Liberty, September 24, 1927
IT was with something of the relief of fog-bound city-dwellers who at last behold the sun that we perceived, on entering the bar-parlor of the Angler’s Rest, that Mr. Mulliner was seated once more in the familiar chair. For some days he had been away, paying a visit to an old nurse of his down in Devonshire; and there was no doubt that in his absence the tide of intellectual conversation had run very low.
“No,” said Mr. Mulliner, in answer to a question as to whether he had enjoyed himself, “I can not pretend that it was an altogether agreeable experience. The poor old thing is almost completely deaf, and her memory is not what it was.
“Moreover, it is a moot point whether a man of sensibility can ever be entirely at his ease in the presence of a woman who has frequently spanked him with the flat side of a hair-brush.”
Mr. Mulliner winced slightly, as if the old wound still troubled him.
“It is curious,” he went on, after a thoughtful pause, “how little change the years bring about in the attitude of a real, genuine, crusted old family nurse toward one who in the early knickerbocker stage of his career has been a charge of hers. He may grow gray or bald and be looked up to by the rest of his world as a warm performer on the Stock Exchange, or a devil of a fellow in the sphere of Politics or the Arts, but to his old Nanna he will still be the Master James or Master Percival who had to be hounded by threats to keep his face clean.
“Shakespeare would have cringed before his old nurse. So would Herbert Spencer, Attila the Hun, and the Emperor Nero. My nephew Frederick— But I must not bore you with my family gossip.”
We reassured him.
“Oh, well, if you wish to hear the story. There is nothing much in it as a story, but it bears out the truth of what I have just said.”
. . . . . . . . .
I WILL begin [said Mr. Mulliner] at the moment when Frederick, having come down from London in response to an urgent summons from his brother, Doctor George Mulliner, stood in the latter’s consulting-room, looking out upon the esplanade of that quiet little watering-place, Bingley-on-Sea.
The young man’s expression, as he confronted his brother, was that which a miasmic pool in some dismal swamp in the bad lands might have worn if it had had a face.
“Then the position, as I see it,” he said, in a low, toneless voice, “is this: On the pretext of wishing to discuss urgent family business with me, you have dragged me down to this foul spot—seventy miles by rail, in a compartment containing three distinct infants sucking sweets—merely to have tea with a nurse whom I have disliked since I was a child.”
“You have contributed to her support for many years,” George reminded him.
“Naturally, when the family were clubbing together to pension off the old blister, I chipped in with my little bit,” said Frederick. “Noblesse oblige.”
“Well, noblesse obliges you to go and have tea with her when she invites you. Wilks must be humored. She is not so young as she was.”
“She must be a hundred.”
“Good heavens! And it seems only yesterday that she shut me up in a cupboard for stealing jam.”
“She was a great disciplinarian,” agreed George. “You may find her a little on the autocratic side still. And I want to impress upon you, as her medical man, that you must not thwart her lightest whim. She will probably offer you boiled eggs and home-made cake. Eat them.”
“I will not eat boiled eggs at five o’clock in the afternoon,” said Frederick, with a strong man’s menacing calm, “for any woman on earth.”
“You will. And with relish. Her heart is weak. If you don’t humor her, I won’t answer for the consequences.”
“If I eat boiled eggs at five in the afternoon, I won’t answer for the consequences. And why boiled eggs, dash it? I’m not a schoolboy.”
“To her you are. She looks on all of us as children still. Last Christmas she gave me a copy of Eric or Little by Little.”
FREDERICK turned to the window, and scowled down upon the noxious and depressing scene below. Sparing neither age nor sex in his detestation, he regarded the old ladies reading their library novels on the seats with precisely the same dislike and contempt which he bestowed on the boys’ school clattering past on its way to the bathing-houses.
“Then, checking up your statements,” he said, “I will find that I am expected to go to tea with a woman who, in addition, apparently, to being a blend of Lucrezia Borgia and a Prussian sergeant-major, is a physical wreck and practically potty. Why? That is what I ask. Why should I be victimized? Why me particularly?”
“It isn’t you particularly. We’ve all been to see her at intervals, and so have the Oliphants.”
