Collier’s Weekly, August 28, 1920
SCARCELY had Freddie ceased to administer castigation to his former friend when Uncle Chris, warm and disheveled from the dance as interpreted by Mrs. Waddesleigh Peagrim, came bustling up, saving Derek the necessity of replying to the harangue.
“Well, Underhill, my dear fellow,” began Uncle Chris affably, attaching himself to the other’s arm, “what . . .?”
He broke off, for Derek, freeing his arm with a wrench, turned and walked rapidly away. Derek had no desire to go over the whole thing again with Uncle Chris. He wanted to be alone, to build up, painfully and laboriously, the ruins of his self-esteem. The pride of the Underhills had had a bad evening.
Uncle Chris turned to Freddie. “What is the matter?” he asked blankly.
“I’ll tell you what’s the jolly old matter!” cried Freddie. “The blighter isn’t going to marry poor Jill after all! He’s changed his rotten mind! It’s off!”
“Napoo!” said Freddie. “He’s afraid of what will happen to his blasted career if he marries a girl who’s been in the chorus.”
“But, my dear boy!” Uncle Chris blinked. “But, my dear boy! This is ridiculous . . . Surely, if I were to speak a word . . .”
“You can if you like. I wouldn’t speak to the cootie again if you paid me! But it won’t do any good, so what’s the use?”
Slowly Uncle Chris adjusted his mind to the disaster. “Then you mean . . .?”
“It’s off!” said Freddie.
For a moment Uncle Chris stood motionless. Then, with a sudden jerk, he seemed to stiffen his backbone. His face was bleak, but he pulled at his mustache jauntily.
“Morituri te salutant!” he said. “Good-by, Freddie, my boy.”
He turned away, gallant and upright, the old soldier.
“Where are you going?” asked Freddie.
“Over the top!” said Uncle Chris.
“What do you mean?”
“I am going,” said Uncle Chris steadily, “to find Mrs. Peagrim!”
“Good God!” cried Freddie. He followed him, protesting weakly, but the other gave no sign that he had heard. Freddie saw him disappear into the stage box, and, turning, found Jill at his elbow.
“Where did Uncle Chris go?” asked Jill. “I want to speak to him.”
“He’s in the stage box, with Mrs. Peagrim.”
“With Mrs. Peagrim?”
“Proposing to her,” said Freddie solemnly.
Jill stared. “Proposing to Mrs. Peagrim? What do you mean?”
Freddie drew her aside and began to explain.
IN the dimness of the stage box, his eyes a little glassy and a dull despair in his soul, Uncle Chris was wondering how to begin. In his hot youth he had been rather a devil of a fellow in between dances, a cooer of soft phrases, and a stealer of never very stoutly withheld kisses. He remembered one time in Bangalore . . . but that had nothing to do with the case. The point was, how to begin with Mrs. Peagrim. The fact that twenty-five years ago he had crushed in his arms, beneath the shadows of the deodars, a girl whose name he had forgotten, though he remembered that she had worn a dress of some pink stuff, was immaterial and irrelevant. Was he to crush Mrs. Peagrim in his arms? Not, thought Uncle Chris to himself, on a bet. He contented himself for the moment with bending an intense gaze upon her and asking if she was tired.
“A little,” panted Mrs. Peagrim, who, though she danced often and vigorously, was never in the best of condition, owing to her habit of neutralizing the beneficent effects of exercise by surreptitious candy eating. “I’m a little out of breath.”
Uncle Chris had observed this for himself, and it had not helped him to face his task. Lovely woman loses something of her queenly dignity when she puffs. Inwardly, he was thinking how exactly his hostess resembled the third from the left of a troupe of performing sea lions which he had seen some years ago on one of his rare visits to a vaudeville house.
“You ought not to tire yourself,” he said with a difficult tenderness.
“I am so fond of dancing,” pleaded Mrs. Peagrim. Recovering some of her breath, she gazed at her companion with a sort of short-winded archness. “You are always so sympathetic, Major Selby.”
“Am I?” said Uncle Chris. “Am I?”
“You know you are!”
