Collier’s Weekly, June 12, 1920
In the preceding chapters, Jill has not only been jilted by her fiancé, Sir Derek Underhill, but her Uncle Chris has also lost all her money. She comes to America with this prodigal relative. Uncle Chris sends her to Brookport, L. I., to accept the grudging hospitality of Uncle Elmer Mariner, her father’s brother. Utterly miserable, she determines to make a break for New York.
DOCTORS, laying down the law in their usual confident way, tell us that the vitality of the human body is at its lowest at two o’clock in the morning; and that it is then, as a consequence, that the mind is least able to contemplate the present with equanimity, the future with fortitude, and the past without regret. Every thinking man, however, knows that this is not so. The true zero hour, desolate, gloom-ridden, and specter-haunted, occurs immediately before dinner while we are waiting for that cocktail. It is then that, stripped for a brief moment of our armor of complacency and self-esteem, we see ourselves as we are—frightful chumps in a world where nothing goes right; a gray world in which, hoping to click, we merely get the raspberry; where, animated by the best intentions, we nevertheless succeed in perpetrating the scaliest bloomers and landing our loved ones neck deep in the gumbo.
So reflected Freddie Rooke, that priceless old bean, sitting disconsolately in an armchair at the Drones Club about two weeks after Jill’s departure from England, waiting for his friend Algy Martyn to trickle in and give him dinner.
Surveying Freddie, as he droops on his spine in the yielding leather, one is conscious of one’s limitations as a writer. Gloom like his calls for the pen of a master. Zola could have tackled it nicely. Gorky might have made a stab at it. Dostoevsky would have handled it with relish. But for oneself the thing is too vast. One cannot wangle it. It intimidates. It would have been bad enough in any case, for Algy Martyn was late as usual and it always gave Freddie the pip to have to wait for dinner; but what made it worse was the fact that the Drones was not one of Freddie’s clubs, and so, until the blighter Algy arrived, it was impossible for him to get his cocktail. There he sat, surrounded by happy, laughing young men, each grasping a glass of the good old mixture-as-before, absolutely unable to connect. Some of them, casual acquaintances, had nodded to him, waved, and gone on lowering the juice—a spectacle which made Freddie feel much as the wounded soldier would have felt if Sir Philip Sidney, instead of offering him the cup of water, had placed it to his own lips and drained it with a careless “Cheerio!” Freddie gave himself up to despondency; and, as always in these days when he was mournful, he thought of Jill. From the first he had blamed himself for the breaking off of her engagement with Derek. If he had not sent the message to Derek from the police station, the latter would never have known about their arrest, and all would have been well. And now, a few days ago, had come the news of her financial disaster, with its attendant complications.
It had descended on Freddie like a thunderbolt through the medium of Ronny Devereux.
“I say,” Ronny had said, “have you heard the latest? Your pal Underhill has broken off his engagement with Jill Mariner.”
“I know. Rather rotten, what!”
“Rotten? I should say so! It isn’t done! I mean to say, chap can’t chuck a girl just because she’s lost her money! Simply isn’t on the board, old man!”
“Lost her money! What do you mean?”
Ronny was surprised. Hadn’t Freddie heard? Yes, absolute fact. He had it from the best authority. Didn’t know how it had happened, and all that, but Jill Mariner had gone completely bust: Underhill had given her the miss-in-balk; and the poor girl had legged it, no one knew where. Oh, Freddie had met her, and she had told him she was going to America? Well, then, legged it to America. But the point was that the swine Underhill had handed her the mitten just because she was broke, and that was what Ronny thought so bally rotten. Broker a girl is, Ronny meant to say, more a fellow should stick to her.
“But”—Freddie rushed to his hero’s defense—“but it wasn’t that at all. Something quite different. I mean, Derek didn’t even know Jill had lost her money. He broke the engagement because—” Freddie stopped short. He didn’t want everybody to know of that rotten arrest business, as they infallibly would if he confided in Ronny Devereux. Sort of thing he would never hear the last of. “He broke it off because of something quite different.”
“Oh, yes!” said Ronny skeptically.
“But he did, really!”