The name seemed to affect Frederick oddly. He winced, as if his brother had been a dentist instead of a general practitioner and had just drawn one of his back teeth.
“She was their nurse after she left us. You can’t have forgotten the Oliphants. I remember you at the age of twelve climbing that old elm at the bottom of the paddock to get Jane Oliphant a rook’s egg.”
Frederick laughed bitterly.
“I must have been a perfect ass. Fancy risking my life for a girl like that! Not,” he went on, “that life’s worth much. An absolute washout, that’s what life is. However, it will soon be over. And then the silence and peace of the grave. That,” said Frederick, “is the thought that sustains me.”
“A pretty kid, Jane. Some one told me she had grown up quite a beauty.”
“Without a heart.”
“What do you know about it?”
“Merely this: She pretended to love me, and then, a few months ago, she went off to the country to stay with some people named Ponderby and wrote me a letter breaking off the engagement. She gave no reasons, and I have not seen her since. She is now engaged to a man named Dillingwater, and I hope it chokes her.”
“I never heard about this. I’m sorry. No wonder you’re depressed.”
“Depressed?” said Frederick, outraged. “Me? You don’t suppose I’m worrying myself about a girl like that, do you? I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’m just bubbling over with cheerfulness.”
“Oh, is that what it is?” George looked at his watch. “Well, you’d better be pushing along. It’ll take you about ten minutes to get to Marazion Road.”
“How do I find the blasted house?”
“The name’s on the door.”
“What is the name?”
“My God!” said Frederick Mulliner. “It only needed that!”
The view which he had had of it from his brother’s window should, no doubt, have prepared Frederick for the hideous loathsomeness of Bingley-on-Sea; but, as he walked along, he found it coming on him as a complete surprise. Until now he had never imagined that a small town could possess so many soul-searing features.
HE passed little boys, and thought how repulsive little boys were. He met tradesmen’s carts, and his gorge rose at the sight of them. He hated the houses. And, most of all, he objected to the sun. What he wanted was wailing winds and driving rain; not a beastly expanse of vivid blue.
It was not that the perfidy of Jane Oliphant had affected him in any way: it was simply that he disliked blue skies and sunshine. He had a temperamental antipathy for them, just as he had a temperamental fondness for tombs and sleet and hurricanes and earthquakes and famines and pestilence and—
He found that he had arrived in Marazion Road.
Marazion Road was made up of two spotless pavements stretching into the middle distance and flanked by two rows of neat little red-brick villas. It smote Frederick like a blow. He felt, as he looked at those houses, with their little brass knockers and little white curtains, that they were occupied by people who knew nothing of Frederick Mulliner and were content to know nothing; people who were simply not caring a whoop that, only a few short months before, the girl to whom he had been engaged had sent back his letters and gone and madly got herself betrothed to a man named Dillingwater.
He found Wee Holme, and hit it a nasty slap with its knocker. Footsteps sounded in the passage, and the door opened.
“Why, Master Frederick!” said Nurse Wilks. “I should hardly have known you.”
The images which we form in childhood are slow to fade: and Frederick had been under the impression that Nurse Wilks was fully six feet tall, with the shoulders of a weight-lifter and eyes that glittered cruelly beneath beetling brows. What he saw now was a little old woman with a wrinkled face, who looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.
He was oddly stirred. He felt large and protective. He saw his brother’s point now. Most certainly this frail old thing must be humored. Only a brute would refuse to humor her—yes, felt Frederick Mulliner, even if it meant boiled eggs at five o’clock in the afternoon.
“Well, you are getting a big boy!” said Nurse Wilks, beaming.
“Do you think so?” said Frederick, with equal amiability.
“Quite the little man! And all dressed up. Go into the parlor, dear, and sit down. I’m getting the tea.”
“WIPE YOUR BOOTS!”
The voice, thundering from a quarter whence hitherto only soft cooings had proceeded, affected Frederick Mulliner a little like the touching off of a mine beneath his feet. Spinning round, he perceived that there yet lingered in Nurse Wilks not a little of the ancient fire. Her mouth was tightly compressed and her eyes gleamed dangerously.
“The-idea-of-your-bringing-your-nasty-dirty-boots-into-my-nice-clean-house-without-wiping-them!” said Nurse Wilks.
