Liberty, December 4, 1926
MRS. WADDINGTON acted swiftly. The strange calm that had been upon her dissolved into a panic fear. She darted back into the sitting-room, and, taking the chesterfield in an inspired bound, sank down behind it, and tried not to snort.
“Been waiting long?” asked some person unseen, switching on the light and addressing an invisible companion.
The voice was strange to Mrs. Waddington, but about the one that replied to it there was something so fruitily familiar that she stiffened where she lay, scarcely able to credit her senses. For it was the voice of Ferris, her butler. And Ferris, if the truth were in him, should by now have been at the sick-bed of a relative.
“Some little time, sir; but it has caused me no inconvenience.”
“What did you want to see me about?”
“I am addressing Mr. Lancelot Biffen, the editor in chief of Town Gossip?”
“Yes. Talk quick; I’ve got to go out again in a minute.”
“I understand, Mr. Biffen, that Town Gossip is glad to receive and pay a substantial remuneration for items of interest concerning those prominent in New York society. I have such an item.”
“Who’s it about?”
“My employer, Mrs. Sigsbee H. Waddington, sir.”
“What’s she been doing?”
“It is a long story.”
“Then I haven’t time to listen to it.”
“It concerns the sensational interruption to the marriage of Mrs. Waddington’s stepdaughter.”
“Didn’t the wedding come off, then?”
“No, sir; and the circumstances which prevented it——”
MR. BIFFEN uttered an exclamation. He had apparently looked at his watch and been dismayed by the flight of time.
“I must run,” he said. “I’ve a date at the Algonquin in a quarter of an hour. Come and talk to me at the office tomorrow.”
“I fear that will be impossible, sir, owing to——”
“Then see here. Have you ever done any writing?”
“Yes, sir. At Little-Seeping-in-the-Wold I frequently contributed short articles to the parish magazine. The vicar spoke highly of them.”
“Then sit down and write the thing out. Use your own words and I’ll polish it up later. I’ll be back in an hour, if you want to wait.”
“Very good, sir. And the remuneration?”
“We’ll talk about that later.”
“Very good, sir.”
Mr. Biffen left the room. There followed a confused noise, apparently from his bedroom, in which he seemed to be searching for something.
Then the front door slammed, and quiet descended upon the apartment.
Mrs. Waddington continued to crouch behind her chesterfield. There had been a moment, immediately after the departure of Mr. Biffen, when she had half risen with the intention of confronting her traitorous butler and informing him that he had ceased to be in her employment. But second thoughts had held her back. Gratifying as it would undoubtedly be to pop her head up over the back of the sofa and watch the man cower beneath her eye, the situation, she realized, was too complicated to permit such a procedure. She remained where she was, and whiled away the time by trying out methods to relieve the cramp from which her lower limbs had already begun to suffer.
From the direction of the desk came the soft scratching of pen on paper. Ferris was plainly making a job of it. He seemed to be one of those writers, like Flaubert, who spare no pains in the quest for perfect clarity and are prepared to correct and recorrect indefinitely till their artist souls are satisfied. It seemed to Mrs. Waddington as if her vigil were to go on forever.
But in a bustling city like New York it is rarely that the artist is permitted to concentrate for long without interruption. A telephone bell broke raspingly upon the stillness, and the first sensation of pleasure that Mrs. Waddington had experienced for a very long time came to her as she realized that the instrument was ringing in the passage outside and not in the room.
With something of the wild joy that reprieved prisoners feel at the announcement of release, she heard the butler rise; and presently there came from a distance his measured voice informing some unseen inquirer that Mr. Biffen was not at home.
Mrs. Waddington rose from her retreat. She had about twenty seconds in which to act, and she wasted none of them. By the time Ferris had returned and was once more engrossed in his literary composition, she was in the kitchen.
She stood by the window, looking out at the fire escape. Surely by this time, she felt, it would be safe to climb once more up to the roof. She decided to count 300 very slowly and risk it.
