Collier’s Weekly, August 21, 1920

 

XIX—Continued

 

FREDDIE, like Mr. Pilkington, was a prey to gloom this morning. He had read one or two of the papers, and they had been disgustingly lavish in their praise of the McWhustle of McWhustle. It made Freddie despair of the New York press. In addition to this, he had been awakened at seven o’clock, after going to sleep at three, by the ringing of the telephone and the announcement that a gentleman wished to see him; and he was weighed down with that heavy-eyed languor which comes to those whose night’s rest is broken.

“Why, how do you do, Mr. Rooke!” said Mrs. Peagrim.

“How-de-do,” replied Freddie, blinking in the strong light from the window. “Hope I’m not barging in and all that sort of thing? I came round about this party to-night, you know.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Was wondering,” said Freddie, “if you would mind if I brought a friend of mine along? Popped in on me from England this morning. At seven o’clock,” said Freddie plaintively. “Ghastly hour, what! Didn’t do a thing to the good old beauty sleep! Well, what I mean to say is, I’d be awfully obliged if you’d let me bring him along.”

“Why, of course,” said Mrs. Peagrim. “Any friend of yours, Mr. Rooke.”

“Thanks awfully. Special reason why I’d like him to come, and all that. He’s a fellow named Underhill. Sir Derek Underhill. Been a pal of mine for years and years.”

Uncle Chris started. “Underhill! Is Derek Underhill in America?”

“Landed this morning. Routed me out of bed at seven o’clock!”

“Oh, do you know him too, Major Selby?” said Mrs. Peagrim. “Then I’m sure he must be charming!”

“Charming,” began Uncle Chris in measured tones, “is an adjective which I cannot . . .”

“Well, thanks most awfully,” interrupted Freddie. “It’s fearfully good of you to let me bring him along. I must be staggering off now. Lot of things to do.”

“Oh, must you go already?”

“Absolutely must. Lot of things to do.”

Uncle Chris extended a hand to his hostess. “I think I will be going along too, Mrs. Peagrim. I’ll walk a few yards with you, Freddie, my boy. There are one or two things I would like to talk over. Till to-night, Mrs. Peagrim.”

“Till to-night, Major Selby.” She turned to Mr. Pilkington as the door closed: “What charming manners Major Selby has! So polished. A sort of Old World courtesy. So smooth!”

“Smooth,” said Mr. Pilkington dourly, “is right!”

 

UNCLE CHRIS confronted Freddie sternly outside the front door: “What does this mean? Good God, Freddie, have you no delicacy?”

“Eh?” said Freddie blankly.

“Why are you bringing Underhill to this party? Don’t you realize that poor Jill will be there? How do you suppose she will feel when she sees that blackguard again? The cad who threw her over and nearly broke her heart!”

Freddie’s jaw fell. He groped for his fallen eyeglass: “Oh, my aunt! Do you think she will be pipped?”

“A sensitive girl like Jill!”

“But, listen. Derek wants to marry her.”

“What!”

“Oh, absolutely. That’s why he’s come over.”

Uncle Chris shook his head. “I don’t understand this. I saw the letter myself which he wrote to her, breaking off the engagement.”

“Yes, but he’s dashed sorry about all that now. Wishes he had never been such a mug, and all that sort of thing. As a matter of fact, that’s why I shot over here in the first place. As an ambassador, don’t you know. I told Jill all about it directly I saw her, but she seemed inclined to give it a miss rather, so I cabled old Derek to pop here in person. Seemed to me, don’t you know, that Jill might be more likely to make it up and all that if she saw old Derek.”

Uncle Chris nodded, his composure restored. “Very true. Yes, certainly, my boy, you acted most sensibly. Badly as Underhill behaved, she undoubtedly loved him. It would be the best possible thing that could happen if they could be brought together. It is my dearest wish to see Jill comfortably settled. I was half hoping that she might marry young Pilkington.”

“Good God! The Pilker!”

“He is quite a nice young fellow,” argued Uncle Chris. “None too many brains, perhaps, but Jill would supply that deficiency. Still, of course, Underhill would be much better.”

“She ought to marry some one,” said Freddie earnestly. “I mean, all rot a girl like Jill having to knock about and rough it like this.”

“You’re perfectly right.”

“Of course,” said Freddie thoughtfully, “the catch in the whole dashed business is that she’s such a bally independent sort of girl. I mean to say, it’s quite possible she may hand Derek the mitten, you know.”