“Sorry!” said Frederick humbly.
HE burnished the criticized shoes on the mat, and tottered to the parlor. He felt much smaller, much younger, and much feebler than he had felt a minute ago. His morale had been shattered into fragments.
And it was not pieced together by the sight, as he entered the parlor, of Miss Jane Oliphant sitting in an armchair by the window.
It is hardly to be supposed that you will be interested in the appearance of a girl of the stamp of Jane Oliphant—a girl capable of wantonly returning a good man’s letters and going off and getting engaged to a Dillingwater; but one may as well describe her and get it over. She had golden-brown hair; golden-brown eyes; golden-brown eyebrows; a nice nose with one freckle on the tip; a mouth which, when it parted in a smile, disclosed pretty teeth; and a resolute little chin.
At the present moment the mouth was not parted in a smile. It was closed up tight, and the chin was more than resolute. It looked like the ram of a very small battleship. She gazed at Frederick as if he were the smell of onions, and she did not say a word.
Nor did Frederick say very much. Nothing is more difficult for a young man than to find exactly the right remark with which to open conversation with a girl who has recently returned his letters. (Darned good letters, too. Reading them over after opening the package, he had been amazed at their charm and eloquence.)
Frederick, then, confined his observations to the single word “Guk!” Having uttered this, he sank into a chair and stared at the carpet. The girl stared out of the window, and complete silence reigned in the room till from the interior of a clock which was ticking on the mantelpiece a small wooden bird suddenly emerged, said “Cuckoo,” and withdrew.
The abruptness of this bird’s appearance and the oddly staccato nature of its diction could not but have their effect on a man whose nerves were not what they had been.
Frederick Mulliner, rising some eighteen inches from his chair, uttered a hasty exclamation.
“I beg your pardon?” said Jane Oliphant, raising her eyebrows.
“Well, how was I to know it was going to do that?” said Frederick defensively.
Jane Oliphant shrugged her shoulders. The gesture seemed to imply supreme indifference to what the sweepings of the underworld knew or did not know.
But Frederick, the ice being now in a manner broken, refused to return to the silence.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“I have come to have tea with Nanna.”
“I didn’t know you were going to be here. Perhaps I’d better go.”
“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Miss Oliphant sharply. “She is looking forward to seeing you. Though why—”
“Why?” prompted Frederick coldly.
IN the unpleasant silence which followed, broken only by the deep breathing of a man who was trying to choose the rudest out of the three retorts which had presented themselves to him, Nurse Wilks entered.
“It’s just a suggestion,” said Miss Oliphant aloofly, “but don’t you think you might help Nanna with that heavy tray?”
Frederick, roused from his preoccupation, sprang to his feet, blushing the blush of shame.
Not for the first time since their acquaintance had begun, he felt a sort of wistful wonder at his late fiancée’s uncanny ability to put him in the wrong. His emotions now were rather what they would have been if he had been detected striking his hostess with some blunt instrument.
“He always was a thoughtless boy,” said Nurse Wilks tolerantly. “Do sit down, Master Frederick, and have your tea. I’ve boiled some eggs for you. I know what a boy you always are for eggs.”
Frederick, starting, directed a swift glance at the tray. Yes, his worst fears had been realized. Eggs—and large ones. A stomach which he had fallen rather into the habit of pampering of late years gave a little whimper of apprehension.
“Yes,” proceeded Nurse Wilks, pursuing the subject, “you never could have enough eggs. Nor cake. Dear me, how sick you made yourself with cake that day at Miss Jane’s birthday party.”
“Please!” said Miss Oliphant, with a slight shiver.
She looked coldly at her fermenting fellow guest, as he sat, plumbing the deepest abysses of self-loathing.
“No eggs for me, thank you,” he said.
“Master Frederick, you will eat your nice boiled eggs,” said Nurse Wilks. Her voice was still amiable, but there was a hint of dynamite behind it.
“I don’t want any eggs.”
“Master Frederick!”The dynamite exploded. Once again that amazing transformation had taken place, and a frail little old woman had become an intimidating force with which only a Napoleon could have reckoned. “I will not have this sulking.”
