talk with old Mr. Kent. He's our leading antiquarian, and knows more about the Stour Valley than any one else. He says there was a skirmish fought here in 1645 that all the books have overlooked. The Battle of Wolverhampton, he calls it. He wrote a little pamphlet about it once."
I assured the good parson that my eagerness to know more about the Battle of Wolverhampton was unbounded. I nearly spilled my tea in my excitement.
"Is that Mr. Kent of 318, Bancroft Road?" I asked.
"Yes," answered the vicar. "How did you know?"
"They told me about him at the bookshop."
I explained that I was in Wolverhampton for a day or so only, and finally the excellent man came across with the suggestion I was panting for.
"Well," he said, "as it happens, I have one or two calls to make in that direction this evening. If you care to have me do so, I'll speak to Mr. Kent about you, and he can make an appointment. You said you were stopping at the Blue Boar?"
I thanked him with such warmth that his eyes twinkled.
"My dear fellow," he said, "your enthusiasm does you great credit. I wish you all success in your thesis."
I got back to the Boar feeling that I had done a very good afternoon's work indeed.
The Scorpions (continues Blair's diary) were all very merry at dinner that night—particularly at my expense. I was the only one who had not been out to Bancroft Road to look over the ground. Apparently they had had a very cheery time.
"Well, Falstaff, what luck?" I asked Carter.
"Splendid!" he replied. "The local butcher has given me a job and I'm going to call there for a meat order tomorrow morning."
"What!" shouted someone. "On Sunday? Not likely!"
I knew mighty well that Carter would not concoct anything as crude as that, and wondered what deviltry he had devised.
"I noticed that two telegrams were delivered at the house this afternoon," said Forbes, in a quiet, non-committal kind of way.
"Perhaps Joe is on his way here," said I. "If so, Good-Night!" As I spoke, I wondered rather anxiously what the other telegram could be.
"Well, we saw her, anyway!" said Whitney, "and she's marvellous! She wears a blue tam-o' shanter and has an ankle like a fairy tale. We saw her walk down the street."
"That's nothing," I retorted, "I saw her hours ago. She was on the train with us from Birmingham this morning."
This started a furious wrangle. They said I hadn't played fair, as the contest didn't begin until two o'clock. My point was that I had not transgressed the rules as I had done nothing to profit by my accident in seeing her first.
"I couldn't help seeing her, could I?" I asked. "You could have, too, if you hadn't been all frowsting over Tit-Bits in the train. And after all, I didn't know it was Kathleen. I only suspected it."
I changed the conversation by asking where the Goblin was.
No one had noticed before that he hadn't turned up. This was a bit disconcerting. I secretly thought him the most dangerous competitor. He has a quiet, impish twinkle in his eye, and an unobtrusive way of getting what he wants. However, the others scoffed at my fears.
Although they all talked a great deal about the amusing time they had had, I could not gather that they had really accomplished much. Forbes claimed to have seen Fred, and said he looked like a rotter. We drank Kathleen's health a couple of times, and then the other three sat down to dummy bridge. I slipped away to the Public Library, partly to get some more of my antiquarian information about Wolverhampton, and partly because I knew my absence would disquiet them.
I found the Library after some difficulty. In the large reading-room I hunted up some books of reference, but to my disappointment Mr. Kent's volume was out. Looking round for a place to sit, the first person I saw was the Goblin, bent very busily over a book and making notes on a pad of paper. I leaned over him.
"Hello, Goblin," I whispered. "Getting ready for a First?"
He started, and tried to cover his volume with a newspaper, but I had seen it. It was a cook book.
"That's a queer kind of fiction you're mulling over," I remarked.
"I'm looking up a recipe for stuffed eggs," said the Goblin, without a quiver. "Our Common Room steward does them so poorly."
"Well, don't let me interrupt you," I said. I sat down in a corner of the room with a volume of the Britannica. When I next looked up the Goblin was gone.
As usual, I wasted my time with the encyclopedia. I got interested in the articles on Wages, Warts, Weather, Wordsworth, and Worms. By the time I got to Wolverhampton it was closing time. I did just seize the information that the town was founded in 996 by Wulfruna, widow of the Earl of Northampton. Then I had to leave.
I got back to the Boar about ten-thirty. The coffee-room was empty. The landlord said that Whitney and Forbes were out, but that Mr. Carter had gone upstairs.
Falstaff and I were rooming together, and when I went up I found him reading in bed.
"Hello, Wulfruna!" he said, as I came in.
Evidently he, too, had been reading up some history. Just as I got into bed he fell asleep and his book dropped to the floor with a thump. I crept quietly across the room and picked it up. It was "Memorials of Old Staffordshire," by Philip Kent, F.S.A., the very copy that I had looked for at the Library. I skimmed over it and then put it carefully back by Falstaff's bedside. Was he on the antiquarian trail, too? I began to realize that these rivals of mine would take some beating.