MOLLY and Sigsbee Horatio, the latter muttering, “Gallagher! Gallagher! Gallagher!” to himself in order that the magic name should not again escape him, had started out in the two-seater about a quarter of an hour after the departure of Mrs. Waddington’s Hispano-Suiza.
Halfway to New York, however, a blowout had arrested their progress; and the inability of Sigsbee H. to make a quick job of fixing the spare wheel had further delayed them.
It was not, therefore, till almost at the exact moment when Mrs. Waddington was committing the rash act that had so discomposed Officer Garroway that Molly, having dropped her father at Police Headquarters, arrived at the entrance of the Sheridan.
She hurried up the stairs and rang George’s doorbell. For a while it seemed as if her ringing were to meet with no response. Then, after some minutes, footsteps made themselves heard coming along the passage. The door opened, and Molly found herself gazing into the inflamed eyes of a policeman.
SHE looked at him in surprise. She had never, never seen him before, and she rather felt that she would have preferred not to see him now; for he was far from a pleasing sight. His nose, ears, and eyes were a vivid red, and his straggling hair dripped wetly on to the floor.
With the object of diminishing the agony caused by the pepper, Officer Garroway had for some time been holding his head under the tap in the kitchen; and he now looked exactly like the body that has been found after being several days in the river. The one small point that differentiated him from a corpse was the fact that he was sneezing.
“What are you doing here?” exclaimed Molly.
“Achoo!” replied Officer Garroway.
“What?” said Molly.
The policeman checked another sneeze.
“There has been an outrage,” he said.
“Mr. Finch has not been hurt?” cried Molly, alarmed.
“Mr. Finch hasn’t. I have.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Gar-hosh-hoosh-hish!”
“Gar-ish-wash-wush—Garroway,” ended the policeman, becoming calmer.
“Where is Mr. Finch?”
“I could not say, miss.”
“Have you a cold?”
“No, miss, not a ker-osh-wosh-osh. A woman threw pepper in my face.”
“You ought not to know such women,” said Molly severely.
The injustice of this stung Officer Garroway.
“I did not know her socially; I was arresting her.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I found her burgling this apartment.”
“And when I informed her that I was compelled to take her into custody, she threw pepper in my face and escaped.”
“You poor man!”
“Thank you, miss,” said Officer Garroway gratefully.
“Can I get you anything?” said Molly.
OFFICER GARROWAY shook his head wistfully.
“It’s against the law, miss, now. In fact, I am to be one of a posse this very night that is to raid a restaurant which supplies the stuff.”
“I meant something from a drug store. Some ointment or something.”
“It is very kind of you, miss, but I could not dream of putting you to so much trouble. I will look in at a drug store on my way to the station house. I must leave you now, as I have to go and drish-hosh-hish.”
“But you are dressed.”
“For the purposes of the raid to which I alluded, it is necessary for our posse to put on full evening drah-woosh—in order to deceive the staff of the rish-wish-wosh and lull them into a false security. It would never do, you see, for us to go there in our uniforms. That would put them on their guard.”
“How exciting! What restaurant are you raiding?”
Officer Garroway hesitated.
“Well, miss, it is in the nature of an official secret, of course; but, on the understanding that you will let it go no further, the rosh-ow-wush is the Purple Chicken, just round the corner. I will wish you good night, miss, as I really must be off.”
“But wait a moment. I came here to meet Mr. Finch. Have you seen anything of him?”
“No, miss. Nobody has visited the apartment while I have been there.”
“Oh, then I’ll wait. Good night. I hope you will feel better soon.”
“I feel better already, miss,” said Officer Garroway gallantly, “thanks to your kind sympathy. Good nish-nosh, miss.”
Molly went out on to the roof, and stood there gazing over the million twinkling lights of the city. At this height the voice of New York sank to a murmur and the air was sweet and cool. Little breezes rustled in the potted shrubs over which Mullett was wont to watch with such sedulous care, and a half-moon was shining in rather a deprecating way, as if conscious of not being at its best in such surroundings. For, like Sigsbee H. Waddington (now speeding toward his third Gallagher), the moon, really to express itself, needs the great open spaces.