RONNY shook his head. “Don’t you believe it, old son! Don’t you believe it! Stands to reason it must have been because the poor girl was broke. You wouldn’t have done it, and I wouldn’t have done it, but Underhill did, and that’s all there is to it. I mean, a tick’s a tick, and there’s nothing more to say. Well, I know he’s been a pal of yours, Freddie, but, next time I meet him, by Jove, I’ll cut him dead. Only I don’t know him to speak to, dash it!” concluded Ronny regretfully.
Ronny’s news had upset Freddie. Derek had returned to the Albany a couple of days ago, moody and silent. They had lunched together at the Bachelors, and Freddie had been pained at the attitude of his fellow clubmen. Usually, when he lunched at the Bachelors, his table became a sort of social center. Cheery birds would roll up to pass the time of day, and festive old eggs would toddle over to have coffee and so forth, and all that sort of thing. Jolly! On this occasion nobody had rolled, and all the eggs present had taken their coffee elsewhere. There was an uncomfortable chill in the atmosphere, though Derek had not appeared to notice it. The thing had only come to Derek yesterday at the Albany, when the painful episode of Wally Mason had occurred. It was this way:
“Hullo, Freddie, old top! Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Freddie looked up from his broken meditations, to find that his host had arrived.
“A quick bracer,” said Algy Martyn, “and then the jolly old foodstuffs. It’s pretty late, I see. Didn’t notice how time was slipping.”
Over the soup Freddie was still a prey to gloom. For once the healing gin-and-vermouth had failed to do its noble work. He sipped somberly, so somberly as to cause comment from his host.
“Pipped?” inquired Algy solicitously.
“Pretty pipped,” admitted Freddie.
“Something wrong with the old tum?”
“No. . . . Worried.”
“Derek? Who’s—? Oh, you mean Underhill?”
Algy Martyn chased an elusive piece of carrot about his soup plate, watching it interestedly as it slid coyly from the spoon.
“Oh!” he said, with sudden coolness. “What about him?”
Freddie was too absorbed in his subject to notice the change in his friend’s tone.
“A dashed unpleasant thing,” he said, “happened yesterday morning at my place. I was just thinking about going out to lunch, when the door bell rang, and Parker said a chappie of the name of Mason would like to see me. I didn’t remember any Mason, but Parker said the chappie said he knew me when I was a kid. So he loosed him into the room, and it turned out to be a fellow I used to know years ago down in Worcestershire. I didn’t know him from Adam at first, but gradually the old bean got to work, and I placed him. Wally Mason his name was. Rummily enough, he had spoken to me at the Leicester that night when the fire was, but, not being able to place him, I had given him the miss somewhat. You know how it is. Chappie you’ve never been introduced to says something to you in a theatre, and you murmur something and sheer off. What?”
“Absolutely,” agreed Algy Martyn. He thoroughly approved of Freddie’s code of etiquette. Sheer off. Only thing to do.
“Well, anyhow, now that he had turned up again and told me who he was, I began to remember. We had been kids together, don’t you know. (What’s this? Salmon? Oh, right ho!) So I buzzed and did the jovial host, you know; gave him a drink and a toofer, and all that sort of thing; and talked about the dear old days and what not. And so forth, if you follow me. Then he brought the conversation round to Jill. Of course he knew Jill at the same time when he knew me, down in Worcestershire, you see. We were all pretty pally in those days, if you see what I mean. Well, this man Mason, it seems, had heard somewhere about Jill losing her money, and he wanted to know if it was true. I said absolutely. Hadn’t heard any details, but Ronny had told me and Ronny had had it from some one who had stable information and all that sort of thing. ‘Dashed shame, isn’t it!’ I said. ‘She’s gone to America, you know.’ ‘I didn’t know,’ he said. ‘I understood she was going to be married quite soon.’ Well, of course, I told him that that was off. He didn’t say anything for a bit, then he said ‘Off?’ I said ‘Off!’ ‘Did she break it off?’ asked the chappie. ‘Well, no,’ I said. ‘As a matter of fact, Derek broke it off.’ He said ‘Oh!’ (What? Oh, yes, a bit of pheasant will be fine.) Where was I? Oh, yes. He said ‘Oh!’ Now, before this, I ought to tell you, this chappie Mason had asked me to come out and have a bit of lunch. I had told him I was lunching with Derek, and he had said ‘Right ho,’ or words to that effect. ‘Bring him along.’ Derek had been out for a stroll, you see, and we were waiting for him to come in. Well, just at this point or juncture, if you know what I mean, in he came, and I said ‘Oh, what ho!’ and introduced Wally Mason. ‘Oh, do you know Underhill?’ I said, or something like that. You know the sort of thing. And then—”
FREDDIE broke off and drained his glass. The recollection of that painful moment had made him feverish. Social difficulties always did.