The next morning (Sunday) I found a note waiting for me on the breakfast table. Three indignant Scorpions were weighing it, studying the handwriting, and examining the stationery like three broken-hearted detectives.
"It's not Kathleen's hand, but I'll swear it's the same notepaper," Forbes was saying.
Under a venomous gaze from all three I took the letter out of the room before opening it. Forbes was right: it was the well-known Bancroft Road notepaper. It ran thus:
318, BANCROFT ROAD, WOLVERHAMPTON Saturday Evening.
DEAR MR. BLAIR,
Mr. Dunton, the vicar of S. Philip's, has just told me of your visit to him. I am so glad to know that you take an antiquarian interest in this region. Curiously enough, only this afternoon we had two wires from our cousin Joe in Oxford, one of which mentioned your being here. That gives us additional reason for looking forward to making your acquaintance.
Mrs. Kent wants you to come to lunch with us to-morrow, at one o'clock. Unfortunately I myself am laid up with rheumatism, but some of the family will be delighted to take you to see the quite surprising relics in this vicinity. Joe has probably told you all about Fred, who is really quite one of the family. The poor fellow needs exercise dreadfully; you must take him with you if you go tramping. Charlie and Oliver, my boys, are away at school.
Don't attempt to reply to this, but just turn up at one o'clock.
Sincerely yours, PHILIP KENT.
This gave me several reasons for thought, and disregarding the appeals from the coffee-room to come in and tell them all about it, I walked into the courtyard of the Inn to consider.
First, what was the other wire from Joe? Heavens, was he on his way from Oxford to Wolverhampton? If my fake telegram were discovered too soon I should be in a very embarrassing position. Second, Joe was a cousin, was he! One of those annoying second cousins, probably, who are close enough to the family to be a familiar figure, and yet far enough away in blood to marry the daughter! And then there was this sinister person, Fred, who was "really quite one of the family." Another cousin, perhaps? What was the matter with the devil, anyway? If he needed exercise why didn't he go and get it? Certainly I didn't want to spend an afternoon antiquarianizing with him. How was I to get him out of the way, so that I could get a tete-a-tete with K.?
I could see that if this game was to be played through successfully it must be played with some daring. Toujours de l'audace! I thought, and let breakfast go hang. Moreover, my sudden disappearance would help to demoralize my rivals. I stuck my head into the breakfast-room where Priapus was just dishing out the bacon and eggs. In that instant it struck me again that the Goblin was not there. I cried "Ye Gods!" in a loud voice, and slammed the door behind me. As I ran out of the front door I laughed at the picture of their disconcerted faces.
My idea was to lure Fred away from Bancroft Road at all hazards. This could only be done by another telegram. And as it was Sunday, the railway station was the only place to send one from. It was a beautiful, clear morning, and I hurried through the streets with exultation, but also with a good deal of nervousness as to the outcome of this shameless hoaxing. At any rate, I thought, I may as well live up to my privileges as an irresponsible American. The Great Kathleen Excursion was beginning to take on in my mind the character of an international joust or tourney.
At the station (or at the depot as one would say at home), I sent the following message:
FREDERICK KENT, 318, Bancroft Road, WOLVERHAMPTON.
Unavoidably detained Oxford hurt leg playing soccer wish you could join me at once urgent.
I got back to the Boar in time for a cold breakfast. None of the others was there. I ate with my antiquarian notes on Wolverhampton propped against the coffee pot. I was determined that Mr. Kent should find me as intelligent as possible.
There was nothing to be done before lunch time. I read Mr. Kent's letter over several times, and I must confess that the mention of that other wire from Joe worried me a good deal. Just how far the telegram I had just sent might conflict with the facts as known to the Kents, I could not surmise. I could only trust to luck and pray for the best. I learned from the chambermaid that the Goblin had come in very late the night before, and had gone out at six A.M. That bothered me almost more than anything else.
Finally, after hanging round the empty coffee-room for a while, I got nervous, and determined to go to morning service at St. Philip's. There would be plenty of time to get out to Bancroft Road afterward, and perhaps Kathleen would be at church and I could get a distant view of her. I walked round to the church. Service had begun, but I went in and sat down at the back. During a hymn I took a good look round. To my horror I saw in a pew a few feet in front of me a young person whose robust outline seemed familiar. I looked again. It was Falstaff Carter in the get-up of a curate. Trembling with indignation, I crept out of the church. I hardly dared speculate on what low device he had planned for winning his way into the sanctum.
At any rate, I thought, I am fixed for lunch: once I get there, I guess I can gain ground as fast as any pseudo-curate. I ran over my antiquarian data another time.
It was half-past twelve, and I was just brushing my hair for the third time, preparatory to starting for Bancroft Road, when the chambermaid came to the bedroom door. "This note was just left for you, sir." I tore it open.
BANCROFT ROAD, Sunday Morning.
MY DEAR MR. BLAIR,
I am afraid you will think it very strange, but, owing to a sudden domestic disarrangement, will you come to supper, this evening, instead of to luncheon? I am exceedingly embarrassed to have to make this change, but (to be quite frank) one of our maids has been taken ill, and our luncheon to-day will have to be a haphazard affair. We are also rather distressed by strange news from our cousin at Oxford.