“I’m sorry,” he said meekly. “I should enjoy an egg.”
“Two eggs,” corrected Nurse Wilks.
“Two eggs,” said Frederick.
Miss Oliphant twisted the knife in the wound.
“There seems to be plenty of cake, too. How nice for you! Still, I should be careful, if I were you. It looks rather rich. I never could understand,” she went on, addressing Nurse Wilks in a voice which Frederick, who was now about seven years old, considered insufferably grown-up and affected, “the pleasure of overeating oneself.”
“Boys will be boys,” argued Nurse Wilks.
“I suppose so,” sighed Miss Oliphant. “Still, it’s all rather unpleasant.”
A slight but well defined glitter appeared in Nurse Wilks’ eyes. She detected a tendency to hoity-toitiness in her young guest’s manner, and hoity-toitiness was a thing to be checked.
“Girls,” she said, “are by no means perfect.”
“Ah!” breathed Frederick in rapturous adhesion to the sentiment.
“Girls have their little faults. Girls are sometimes inclined to be vain. I know a little girl, not a hundred miles from this room, who was so proud of her new panties that she ran out in the street in them.”
“Nanna!” cried Miss Oliphant pinkly.
“Disgusting!” said Frederick.
He uttered a short laugh; and so full was this laugh, though short, of scorn, disdain, and a certain hideous masculine superiority, that Jane Oliphant’s proud spirit writhed beneath the infliction. She turned on him with blazing eyes.
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘Disgusting!’ ”
“I can not,” said Frederick judicially, “imagine a more deplorable exhibition, and I hope you were sent to bed without any supper.”
“If you ever had to go without your supper,” said Miss Oliphant, who believed in attack as the best form of defense, “it would kill you.”
“Is that so? “said Frederick.
“You’re a beast, and I hate you,” said Miss Oliphant.
“Is that so?”
“Yes, that is so.”
“Now, now, now,” said Nurse Wilks. “Come, come, come!”
SHE eyed the two with that comfortable look of power and capability which comes naturally to women who have spent half a century in dealing with the young and fractious.
“We will have no quarreling,” she said. “Make it up at once. Master Frederick, give Miss Jane a nice kiss.”
The room rocked before Frederick’s bulging eyes.
“A what?” he gasped.
“Give her a nice big kiss and tell her you’re sorry you quarreled with her.”
“She quarreled with me.”
“Never mind. A little gentleman must always take the blame.”
Frederick, working desperately, dragged to the surface a sketchy smile.
“I apologize,” he said.
“Don’t mention it,” said Miss Oliphant.
“Kiss her,” said Nurse Wilks.
“I won’t!” said Frederick.
“Master Frederick,” said Nurse Wilks, rising and pointing a menacing finger, “you march straight into that cupboard in the passage and stay there till you are good.”
Frederick hesitated. He came of a proud family. A Mulliner had once received the thanks of his Sovereign for services rendered on the field of Crécy. But the recollection of what his brother George had said decided him. Infra dig as it might be to allow himself to be shoved away in cupboards, it was better than being responsible for a woman’s heart-failure. With bowed head he passed through the door, and a key clicked behind him.
ALL alone in a dark world that smelt of mice, Frederick Mulliner gave himself up to gloomy reflection. He had just put in about two minutes’ intense thought of a kind which would have made the meditations of Schopenhauer on one of his bad mornings seem like the day-dreams of Pollyanna, when a voice spoke through the crack in the door:
“Freddie. I mean Mr. Mulliner.”
“She’s gone into the kitchen to get the jam,” proceeded the voice rapidly. “Shall I let you out?”
“Pray do not trouble,” said Frederick coldly. “I am perfectly comfortable.”
Frederick returned to his reverie. About now, he thought, but for his brother George’s treachery in luring him down to this plague-spot by a misleading telegram, he would have been on the twelfth green at Squashy Hollow, trying out that new putter. Instead of which—
The door opened abruptly, and as abruptly closed again. And Frederick Mulliner, who had been looking forward to an unbroken solitude, discovered, with a good deal of astonishment, that he had started taking in lodgers.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, with a touch of proprietorial disapproval.