“In that case, let us hope that she will look more favorably on young Pilkington.”

“Yes,” said Freddie. “Well, yes. But—well, I wouldn’t call the Pilker a very ripe sporting proposition. About sixty to one against is the way I should figure it if I were making a book. It may be just because I’m feeling a bit pipped this morning—got turfed out of bed at seven o’clock and all that—but I have an idea that she may give both of them the old razz. May be wrong, of course.”

“Let us hope that you are, my boy,” said Uncle Chris gravely. “For in that ease I should be forced into a course of action from which I confess that I shrink.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Freddie, my boy, you are a very old friend of Jill’s, and I am her uncle. I feel that I can speak plainly to you. Jill is the dearest thing to me in the world. She trusted me, and I failed her. I was responsible for the loss of her money, and my one object in life is to see her by some means or other in a position equal to the one of which I deprived her. If she marries a rich man, well and good. That, provided she marries him because she is fond of him, will be the very best thing that can happen. But if she does not, there is another way. It may be possible for me to marry a rich woman.”

Freddie stopped, appalled. “Good God! You don’t mean . . . you aren’t thinking of marrying Mrs. Peagrim!”

“I wouldn’t have mentioned names, but, as you have guessed . . . Yes, if the worst comes to the worst, I shall make the supreme sacrifice. To-night will decide. Good-by, my boy, I want to look in at my club for a few minutes. Tell Underhill that he has my best wishes.”

“I’ll bet he has!” gasped Freddie.

 

XX

 

IT is safest for the historian, if he values accuracy, to wait till a thing has happened before writing about it. Otherwise he may commit himself to statements which are not borne out by the actual facts. Mrs. Peagrim, recording in advance the success of her party at the Gotham Theatre, had done this. It is true that she was a “radiant and vivacious hostess,” and it is possible, her standard not being very high, that she had “never looked more charming.” But, when she went on to say that all present were in agreement that they had never spent a more delightful evening, she deceived the public. Uncle Chris, for one, Otis Pilkington, for another, and Freddie Rooke, for a third, were so far from spending a delightful evening that they found it hard to mask their true emotions and keep a smiling face to the world.

Otis Pilkington, indeed, found it impossible, and, ceasing to try, left early. Just twenty minutes after the proceedings had begun, he seized his coat and hat, shot out into the night, made off blindly up Broadway, and walked twice round Central Park before his feet gave out and he allowed himself to be taken back to his apartment in a taxi. He tried to tell himself that this was only what he had expected, but was able to draw no consolation from the fact. He tried to tell himself that Jill might change her mind, but hope refused to stir. Jill had been very kind and very sweet and very regretful, but it was only too manifest that on the question of becoming Mrs. Otis Pilkington her mind was made up. She was willing to like him, to be a sister to him, to watch his future progress with considerable interest, but she would not marry him.

 

THE news was conveyed to Freddie Rooke by Uncle Chris. Uncle Chris, with something of the emotions of a condemned man on the scaffold waiting for a reprieve, had watched Jill and Mr. Pilkington go off together into the dim solitude at the back of the orchestra chairs, and, after an all-too-brief interval, had observed the latter whizzing back, his every little movement having a meaning of its own—and that meaning one which convinced Uncle Chris that Freddie, in estimating Mr. Pilkington as a sixty to one chance, had not erred in his judgment of form.

Uncle Chris found Freddie in one of the upper boxes, talking to Nelly Bryant. Dancing was going on down on the stage, but Freddie, though normally a young man who shook a skillful shoe, was in no mood for dancing to-night. The return to the scenes of his former triumphs and the meeting with the companions of happier days, severed from him by a two weeks’ notice, had affected Freddie powerfully. Eying the happy throng below, he experienced the emotions of that Peri who, in the poem, “at the gate of Eden stood disconsolate.”

Excusing himself from Nelly and following Uncle Chris into the passageway outside the box, he heard the other’s news listlessly. It came as no shock to Freddie. He had never thought Mr. Pilkington anything to write home about, and had never supposed that Jill would accept him. He said as much. Sorry for the chap in a way, and all that, but had never imagined for an instant that he would click.

“Where is Underhill?” asked Uncle Chris, agitated.

“Derek? Oh, he isn’t here yet.”

“But why isn’t he here? I understood that you were bringing him with you.”