MOLLY, however, found nothing to criticize in that pale silver glow. She felt a proprietary interest in the moon. It was her own private and personal moon, and should have been shining in through the windows of the drawing-room of the train that bore her away on her wedding journey. That that journey had been postponed was in no way the fault of the moon; and, gazing up at it, she tried to convey by her manner her appreciation of the fact.
It was at this point that a strangled exclamation broke the stillness; and, turning, she perceived George Finch.
George Finch stood in the moonlight, staring dumbly. Although what he saw before him had all the appearance of being Molly, it was so utterly impossible that she could really be there that he concluded he was suffering from a hallucination. And so he remained where he was, not daring to approach closer; for he knew that if you touch people in dreams they vanish.
But Molly was of a more practical turn of mind. She had come twenty miles to see George. She had waited for George for what seemed several hours. And here George was. She did the sensible thing. Uttering a little squeak of rapture, she ran at him like a rabbit.
“Georgie! My pet!”
One lives and learns. George found that he had been all wrong, and that his preconceived ideas about dreams and what could and could not happen in them must be revised. For, so far from vanishing when touched, this wraith appeared to be growing more substantial every moment.
He shut his eyes and kissed her tentatively. He opened his eyes. She was still there.
“Is it really you?” said George.
“Yes, really me.”
It was borne in upon George—for he was a young man of good average intelligence—that he was spoiling a golden moment with unseasonable chatter. This was no time for talk. He talked, accordingly, no more; and there was silence on the roof. The moon looked down, well pleased. There is not much of interest for a moon to look at in a large city, and this was the sort of thing it liked best—the only sort of thing, if you came right down to it, that made it worth a moon’s while to shine at all.
George clung to Molly, and Molly clung to George, like two shipwrecked survivors who have come together on a wave-swept beach. And the world moved on, forgotten.
But the world will never allow itself to be forgotten for long. Suddenly George broke away with an exclamation. He ran to the wall and looked over.
“What’s the matter?”
GEORGE returned, reassured. His concern had been groundless.
“I thought I saw someone on the fire escape, darling.”
“On the fire escape? Why, who could it be?”
“I thought it might be the man who has the apartment on the floor below—a ghastly, sneaking, snooping fellow named Lancelot Biffen. I’ve known him to climb up before. He’s the editor of Town Gossip, the last person we want to have watching us.”
Molly uttered a cry of alarm.
“You’re sure he wasn’t there?”
“It would be awful if anyone saw me here.”
George silently cursed the too vivid imagination which had led him to suppose he had seen a dark form outlined against the summer sky. He had spoiled the golden moment and it could not be recaptured.
“Don’t be afraid, dear,” he said. “Even if he had seen you, he would never have guessed who you were.”
“You mean he would naturally expect to find you up here kissing some girl?”
GEORGE was in the state of mind when a man cannot be quite sure what his words mean, if anything; but so positive was he that he did not mean this that he got his tongue tied in a knot trying to say so in three different ways simultaneously.
“Well, after what happened this afternoon—” said Molly.
She drew away. She was not normally an unkind girl, but the impulse of the female of the species to torture the man it loves is well known. Woman may be a ministering angel when pain and anguish rack the brow, but if at other times she sees a chance to prod the loved one and watch him squirm, she hates to miss it.
“I swear to you,” began George, going so far in his emotion as to raise a passionate fist toward the moon.
Molly gurgled delightedly. She loved this young man most when he looked funny, and he had seldom looked funnier than now.
“I swear to you on my solemn oath that I had never seen that infernal girl before in my life.”
“She seemed to know you so well.”
“She was a perfect, complete, total, and absolute stranger.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps you had simply forgotten all about her.”
“I swear it,” said George (and only just stopped himself from adding “by yonder moon”). “If you want to know what I think——”
“Oh, I do.”
“I believe she was mad. Stark, staring mad.”