The girl did not answer. But presently muffled sounds came to him through the darkness. In spite of himself, a certain tenderness crept upon Frederick.
“I say,” he said awkwardly. “There’s nothing to cry about.”
“I’m not crying. I’m laughing.”
“Oh?” The tenderness waned. “You think it’s amusing, do you, being shut up in this damned cupboard?”
“There is no need to use bad language.”
“I entirely disagree with you. There is every need to use bad language. It’s ghastly enough being at Bingley-on-Sea at all, but when it comes to being shut up in Bingley cupboards—”
“—with a girl you hate?”
“We will not go into that aspect of the matter,” said Frederick with dignity. “The important point is that here I am in a cupboard at Bingley-on-Sea when, if there were any justice or right-thinking in the world, I should be out at Squashy Hollow.”
“Oh? Do you still play golf?”
“Certainly I still play golf. Why not?”
“I don’t know why not. I’m glad you are still able to amuse yourself.”
“I suppose you imagined I would be creeping about the place, a broken-hearted wreck?”
“Oh, no. I knew you would find it very easy to console yourself.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Are you insinuating that I am the sort of man who turns lightly from one woman to another—a mere butterfly who flits from flower to flower, sipping—?”
“Yes, if you want to know, I think you are a born sipper.”
Frederick started. The charge was monstrous.
“I have never sipped. And, what’s more, I have never flitted.”
“What you said.”
“You appear to have a very keen sense of humor,” said Frederick weightily. “It amuses you to be shut up in cupboards. It amuses you to hear me say—”
“Well, it’s nice to be able to get some amusement out of life, isn’t it? Do you want to know why she shut me up in here?”
“I haven’t the slightest curiosity. Why?”
“I forgot where I was and lighted a cigaret. Oh, my goodness!”
“I thought I heard a mouse. Do you think there are mice in the cupboard?”
“Certainly,” said Frederick. “Dozens of them.”
HE would have gone on to specify the kind of mice—large, fat, slithery, active mice; but at this juncture something hard and sharp took him agonizingly on the ankle.
“Ouch!” cried Frederick.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was kicking about to discourage the mice.”
“It would have given a mouse a nasty jar, if it had been one, wouldn’t it?”
“The shock, I should imagine, of a lifetime.”
“Well, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t mention it. Why should I worry about a broken ankle, when—”
“I forget what I was going to say.”
“When your heart is broken?”
“My heart is not broken.” It was a point which Frederick wished to make luminously clear. “I am gay—happy— Who the devil is this man Dillingwater?” he concluded abruptly.
There was a momentary pause.
“Oh, just a man.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“At the Ponderbys’.”
“Where did you get engaged to him?”
“At the Ponderbys’.”
“Did you pay another visit to the Ponderbys, then?”
“When you went to stay with the Ponderbys, you were engaged to me. Do you mean to say you broke off your engagement to me, met this Dillingwater, and got engaged to him all in the course of a single visit lasting barely two weeks?”
FREDERICK said nothing. It struck him later that he should have said, “Oh Woman, Woman!” but at the moment it did not occur to him.
“I don’t see what right you have to criticize me,” said Jane.
“Who criticized you?”
“I call Heaven to witness,” cried Frederick Mulliner, “that not by so much as a single word have I hinted at my opinion that your conduct is the vilest and most revolting that has ever been drawn to my attention. I never so much as suggested that your revelation had shocked me to the depths of my soul.”
“Yes, you did. You sniffed.”
“If Bingley-on-Sea is not open for being sniffed in at this season,” said Frederick coldly, “I should have been informed earlier.”
“I had a perfect right to get engaged to any one I liked and as quickly as I liked, after the abominable way you behaved.”
“Abominable way I behaved? What do you mean?”
“Pardon me, I do not know. If you are alluding to my refusal to wear the tie you bought for me on my last birthday, I can but repeat my statement, made to you at the time, that, apart from being the sort of tie no upright man would be seen dead in a ditch with, its colors were those of a Cycling, Angling, and Dart-Throwing club of which I am not a member.”