“That was the scheme, but it seems he had promised some people he met on the boat to go to a theatre and have a bit of supper with them afterward. I only heard about it when I got back this morning.”

“Good God, boy! Didn’t you tell him that Jill would be here to-night?”

“Oh, rather. And he’s coming on directly he can get away from these people. Forget their name, but they’re influential coves who can do him a bit of good and all that sort of thing.”

Uncle Chris plucked at his mustache gloomily. Freddie’s detachment depressed him. He had looked for more animation and a greater sense of the importance of the issue.

“Well, pip-pip for the present,” said Freddie, moving toward the box. “Have to be getting back. See you later.”

 

HE disappeared, and Uncle Chris turned slowly to descend the stairs. As he reached the floor below, the door of the stage box opened, and Mrs. Peagrim came out.

“Oh, Major Selby!” cried the radiant and vivacious hostess. “I couldn’t think where you had got to. I have been looking for you everywhere.”

Uncle Chris quivered slightly, but braced himself to do his duty.

“May I have the pleasure—?” he began, then broke off as he saw the man who had come out of the box behind his hostess. “Underhill!” He grasped his hand and shook it warmly. “My dear fellow! I had no notion that you had arrived!”

“Sir Derek came just a moment ago,” said Mrs. Peagrim.

“How are you, Major Selby?” said Derek. He was a little surprised at the warmth of his reception. He had not anticipated this geniality.

“My dear fellow, I’m delighted to see you,” cried Uncle Chris. “But, as I was saying, Mrs. Peagrim, may I have the pleasure of this dance?”

“I don’t think I’ll dance this one,” said Mrs. Peagrim, surprisingly. “I’m sure you two must have ever so much to talk about. Why don’t you take Sir Derek and give him a cup of coffee?”

“Capital idea!” said Uncle Chris. “Come this way, my dear fellow. As Mrs. Peagrim says, I have ever so much to talk about. Along this passage, my boy. Be careful. There’s a step. Well, well, well! It’s delightful to see you again!” He massaged Derek’s arm affectionately. Every time he had met Mrs. Peagrim that evening he had quailed inwardly at what lay before him, should some hitch occur to prevent the reunion of Derek and Jill; and now that the other was actually here, handsomer than ever and more than ever the sort of man no girl could resist, he declined to admit the possibility of a hitch. His spirits soared. “You haven’t seen Jill yet, of course?”

“No.” Derek hesitated. “Is Jill . . . Does she . . . I mean . . .”

Uncle Chris resumed his osteopathy. He kneaded his companion’s coat sleeve with a jovial hand.

“My dear fellow, of course! I am sure that a word or two from you will put everything right. We all make mistakes. I have made them myself. I am convinced that everything will be perfectly all right . . . Ah, there she is. Jill, my dear, here is an old friend to see you!”

 

§2

 

SINCE the hurried departure of Mr. Pilkington, Jill had been sitting in the auditorium, lazily listening to the music and watching the couples dancing on the stage. She did not feel like dancing herself, but it was pleasant to be there and too much exertion to get up and go home. She found herself drifting into a mood of gentle contentment, and was at a loss to account for this. She was happy—quietly and peacefully happy, when she was aware that she ought to have been both agitated and apprehensive. When she had anticipated the recent interview with Otis Pilkington, which she had known was bound to come sooner or later, it had been shrinkingly and with foreboding. She hated hurting people’s feelings, and, though she read Mr. Pilkington’s character accurately enough to know that time would heal any anguish which she might cause him, she had had no doubt that the temperamental surface of that long young man, when he succeeded in getting her alone, was going to be badly bruised. And it had fallen out just as she had expected. Mr. Pilkington had said his say and departed, a pitiful figure, a spectacle which should have wrung her heart. It had not wrung her heart. Except for one fleeting instant when she was actually saying the fatal words, it had not interfered with her happiness at all; and already she was beginning to forget that the incident had ever happened.

And, if the past should have depressed her, the future might have been expected to depress her even more. There was nothing in it, either immediate or distant, which could account for her feeling gently contented. The future was a fog, into which she had to grope her way blindly. She could not see a step ahead. And yet, as she leaned back in her seat, her heart was dancing in time to the dance music of Mrs. Peagrim’s hired orchestra. It puzzled Jill.