“Then what?” inquired Algy Martyn.
“Well, it was pretty rotten. Derek held out his hand, as a chappie naturally would, being introduced to a strange chappie, and Wally Mason, giving it an absolute miss, went on talking to me just as if we were alone, you know. Look here. Here was I, where this knife is. Derek over there—this fork—with his hand out. Mason here—this bit of bread. Mason looks at his watch, and says: ‘I’m sorry, Freddie, but I find I’ve an engagement for lunch. So long,’ and biffed out, without apparently knowing Derek was on the earth. I mean—” Freddie reached for his glass. “What I mean is, it was dashed embarrassing. I mean, cutting a fellow dead in my rooms. I don’t know when I’ve felt so rotten!”
Algy Martyn delivered judgment with great firmness: “Chappie was perfectly right!”
“No, but I mean—”
“Absolutely correct-o,” insisted Algy sternly. “Underhill can’t dash about all over the place giving the girl he’s engaged to the mitten because she’s broke, and expect no notice to be taken of it. If you want to know what I think, old man, your pal Underhill—I can’t imagine what the deuce you see in him, but school together, and so forth, makes a difference, I suppose—I say, if you want to know what I think, Freddie, the blighter Underhill would be well advised either to leg it after Jill and get her to marry him or else lie low for a goodish while till people have forgotten the thing. My sister, who was a great pal of Jill’s, swears that all the girls she knows mean to cut Underhill. I tell you, Freddie, London’s going to get pretty hot for him if he doesn’t do something dashed quick and with great rapidity!”
“But you haven’t got the story right, old thing!”
“Well, I mean you think and Ronny thinks and all the rest of you think that Derek broke off the engagement because of the money. It wasn’t that at all.”
“What was it, then?”
“Well— Well, look here, it makes me seem a fearful ass and all that, but I’d better tell you. Jill and I were going down one of those streets near Victoria and a blighter was trying to slay a parrot—”
“Parrot shooting’s pretty good in those parts, they tell me,” interjected Algy satirically.
“Don’t interrupt, old man. This parrot had got out of one of the houses, and a fellow was jabbing at it with a stick, and Jill—you know what she’s like; impulsive, I mean, and all that—Jill got hold of the stick and biffed him with some vim, and a policeman rolled up and the fellow made a fuss and the policeman took Jill and me off to chokey. Well, like an ass, I sent round to Derek to bail us out, and that’s how he heard of the thing. Apparently he didn’t think a lot of it, and the result was that he broke off the engagement.”
Algy Martyn had listened to this recital with growing amazement.
“What absolute rot!” said Algy Martyn. “I don’t believe a word of it!”
“I say, old man!”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” repeated Algy firmly. “And nobody else will either. It’s dashed good of you, Freddie, to cook up a yarn like that to try and make things look better for the blighter, but it won’t work. Such a damned silly story, too!” said Algy with some indignation.
“But it’s true!”
“What’s the use, Freddie, between old pals?” said Algy, protestingly. “You know perfectly well that Underhill’s a cootie of the most pronounced order, and that, when he found out that Jill hadn’t any money, he chucked her.”
“But why should Derek care whether Jill was well off or not? He’s got enough money of his own.”
“Nobody,” said Algy judicially, “has got enough money of his own. Underhill thought he was marrying a girl with a sizable chunk of the ready, and, when the fuse blew out, he decided it wasn’t good enough. For Heaven’s sake don’t let’s talk any more about the blighter. It gives me a pain to think of him.”
And Algy Martyn, suppressing every effort which Freddie made to reopen the subject, turned the conversation to more general matters.
FREDDIE returned to the Albany in a state of gloom and uneasiness. Algy’s remarks, coming on top of the Wally Mason episode, had shaken him. The London in which he and Derek moved and had their being is nothing but a village, and it was evident that village gossip was hostile to Derek. People were talking about him. Local opinion had decided that he had behaved badly. Already one man had cut him. Freddie blenched at a sudden vision of streetfuls of men, long Piccadillys of men, all cutting him, one after the other. Something had to be done. He was devoted to Derek. This sort of thing was as bad as being cut himself. Whatever Freddie’s limitations in the matter of brain, he had a large heart and an infinite capacity for faithfulness in his friendships.