But we shall be very happy to see you at supper time, seven o'clock.
Cordially yours, PHILIP KENT.
It came over me that this was pretty dirty work we were putting up on the poor gentleman, and I suddenly felt thoroughly ashamed of myself. I don't know whether any of the others came back to the Boar for lunch, or not. I put on my cap and went for a long walk in the country, out toward Tettenhall Wood. I didn't come back until tea time.
As Johnny Blair approached number 318, Bancroft Road, a little before seven o'clock that bland March evening, he bore within his hardy breast certain delicacies, remorses, doubts, and revulsions. But all these were transcended by his overmastering determination to see this superb and long-worshipped maiden near at hand.
Bancroft Road proved to be a docile suburban thoroughfare, lined with comfortable villas and double houses, each standing a little back from the street with a small garden in front. A primrose-coloured afterglow lingered in the sky, and the gas lights along the pavement still burned pale and white. Just as the Rhodes Scholar passed number 302 he saw a feminine figure run down the steps of a house fifty yards farther on, cross the pavement, and drop a letter into the red pillar box standing there. Even at that distance, he distinguished a lively slimness in the girlish outline that could belong to no other than the Incomparable Kathleen. He hastened his step, casting hesitance to the wind. But she had already run back into the house.
It would have added to the problems Mr. Blair was pondering could he have read the letter which had just dropped into the post-box. Perhaps it will somewhat advance the course of the narrative to give the reader a glimpse of it.
318, BANCROFT ROAD, Sunday Afternoon.
Goodness knows what has happened to this usually placid house. Never again will I complain to you that there is no excitement in Wolverhampton.
I got home from Birmingham yesterday noon and since then everything has been perfectly absurd. I can only believe you have gone balmy.
First comes your wire about Mr. Blair and your having hurt your arm playing soccer. What you can have been doing at soccer I can't conceive. I supposed it was a mistake for hockey, or else some kind of a twit. Well, I couldn't see what I could do to help a historical student but I showed Dad the wire and the old dear said he would write Mr. Blair a line.
I had just settled down to help Mother with some sewing when along comes your second wire, addressed to her. Mother and I threw up our hands and screamed! Certainly we thought you were off your crumpet. Why on earth should you send us another cook when you know Ethel has been here for so long? I read the wire forward and backward but it could mean nothing else. It said: Have found very good cook out of place am sending her to you earnestly recommend give her a trial reliable woman but eccentric name Eliza Thick will call Sunday morning.
Well, we all had a good laugh over this, and wondered what kind of a joke you were up to. Then, after supper, to our amazement, came a third wire—not from you, this one, but to Dad, and who do you suppose from? The Bishop of Oxford if you please! Dad was so flustered (you know how telegrams excite him: they offend all his antiquarian instincts!)—well, the Bishop said—Am sending my favourite curate to call on you magnificent young fellow excellent family very worthy chap will be in Wolverhampton a day or two anxious to have him meet your family.
Well, this rather flabbergasted us, but Dad took it rather as a matter of course, after the first surprise. He used to know the Bishop well—in fact, he dedicated his book to him. "Quite all right, my dear," Dad kept saying. "I dare say the young man has some antiquarian problems to talk over. Too bad I'm so crippled with rheumatism."
After supper along came Mr. Dunton, and began to talk about a charming young American who had been calling on him, and who did it prove to be but your friend Mr. Blair, who had been quite put out of our minds by the later telegrams. So Dad sat down right away and wrote a note to Mr. Blair at the Blue Boar asking him for luncheon to-day, and sent it up by the gardener's boy.
But this morning, when I had just decided not to go to church (you'll see why in a minute) comes your perfectly mad message to Fred, about hurting your leg at soccer and all the rest of it. This convinced us that you are quite crazy. How could we send Fred all that way alone! And when did you take up soccer anyway?
But we know what a mad creature you are anyway, so we simply suspected some deep-laid twit. Now I come to the queerest thing of all!
Ethel went out last night, for her usual Saturday evening off, and hasn't returned! In all the years she's been with us, Mother says, it's the first time such a thing ever happened. And before breakfast this morning, turns up this Eliza Thick person of yours, with a note from Ethel to say that she was sick but that her friend Eliza would see us through for a day or so. Well, you surely have a queer eye for picking out domestics! Of all the figures of fun I ever imagined, she is the strangest. I don't think she's quite right in her head. I'll tell you all about her when I see you. Really, I roar with laughter every time I look at her!
I haven't got time to say more. With this Eliza person in the kitchen goodness knows what may happen. We had to send a note to Mr. Blair not to come for luncheon, the house was so upset. We heard a fearful uproar in the lower regions this afternoon and found Eliza engaged in ejecting some kind of gas-man who said he had come to see the meter (on Sunday, if you please!)