And then, quite suddenly yet with no abruptness or sense of discovery, just as if it were something which she had known all along, the truth came upon her. It was Wally, the thought of Wally, the knowledge that Wally existed, that made her happy. He was a solid, comforting, reassuring fact in a world of doubts and perplexities. She did not need to be with him to be fortified; it was enough just to think of him. Present or absent, his personality heartened her like fine weather or music or a sea breeze, or like that friendly, soothing night light which they used to leave in her nursery when she was little, to scare away the goblins and see her safely over the road that led to the gates of the city of dreams.

Suppose there were no Wally . . .

 

JILL gave a sudden gasp and sat up, tingling. She felt as she had sometimes felt as a child, when, on the edge of sleep, she had dreamed that she was stepping off a precipice and had awaked, tense and alert, to find that there was no danger after all. But there was a difference between that feeling and this. She had awaked but to find that there was danger. It was as though some inner voice were calling to her to be careful, to take thought. Suppose there were no Wally . . . And why should there always be Wally? He had said confidently enough that there would never be another girl . . . But there were thousands of other girls, millions of other girls, and could she suppose that one of them would not have the sense to snap up a treasure like Wally? A sense of blank desolation swept over Jill. Her quick imagination, leaping ahead, had made the vague possibility of a distant future an accomplished fact. She felt, absurdly, a sense of overwhelming loss.

Into her mind, never far distant from it, came the thought of Derek. And suddenly Jill made another discovery. She was thinking of Derek, and it was not hurting. She was thinking of him quite coolly and clearly, and her heart was not aching.

She sat back and screwed her eyes tight, as she had always done when puzzled. Something had happened to her, but how it had happened and when it had happened and why it had happened she could not understand. She only knew that now for the first time she had been granted a moment of clear vision and was seeing things truly.

She wanted Wally. She wanted him in the sense that she could not do without him. She felt nothing of the fiery tumult which had come upon her when she first met Derek. She and Wally would come together with a smile and build their life on an enduring foundation of laughter and happiness and good-fellowship. Wally had never shaken and never would shake her senses as Derek had done. If that was love, then she did not love Wally. But her clear vision told her that it was not love. It might be the blazing and crackling of thorns, but it was not the fire. She wanted Wally. She needed him as she needed the air and the sunlight.

She opened her eyes and saw Uncle Chris coming down the aisle toward her. There was a man with him, and, as they moved closer in the dim light, Jill saw that it was Derek.

“Jill, my dear,” said Uncle Chris, “here is an old friend to see you!”

And, having achieved their bringing together, he proceeded to withdraw delicately whence he had come.

“Why, Derek!” said Jill cheerfully. She got up and moved down the line of seats. Except for a mild wonder how he came to be there, she found herself wholly unaffected by the sight of him. “Whatever are you doing here?”

 

DEREK sat down beside her. The cordiality of her tone had relieved yet at the same time disconcerted him. Man seldom attains to perfect contentment in this world, and Derek, while pleased that Jill apparently bore him no ill will, seemed to miss something in her manner which he would have been glad to find there.

“Jill!” he said huskily.

It seemed to Derek only decent to speak huskily. To his orderly mind this situation could be handled only in one way. It was a plain, straight issue of the strong man humbling himself—not too much, of course, but sufficiently; and it called, in his opinion, for the low voice, the clenched hand, and the broken whisper.

“Did you have a pleasant trip?” asked Jill. “Have you come over on business?”

A feeling of bewilderment came upon Derek. It was wrong; it was all wrong. Of course she might be speaking like this to cloak intense feeling, but if so she had certainly succeeded. From her manner he and she might be casual acquaintances. A pleasant trip! In another minute she would be asking him how he had come out on the sweepstake on the ship’s run. With a sense of putting his shoulder to some heavy weight and heaving at it, he sought to lift the conversation to a higher plane.

“I came to find you!” he said, still huskily but not so huskily as before. There are degrees of huskiness, and Derek’s was sharpened a little by a touch of irritation.

“Yes?” said Jill.

There was a pause. Jill was looking at him with a frank and unembarrassed gaze which somehow deepened his sense of annoyance. Had she looked at him coldly, he could have understood and even appreciated it. He was still not quite sure in his mind whether he was playing the rôle of a penitent or a King Cophetua, but in either character he might have anticipated a little temporary coldness, which it would have been his easy task to melt. But he had never expected to be looked at as if he were a specimen in a museum, and that was how he was feeling now.

 

JILL, unconscious of the discomfort she was causing, continued to gaze. She was trying to discover in just what respect he had changed from the god he had been. Certainly not in looks. He was as handsome as ever—handsomer, indeed, for the sunshine and clean breezes of the Atlantic had given him an exceedingly becoming coat of tan. And yet he must have changed, for now she could look upon him quite dispassionately and criticize him without a tremor. It was like seeing a copy of a great painting. Everything was there, except the one thing that mattered, the magic and the glamour. Jill came to the conclusion that her newly discovered love for Wally Mason had equipped her with a sixth sense, and that by its aid she was really for the first time seeing Derek as he was.

Derek had not the privilege of being able to read Jill’s thoughts. All he could see was the outer Jill, and the outer Jill, as she had always done, was stirring his emotions. Her daintiness afflicted him. Not for the first, the second, or the third time since they had come into each other’s lives he was astounded at the strength of the appeal which Jill had for him when they were together, as contrasted with its weakness when they were apart. He made another attempt to establish the scene on a loftier plane.

“What a fool I was!” He sighed. “Jill! Can you ever forgive me?”

He tried to take her hand. Jill skillfully eluded him. “Why, of course, I’ve forgiven you, Derek, if there was anything to forgive.”

“Anything to forgive!” Derek began to get into his stride. These were the lines on which he had desired the interview to develop. “I was a brute! A cad!”

“Oh, no!”

“I was! Oh, I have been through hell!”

 

JILL turned her head away. She did not want to hurt him, but nothing could have kept her from smiling. She had been so sure that he would say that sooner or later.

“Jill!” Derek had misinterpreted the cause of her movement, and had attributed it to emotion. “Tell me that everything is as it was before.”

Jill turned. “I’m afraid I can’t say that, Derek.”

“Of course not!” agreed Derek in a comfortable glow of manly remorse. He liked himself in the character of the strong man abased. “It would be too much to expect, I know. But when we are married . . .”

“Do you really want to marry me?”

“Jill!”

“I wonder!”

“How can you doubt it?”

Jill looked at him. “Have you thought what it would mean?”

“What it would mean?”

“Well, your mother . . .”

“Oh!” Derek dismissed Lady Underhill with a grand gesture.

“Yes,” persisted Jill, “but if she disapproved of your marrying me before, wouldn’t she disapprove a good deal more now, when I haven’t a penny in the world and am just in the chorus?”

A sort of strangled sound proceeded from Derek’s throat. “In the chorus!”

“Didn’t you know? I thought Freddie must have told you.”

“In the chorus!” Derek stammered. “I thought you were here as a guest of Mrs. Peagrim’s.”

“So I am—like all the rest of the company.”

“But . . . But . . .”

“You see, it would be bound to make everything difficult,” said Jill. Her face was grave, but her lips were twitching. “I mean, you are rather a prominent man, aren’t you, and if you married a chorus girl . . .”

“Nobody would know,” said Derek limply.

Jill opened her eyes.

“Nobody would know!” She laughed. “But, of course, you’ve never met our press agent. If you think that nobody would know that a girl in the company had married a baronet who was a member of parliament and expected to be in the Cabinet in a few years, you’re wronging him! The news would be on the front page of all the papers the very next day—columns of it, with photographs. There would be articles about it in the Sunday papers. Illustrated! And then it would be cabled to England and would appear in the papers there . . . You see, you’re a very important person, Derek.”

 

DEREK sat clutching the arms of the chair. His face was chalky. Though he had never been inclined to underestimate his importance as a figure in the public eye, he had overlooked the disadvantages connected with such an eminence. He gurgled wordlessly. He had been prepared to brave Lady Underhill’s wrath and assert his right to marry whom he pleased, but this was different.

Jill watched him curiously and with a certain pity. It was so easy to read what was passing in his mind. She wondered what he would say, how he would flounder out of his unfortunate position. She had no illusions about him now. She did not even contemplate the possibility of chivalry winning the battle which was going on within him.

“It would be very awkward, wouldn’t it?” she said.

And then pity had its way with Jill. He had treated her badly, for a time she had thought that he had crushed all the heart out of her, but he was suffering, and she hated to see anybody suffer. “Besides,” she said, “I’m engaged to somebody else.”