The subject was not an easy one to broach to his somewhat forbidding friend, as he discovered when the latter arrived about half an hour later. Derek had been attending the semiannual banquet of the Worshipful Drysalters Company down in the City, and he was still in the grip of that feeling of degraded repletion which City dinners induce. The Drysalters, on these occasions when they cast off for a night the cares and anxieties of drysalting, do their guests well, and Derek had that bloated sense of foreboding which comes to a man whose stomach is not his strong point after twelve courses and a multitude of mixed wines. A goose, qualifying for the rôle of a pot of pâté de foie gras, probably has exactly the same jaundiced outlook.
Yet, unfavorably disposed as, judging by his silence and the occasional moody grunts he uttered, he appeared to be to a discussion of his private affairs, it seemed to Freddie impossible that the night should be allowed to pass without some word spoken on the subject. He thought of Ronny and what Ronny had said, of Algy and what Algy had said, of Wally Mason and how Wally had behaved in this very room; and he nerved himself to the task.
“Derek, old top.”
“I say, Derek, old bean.”
Derek roused himself, and looked gloomily across the room to where he stood, warming his legs at the blaze.
Freddie found a difficulty in selecting words. A ticklish business, this. One that might well have disconcerted a diplomat. Freddie was no diplomat, and the fact enabled him to find a way in the present crisis. Equipped by nature with an amiable tactlessness and a happy gift of blundering, he charged straight at the main point, and landed on it like a circus elephant alighting on a bottle.
“I say, you know about Jill!”
He stopped to rub the backs of his legs, on which the fire was playing with a little too fierce a glow, and missed his companion’s start and the sudden thickening of his bushy eyebrows.
“Well?” said Derek again.
Freddie nerved himself to proceed. A thought flashed across his mind that Derek was looking exactly like Lady Underhill. It was the first time he had seen the family resemblance quite so marked.
“Ronny Devereux was saying—” faltered Freddie.
“Who the devil is Ronny Devereux?”
“Why, old man, you’ve heard me speak of him, haven’t you? Pal of mine. He came down to the station with Algy and me to meet your mater that morning.”
“Oh, that fellow? And he has been saying something about—?”
“It isn’t only Ronny, you know,” Freddie hastened to interject. “Algy Martyn’s talking about it too. And lots of other fellows. And Algy’s sister and a lot of people. They’re all saying—”
“What are they saying?”
FREDDIE bent down and chafed the back of his legs. He simply couldn’t look at Derek while he had that Lady Underhill expression on the old map. Funny he had never noticed before how extraordinarily like his mother he was.
“What are they saying?” repeated Derek grimly.
“Well—” Freddie hesitated. “—That it’s a bit tough—on Jill, you know.”
“They think I behaved badly?”
“Well— Oh, well, you know!”
Derek smiled a ghastly smile. This was not wholly due to mental disturbance. The dull heaviness which was the legacy of the Drysalters’ dinner had begun to change to something more actively unpleasant. A submotive of sharp pain had begun to run through it, flashing in and out like lightning through a thundercloud. He felt sullen and vicious.
“I wonder,” he said with savage politeness, “if, when you chat with your friends, you would mind choosing some other topic than my private affairs.”
“Sorry, old man. But they started it, don’t you know.”
“And if you feel you’ve got to discuss me, kindly keep it to yourself. Don’t come and tell me what your damned friends said to each other and to you and what you said to them, because it bores me. I’m not interested. I don’t value their opinions as much as you seem to.” Derek paused, to battle in silence with the imperious agony within him. “It was good of you to put me up here,” he went on, “but I think I won’t trespass on your hospitality any longer. Perhaps you’ll ask Parker to pack my things to-morrow.” Derek moved in the direction of the door. “I shall go to the Savoy.”
“Oh, I say, old man! No need to do that.”
“But, I say—”
“And you can tell your friend Devereux that, if he doesn’t stop poking his nose into my private business, I’ll pull it off.”