“I am not alluding to that. I mean the day I was going to the Ponderbys and you promised to see me off at Paddington, and then you phoned and said you couldn’t, as you were detained by important business; and I thought, well, I think I’ll go by the later train after all, because that will give me time to lunch quietly at the Berkeley; and I went and lunched quietly at the Berkeley, and, when I was there, who should I see but you at a table at the other end of the room gorging yourself in the company of a beastly creature in a pink frock and hennaed hair. That’s what I mean.”
Frederick clutched at his forehead.
“It was like a blow over the head. Something seemed to snap inside me, and—”
“I can explain all,” said Frederick.
Jane’s voice in the darkness was cold.
“Explain?” she said.
“Explain,” said Frederick.
“Before beginning,” she said, “do not forget that I know every one of your female relatives by sight.”
“I don’t want to talk about my female relatives.”
“I thought you were going to say that she was one of them—an aunt or something.”
“Nothing of the kind. She was a revue star. You probably saw her in a piece called Toot-Toot.”
“And that is your idea of an explanation!”
Frederick raised his hand for silence. Realizing that she could not see it, he lowered it again.
“Jane,” he said in a low, throbbing voice, “can you cast your mind back to a morning in the spring when we walked, you and I, in Kensington Gardens? The sun shone brightly, and the sky was a limpid blue flecked with fleecy clouds, and from the west there blew a gentle breeze—”
“If you think you can melt me with that sort of—”
“Nothing of the kind. What I was leading up to was this: As we walked, you and I, there came snuffling up to us a small Pekingese dog. It left me, I admit, quite cold, but you went into ecstasies, and from that moment I had but one mission in life—to discover who that Peke belonged to and buy it for you. And, after the most exhaustive inquiries, I tracked the animal down. It was the property of the lady in whose company you saw me lunching—lightly, not gorging—at the Berkeley that day. I managed to get an introduction to her, and immediately began to make offers to her for the dog. Money was no object to me. All I wished was to put the little beast in your arms and see your face light up. It was to be a surprise.
“That morning the woman phoned, and said that she had practically decided to close with my latest bid, and would I take her to lunch and discuss the matter? It was agony to have to ring you up and tell you that I could not see you off at Paddington; but it had to be done.
“IT was anguish, having to sit for two hours listening to that highly colored female telling me how the comedian had ruined her big number in her last show by standing up-stage and pretending to drink ink; but that had to be done, too. I bit the bullet and saw it through and I got the dog that afternoon. And next morning I received your letter breaking off the engagement.”
There was a long silence.
“Is this true?” said Jane.
“It sounds too—how shall I put it?—too frightfully probable. Look me in the face!”
“What’s the good of looking you in the face when I can’t see an inch in front of me?”
“Well, is it true?”
“Certainly it is true.”
“Can you produce the Peke?”
“I have not got it on my person,” said Frederick stiffly. “But it is at my flat, probably chewing up a valuable rug. I will give it you for a wedding present.”
“A wedding present,” repeated Frederick, though the words stuck in his throat like patent American health cereal.
“But I’m not going to be married.”
“You’re—what did you say?”
“I’m not going to be married.”
“But what of Dillingwater?”
“Off,” said Jane firmly. “I only got engaged to him out of pique. I thought I could go through with it, buoying myself up by thinking what a score it would be off you. But one morning I saw him eating a peach, and I began to waver. He splashed himself to the eyebrows. And just after that I found that he had a trick of making a sort of funny noise when he drank coffee. I would sit on the other side of the breakfast table, looking at him and saying to myself, ‘Now comes the funny noise!’ And, when I thought of doing that all the rest of my life, I saw that the scheme was impossible. So I broke off the engagement.”
He groped out, found her, and drew her into his arms.
On the panel of the door there sounded an authoritative rap. Through it there spoke an authoritative voice, slightly cracked by age, but full, nevertheless, of the spirit that will stand no nonsense.
“Are you good now?”
“You bet I’m good.”
“Will you give Miss Jane a nice kiss?”
“I will do,” said Frederick Mulliner, enthusiasm ringing in every syllable, “just that little thing!”
“Then you may come out,” said Nurse Wilks. “I have boiled you two more eggs.”
Frederick paled, but there was the right stuff in him.
What did anything matter now?
“Lead me to them,” he said in a low voice.