Everything seems quite topsy turvy. And Mr. Blair is coming to supper in a few minutes, and that favourite curate of the Bishop's, too. I think I shall have to stay down in the kitchen to see that Eliza Thick gets through with it all right. I can forgive you almost anything except her!
Never, never say again that nothing happens in Bancroft Road!
A ruddy-cheeked housemaid in the correct evening uniform admitted Blair, and in the drawing-room he found Mr. Kent sitting by a shining fire. Points of light twinkled in the polished balls of the brass andirons. As soon as he entered, Blair felt the comely atmosphere of a charming and well-ordered home. Books lined the walls; a French window opened on to the lawn at the far end of the room; a large bowl of blue hyacinths, growing in a bed of pebbles, stood on the reading table. Mr. Kent was small, gray-haired, with a clear pink complexion and a guileless blue eye.
"Mr. Blair," he said, laying down his paper, "I am very glad to meet you. A friend of Joe's is always welcome here, and particularly when he's an antiquarian. I know you'll excuse our seeming rudeness in putting you off at luncheon."
Blair bowed, and made some polite reply.
"As a matter of fact," said Mr. Kent, "my wife was embarrassed this morning by strange happenings in the domestic department. Our cook, usually very faithful, did not turn up, and sent a substitute who has caused her—well, mingled annoyance and amusement. I have not seen the woman myself: my rheumatism has kept me pretty close to the fire this damp weather; but by all accounts the creature is very extraordinary. Well, well, you are not interested in that, of course. It is very pleasant to meet a fellow antiquarian. How did you happen to visit Wolverhampton? We have a number of quite unusual relics in these parts, but they are not so well known as they should be."
"To tell the truth, sir," said Blair, "it was your book, which I came across in the college library. I was particularly interested in your account of St. Philip's Church, and I made up my mind that I ought to see it. You see, we in America have so little antiquity of our own that these relics of old England are peculiarly fascinating to us."
"Quite so, quite so!" said Mr. Kent, rubbing his hands with pleasure. "Magnificent! Well, well, it is certainly a delight to hear you say so. After supper we will dismiss the ladies and have a good crack. There are some really startling things to be learned about Wolverhampton in Anglo-Saxon times. You know the town lay along the frontier that was much harried by the Danes, and Edward the Elder won a conspicuous victory over the invaders at Tettenhall, which is a village very near here."
"Yes," said Blair, "I walked out there this afternoon."
"Did you, indeed! Well, that was a proof of your perspicacity. You may recall that in my book I referred to the battle at Tettenhall—"
"That was in 910, was it not?" queried Blair, adroitly.
"Precisely. It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle."
"Edward the Elder died in 924, didn't he?" asked the ruthless American.
"About that time, I think. I don't remember exactly. Upon my word, Mr. Blair, you have taken up history with true American efficiency! I do wish that our young men had the same zeal. I am happy to say, however, that I am expecting a young cleric this evening, a protege of the Bishop of Oxford, who is, I believe, also interested in these matters."
Blair's heart sank, but he had no time to ponder, for at this moment Mrs. Kent and Kathleen came in.
"My dear, this is Mr. Blair, Joe's friend from Oxford. We are great cronies already. My wife, Mr. Blair, and my daughter Kathleen."
The young Oxonian suffered one of the most severe heart contusions known in the history of the human race. It was a positive vertigo of admiration. This was indeed the creature he had seen on the railway platform: a dazzling blend of girl and woman. The grotesque appellation "flapper" fled from his mind. Her thick, dark hair was drawn smoothly across her head and piled at the back in a heavenly coil. Her clear gray eyes, under rich brown brows, were cool, laughing, and self-possessed. She was that most adorable of creatures, the tweenie, between girl and woman, with the magic of both and the weaknesses of neither. Blair could not have said how she was dressed. He saw only the arch face, the intoxicating clearness of her skin, the steady, friendly gaze.
"How do you do," he said, and remembering English reticence, hesitated to put out his hand; then cursed himself for not having done so.
Kathleen smiled, and murmured, "How do you do."
"I'm very glad to see you," said Mrs. Kent. "Do tell us what that crazy Joe has been up to. Did Mr. Kent tell you we've had three telegrams from her?"
Blair felt the room twirl under his feet. How one little pronoun can destroy a man! In his agony he saw Mrs. Kent and Kathleen sit down on the big couch, and painfully found his way to a chair.
"I—I beg your pardon?" he stammered. "I didn't just catch—"
"The mad girl has sent us three telegrams," said Mrs. Kent, "in which there was only one sensible thing, the reference to yourself. Her other remarks, about cooks and soccer and injured limbs, were quite over our heads."
With a dull sense of pain Blair felt Kathleen's bright eyes on him.
"Yes, Mr. Blair, is she ragging us? Or have the girls at Maggie Hall taken up soccer?" said a clear voice, every syllable of which seemed so precious and girlish and quaintly English that he could have clapped his hands.