“Well,” said Freddie doubtfully, “of course I don’t suppose you know, but—Ronny’s a pretty hefty bird. He boxed for Cambridge in the lightweights the last year he was up, you know. He—”
Derek slammed the door. Freddie was alone. He stood rubbing his legs for some minutes, a rueful expression on his usually cheerful face. Freddie hated rows. He liked everything to jog along smoothly. What a rotten place the world was these days! Just one thing after another. First, poor old Jill takes the knock and disappears. He would miss her badly. What a good sort! What a pal! And now—gone! Biffed off! Next, Derek. Together, more or less, ever since Winchester, and now—bing! . . .
Freddie heaved a sigh, and reached out for the “Sporting Times,” his never-failing comfort in times of depression. He lighted another cigar and curled up in one of the armchairs. He was feeling tired.
Time passed. The paper slipped to the floor. A cold cigar followed it. From the depths of the chair came a faint snore. . . .
A HAND on his shoulder brought Freddie with a jerk from troubled dreams. Derek was standing beside him. A bent, tousled Derek, apparently in pain.
A spasm twisted Derek’s face. “Have you got any pepsin?”
Derek uttered a groan. What a mocker of our petty human dignity is this dyspepsia, bringing low the haughtiest of us, less than love itself a respecter of persons! This was a different Derek from the man who had stalked stiffly from the room two hours before. His pride had been humbled upon the rack.
Freddie blinked, the mists of sleep floating gently before his eyes. He could not quite understand what his friend was asking for. It had sounded just like pepsin, and he didn’t believe there was such a word.
“Yes. I’ve got the most damned attack of indigestion.” Derek groaned again. “I was a fool to go to that infernal dinner!”
The mists of sleep rolled away from Freddie. He was awake again, and became immediately helpful. There were the occasions when the Last of the Rookes was a good man to have at your side. It was Freddie who suggested that Derek should recline in the armchair which he had vacated; Freddie who nipped round the corner to the all-night chemist’s and returned with a magic bottle guaranteed to relieve an ostrich after a surfeit of soda-water bottles; Freddie who mixed and administered the dose.
His ministrations were rewarded. Presently the agony seemed to pass. Derek recovered.
One would say that Derek became himself again, but that the mood of gentle remorse which came upon him as he lay in the armchair was one so foreign to his nature. Freddie had never seen him so subdued. He was like a convalescent child. Between them, the all-night chemist and the Drysalters seemed to have wrought a sort of miracle. These temporary softenings of personality frequently follow City dinners. The time to catch your Drysalter in angelic mood is the day after the semiannual banquet. Go to him then and he will give you his watch and chain.
“Freddie,” said Derek.
They were sitting over the dying fire. The clock on the mantelpiece, beside which Jill’s photograph had stood, pointed to ten minutes past two. Derek spoke in a low, soft voice. Perhaps the doctors are right after all, and two o’clock is the hour at which our self-esteem deserts us, leaving in its place regret for past sins, good resolutions for future behavior.
“What do Algy Martyn and the others say about—you know?”
Freddie hesitated. Pity to start all that again.
“Oh, I know,” went on Derek. “They say I behaved like a cad.”
“They are quite right. I did.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t say that, you know. Faults on both sides, and all that sort of rot.”
“I did!” Derek stared into the fire. Scattered all over London at that moment, probably a hundred worshipful Drysalters were equally sleepless and subdued, looking wide-eyed into black pasts. “Is it true she has gone to America, Freddie?”
“She told me she was going.”
“What a fool I’ve been!”
The clock ticked on through the silence. The fire sputtered faintly, then gave a little wheeze, like a very old man. Derek rested his chin on his hands, gazing into the ashes.
“I wish to God I could go over there and find her.”
“Why don’t you?”
“How can I? There may be an election coming on at any moment. I can’t stir.”
Freddie leaped from his seat. The suddenness of the action sent a red-hot corkscrew of pain through Derek’s head.
“What the devil’s the matter?” he demanded irritably. Even the gentle mood which comes with convalescence after a City dinner is not guaranteed to endure against this sort of thing.
“I’ve got an idea, old bean!”
“Well, there’s no need to dance, is there!”
“I’ve nothing to keep me here, you know. What’s the matter with my popping over to America and finding Jill?” Freddie tramped the floor, aglow. Each beat of his foot jarred Derek, but he made no complaint.