Molly decided that the anguish had lasted long enough. Sufficient agony is good for a man, stimulating his mind and keeping him bright and alert; but too much is too much.
“Poor old Georgie!” she said soothingly. “You don’t really suppose for a moment that I believed a word of what she said, do you?”
“What! You didn’t?”
“Of course I didn’t.”
“Molly,” said George, weighing his words, “you are without exception the dearest, sweetest, loveliest, most perfect and angelic thing that ever lived.”
“I know. Aren’t you lucky?”
“You saw at once that the girl was mad, didn’t you? You realized immediately that she was suffering from some sort of obsession, poor soul, which made her——”
“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t think what it was all about at first; and then father came in and said that my pearl necklace had disappeared, and I understood.”
“Your pearl necklace? Disappeared?”
“She stole it. She was a thief. Don’t you see? It was really awfully clever. She couldn’t have got it any other way. But when she burst in and said all those things about you, naturally she took everybody’s attention off the wedding presents. And then she pretended to faint on the table, and just snapped the necklace up and rushed out, and nobody guessed what had happened.”
GEORGE drew in a whistling breath. His fists clenched. He stared coldly at one of the potted shrubs as if it had done him a personal injury.
“If ever I meet that girl——”
“Mother still insists that you had known her before and that the story she told was true and that she only took the necklace as an afterthought. Isn’t she funny?”
“Funny,” said George heavily, “is not the word. She is one long scream from the rise of the curtain and ought to be beaten over the head with a blackjack. If you want my candid and considered opinion of that zymotic scourge who has contrived to hook herself on to your family in the capacity of stepmother to you and general mischief-maker to the rest of the world, let me begin by saying— However, there is no time to go into that now.”
“No, there isn’t. I must be getting back.”
“Yes; I must go home and pack.”
“Just a suitcase.”
The universe reeled around George.
“Do you mean you’re going away?” he quavered.
“Oh, heavens! For long?”
“Forever; with you.”
“Of course. Don’t you understand? I’m going home now to pack a suitcase. Then I’ll drive back to New York and stay the night at a hotel, and tomorrow we’ll be married early in the morning, and in the afternoon we’ll go off together, all alone, miles and miles from everybody.”
“Look at that moon. About now it ought to have been shining into our drawing-room on the train.”
“Well, there will be just as good a moon tomorrow night.”
“And half an hour ago,” he said, “I thought I should never see you again.”
“Come down and put me in the car,” said Molly briskly. “I left it at the door.”
They descended the stairs.
MOLLY climbed into the two-seater, and George mentioned a point that had presented itself to him:
“I don’t see why you need hurry off like this.”
“I do. I’ve got to pack and get away before mother gets home.”
“Is that blas—is your stepmother in New York?”
“Yes. She came in to see the police.”
“Oh, she’s in New York, is she?”
“Probably on her way home by now.”
“You don’t think there’s time for us to go and have a little dinner somewhere? Just a cozy little dinner at some quiet little restaurant?”
“Good gracious, no! I’m running it very fine as it is.” She looked at him closely. “But, Georgie darling, you’re starving. I can see it. You’re quite pale and worn out. When did you last have anything to eat?”
“Eat? Eat? I don’t remember.”
“What did you do after that business this afternoon?”
“I—well, I walked around for a while. And then I hung about in the bushes for a while. And then—I believe I went to the station and took a train or something.”
“You poor darling! Go and eat something at once.”
“Why can’t I come back to Hempstead with you?”
“Because you can’t.”
“What hotel will you go to tonight?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll come and see you for a minute before I go there.”
“What, here? You’ll come here?”
“Yes, if you will go and have some dinner. You look perfectly ghastly.”
“Dinner? All right; I’ll have some.”
“Mind you do. If you haven’t by the time I get back, I’ll go straight home again and never marry you as long as I live. Good-by, darling; I must be off.”