He blessed her for the clue. "Maggie Hall!"—in other words, Lady Margaret Hall, one of the women's colleges at Oxford. So "Joe" was (in American parlance) a "co-ed!"
"Why—er—I believe they have been playing a little," he said desperately. "I think he—er—something was said about having his—hum—her—arm—hurt in a rough game."
"Her leg, too," said Mr. Kent. "In my time, young girls didn't send telegrams about their legs. In fact, they didn't send telegrams at all."
"Well, we are quite nonplussed," said Mrs. Kent. "Kathleen says Joe must have had a rush of humour to the head. She wired for us to send Fred down to her. Of course she has sent wires to Fred before, as a joke; but she must have known we couldn't send him so far alone. I suppose Joe has told you all about Fred? He's quite one of the family."
"Yes," said the distracted Oxonian. "He must be a fine fellow. I'm very anxious to meet him."
There was a ring at the front door bell, and in a kind of stupor Blair realized that something—he hardly knew what—was about to happen.
"The Reverend Mr. Carter," announced the maid.
Blair had a keen desire to scream, but he kept his eyes firmly on the rug until he had mastered himself. In the general movement that followed he had presence of mind enough to seize a chair next to Kathleen. He saw Falstaff's burly figure enter, habited as the conventional "black beetle" of the church, and in the sharpened state of his wits noticed that the unpractised curate had put on his clerical collar the wrong way round. He rejoiced in Carter's look of dismay on finding his fellow-Scorpion already on the battlefield.
"Mr. Carter," said Mr. Kent, "this is Mr. Blair, of Trinity."
The two shook hands gravely.
Blair determined to make use of his hard-won information to set Carter astray.
"I know Mr. Carter by reputation," he said. "I have heard Joe speak of him in terms of great admiration."
The curate looked worried, but tried to play safe.
"Oh, yes, Joe!" he said. "Splendid chap."
Blair made haste to get back to the chair he coveted. He had no idea what mad schemes might lurk beneath Carter's episcopalian frock, and was determined to gain any headway he could.
"It seems funny your coming to Wolverhampton," said Kathleen. "So few 'varsity men ever get here. But it's certainly a blessing for Dad. He'll talk antiquities with you as long as you like."
"Are you interested in the subject?" asked Blair.
"I'm afraid not," she laughed. "It's too bad Dad is so laid up with his lumbago. He'd love to walk you out to Tettenhall and Boscobel, to see his burial mounds."
"How very interesting!" said Blair. "A kind of private family cemetery?"
"Oh, dear no," declared Kathleen in amazement. "Antiquities, you know, where the Danes buried themselves."
"Of course, of course. How I wish I could see them! Are you fond of walking?"
"Yes, when it isn't too muddy. It's been too wet lately to go out with Fred. He loves a good long walk, but he's getting old and his rheumatism bothers him."
"I dare say he may have inherited that from your father?"
"It's very common among Scotties," said Kathleen.
"Oh, is your family Scotch?" said Blair, feverishly trying to be polite.
"Our family?" queried Kathleen with a smile. "Heavens, no! I thought you were talking about Fred. You must see him, he's somewhere around."
"I should love to meet him," said Blair.
Kathleen went to the door and whistled. There was a scampering on the stairs, and a grizzled Skye terrier trotted into the room. Blair and Carter looked at each other sheepishly.
Mr. Kent had been referring to his watch several times, and Blair began to suspect that something was wrong. But just then supper was announced. As they passed into the dining-room, the American thought he noticed signs of agitation on the maid's face. He wondered secretly what the rest of the Scorpions were up to.
"Come, Mr. Blair," said Mrs. Kent; "you sit there, next to Mr. Kent, where you can talk about archaeology. Mr. Carter tells me he knows nothing about such subjects, so he will have to amuse Kathleen and me."
"What errand brings you to Wolverhampton, Mr. Carter?" inquired Blair, thinking to unmask his opponent's weapons as quickly as possible.
Carter was a little staggered by this, but his effrontery was up to the test.
"The Bishop sent me down," he said, "to look over the surrounding parishes with a view to establishing a chapel in the suburbs."
"How very interesting!" exclaimed Mr. Kent. "But surely this does not lie in the Oxford diocese?"
"Quite true," said Carter. "The Bishop had to get special permission from Parliament. An old statute of the fourteenth century, I believe."
"Indeed! Indeed!" cried Mr. Kent. "How absorbing! My dear Mr. Carter, you must tell me more about that. I take it you are something of a historical student, after all."
"I'm afraid not, sir," replied Carter. "My studies in divinity have been too exacting to leave much opportunity—"
"You must not believe Mr. Carter's disclaimers," said Blair. "I have heard of his papers before the Oxford Historical Society. He has a very sound antiquarian instinct. I think you would find his ideas of great interest."
"We were speaking of the battle with the Danes at Tettenhall," observed Mr. Kent, turning to Blair. "I think that if Kathleen could arrange to take you out there you would find the burial mounds of unusual interest. My dear, could you walk out there with Mr. Blair to-morrow morning?"