“Could you?” he asked eagerly.
“Of course I could. I was saying only the other day that I had half a mind to buzz over. It’s a wheeze! I’ll get on the next boat and charge over in the capacity of a jolly old ambassador. Have her back in no time. Leave it to me, old thing! This is where I come out strong!”
NEW YORK welcomed Jill, as she came out of the Pennsylvania Station into Seventh Avenue, with a whirl of powdered snow that touched her cheek like a kiss, the cold, bracing kiss one would expect from this vivid city. She stood at the station entrance, a tiny figure beside the huge pillars, looking round her with eager eyes. A wind was whipping down the avenue. The sky was a clear, brilliant tent of the brightest blue. Energy was in the air, and hopefulness. She wondered if Mr. Elmer Mariner ever came to New York. It was hard to see how even his gloom would contrive to remain unaffected by the exhilaration of the place.
Yes, New York looked good—good and exciting, with all the taxicabs rattling in at the dark tunnel beside her, with all the people hurrying in and hurrying out, with all this medley of street cars and sky signs and crushed snow and drays and horses and policemen, and that vast hotel across the street, towering to heaven like a cliff. It even smelled good. She remembered an old picture in “Punch” of two country visitors standing on the step of their railway carriage at a London terminus, one saying ecstatically to the other: “Don’t speak! Just sniff! Doesn’t it smell of the Season!” She knew exactly how they had felt, and she approved of their attitude. That was the right way to behave on being introduced to a great metropolis. She stood and sniffed reverently. But for the presence of the hurrying crowds, she could almost have imitated the example of that king who kissed the soil of his country on landing from his ship.
She took Uncle Chris’s letter from her bag. He had written from an address on East Fifty-seventh Street. There would be just time to catch him before he went out to lunch. She hailed a taxicab.
It was a slow ride, halted repeatedly by congestion of the traffic, but a short one for Jill. She was surprised at herself, a Londoner of long standing, for feeling so provincial and being so impressed. But London was far away. It belonged to a life that seemed years ago and a world from which she had parted forever. Moreover, this was undeniably a stupendous city.
At Times Square the stream of the traffic plunged into a whirlpool, swinging out of Broadway to meet the rapids which poured in from east, west, and north. On Fifth Avenue all the automobiles in the world were gathered together. On the sidewalks, pedestrians, muffled against the nipping chill of the crisp air, hurried to and fro. And, above, that sapphire sky spread a rich velvet curtain which made the tops of the buildings stand out like the white minarets of some Eastern city of romance.
The cab drew up in front of a stone apartment house; and Jill, getting out, passed under an awning through a sort of medieval courtyard, gay with potted shrubs, to an inner door. She was impressed. The very atmosphere was redolent of riches, and she wondered how in the world Uncle Chris had managed to acquire wealth on this scale in the extremely short space of time which had elapsed since his landing. There bustled past her an obvious millionaire—or, more probably, a greater monarch of finance who looked down upon mere millionaires and out of the goodness of his heart tried to check a tendency to speak patronizingly to them. He was concealed to the eyebrows in a fur coat, and, reaching the sidewalk, was instantly absorbed in a large limousine. Two expensive-looking ladies followed him. Jill began to feel a little dazed. Evidently the tales one heard of fortunes accumulated overnight in this magic city were true.
In a glass case behind the inner door, reading a newspaper and chewing gum, sat a dignified old man in the rich uniform of a general in the Guatemalan army. He was a brilliant spectacle. He wore no jewelry, but this, no doubt, was due to a private distaste for display. As there was no one else of humbler rank at hand from whom Jill could solicit an introduction and the privilege of an audience, she took the bold step of addressing him directly:
“I want to see Major Selby, please.”
The Guatemalan general arrested for a moment the rhythmic action of his jaws, lowered his paper, and looked at her with raised eyebrows. At first Jill thought that he was registering haughty contempt, then she saw that what she had taken for scorn was surprise.
“No Major Selby living here.”
“Major Christopher Selby?”
“Not here,” said the associate of ambassadors and the pampered pet of Guatemala’s proudest beauties. “Never heard of him in my life!”
In Ch. VIII, both American and British magazine versions have “He stopped to rub the backs of his legs”; both American and British books have ‘stooped’ instead.