UNCLE CHRIS swallowed quickly. “I wonder if you have ever wondered,” he began and stopped. He felt that he was not putting it as well as he might. “I wonder if it has ever struck you that there’s a reason.” He stopped again. He seemed to remember reading something like that in an advertisement in a magazine, and he did not want to talk like an advertisement. “I wonder if it has ever struck you, Mrs. Peagrim,” he began again, “that any sympathy on my part might be due to some deeper emotion which . . . Have you never suspected that you have never suspected . . .” Uncle Chris began to feel that he must brace himself up. Usually a man of fluent speech, he was not at his best to-night. He was just about to try again when he caught his hostess’s eye, and the soft gleam in it sent him cowering back into the silence as if he were taking cover from an enemy’s shrapnel.
Mrs. Peagrim touched him on the arm. “You were saying . . . ?” she murmured encouragingly.
Uncle Chris shut his eyes. His fingers pressed desperately into the velvet curtain beside him. He felt as he had felt when a raw lieutenant in India, during his first hill campaign, when the etiquette of the service had compelled him to rise and walk up and down in front of his men under a desultory shower of jezail bullets. He seemed to hear the damned things whop-whopping now . . . and almost wished that he could really hear them. One or two good bullets just now would be a welcome diversion.
“Yes?” said Mrs. Peagrim.
“Have you never felt,” babbled Uncle Chris, “that, feeling as I feel, I might have felt . . . that is to say, might be feeling a feeling . . .?”
There was a tap at the door of the box. Uncle Chris started violently. Jill came in.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” she said. “I wanted to speak . . .”
“You wanted to speak to me?” said Uncle Chris, bounding up. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, of course. If you will excuse me for a moment?”
Mrs. Peagrim bowed coldly. The interruption had annoyed her. She had no notion who Jill was, and she resented the intrusion at this particular juncture intensely. Not so Uncle Chris, who skipped out into the passage like a young lamb.
“Am I in time?” asked Jill in a whisper.
“You know what I mean. Uncle Chris, listen to me! You are not to propose to that awful woman. Do you understand?”
Uncle Chris shook his head. “The die is cast!”
“The die isn’t anything of the sort,” said Jill. “Unless . . .” She stopped, aghast. “You don’t mean that you have done it already?”
“Well, no. To be perfectly accurate, no. But . . .”
“Then that’s all right. I know why you were doing it, and it was very sweet of you, but you mustn’t.”
“But, Jill, you don’t understand.”
“I do understand.”
“I have a motive . . .”
“I know your motive. Freddie told me. Don’t you worry yourself about me, dear, because I am all right. I am going to be married.”
A look of ecstatic relief came into Uncle Chris’s face. “Then Underhill . . . ?”
“I am not marrying Derek. Somebody else. I don’t think you know him, but I love him, and so will you.” She pulled his face down and kissed him. “Now you can go back.”
Uncle Chris was almost too overcome to speak. He gulped a little. “Jill,” he said huskily, “this is a . . . this is a great relief.”
“I knew it would be.”
“If you are really going to marry a rich man . . .”
“I didn’t say he was rich.”
THE joy ebbed from Uncle Chris’s face. “If he is not rich, if he cannot give you everything of which I—”
“Oh, don’t be absurd! Wally has all the money anybody needs. What’s money?”
“What’s money?” Uncle Chris stared. “Money, my dear child, is . . . is . . . well, you mustn’t talk of it in that light way. But if you think you will really have enough . . . ?”
“Of course we shall. Now you can go back. Mrs. Peagrim will be wondering what has become of you.”
“Must I?” said Uncle Chris doubtfully.
“Of course. You must be polite.”
“Very well,” said Uncle Chris. “But it will be a little difficult to continue the conversation on what you might call general lines. However!”
Back in the box, Mrs. Peagrim was fanning herself with manifest impatience.
“What did that girl want?” she demanded.
Uncle Chris seated himself with composure. The weakness had passed, and he was himself again.
“Oh, nothing, nothing. Some trivial difficulty, which I was able to dispose of in a few words.”