Kathleen assented, but Blair noticed that she was not eating her soup. He also noticed that the maid, in the background, was seized with occasional spasms, which he was at a loss to interpret.
"Did I hear you say Tettenhall?" ventured Carter. "That is the very place the Bishop mentioned to me. He was particularly anxious that I should go there."
"You must come with us, by all means," said Kathleen.
"Bravo," said Mr. Kent, beaming genially upon the young people. "I wish I could go with you. You know they say Wulfruna, the widow of the Earl of Northampton, who founded Wolverhampton, had a kind of summer place once near Tettenhall, and I claim to have located—By the way, my dear, what do you suppose has happened to this soup?"
"I think that Eliza Thick has a heavy hand with the condiments," said Mrs. Kent. "You may take it away now, Mary."
"As I recall, Wulfruna founded the town about 996," observed Blair. "I presume it takes its name from her?"
"Exactly—Wulfruna-hampton. Really, Mr. Blair, your historical knowledge does you honour. I had no idea that Americans were such keen students of the past."
Blair began to think that he had overplayed his hand, for he noticed that Falstaff was getting in some private conversation with Kathleen. He attempted to catch her eye to ask a question, but Mr. Kent was now well launched on his hobby.
"Wulfruna was descended from Ethelhild, who was a granddaughter of Alfred the Great. You recall that the Etheling Ethelwold, the son of Alfred's brother Ethelred, took sides with the Danes. To stem the invasion, Edward and his sister Ethelfled—"
"Ethel fled, that's just the trouble," interposed Mrs. Kent. "Kathleen, my dear, do run downstairs and see what's wrong in the kitchen. I'm afraid Eliza is in difficulties again. Mr. Blair, you and Mr. Carter must excuse this irregularity. Our substitute cook is a very strange person."
Kathleen left the room, and it seemed to Blair as though the sparkle had fled from the glasses, the gleam of candlelight from the silver. Across the cloth he had watched her—girlish, debonair, and with a secret laughter lurking in her eyes. And yet he had not had a chance to exchange half a dozen sentences with her.
The maid reentered, whispered something to Mrs. Kent, and began to place the dishes for the next course.
"Kathleen begs to be excused," said Mrs. Kent. "She thinks she had better stay in the kitchen to help Eliza."
"Oh, I say," cried the curate. "That's too bad. Do you think I could help, Mrs. Kent? I'm a very good cook. The Bishop himself has praised my—er—my—"
"Your what?" asked Blair.
"My ham and eggs," retorted the cleric.
"Perhaps you will let me wash the dishes," suggested Blair. "I should be only too happy to assist. I feel very embarrassed at having intruded upon you at so inconvenient a time."
"I should not dream of such a thing," said Mrs. Kent. "I believe that Eliza is perfectly capable, but as Joe said, she is eccentric."
"I am quite accustomed to washing dishes," said Carter. "In fact, the Bishop always used to ask me to do it for him."
"Dear me," remarked Mr. Kent, "surely the Bishop has plenty of servants to help in such matters?"
Blair applied himself to the food on his plate to which he had helped himself almost unconsciously. He well knew the daring hardihood of his rival, and feared that the other might find some excuse to follow Kathleen to the kitchen. As he raised his fork to his lips, suddenly his hand halted. The dish was stuffed eggs. His mind reverted to the Public Library the evening before. Was it possible that the Goblin—?
He determined that the first thing to be done was to get Carter so firmly engaged with Mr. Kent that the wolf in cleric's clothing could not withdraw. Then perhaps he himself could frame some excuse for seeing what was going on downstairs.
"Mr. Kent," he said, "you should draw out Mr. Carter concerning his views on amending the liturgy of the Established Church. He has some very advanced ideas on that subject which have attracted much attention at Oxford. One of his interesting suggestions is that radical churchmen should wear the clerical collar back side foremost, as a kind of symbol of their inverted opinions."
The wretched Carter's hand flew to his neck, and he glared across the table in a very unecclesiastical manner.
"Really!" said Mr. Kent, "that is most interesting. I had noticed his modification of the customary dress. In what other ways, Mr. Carter, would you amend the ritual?"
The unfortunate curate was caught.
"Er—hum—well—that is, the Bishop and I both think that the service is too long," he faltered. "I am in favour of omitting the sermon."
"Hear, hear!" cried Mr. Kent. "It is most refreshing to hear a high churchman make such a confession. And what else do you propose?"
"Why—ah—hum—it has always seemed to me that the—thirty-nine articles might—well—be somewhat condensed."
"Bravo indeed, though I fear the Bishop would balk at that," said his host.
The maid, appearing in the dining-room again, whispered to Mrs. Kent.
"Philip," said the latter, "that gas-man is here again, and says he must see the meter. He claims that there is a dangerous leak which should be fixed at once. Perhaps I had better go down to the cellar with him. Your rheumatism—"
"My dear Mrs. Kent," cried the curate, seeing his chance; "do nothing of the sort. It is the privilege of my cloth to take precedence when there is danger of any kind. If any one should be overcome by fumes, the consolations of the church may be needed." And without waiting for another word, he leaped up and ran from the room.