The two-seater moved away and turned into Washington Square. George stood looking after it long after there was nothing to look at but the empty street. Then he started off, like some knight of old on a quest commanded by his lady, to get the dinner on which she had so strongly insisted. She had been wrong, of course, in telling him to go and dine; for what he wanted to do and what any good doctor would have recommended him to do was to return to the roof and gaze at the moon. But her lightest wish was law.
Where could he go most quickly and get the repulsive task done with the minimum waste of time?
The Purple Chicken. It was just around the corner, and a resolute man, if he stuck to their fixed price table d’hote at one dollar fifty, could shovel a meal into himself in about ten minutes—which was not long to ask the moon to wait.
Besides, at the Purple Chicken you could get “it,” if they knew you. And George, though an abstemious young man, felt that “it” was just what, at the moment, he most required. On an occasion like this he ought, of course, to sip golden nectar from rare old crystal; but, failing that, synthetic whisky served in a coffeepot was perhaps the next best thing.
* * *
THE Purple Chicken seemed to be having a big night. The room opening on to the street, when George reached it, was so crowded that there was no chance of getting a table. He passed through, hoping to find a resting place in the open-air section that lay beyond, and was struck, as he walked, by the extraordinarily fine physique of many of the diners.
As a rule, the Purple Chicken catered for the intelligentsia of the neighborhood, and these did not run to thews and sinews. On most nights in the week you would find the tables occupied by wispy poets and slender futurist painters. But now, though these were present in great numbers, they were supplemented by quite a sprinkling of granite-faced men with knobby shoulders and protruding jaws.
George came to the conclusion that a convention from one of the outlying States must be in town and that these men were members of it, bent upon seeing Bohemia.
HE did not, however, waste a great deal of time in speculation on this matter; for, stirred by the actual presence of food, he had begun now to realize that Molly had been right, as women always are, and that, while his whole higher self cried out for the moon, his lower self was almost equally as insistent on taking in supplies. And at this particular restaurant it was happily possible to satisfy both selves simultaneously; for there, as he stepped into what the management called the garden—a flagged back yard dotted with tables—was the moon, all present and correct, and there, also, were waiters waiting to supply the table d’hote at one dollar fifty.
It seemed to George the neatest possible combination, and his only anxiety now was with regard to the securing of a seat. At first glance it appeared that every table was occupied.
This conjecture was confirmed by a second glance. But, though all the other tables had their full quota, there was one, standing beside the Sheridan’s back wall and within a few feet of its fire escape, that was in the possession of a single diner. This diner George approached, making his expression as winning as possible. He did not, as a rule, enjoy sharing a table with a stranger; but, as an alternative to going away and trudging around in search of another restaurant, it seemed a good plan now.
“Excuse me, sir,” said George, “would you mind if I came to this table?”
The other looked up from poulet roti aux pommes de terre and Salade Bruxelloise that had been engaging his attention. He was plainly one of the convention from the outlying State, if physique could be taken as a guide. He spread upward from the table like a circus giant, and the hands that gripped the knife and fork had that same spaciousness which George had noted in the diners in the other room.
Only as to the eyes did this man differ from his fellows. They had had eyes of a peculiarly steely and unfriendly type, the sort of eyes that a motorist instinctively associates with traffic policemen, and a professional thief with professional detectives. This man’s gaze was mild and friendly, and his eyes would have been attractive but for the redness of their rims and a generally inflamed look that they had.
“By no means, sir,” he replied to George’s polite query.
“Place very crowded tonight.”
“Then, if you don’t mind, I’ll sit here.”
“Delighted,” said the other.
George looked round for a waiter and found one at his elbow. However crowded the Purple Chicken might be, its staff never neglected the old habitue, and it had had the benefit of George’s custom for months.
“Good evening, sare,” said the waiter, smiling the smile that had once broken hearts in Assisi.
“Good evening, Giuseppe,” said George. “I’ll take the dinner.”
“Yes, sare. Sick or glear zoop?”
“Sick. Crowded tonight, Giuseppe.”
“Yes, sare. Lots of guys here tonight. Big business.”