As a suffocating man, his lips to the tube of oxygen, gradually comes back to life, Derek revived—slowly as the meaning of her words sank into his mind, then with a sudden abruptness:

“What!” he cried.

“I’m going to marry somebody else. A man named Wally Mason.”

Derek swallowed. The chalky look died out of his face, and he flushed hotly. His eyes, half relieved, half indignant, glowed under their penthouse of eyebrow. He sat for a moment in silence. “I think you might have told me before!” he said huffily.

Jill laughed. “Yes, I suppose I ought to have told you before.”

“Leading me on . . . !”

Jill patted him on the arm. “Never mind, Derek! It’s all over now. And it was great fun, wasn’t it!”

“Fun!”

“Shall we go and dance? The music is just starting.”

“I won’t dance!”

Jill got up. “I must,” she said. “I’m so happy I can’t keep still. Well, good-by, Derek, in case I don’t see you again. It was nice meeting after this time. You haven’t altered a bit!”

Derek watched her flit down the aisle, saw her jump up the little ladder onto the stage, watched her vanish into the swirl of the dance. He reached for a cigarette, opened his case, and found it empty. He uttered a mirthless, Byronic laugh. The thing seemed to him symbolic.

 

§3

 

NOT having a cigarette of his own, Derek got up and went to look for the only man he knew who could give him one; and after a search of a few minutes came upon Freddie all alone in a dark corner, apart from the throng. It was a very different Freddie from the moody youth who had returned to the box after his conversation with Uncle Chris. He was leaning against a piece of scenery with his head tilted back and a beam of startled happiness on his face. So rapt was he in his reflections that he did not become aware of Derek’s approach until the latter spoke: “Got a cigarette, Freddie?”

Freddie withdrew his gaze from the roof. “Hullo, old son! Cigarette? Certainly and by all means. Cigarettes? Where are the cigarettes? Mr. Rooke, forward! Show cigarettes.” He extended his case to Derek, who helped himself in somber silence, finding his boyhood’s friend’s exuberance hard to bear. “I say, Derek, old scream, the most extraordinary thing has happened! You’ll never guess. To cut a long story short and come to the blow-out of the scenario, I’m engaged! Engaged, old crumpet! You know what I mean—engaged to be married!”

“Uh?” said Derek gruffly, frowning over his cigarette.

“Don’t wonder you’re surprised,” said Freddie, looking at him a little wistfully, for his friend had scarcely been gushing, and he would have welcomed a bit of enthusiasm. “Can hardly believe it myself.”

Derek awoke to a sense of the conventions. “Congratulate you,” he said. “Do I know her?”

“Not yet, but you soon will. She’s a girl in the company—in the chorus, as a matter of fact. Girl named Nelly Bryant. An absolute corker. I’ll go farther—a topper. You’ll like her, old man.”

Derek was looking at him, amazed. “Good heavens!” he said.

“Extraordinary how these things happen,” proceeded Freddie. “Looking back, I can see, of course, that I always thought her a topper, but the idea of getting engaged—I don’t know—sort of thing that doesn’t occur to a chappie, if you know what I mean. What I mean to say is, we had always been the greatest pals and all that, but it never struck me that she would think it much of a wheeze getting hooked up for life with a chap like me. We just sort of drifted along and so forth. All very jolly and what not. And then this evening—I don’t know. I had a bit of a grouch, what with one thing and another, and she was most dashed sweet and patient and soothing and—and—well, and what not, don’t you know, and suddenly—deuced rummy sensation—the jolly old scales seemed to fall, if you follow me, from my good old eyes, I don’t know if you get the idea. I suddenly seemed to look myself squarely in the eyeball and say to myself: ‘Freddie, old top, how do we go? Are we not missing a good thing?’ And, by Jove, thinking it over, I found that I was absolutely correct-o! You’ve no notion how dashed sympathetic she is, old man! I mean to say, I had this grouch, you know, owing to one thing and another, and was feeling that life was more or less of a jolly old snare and delusion, and she bucked me up and all that, and suddenly I found myself kissing her and all that sort of rot, and she was kissing me and so on and so forth, and she’s got the most ripping eyes, and there was nobody about, and the long and the short of it was, old boy, that I said ‘Let’s get married!’ and she said ‘When?’ and that was that, if you see what I mean. The scheme now is to pop down to the City Hall and get a license, which it appears you have to have if you want to bring this sort of binge off with any success and vim, and then what ho for the padre! Looking at it from every angle, a bit of a good egg, what! Happiest man in the world, and all that sort of thing.”

 

AT this point in his somewhat incoherent epic Freddie paused. It had occurred to him that he had perhaps laid himself open to a charge of monopolizing the conversation.

“I say! You’ll forgive my dwelling a bit on this thing, won’t you? Never found a girl who would look twice at me before, and it’s rather unsettled the old bean. Just occurred to me that I may have been talking about my own affairs a bit. Your turn now, old thing. Sit down, as the blighters in the novels used to say, and tell me the story of your life. You’ve seen Jill, of course?”

“Yes,” said Derek shortly.

“And it’s all right, eh? Fine! We’ll make a double wedding of it, what? Not a bad idea, that! I mean to say, the parson might make a reduction for quantity and shade his fee a bit. Do the job half price!”

Derek threw down the end of his cigarette and crushed it with his heel. A closer observer than Freddie would have detected long ere this the fact that his demeanor was not that of a happy and successful wooer.

“Jill and I are not going to be married,” he said.

A look of blank astonishment came into Freddie’s cheerful face. He could hardly believe that he had heard correctly. It is true that, in gloomier mood, he had hazarded the theory to Uncle Chris that Jill’s independence might lead her to refuse Derek, but he had not really believed in the possibility of such a thing even at the time, and now, in the full flood of optimism consequent on his own engagement, it seemed even more incredible.

“Great Scott!” he cried. “Did she give you the raspberry?”

It is to be doubted whether the pride of the Underhills would have permitted Derek to reply in the affirmative, even if Freddie had phrased his question differently; but the brutal directness of the query made such a course impossible for him. Nothing was dearer to Derek than his self-esteem, and, even at the expense of the truth, he was resolved to shield it from injury. To face Freddie and confess that any girl in the world had given him, Derek Underhill, what he coarsely termed the raspberry was a task so revolting as to be utterly beyond his powers. “Nothing of the kind!” he snapped. “It was because we both saw that the thing would be impossible. Why didn’t you tell me that Jill was in the chorus of this damned piece?”

 

FREDDIE’S mouth slowly opened. He was trying not to realize the meaning of what his friend was saying. His was a faithful soul, and for years—to all intents and purposes for practically the whole of his life—he had looked up to Derek and reverenced him. He absolutely refused to believe that Derek was intending to convey what he seemed to be trying to convey; for, if he was, well . . . by Jove . . . it was too rotten and Algy Martyn had been right after all and the fellow was simply . . .

“You don’t mean, old man,” said Freddie with an almost pleading note in his voice, “that you’re going to back out of marrying Jill because she’s in the chorus?”

Derek looked away and scowled. He was finding Freddie, in the capacity of inquisitor, as trying as he had found him in the rôle of exuberant fiancé. It offended his pride to have to make explanations to one whom he had always regarded with a patronizing tolerance as not a bad fellow in his way but in every essential respect negligible.

“I have to be sensible,” he said, chafing as the indignity of his position intruded itself more and more. “You know what it would mean . . . Paragraphs in all the papers . . . photographs . . . the news cabled to England . . . everybody reading it and misunderstanding . . . I’ve got my career to think of . . . It would cripple me . . .”

His voice trailed off, and there was silence for a moment. Then Freddie burst into speech. His good-natured face was hard with unwonted scorn. Its cheerful vacuity had changed to stony contempt. For the second time in the evening the jolly old scales had fallen from Freddie’s good old eyes, and, as Jill had done, he saw Derek as he was.

“My sainted aunt!” he said slowly. “So that’s it, what! Well, I’ve always thought a dashed lot of you, as you know. I’ve always looked up to you as a bit of a nib and wished I was like you. But, great Scott! if that’s the sort of a chap you are, I’m deuced glad I’m not! I’m going to wake up in the middle of the night and think how unlike you I am and pat myself on the back! Algy Martyn was perfectly right. A tick’s a tick, and that’s all there is to say about it. Good old Algy told me what you were, and, like a silly ass, I wasted a lot of time trying to make him believe you weren’t that sort of chap at all. It’s no good standing there looking like your mother,” said Freddie firmly. “This is where we jolly well part brass rags! If we ever meet again, I’ll trouble you not to speak to me, because I’ve a reputation to keep up! So there you have it in a bally nutshell!”

 

(To be concluded next week)