Blair fidgeted in his chair, seeing himself outwitted, but there was nothing he could do.
"Pray go on with your supper, Mr. Blair," urged Kent. "You must overlook anything that seems strange this evening. Everything seems to be widdershins. Perhaps because it is St. Patrick's Day. I do believe that woman in the kitchen is at the bottom of it all. These stuffed eggs are positively uneatable! If I were not crippled with this lumbago I would go down and fire her out of the house."
"Let me do it for you!" cried Blair, half rising from his seat.
"Nonsense! I'm not going to sacrifice our good talk on antiquities so easily. I want very much to tell you about the Battle of Wolverhampton. The town was strongly loyalist in the great rebellion; in fact, in 1645 it was the headquarters of Prince Rupert, while Charles the First is said to have stopped at the Blue Boar for a drink—"
At this moment came a ring at the front door, and Mr. Kent stopped to listen. They heard a male voice mumbling to the maid, who then came to her mistress to report.
"There's a policeman out here, ma'am, to see Mr. Kent."
"A policeman?" queried the antiquarian. "What next, I wonder? Well, supper is suspended, send him in."
And to Blair's dismay the gigantic form of Whitney, the Iron Duke, crossed the threshold, in the correct uniform of the Wolverhampton police force.
If Blair was dismayed, the counterfeit policeman was no less disgusted to see his fellow Scorpion sitting at the dinner table, but they gazed at each other without any sign of recognition.
"Begging your pardon for interrupting, sir, but the chief sent me around for a word with you. There's been a gang o' sneak thieves operating 'round 'ere, sir, and some of 'em 'as been getting admittance to 'ouses by passin' themselves off as gas inspectors, sir."
Mrs. Kent screamed.
"I 'ad a notion that one o' these birds is along Bancroft Road to-night, sir, an' I wanted to warn you. Don't let the maid admit any tradesmen or agents from the gas company unless they 'as the proper badges, sir."
"Heavens, Philip!" cried Mrs. Kent. "That dreadful man is downstairs now! Eliza threw him out once this afternoon, but he's here again. He may have murdered Mr. Carter by this time. Oh, inspector, do hurry down at once and see what's happened! There's a defenceless high-church curate in the cellar with him. Mary, show the way downstairs."
Blair poured out a glass of water for Mrs. Kent.
"Don't you think I had better go down, too?" he asked.
"Oh, please don't go!" begged Mrs. Kent, faintly. "Stay here, in case he should escape upstairs. I believe we shall all be murdered in our beds!"
"Come, come," said Mr. Kent. "We mustn't let all this spoil Mr. Blair's supper. Have another glass of wine. The policeman will attend to the gas-man. We don't often get a chance to talk to a genuine antiquarian. I think, Mr. Blair, that you will be greatly interested in the architectural restoration of our parish church. It exemplifies the worst excesses of the mid-Victorian period. The church itself is one of the finest examples of the cruciform type. The south transept dates from the thirteenth century; the nave, clerestory, and north transept from the fifth. The chancel was restored in 1865, but I must confess that the treatment of the clerestory seems to me barbarous. Now what are your own ideas as to the proper treatment of a clerestory?"
The wretched American was non-plussed. He had a shrewd suspicion that matters were moving rapidly downstairs yet he did not see any way of leaving the dining-room to investigate for himself. He had hardly heard what was said.
"Why—ah—to tell you the truth, Mr. Kent, I read very little fiction nowadays. I'm rather worried about that gas-man downstairs. Do you suppose your daughter can be in any danger? There might be some sort of explosion—don't you think I had better run down to see if I can help?"
As they sat listening Kathleen's voice was heard from the kitchen, raised in clear and angry tones.
Blair could contain himself no longer. With an inarticulate apology he hurried out of the room, leaving the puzzled antiquarian and his wife alone at the supper table.
The Rhodes Scholar was correct in having feared the Goblin as a dangerous competitor in the quest of the Grail. King, as we have intimated before, was a quaint-minded and ingenious person, modest in stature but with a twinkling and roving eye. He was one of the leading spirits of the OUDS, known in full as the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and his ability to portray females of the lower classes had been the delight of more than one Shakespearean rendering. No one who saw him as Juliet's nurse in a certain private theatrical performance in the hall of New College can recall the occasion without chuckles.
When the Goblin left the Blue Boar on Saturday afternoon he also made his way out to Bancroft Road; but instead of patrolling the main street in the vague hope of catching a glimpse of Kathleen (as did Falstaff, Priapus, and the Iron Duke), he hunted out the hinder regions of the district. In accordance with a plan he had concocted before leaving Oxford, he carried a little portfolio of "art subjects," of the kind dear to domestic servants, and with this in hand he approached the door of the basement back kitchen, where Ethel the cook and her assistant, Mary, the housemaid, were having a mid-afternoon cup of tea. The windings of the humbler lanes of service, behind the Bancroft Road houses, were the proper causeway for tradesmen, and it was easy for him to reach the back garden gate unseen by those in front.