Mrs. Peagrim would have liked to continue her researches, but a feeling that it was wiser not to stray too long from the main point restrained her. She bent toward him: “You were going to say something when that girl interrupted us.”
Uncle Chris shot his cuffs with a debonair gesture. “Was I? Was I? To be sure, yes. I was saying that you ought not to let yourself get tired. Deuce of a thing, getting tired. Plays the dickens with the system.”
Mrs. Peagrim was disconcerted. The atmosphere seemed to have changed, and she did not like it. She endeavored to restore the tone of the conversation.
“You are so sympathetic,” she sighed, feeling that she could not do better than to begin again at that point. The remark had produced good results before, and it might do so a second time.
“Yes,” agreed Uncle Chris cheerily. “You see, I have seen something of all this sort of thing, and I realize the importance of it. I know what all this modern rush and strain of life is for a woman in your position. Parties every night . . . dancing . . . a thousand and one calls on the vitality . . . bound to have an effect sooner or later, unless—unless,” said Uncle Chris solemnly, “one takes steps. Unless one acts in time. I had a friend—” His voice sank—“I had a very dear friend over in London, Lady Alice—but the name would convey nothing—the point is that she was in exactly the same position as you. On the rush all the time. Never stopped. The end was inevitable. She caught cold, hadn’t sufficient vitality to throw it off, went to a dance in midwinter, contracted pneumonia—” Uncle Chris sighed. “All over in three days,” he said sadly. “Now, at that time,” he resumed, “I did not know what I know now. If I had heard of Nervino then—” He shook his head. “It might have saved her life. It would have saved her life. I tell you, Mrs. Peagrim, that there is nothing, there is no lack of vitality which Nervino cannot set right. I am no physician myself, I speak as a layman, but it acts on the red corpuscles of the blood—”
MRS. PEAGRIM’S face was stony. She had not spoken before, because he had given her no opportunity, but she spoke now in a hard voice: “Major Selby!”
“I am not interested in patent medicines!”
“One can hardly call Nervino that,” said Uncle Chris reproachfully. “It is a sovereign specific. You can get it at any drug store. It comes in two sizes, the dollar-fifty—or large—size and the . . .”
Mrs. Peagrim rose majestically. “Major Selby, I am tired . . .”
“Precisely. And, as I say, Nervino—”
“Please,” said Mrs. Peagrim coldly, “go to the stage door and see if you can find my limousine. It should be waiting in the street.”
“Certainly,” said Uncle Chris. “Why, certainly, certainly, certainly.”
He left the box and proceeded across the stage. He walked with a lissom jauntiness. His eye was bright. One or two of those whom he passed on his way had the idea that this fine-looking man was in pain. They fancied that he was moaning. But Uncle Chris was not moaning. He was humming a gay snatch from the lighter music of the nineties.
UP on the roof of his apartment, far above the bustle and clamor of the busy city, Wally Mason, at eleven o’clock on the morning after Mrs. Peagrim’s Bohemian party, was greeting the new day, as was his custom, by going through his ante-breakfast exercises. Mankind is divided into two classes, those who do setting-up exercises before breakfast and those who know they ought to but don’t. To the former and more praiseworthy class Wally had belonged since boyhood. Life might be vain and the world a void, but still he touched his toes the prescribed number of times and twisted his muscular body about according to the ritual. He did so this morning a little more vigorously than usual, partly because he had sat up too late the night before and thought too much and smoked too much, with the result that he had risen, heavy-eyed, at the present disgraceful hour, and partly because he hoped by wearying the flesh to still the restlessness of the spirit. Spring generally made Wally restless, but never previously had it brought him this distracted feverishness. So he lay on his back and waved his legs in the air, and it was only when he had risen and was about to go still further into the matter that he perceived Jill standing beside him.
“Good Lord!” said Wally.
“Don’t stop,” said Jill. “I’m enjoying it.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Oh, I only just arrived. I rang the bell, and the nice old lady who is cooking your lunch told me you were out here.”
“Not lunch. Breakfast.”
“Breakfast! At this hour?”
“Won’t you join me?”
“I’ll join you. But I had my breakfast long ago.”
Wally found his despondency magically dispelled. It was extraordinary how the mere sight of Jill could make the world a different place. It was true the sun had been shining before her arrival, but in a flabby, weak-minded way, not with the brilliance it had acquired immediately he heard her voice.
“If you don’t mind waiting for about three minutes while I have a shower and dress . . .”
“Oh, is the entertainment over?” asked Jill, disappointed. “I always arrive too late for everything.”
“One of these days you shall see me go through the whole program, including shadow boxing and the goose step. Bring your friends. But at the moment I think it would be more of a treat for you to watch me eat an egg. Go and look at the view. From over there you can see Hoboken.”
“I’ve seen it. I don’t think much of it.”
“Well, then, on this side we have Brooklyn. There is no stint. Wander to and fro and enjoy yourself. The rendezvous is in the sitting room in about four moments.”
Wally vaulted through the passage window and disappeared. Then he returned and put his head out.
“Just occurred to me. Your uncle won’t be wanting this place for half an hour or so, will he? I mean, there will be time for me to have a bite of breakfast?”
“I don’t suppose he will require your little home till some time in the evening.”
WALLY disappeared again, and a few moments later Jill heard the faint splashing of water. She walked to the parapet and looked down. On the windows of the nearer buildings the sun cast glittering beams, but farther away a faint, translucent mist hid the city. There was spring humidity in the air. In the street she had found it oppressive; but on the breezy summit of this steel-and-granite cliff the air was cool and exhilarating. Peace stole into Jill’s heart as she watched the boats dropping slowly down the East River, which gleamed like dull steel through the haze. She had come to Journey’s End, and she was happy. Trouble and heartache seemed as distant as those hurrying black ants down on the streets. She felt far away from the world on an enduring mountain of rest. She gave a little sigh of contentment, and turned to go in as Wally called.
In the sitting room her feeling of security deepened. Here the world was farther away than ever. Even the faint noises which had risen to the roof were inaudible, and only the cozy tick-tock of the grandfather’s clock punctuated the stillness. She looked at Wally with a quickening sense of affection. He had the divine gift of silence at the right time. Yes, this was home. This was where she belonged.
“It didn’t take me in, you know,” said Jill at length, resting her arms on the table and regarding him severely.
Wally looked up. “What didn’t take you in?”
“That bath of yours. Yes, I know you turned on the cold shower, but you stood at a safe distance and watched it show’.”
Wally waved his fork. “As Heaven is my witness . . . ! Look at my hair! Still damp! And I can show you the towel.”
“Well, then, I’ll bet it was the hot water. Why weren’t you at Mrs. Peagrim’s party last night?”
“It would take too long to explain all my reasons, but one of them was that I wasn’t invited. How did it go off?”
“Splendidly. Freddie’s engaged!”
Wally lowered his coffee cup. “Engaged! You don’t mean what is sometimes slangily called betrothed?”
“I do. He’s engaged to Nelly Bryant. Nelly told me all about it when she got home last night. It seems that Freddie said to her ‘What ho!’ and she said ‘You bet!’ and Freddie said ‘Pip-pip,’ and the thing was settled.” Jill bubbled. “Freddie wants to go into vaudeville with her!”
“No! The Juggling Rookes? Or Rooke and Bryant, the cross-talk team, a thoroughly refined act, swell dressers on and off?”
“I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. Nelly is domestic. She’s going to have a little home in the country, where she can grow chickens and pigs.”
“ ‘Father’s in the pigsty, you can tell him by his hat,’ eh?”
“Yes. They will be very happy. Freddie will be a father to her parrot.”
Wally’s cheerfulness diminished a trifle. The contemplation of Freddie’s enviable lot brought with it the inevitable contrast with his own. A little home in the country . . . Oh, well!
There was a pause. Jill was looking a little grave: “Wally!”
She turned her face away, for there was a gleam of mischief in her eyes which she did not wish him to observe.
“Derek was at the party!”
Wally had been about to butter a piece of toast. The butter, jerked from the knife by the convulsive start which he gave, popped up in a semicircle and plumped on to the tablecloth. He recovered himself quickly.
“Sorry!” he said. “You mustn’t mind that. They want me to be second-string for the Boosting the Butter event at the next Olympic Games, and I’m practicing all the time . . . Underhill was there, eh?”
“You met him?”
Wally fiddled with his knife. “Did he come over . . . I mean . . . had he come specially to see you?”
There was another pause.
“He wants to marry you?”
“He said he wanted to marry me.”
WALLY got up and went to the window. Jill could smile safely now, and she did, but her voice was still grave.
“What ought I to do, Wally? I thought I would ask you, as you are such a friend.”
Wally spoke without turning. “You ought to marry him, of course.”
“You think so?”
“You ought to marry him, of course,” said Wally doggedly. “You love him, and the fact that he came all the way to America must mean that he still loves you. Marry him!”
“But . . .” Jill hesitated. “You see, there’s a difficulty.”
“Well . . . it was something I said to him just before he went away. I said something that made it a little difficult.”
Wally continued to inspect the roofs below. “What did you say?”
“Well . . . it was something . . . something that I don’t believe he liked . . . something that may interfere with his marrying me.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him I was going to marry you!”
WALLY spun round. At the same time he leaped into the air. The effect of the combination of movements was to cause him to stagger across the room and, after two or three impromptu dance steps which would have interested Mrs. Peagrim, to clutch at the mantelpiece to save himself from falling. Jill watched him with quiet approval. “Why, that’s wonderful, Wally! Is that another of your morning exercises? If Freddie does go into vaudeville, you ought to get him to let you join the troupe.”
Wally was blinking at her from the mantelpiece: “Jill!”
“What—what—what . . . !”
“Now, don’t talk like Freddie, even if you are going into vaudeville with him.”
“You said you were going to marry me?”
“I said I was going to marry you!”
“But—do you mean . . . ?”
The mischief died out of Jill’s eyes. She met his gaze frankly and seriously. “The lumber’s gone, Wally,” she said. “But my heart isn’t empty. It’s quite, quite full, and it’s going to be full for ever and ever and ever.”
Wally left the mantelpiece, and came slowly toward her.
“Jill!” He choked. “Jill!”
Suddenly he pounced on her and swung her off her feet. She gave a little breathless cry.
“Wally! I thought you didn’t approve of cavemen!”
“This,” said Wally, “is just another new morning exercise I’ve thought of!”
Jill sat down, gasping. “Are you going to do that often, Wally?”
“Every day for the rest of my life!”
“Oh, you’ll get used to it. It’ll grow on you.”
“You don’t think I am making a mistake marrying you?”
“No, no! I’ve given the matter a lot of thought, and . . . in fact, no, no!”
“No,” said Jill thoughtfully. “I think you’ll make a good husband. I mean, suppose we ever want the piano moved or something . . . Wally!” she broke off suddenly.
“You have our ear.”
“Come out on the roof,” said Jill. “I want to show you something funny.”
Wally followed her out. They stood at the parapet together, looking down.
“There!” said Jill, pointing.
Wally looked puzzled.
“I see many things, but which is the funny one?”
“Why, all those people. Over there—and there—and there. Scuttering about and thinking they know everything there is to know, and not one of them has the least idea that I am the happiest girl on earth!”
“Or that I’m the happiest man! Their ignorance is—what is the word I want? Abysmal. They don’t know what it’s like to stand beside you and see that little dimple in your chin . . . They don’t know you’ve got a little dimple in your chin . . . They don’t know . . . They don’t know . . . Why, I don’t suppose a single one of them even knows that I’m just going to kiss you!”
“Those girls in that window over there do,” said Jill. “They are watching us like hawks.”
“Let ’em!” said Wally briefly.
Lovely woman loses something of her queenly dignity: Arthur Robinson notes that this phrase, used elsewhere in Wodehouse, is an echo of F. Anstey’s Baboo Jabberjee, B.A. (1907):
Speaking for my humble part, I am respectfully of opinion that lovely woman loses in queenly dignity by the abrupt execution of a somersault . . .