“The waiter appears to know you,” said George’s companion.
“Oh, yes,” said George; “I’m in here all the time.”
“Ah,” said the other thoughtfully.
The soup arrived, and George set about it with a willing spoon.
“This your first visit to New York?” asked George, after an interval.
“No, indeed, sir; I live in New York.”
“Oh, I thought you were up from the country.”
“No, sir; I live right here in New York.”
A curious idea that he had seen this fellow before somewhere came over George. Yes, at some time and in some place, he could have sworn that he had gazed upon that long body and that prominent Adam’s apple. He searched his memory. Nothing stirred.
“I have an odd feeling that we have met before,” he said.
“I was thinking just the same myself,” replied the other.
“My name is Finch.”
“Mine is Cabot—Delancy Cabot.”
George shook his head.
“I don’t remember the name.”
“Yours is curiously familiar. I have heard it before, but cannot think when.”
“Do you live in Greenwich Village?”
“Somewhat farther uptown. And you?”
“I live in the apartment on top of this building here at the back of us.”
A SUDDEN light as of recognition came into the other’s face. George observed it.
“Have you remembered where we met?”
“No, sir; no, indeed,” said the other hastily. “It has entirely escaped me.”
He took a sip of ice water. “I recall, however, that you are an artist.”
“That’s right. You are not one, by any chance?”
“I am a poet.”
“A poet?” George tried to conceal his somewhat natural surprise. “Where does your stuff appear mostly?”
“I have published nothing as yet, Mr. Finch,” replied the other sadly.
“Tough luck. I have never sold a picture.”
They gazed at each other with kindly eyes, two fellow sufferers from the public’s lack of taste. Giuseppe appeared, bearing deep-dish apple pie in one hand, poulet roti in the other.
“Giuseppe,” said George.
George bent his lips toward the waiter’s attentive ear.
“Bzz—bzz—bzz,” said George.
“Yes, sare. Very good, sare. In one moment, sare.”
George leaned back contentedly. Then it occurred to him that he had been a little remiss. He was not actually this red-eyed man’s host, but they had fraternized and they both knew what it was to toil at their respective arts without encouragement or appreciation.
“Perhaps you will join me?” he said.
“Join you, sir?” echoed the red-eyed poet.
“In a highball. Giuseppe has gone to get me one.”
“Indeed? Is it possible to obtain alcoholic refreshment in this restaurant?”
“You can always get it if they know you.”
“BUT surely it is against the law?”
“Ha, ha!” laughed George. He liked this pleasant, whimsical fellow. “Ha, ha! Darned good!”
He looked at him with that genial bonhomie with which one looks at a stranger in whom one has discovered a sly sense of humor. And, looking, he suddenly congealed.
“Great Scott!” ejaculated George.
Memory, though loitering by the way, had reached its goal at last. This man was no stranger. George recollected now where he had seen him before—on the roof of the Sheridan, when the other, clad in policeman’s uniform, had warned him of the deplorable past of Frederick Mullett. The man was a cop, and under his very eyes he had just ordered a highball.
George gave a feverish laugh.
“I was only kidding, of course,” he said.
“Kidding, Mr. Finch?” rejoined Delancy Cabot.
“When I said that you could get it here. You can’t, of course. What Giuseppe is bringing me is a ginger ale.”
Next week’s installment of the year’s funniest serial is a knock-out from start to finish. Don’t miss it.
Editorial change not corrected above:
Magazine had “Mrs. Waddington rose from her retreat.”—altered from Wodehouse’s “from her form” as in the other three original sources. The Liberty editor apparently considered the old definition of form, “the nest or lair in which a hare crouches” [OED], too obscure for US readers of the magazine.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine omitted first hyphen in “Little-Seeping-in-the-Wold”; supplied for consistency with Part 2, Part 9, and other sources.
Magazine had “Why, who could be?”; corrected to match other three sources which have “Why, who could it be?”.
Magazine had a comma after “One lives and learns.” instead of a period as in the other three sources.