He knocked respectfully at the kitchen door, and Mary came to answer.
"Good day, Miss," said the supposed pedlar. "I 'ave some very pretty pictures 'ere which I wish you would let me show you."
Mary was a simple-minded creature, but she knew that her mistress had strict rules about pedlars.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but Missus don't let no pedlars in the house."
"If you please, Miss," said the artful Goblin, "I am no pedlar, but representing a very respectable photographer, and I would like to show you some photographs in the 'ope of getting your order. I 'ave taken a number of orders at the nicest 'ouses along Bancroft Road. I thought maybe you would like to 'ave a photo of yourself taken, to send to your young man." And he opened his case, exhibiting a sheaf of appropriate photos.
It was a slender chance, but the pedlar had a wheedling eye and a genteel demeanour, and Mary hesitated. She called the cook, a stout, middle-aged person, who came to the door to see what was up. The pedlar rapidly showed the best items of his collection, which he had selected with great care in a photographer's studio in Oxford. Fate hung in the scales, but the two servants could not resist temptation. They knew that Mrs. Kent and Miss Kathleen were upstairs sewing; and the master was confined to his study with his rheumatism. They invited the photographer into the kitchen.
It is a psychological fact well known to housekeepers that there is a vacant hour in the middle of the afternoon when Satan sometimes finds a joint in the protective armour of the domestic servant. After the luncheon dishes are washed and put away, and before five-o'clock tea and toast are served, cook and housemaid enjoy a period of philosophic contemplation or siesta. Even in the most docile and kitchen-broken breast thoughts of roses and romance may linger; dreams of moving pictures or the coming cotillion of the Icemen's Social Harmony. Usually this critical time is whiled away by the fiction of Nat Gould or Bertha Clay or Harold Bell Wright. And close observers of kitchen comedy will have noted that it is always at this fallow hour of the afternoon that pedlars and other satanic emissaries sharpen their arrows and ply their most plausible seductions.
The Goblin has never admitted just what honeyed sophistries he employed to win the hearts of the simple pair in Mrs. Kent's kitchen. But the facts may be briefly stated by the chronicler. After getting them interested in his photos he confessed frankly that he was an old friend of the family from Oxford. He said that he and Miss Kathleen were planning an innocent practical joke on the family, and asked if he could take the place of one of the servants for that Sunday. He made plain that his share in the joke must not be revealed to any one. And then he played his trump card by showing them the text of the bogus telegram recommending Miss Eliza Thick, which he had dispatched from a branch postal office on his way through the town.
"And is Miss Josephine in the joke, too?" inquired the cook.
This question startled the Goblin, but he kept his composure and affirmed that he and Miss Josephine had concocted the telegram jointly in Oxford. And by a little adroit pumping he learned "Joe's" status in the family. The cook, Ethel, admitted that she was to go out that evening for her Saturday night off. At last the Goblin, by desperate cunning and the exhibition of two golden sovereigns, completely won the hearts of the maids. While they were talking the door-bell rang, and Mary, returning from the upper regions, announced that it was "another telegram from Miss Joe. Missus and Miss Kathleen laughed fit to kill when they read it," she said.
"You see?" said the Goblin. "That's the same telegram I just showed you. It's all right; it's a joke. You don't need to worry, cook. Mrs. Kent won't be angry with you. You let me take your place for to-morrow, and write a little note saying you're ill and that your friend Eliza Thick will do your work for the day."
It was arranged that the Goblin should meet Ethel at her home that night to borrow some clothes. The cook showed him the menu for Sunday that Mrs. Kent had sent down. This rather daunted the candidate for kitchen honours, but he copied it in his notebook for intensive study. Then, as it was close upon tea-time, he packed up the photos, distributed his largesse, and retired. Mary, the housemaid, promised to stand by him in the coming ordeal. Both the servants felt secretly flattered that they should be included in the hoax. The kitchen classes in England have great reverence for young 'varsity men.
The Goblin was a canny man, and he had brought with him a wig and certain other properties. He hunted out a little tea shop, where he meditated over three cups of pekoe and hot buttered toast. Then he made his way to the Public Library, where he spent several hours over a cook-book. He was complimenting himself on having shaken the other Scorpions off his trail when Blair looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of the stuffed-eggs recipe to which the Goblin was addressing himself for the fourth time. The meeting was embarrassing, but it could not be helped. After Blair had left him, the cook-to-be returned to his memoranda.
Mrs. Kent trusted many things to Ethel's judgment, and her instructions as jotted down on a slip of paper included three possibilities. "Eggs, stuffed, devilled, or farci," she had written, and the Goblin was endeavouring to decide which of these presented the least distressing responsibility. He was a student of mathematics, and had attempted to reduce the problem to a logical syllabus. He read over his memoranda: